How to eliminate pity and scorn to give better
The last piece of fruit wasn’t a perfect sphere. It protruded a little at the naval and had a slight tinge of green. But the orange was firm, and I had an empty mesh pocket on the side of my backpack so I thought I might as well take it as not.
I got to my feet and followed my group to the vans awaiting us outside the hotel. Humanitarians from the United States, we had flown to the other side of the globe to offer food and support to the survivors of the Rohingya genocide. Two hours of bumpy Bengali road later, we emerged from the vehicles and stretched our legs, preparing to hike into the camps. It was not unusual for the small crowd of Bangladeshis to gather around the tall, pale Americans. Our sunglasses and hiking boots offered a marked contrast to their bare feet and simple dress.
There was a boy among them in a blue striped polo and tattered shorts. He was probably around ten or eleven years old and had a sharpness about his face. He caught my eye and we exchanged greetings. His English was better than my Bengali. After a moment, he pointed to my backpack, to the orange fruit in its mesh pocket, and exclaimed in accented English, “I want your orange.”
He really did have good English. I reached around to touch the fruit, and I wanted to give it to him. I could see from his eyes that it was not a light thing, this asking. It meant something – perhaps it had cost him something. Besides, I had a boy of eleven back home. I said, “Just a minute,” and turned away, hoping that he understood my meaning.
When I had contracted to come on this humanitarian mission, I had agreed to follow several protocols. One of them was that I would not offer personal gifts in the camps; rather that I would stick to the organized distribution of food. But after all, I reasoned, it was just an orange. I sought out our Bengali guide and asked him if it were okay to share the orange.
He shook his head in reply. “It is no good here, it would cause problems. There are too many people.” He indicated to the mass of locals who had been drawn toward us in the shade of the sundari trees. “It is a safety issue. Please, don’t give it.”
I nodded. And then I reproached myself for not having left the fruit behind, or at least carried it out of sight in the larger pocket of the backpack. The group was beginning to trek into the camp as I looked around for the boy in the blue polo. I couldn’t give him the orange, but I could try to explain and say goodbye.
I found the boy and said that I was sorry. My Bengali was not good enough to understand his reply. But the disgusted look on his face and the titters of the children around him confirmed that whatever he had said, it had been far less than complimentary. My heart dropped as I turned towards the camp.
It is not a pretty thing, this juxtaposition of human circumstances, this visiting of the impoverished to offer what we can. I wanted to give and serve and uplift without knowing how to make it sustainable. “What’s the use?” I lamented as I picked my way along the jungle path. I wanted to do more than give. I wanted to be more than a dispenser of aid. I wanted to form a connection, a human connection, to build and to be built. I slipped off my backpack, grabbing the orange and shoving it inside the protected pocket. I don’t even like oranges.
That day in the refugee camp, we did so much good. We taught a fertility class and distributed bracelets to the women and girls. We distributed dry food that we had packed ourselves to hundreds of families. We interviewed many survivors, listening to their stories and offering compassion. But the gratitude and new friendships could not erase the scorn of the boy in the blue polo.
I looked for him when we returned to the vans. I still had the orange, and I hoped that there might be a chance opportunity before we began the journey home. But I didn’t see the boy again.
As we were driving back toward the hotel, hot and hungry and happy, we got stuck in a minor traffic snarl. I was sitting in the passenger seat up front, taking in the colorful chaos of Bangladesh at sunset. Ahead of us was some sort of commuter vehicle with an open truck bed filled with students and workers. Some people had spilled out onto the roof of the truck and others were hanging on the side. A young man in a yellow button-up shirt and bright eyes noticed me, and he waved with his left hand while hanging on with his right. Soon several of the passengers were smiling and waving in our direction. Our group photographer handed me his video camera, and for a few minutes I filmed the passengers while they made faces for the camera. Traffic was starting to move again as I put the camera down. The young man in yellow pantomimed to me that we should switch places, and we both laughed. Then I remembered the orange.
It feels so incredible to give a gift from the heart, or to receive some unexpected kindness. The giver and the receiver feel a welling up of goodness, of connection, of kindred humanity. It is magnificent, a healing. It’s an exchange, and both the giver and the receiver are richer for it.
I glanced at the driver of our van as I rolled down the window, and he readily understood my meaning. We were creeping along slowly, beginning to overtake the commuter truck, as I held out the orange to the teen in the button-up. A delighted smile split his face as he stretched his hand near for the orange, and our driver masterfully maneuvered us into position to make the exchange. We reached out in unison, balancing the fruit until his fingers grasped it securely. For just an instant that young man and I were linked together by something far more substantial than a simple orange, and then we passed the truck and moved on.
I have found the great challenge of humanitarianism is giving in the right way. Relief aid is certainly necessary, particularly in times of war and natural disaster, but these are momentary solutions. They form a feeble patch over the gaping wound of poverty, and we know it. What we really need, what they really need, what all of us are truly seeking is a deeper meaning. We receive it through compassionate connection, based on the principle that each of us are givers. Anyone can enrich anyone else, that’s what makes us human. Whether from a developed or developing nation, we all have gifts to give.