first posted 10/15/2008:


my next-door neighbor in wum was a single mother with four children. their ages ranged between about 2 and 14 years old. the two year-old was a precious little girl named Petula. i’d like to share a lesson i learned through Petula... about sustainability and mercy.

Petula’s mother, Mommy-Ka, came knocking on my door one afternoon. she asked me for money. she didn’t ask for very much. in fact, she wanted a loan that she insisted she'd pay back.

mommy-ka was a hard worker, and i knew this. i'd see her up early in the morning getting the kids ready for school... at the farm, tending row after row of corn and bean plants... and in the market, selling oranges and peanuts.

mommy-ka was poor, but a scrapper. she made sure her kids were well fed, well dressed and in school. i never knew how she managed to make ends meet with four children to support and very little income, but she did.

that day that she came knocking on my door, however, all i could think of was the warning that peace corps gave us about lending people money. they advised against it. but if we did decide to do otherwise, we ought only to loan people as much money as we could afford not to get back. i.e., don’t assume that anyone will ever pay you back.

we were also taught to think of ourselves as development workers, and this is where the matter of sustainability arises. development workers help people help themselves. they teach people to fish, they don’t give them fish.

it seemed to me that mommy-ka wanted me to give her fish, not to teach her how to fish. after all, she was asking me for money. no matter that she was asking me for a loan. what guarantee did i have that she’d pay me back? besides, if i gave my neighbors money and they got used to that, what would they do after i left? how was that sustainable?

so what did i tell mommy-ka that afternoon as she stood at my door asking me for a hand? i remember trying, somewhat clumsily, to explain all that i just said above about sustainability and helping people help themselves. i also remember telling her, in pidgin english, “aye nobi bank” = i am not a bank.

i can't remember how much time passed before what i'm about to describe came to pass (though this'll come up in my journals in another notebook or two)... but petula and her mother were away from home for a few days. i hadn't noticed their departure, but i also didn't see them around.

the wailing that day, however, was hard not to notice. i ran to my window and saw mommy-ka coming down the road carrying her baby petula's limp body. they'd been in the hospital for the past few days. petula was dead... of malaria.

1 in 5 childhood deaths in africa are of malaria. children shouldn’t die of malaria. it's preventable. it's curable. it doesn't take much... but it takes attention. and caring. i can't help but think to myself why didn’t i give mommy-ka that loan? what was i worried about? why didn't i pay more attention? why didn't i care more?

i didn’t kill petula, i know that. malaria did. poverty did. ignorance did. apathy did. but i didn’t help either… inaction is an action. doing nothing is doing something. i should've been the one knocking on my neighbor's door asking if she needed help, not the other way around.

what happened to mercy? what happened to love thy neighbor? and how can "sustainable" be an adjective we use to measure or describe the depth of human relationship (PDF: see 'Whole Language' pp. 37-38)? i learned a hard lesson about sustainability and mercy through this...

it is our reciprocal interactions with others – especially our neighbors (next door, next town, next country...) and particularly those relationships infused with love and mercy — that sustain us… that make us human.

“a believer is not one who eats his fill while his next door neighbor goes hungry.” –Hadith

“life's persistent and most urgent question is 'what are you doing for others?’" –MLK