I think people often have glamorous ideas of what it means to do what we do every day, to live this life. There is still this element of “exotic” to it, and I agree, sometimes it is. Right now, in fact, as I’m typing this there’s a bird twittering in the tree that sounds nothing like what I would hear back home and everything like what I would hear in a jungle, or my yard I guess.
The whole idea of living somewhere other than where we grow up and do the daily grind is exciting. When that place is tropical I think people have this idea that we take siestas and walk around wearing linen all the time. I definitely know that people think life is exciting because when we talk to new connections about the fact that we live here full time we typically hear, “That’s so exciting!”
But, it’s far from glamorous. In fact, this past year we realized that we needed to do a major overhaul on our volunteer application process and really dissect what our needs were as an organization because often what people think they’re going to do and what reality is are two very different things. It isn’t glamorous. In fact, many days are boring and mundane.
When you do this thing, you realize that you will be sweaty and less than “fresh” and stunning looking like the people you see in the tv shows doing aid work. Let’s face it, even when they’re in the thick of it they’re still sporting linen “camp” style button down shirts and spotless cargo shorts. They have a glowing tan and their skin looks dewey, not sweaty. The only people I see here that look like that are the expats working for giant orgs who get driven around in air-conditioned vehicles and who never get their hands dirty with more than the ink from a leaky pen.
Nope, that’s not reality for most of the expats we know here. Most of us, when we’re packing to go “home” for a while realize that we having nothing to wear back there that won’t leave us looking poor. Our clothes are stained and stretched from not having a dryer, and often sun bleached. What we wear in the every day here is for utility and it gets beaten up. Us ladies hardly ever wear makeup because it just sweats off. Maybe a coat of waterproof mascara from time to time, if we remember to take the few minutes to put it on. And our hair? Yeesh. Either it’s so overgrown because we haven’t had a haircut in over six months (or longer!), or we’ve cut it ourselves because there is no one here who knows how to cut white girl hair. Everything is about practicality. I never thought I would be one of those people that would think about how fabric breathes, but I do now!
Often I think people have this idea that those of us who work in development or missions work spend a good part of our days bumping around in vehicles saving people. While we might bump around in vehicles, it’s usually because we need to go buy supplies or groceries, or take our kids to school. We spend our days managing things and having conversations and fighting fires. And not real fires. The kind that lead to more issues if they aren’t dealt with.
No, we aren’t on a safari most days. In fact, most days are not that exciting and when people ask us what we “do” the list look like this: eat breakfast, check email, give instructions, give someone cash to go buy supplies, fix a tool that’s not working, give instructions, check email, take a phone call, do some accounting, write a newsletter, check on the work in the work yard, go to town to get some stuff, shut things down for the day.
But that’s my point. The whole idea that development work or missions work is glamorous or exotic just isn’t reality. Most of the time the things we do in any given day are just normal things in a different context. And then, there will be things that pop up that make for good stories because we can’t call a repair man or use a warranty and have to take care of them ourselves.
We had one of those situations almost two weeks ago, and it’s part of the reason the blog has been quiet, and part of the reason I’m thinking about all of this.
Chris’ parents had been here for a visit, and a few days before leaving his mom mentioned that their shower was backing up in the dorms. We dismissed it telling her that sometimes we had that issue in the other house on site and it was probably just a clog that we would deal with after they left. A few days after they left Yonese went to clean their room and came up to the house telling me that the shower was full of water.
Chris went to check on it.
Then he came back upstairs and calmly told me that I needed to drop what I was doing and help sweep out the small dorm with Yonese while he tried to snake the shower drain.
Wait, what? Sweep the dorm out? Um, why?
Because while the bigger dorm shower that Chris’ parents were using was backing up, the small dorm room was filling up. With sewage.
Yep, our septic tank was full and overflowing.
So, Yonese and I swept the water out the door while Chris tried to snake the shower drain just to confirm that it wasn’t a clog. Chris was calf deep in sewer water and Yonese and I were up to our ankles as we pushed it out the door. And when I say sewer, think the worst. There was nothing but toilet paper shreddies floating, but, eeeeewwwww!
As we were doing this a couple of the guys were starting to dig around leach lines, where we were able to hack into the pipes and confirm that the tank was overflowing.
As we were sweeping there were a lot of things running through my head. Everything from “Okay, that just splashed my face” to “We always tell ourselves we won’t ask our staff to do something we wouldn’t do ourselves. This is pretty much the definition of that…”
But then I started to think more about this whole view of missions and development work. Because in that moment, that’s what it really looks like. It’s not about running programs, it’s about being willing to be a servant and to do the really dirty work. The hard stuff. To allow yourself to be pushed beyond your limits.
In the past week and a half we’ve been in the throes of digging and building a new
swimming pool septic tank, and we’re so thankful that the other house on the property is on it’s own tank because it’s given us a place to shower, etc. We’re grateful that friends here have a sump pump that we’ve been able to use to pump out a hole where the pipes from our house come out so we can still do dishes in our place and use water. It hasn’t been that much of an inconvenience, and we would not have been there a few years ago. We. are. grateful.
We’ve talked about how much better we’ve gotten at handling the stress and rolling with the punches. My husband thanked me for being so cool about not being able to flush our toilet. What am I going to do about it?
And, we’ve talked about the fact that we’re grateful for the reminder of why we’re here.
How does sewage remind us of our purpose?
Because day in and day out the very families that we’re here to serve are using water that is probably more contaminated that what we were standing ankle deep in.
As in, that is what they are drinking.
Think about that for a second.
At least we knew what was in our water. Toilets flushing. Dish washing. Laundry. Bathing. From our family. And some visitors.
Most families in Haiti get their water out of brown canals, and while we like to tell ourselves that the water is brown just from dirt and mud, that’s really what we do to make it easier to process the gravity of what their reality is. The truth is, the water is brown from those things, and human fecal matter (people poop), animal fecal matter (animal poop), laundry, people washing vehicles, and who knows what else.
And every single time we install a filter we stop that cycle for a family here.
Parents can finally have some peace of mind knowing that they are not giving their kids something to drink that is slowly killing them. They can bathe not worrying about what that water is doing to their skin. They can prepare a meal knowing they aren’t consuming people killing pathogens.
Gosh, writing this makes me want to break down into a puddle of crying goo. I have kids. I can’t imagine living in a way where I know my circumstances are killing us little by little. Does that sound drastic? It is.
And, I’m sorry if it’s hard to read, but it is truth. There are families who are sick and losing the people they love every day because of water.
Is the work we do glamorous? Absolutely not.
It’s more than that.
It’s saving lives.
You know what? I’m grateful that I had to stand ankle deep in poo water, because it was the reminder that I needed. After so many years of being here and doing this it’s easy to get jaded and to just go through every day focusing on what needs to be done. We talk about the bigger picture and the facts and reasons, but to be standing in it and to be so close to the reality of so many here broke me again. I needed to be broken again. To remember why.
This is why what we do matters. This is why your support matters.
It isn’t just mud water, and it certainly isn’t glamorous.