Lingering guilt

Peace Corps volunteers tend to carry guilt from the First World. 

We recycle, volunteer at community farmers’ markets and ride our bikes to work. We pride ourselves on being less frivolous and materialistic than most Americans and we announce that our attention is always focused on poverty and worn-torn areas over petty celebrity gossip. We’ve seen devastation that most of our friends and family will never experience so we feel the need to make small daily changes that seem impactful. 

We are noble do-gooders, or so we need ourselves to believe. Most of the time it is pretentious bullshit. 

When I came home from Niger, I tweeted something about how the money of one 30-second Super Bowl ad could buy every single person in my village a kilo of rice for an entire year. It wasn’t long before I felt like an ass. Who am I to judge if people get so upset about what some celebrity said or the antics of a politician that they start a social media campaigns of justice? So what if a person is upset about her favorite stylist running out of that great product for curly hair or the outrage over the sheerness in one company’s fabric? We are entitled to be upset about what we want and to care about what we want. 

When I came home, I allowed myself to indulge, as if I earned just because I lived somewhere with extreme poverty although I myself wasn’t living in extreme poverty. I bought a ridiculously expensive phone. I showered twice a day. And I threw away mushy fruit and rotten vegetables. I wasn’t going to feel guilty, I told myself.

Until today.

When Sesoto came to my school, I knew there was something special about her. She had this thirst for education that was unmatched and her potential was apparent in nearly everything she did. But, Sesoto has a rough home life. She’s a double orphan and none of her siblings really care that much about her. To them, she is there to do the chores they do not want to do but also the burden of an extra mouth to feed. Sometimes, the only meal Sesoto would have was the one we served at school, and by the end of my second year we rarely had lunch because the school is broke. 

Weeks before I left Sesoto’s family tricked her into marrying a man twice her age. My principal and some of Sesoto’s other family were able to work with the police to get her out of the man’s possession and into somewhere safe. I spent an entire day with Sesoto and her aunt at the clinic to get her the proper medical treatment after this ill-fitting marriage. 

I promised Sesoto that I would help her with her school fees, but back home I got caught up in my own life. Finding a job, moving, trying to figure out who I am supposed to be here, and Sesoto wasn’t a priority. Her number was buried somewhere in a journal, but I kept telling myself that one day I would reach out to her. 

For weeks I’ve been in touch with my friend Mohau who lives in a village near mine. She told me that one of my former teachers, a friend of her’s, was trying to reach me in regards to Sesoto’s schooling. I was able to connect with the teacher via Whatsapp and she asked if I would pay Sesoto’s exam fees. The teacher had been paying her school fees but was now overextended and could no longer help. I was hesitant at first. I had just given money to my host sister for a business start up and I was feeling financially burdened in DC. Every months I come close to tears when I write my rent check and I often feel restrained from truly enjoying city living because of the costs. Yet, I made a promise to this student and I knew that I needed to follow through.

As anyone whose lived in the Third World knows, these things always come with some kind of problem or delay. I had sent the money to my principal via an electronic money sending service and it took her at least three trips to Maseru before the she received the money.

She finally did today and the other teacher messaged me to say thank you. I then asked her, to be sure, that the money was going for Sesoto’s fees and she said now. Sesoto’s sister, the one she was staying with, moved to South Africa and she is in the village alone with the sister’s children. She is starving because there is no money for food. In these instances, exam fees and schools are a very low, low priority.

It was a mentally exhausting day, with the pressure of trying to find a place to live in an unfamiliar city and hurrying to wrap up projects in DC, and I didn’t have the emotional capacity to even really think about the situation until the train ride home. I was on my way to get fixings for a nice salad as a comfort after a long day and, as I wandered through the aisles picking out fresh foods and dreading more online housing searching, I realized what a jerk I am. Why can’t I do more for Sesoto? Why do I pretend not to think about her because it hurts too much to think about not helping her the way I should? How is that I got to be born into a life where I am educated and surrounded by love and opportunities while this girl has seemingly nothing?

I have so many excuses for not being a better person to her. I can’t afford to support her and myself. I don’t want to be another handout. I can’t guarantee that if I send her money her family will not steal it and use it on themselves. Blah blah blah. 

Yet, as I sit and scorn myself for being so awful, I don’t have solutions for change. I don’t know what I should do or if I should do anything. I want to be a good person, but I am not sure I have the courage to do that. 

This post is not a passive-aggressive attempt to get you all to tell me how great I am, because I do not want that. I hate when people tell me I am such a good person because I rarely feel like it. Instead, I am writing and publishing this post because I need to figure out what to do with this guilt and this constant screaming voice that says I am letting down this sweet girl. Maybe I do start sending her money every month and make that sacrifice in my budget. Maybe I try to accept that I’ve done what I can. Maybe I could connect her to some non-profit or agency in Lesotho that could help. Or maybe I stop complaining about every little thing that doesn’t go my way and start appreciating all the great amazing things that I do have because a girl in Africa would do anything for what I have. I don’t know.

All I know is that life is unfair sometimes and we can’t change that. We can only change our reaction to it. 

 

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4 thoughts on “Lingering guilt

  1. After reading, I wanted to say, “Heather, you’re such a good person. You truly inspire me to do more.” Instead though, I will simply let you know I have similar battles I fight with my own self. I have been there, I have felt that.

    PS: I’m SO excited to see you tonight for cupcakes! And I’m real sad (but, again, very excited for you) that you are leaving “my” city for the Midwest.

    • You are amazing. Thank you for being a wonderful friend. Also, for taking me to awesome cupcake places!

  2. Heather,
    I have been reading your blog for over a year now as my daughter has hit her 1 yr mark serving in Ghana. Like you she was is on what is considered the “older side” not in her early 20’s. I can say that through her I can relate to many of the things you post. I recently went to visit her for only a week and chose to just stay in her village with her, no sight seeing, and connect with those people that she now lives with daily. She too has problems at her school and gets very frustrated but boy her village loves her very much. She is mentoring several girls in her village and because they are so poor and can go without food she has chosen to invite them to eat with her every night. Sometimes this is very difficult but it is who she is :).
    I have been home only 2 months and I can say that I think of them every day wonder too how can I help them. I completely understand this blog today and feel the same way. I get mad at our constant waste and over indulgences and wish people could truly see what we saw, It does change you and for the better ! I have chosen, for myself, to send the girls little items in my daughters packages and am trying to plan out a way to send school fee’s and /or food $$ for those needing them through trusted friends my daughter has made over there. I feel it is the least I can do when I live in the “land of plenty”.
    Keep up the greta work !
    Regina Alcantara

    • Hi, Regina,

      Thank you so much for reading my blog and responding to this post. It’s so amazing that you went to visit your daughter and I know that that meant a lot to her. It will be very helpful for her to have someone who can understand what her life was like in Ghana when she returns. Also, your heart is so big. It’s so easy for us not to think about those we can’t see, but I really admire the love and kindness you want to give those girls. Please do continue to drop in and let me know how you and your daughter are doing and best wishes to you both.

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