The Wretched of the Earth

Aidan Donaldson is Chaplain at St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar School, Belfast. He also plays a key leadership role in the Edmund Rice Network particularly in ‘Project Zambia’ part of the Christian Brothers’ Developing World Immersion Program.

Here is Aidan’s reflection on a recent experience in Zambia:-

“Trying to come to any sort of an understanding of what I have witnessed and experienced over the past couple of weeks on immersion in Zambia completely defeats me.  Emotions and feelings are a mixture of hope, inspiration, sorrow, joy, and anger.  I am finding it so difficult to look at the world of the marginalised and find a soul or conscience in those who condemn these most vulnerable of people to live in such appalling conditions.

Tuesday (24th of July) was a day of sorrow, utter pity, shame and anger that will remain with me for the rest of my life – I hope.  Mrs Angela Miyanda (a most  inspirational figure well-known throughout the Edmund Rice Network in Africa) brought a small group of us to visit a community of blind people who had been abandoned by the authorities near Old Kabweza village  (approximately 20 kilometres in the bush).  They (15 families) had previously survived in Lusaka through begging.  Since the West has decided that Zambia’s future will be in tourism the presence of these poor people was deemed by the authorities to be an embarrassment that might be unsightly to rich tourists and therefore was untenable.

They were promised houses, electricity, water, good agricultural land, tools, seeds, schooling for their children… instead they were brought to a land without water and given tents and mud huts (which have all collapsed during the rainy season).  They have to walk 3 miles to the nearest water pump (which often has no water) in a line using sticks to guide them in one hand and carrying a bucket in the other hand.  Those who have some sight try to grow what maize they can but without tools, seeds and irrigation this is so difficult.  And if life is so hard and unfair for these people trying to feed themselves and their own children then you also meet their orphaned grandchildren who they care for.

Listening to one of these victims – Mr Nkumbula (pictured) – crying to the very heavens about the injustice of ‘having been abandoned like animals…. like snakes in the bush’ so that they cannot find their way back to Lusaka where they might make tourists feel uncomfortable by their very presence fills me with anger (for authorities) and shame to be a beneficiary of a world that makes this injustice happen.

At the reflection last night Br Brendan Prior spoke wonderful words of wisdom from the Scriptures about being in a ‘wilderness… a dry and weary land where there is no water, of Job (like the old man above) who had done no wrong and yet had been abandoned and about outcasts and how Jesus treated them.  He then moved from the religious to the everyday life and led us to consider how when some cruel people get sick of a pet dog in Ireland they put it in a car and abandon the animal miles away from home so it will never find its way back – like these blind people of Old Kabweza.

Mrs Miyanda brought us to this space so that we could be witnesses to the plight of these people and to invite us to respond… and we have to,  She already knows their needs and how we can help to bring these people back to life.  It will involve a water pump, support for growing maize, building decent homes and above all else showing by our help, love and support that they are not abandoned.

It may have been a hard number of days for our immersion team in Zambia but it is a  lot harder to live as a disabled child in Kanyama slum or be a blind person abandoned and forgotten in the middle of the bush.

My response to the challenges of these past days is to look at myself and ask the question suggested by Mother Theresa of Calcutta when she defined true love as ‘giving.. but give until it hurts.’  I am asking myself does my giving really hurt me and my lifestyle?   Have I the courage and generosity of the poor widow in Mark’s Gospel who gave everything she had or I am like the wealthy in the same story who gave from their excess?  Is immersion leading us deeper into true Christian relationship with those in the margins so that we will come to truly see the blind people of Old Kabweza as our brothers and sisters so that we will be moved not by pity but by love?”

Aidan Donaldson

Aidan’s article raises the question of how we respond to the challenge of injustices that we see around us. It speaks of responding to peoples need for basic necessities such as water, food, housing and love. It speaks of responding in love and ‘giving until it hurts’, all of which is important.

Another way of responding is also possible. We can view situations such as the one described above, in terms of  a denial of basic human rights, and we can engage in advocacy to ensure the rights of all are respected.  Better still, we can educate and empower those whose rights are denied to demand those rights for themselves.

Whilst in no way diminishing the importance of a charity response to meet the immediate needs of people, part of the role of Edmund Rice International is to encourage members of the Edmund Rice Network to include advocacy and a rights based approach in their response to injustice.

Whilst engagement in advocacy is also demanding in terms of our time and effort, there is a danger that in places like Geneva, the work of international advocacy can become something of an intellectual exercise. Aidan’s article is a timely reminder that the work of advocacy is about real people and one that must be rooted in love and compassion.

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