When Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie came to the United States she discovered the danger of one story.
Her college roommate was surprised at how well she spoke English. Chimamanda explained that English is the official language of Nigeria, that she grew up reading English literature.
The roommate asked if she could hear some of Chimamanda’s “tribal music” and was disappointed to discover that her Nigerian roommate was a fan of Mariah Carey.
The American roommate had only been told one story about Africans: They are poor, uneducated, incapable.
Chimamanda doesn’t say where this story came from but we know don’t we? I first traveled the world with my finger tips, flipping through the pages of National Geographic. Photographs transported me to strange lands where mud huts and thatched roofs are the norm.
But most of my journeys beyond American suburbia were taken through charity. Sally Struthers held children with bloated bellies in her arms. Pestered by flies and on the verge of tears, she told me about Africa in sepia toned melancholy. Bono and Michael Jackson swayed in a recording studio singing about how to “make a brighter day” while images of living skeletons cross-dissolved on my television screen between videos by Bananarama and Wham.
They told me one story about the developing world: They are all poor, uneducated, and I am their only hope.
The insinuation of this one story is that the people of Nigeria and Nicaragua and dozens of other developing nations are helpless. I must rescue them or else…
But Daisy isn’t helpless. She’s an entrepreneur selling spices and clothes to put a roof over her family’s head and food on their plates. She keeps her children safe, makes sure they get plenty of sleep, that they get up and out the door to school each day. She encourages them in their studies, prays alongside them, champions their dreams. She smells good, keeps a clean house, and smiles wide when she describes her children and her dreams for their future.
Nicholausa isn’t helpless. She bends over other people’s trash for hours every day to make ends meet…and doesn’t break. She hopes, perseveres, sweats for a grandson she loves deeply.
Roberta isn’t helpless. So many fathers in his neighborhood have walked away but he walks his children to school, works diligently while they’re away, hugs them when they come home. He provides.
And the local church helps. A church made up entirely of Nicaraguans and zero Americans. 150 churches in Nicaragua are meeting the physical and spiritual needs of 44,000 children. But not every sibling of theirs. Why? Because the poor are not helpless.
Daisy has two children, for example. One of them receives education, healthcare, proper nutrition and the gospel from a local church. The other receives the same from Daisy. She’s not helpless; she just needed a little help.
Either way the help for these children comes from people who look just like them, who speak their language. And the story these children grow up with then is empowering: People like you are smart, competent, capable…born into poverty, perhaps, but not stuck there.
I don’t sponsor four children through Compassion International because their moms and dads and neighbors are helpless to do anything for themselves. My sponsorship underwrites the help a local church gives to the children I sponsor. That local church’s assistance lightens the load on mom and dad just enough that they can then meet the needs of the rest of their family on their own. My sponsorship helps smart, generous, hardworking, inventive, loving parents and churches provide for their own children.
I am a partner to mom and dad and church – not their savior.
That’s the whole story.
I just spent a week in Nicaragua with a talented group of writers who told the whole story well. Go here to read their words and see more pics and videos from our trip together.