I have now been back in the US for four weeks, and I cannot shake the thoughts of the people on the street in Addis Ababa – mostly women and children. In the streets of Addis, particularly near the large churches or mosques as well as the shopping areas, women are on the street with the children begging. These are some of the thoughts bouncing around in my head, this is part of my story as I travel the globe.
I love to walk when I travel – it lets me get to know a city, affords me a small measure of independence, and lets me stretch my legs after inevitably long days of meetings in cross-cultural settings. It gives my body a chance to become tired and my mind a chance to be rejuvenated. But when those walks are filled with women and children on the streets begging, I often find myself rethinking whether or not I should walk that day or how I can re-route (easier said than done as I typically try and stay to main streets). This makes me cringe inside. Each one of these people is known by God and so many stories from the Bible come flooding back to me. Stories about helping those in need, of seeing the children, of loving those ignored by society. I want to say that my mission is elsewhere, but as I walk, these women and children enter into my space, or I into theirs, and I cannot ignore them and pretend that I am called elsewhere.
None of this is new to me. But as I get older, I find that it gets harder, not easier. What brings each person to the street and keeps them there is a complicated story. I cannot pretend to know an individual’s story, but I do know that there is more to every story than ever meets the eyes. I know that there are systems that promote the problem and do not provide alternatives. I know that people come to the city hoping to find work, and I wonder how deep their disappointment runs. I know that sometimes there are people who collect the money from beggars (in a way employing them to beg) and I wonder if there is any hope. I know that each person has a story and I wonder when they last got to share it with someone who wanted to hear it, to someone who showed them love rather than pity.
One young girl lives so clearly in my mind. She was four or five years old, and she got up from sitting with her mom and baby sibling to follow me, to almost dance around me, with her arms outstretched. She followed me for close to a block, her eyes also searching those around me in case there was someone else, a better candidate, to ask for money. As I prepared to cross a busy street I turned and pointed to her mother, telling her to go back. Our shared language was that of the hands and the body, and words of asking for money. What I wanted to do was bend down and tell this little girl, “Sweetheart, you are beautiful and loved. I wish I could give you a childhood filled with play, but I do know my Father and yours is watching after you and He loves you. Do everything you can to learn, to find an education, and to get off the streets. You have value little one.” Instead, I sighed with gratitude when she chose to not cross the street with me as I could not bear the idea of her crossing it later by herself.
When I travel, I do not know what to do with these women and children. It is a mystery to me. In the countryside, it is so different. There I am the odd white woman walking. Sometimes people talk to me or children follow, but it is because it is something to do and I am an enigma. There I know my place and what I am there to do. I am there to work with water and sanitation and hygiene. I am there to see communities transformed and to work with local partners who make that possible. On a bad day it is frustrating and disappointing work, but on a good day there is little that could be better as it is work filled with hope, health and transformation. When I walk in the city, I have none of this.
This is one one of those things where I don’t believe there is an easy answer, but I do wonder if sitting in the complexity of the situation and admitting that I don’t know is part of the answer. That, and praying for grace and wisdom in each situation.