We’ve all heard it. “There are children starving in Africa, so eat your vegetables.” Our parents fed that line to us over the dinner table along with a spoonful of broccoli. And yet, it’s true. It might not be a valid reason to eat your vegetables, but it is true that there are people with “less” all over the globe. Probably even next door to you. I thought when we moved to Africa that I would be the one teaching my kids how to handle poverty, but it turns out they have been the ones teaching me.
1) Don’t Look Away
We live in one of the poorest nations on the planet. It can all be so overwhelming… the constant banging of hands on our car window, the people dressed in rags, the dying babies. In my experiences in Burundi, I’ve learned that adults are the ones who turn away quickest from the pain of poverty.
Adults curl their toes at the dirt and stink and realness of poverty, but children just stand in it. They see people as people, no matter how they are dressed or what they are asking for.
I don’t want my children to change. I don’t want them to become more like me, tempted to save myself from another emotional impact by looking away… by pretending I didn’t “see.” I always thought my biggest challenge living with the poor would be cultivating a balance of empathy and action in my children, but the truth is that’s it’s been so much harder to cultivate those things in myself.
Action step: Practice seeing opportunities to give to those in need. You don’t have to live in a third world country to make a difference in someone’s life.
2) Know Their Names
“Mommy, what is she called? The woman with the baby, what’s her name?” “I don’t know, love.” “You just gave her bread but you don’t know who she is?” My gut turned. He’s right, so very right.
There is something powerful about calling a person by their name. They are no longer a shadow or just a drain on our hard earned resources, they are a person full of humanness and all of its needs and heartbreak.
Action Step: We’ve found the best way to practice empathy and action as a family is to keep a list of people we are going to help whenever they come around. We know them by name. We pray for them and wish them well at night. I ask my kids, “What could we do to make sure Benoit has a full belly tonight?” Sometimes my kids will respond, “Benoit has a fully belly today, let’s give this other guy something.” Even our spontaneous giving is built on our relationships with those experiencing poverty that we know by name.
3) Discover Together
Working on a project devoted to those in poverty as a family has begun a conversation about resources and how they should be used that we will keep having with our kids for the rest of their lives. My oldest son is the one who got us thinking differently about helping rural coffee farmers in Burundi. We would spend time in coffee farmers houses, and he would make observations. “Why don’t they have glass in their windows like we do?” “Why do we need to raise money so that they have clean water? Who pays for our water?”
We heard him and we began dreaming bigger about education, clean water, health care… not just about providing coffee farmers with a better income.
Action Step: Traveling for a purpose bigger than the “Hawaii high” is an unforgettable and bonding experience. Why not “risk it?” and travel for another purpose? Great experiences turn into great memories and great memories turn into great stories and great stories are a foundation of our families for generations to come.