I remember trying to teach my child the meaning of freedom while living in Zimbabwe a few years after its independence. The streets of Harare were lined with houses surrounded by high fences. Just outside the city thousands of people were crowded into tiny spots with occasional water and electricity. How, I wondered, could anyone have raised a child in this city and teach them the meaning of freedom when such walls divided people? When such inequities were the norm? Would I have to teach my seven-year-old to look the other way?
I am haunted by the memory of flooded streets in Daka, Bangladesh when whole families had no place to sit or lie. Children waded through the filthy floodwaters. Exhaustion and hunger filled the faces of men and women. What if my life required such an existence for my child?
I am transported, again, by the image of a woman in a small grass hut in Nepal. She is talking about her life to me – blessing me with the wisdom I have no other way to access. She is telling me of her decision to send her young daughter to school. The mother will thus lose her daughter’s precious labor as a babysitter and water carrier. It is a difficult life made more difficult by a desire to see a daughter face a different future. Could I ever be this brave?
There is a picture of me surrounded by hundreds of children in Uganda. They are reaching towards me; trying to touch my skin to see if mine feels the same as theirs. Most are AIDS orphans. Many have not yet eaten today. Some have lost all their siblings to the same disease. No adult in the small village is free from the burden of raising additional children on the small gardens they maintain. I try to capture this reality in my numbers and statistics. I fail in this effort. Is my compassion enough? Is it worth anything?
I am crying as I write this. None of these realities are fair. I live my life as simply as I possibly can – a small one bedroom apartment, not many possessions. But, I cannot seem to simplify my life enough. I counted six international trips this last year, thousands of dollars spent on technology. I strive to bridge these divides and I fail. I am joined to the women, the children, the men. Their voices follow me, their dignity reminds me, their courage challenges me.
I talk to my class about the power of global economic forces in shaping our lives, in setting our national policies, in building communities and destroying others. I remind them that there is little meaning in this lesson unless we remember that our lives and their lives are connected. Integrated. Lived jointly. In all my efforts, I am reminded of a world that is defined by these people, my students and myself. We live with them, among them, as part of a common family. None of us are free until all of us are free.