Dear Ezra and Lian,
Here’s a life lesson for you. Even when you are helping someone, let them preserve their dignity. Remember when I told you why I don’t lend money? Well, if you gave someone something for free, it is important that they can pay you back. Even if they don’t owe you anything or you feel like you should take any payback, take it. Don’t let the recipients of your kindness walk around for the rest of their lives, feeling inferior for not giving anything back. Take it graciously and with gratitude. Give them a way to balance the scales. Remember, it’s NOT helping someone if you destroy all their self-worth and motivation to wake up in the morning. When your help ends, they need to carry on. Help them to persevere when you are gone.
Here’s a little story about that.
We had taken a boatload of rice to Samuksury (The Place of the Snails). There are no roads to the village. There’s only a footpath or a small river from Tlabung, near the Bangladesh border. The people there were in desperate shape. Those still well enough, had travelled up to 9 kilometres each way into the jungle looking for wild yams. The millions of rats in Mizoram during mautam couldn’t smell them or dig deep enough to eat the yam roots. For tens of thousands of who only ate what they could grow, this was the only food they had. The rats ate everything else. Oranges, bananas, rice, potatoes; it didn’t matter.
Some elderly people were lying in their beds waiting to die from starvation. Many were losing their eyesight because of the poor nutrition of their diet. They couldn’t see well enough to find yams in the jungle. I interviewed many of them to find out what was happening. They told me about burying their children in the days and weeks previous. Their faces would later appear on Canadian television.
When we started distributing food, 1 “tin” or 9 gallons of rice per family (a ridiculously small amount of food in the midst of a famine) people had such a dejected look on their faces. Many of the men of the village were too embarrassed to even appear with their families. Mostly women and children came to receive the food. As much as possible, we had the residents of the village help with the distribution process. Later, just before we left, the women of the village presented me and my Canadian friends with beautiful hand-woven skirts for my wife. I wished that they had sold the skirts in the market to buy food, but I thanked them profusely.
That evening, the missionaries and villagers cooked a special fest for us. They had hiked the many miles to buy food at the market for us. I felt so bad that they had gone to such expense and trouble to feed us. We were there to feed them. Why couldn’t they just accept our free gift? I was about to feel a lot more guilty. One of the things they bought at the market was Barking Deer meat. It is somewhat rare there. At the time, I thought it was an endangered species. I felt like I was contributing to the possible disappearance of a beautiful animal. As I ate it, I whispered under my breath, “Dear God, forgive me.” Barking Deer tastes so good. Indian Muntjac (Muntiacus vaginalis) is classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. I felt so guilty for eating and enjoying it. I ate two plates of barking deer and rice. I ate until I couldn’t eat any more.
In all of this, eating the food prepared for us, cherishing the gifts given us, enlisting the help of the village people, requesting a song from the village (sung with gusto), I hope the people of Samuksury could feel our love and respect for them. They were not losers. A natural disaster had fallen on them. It didn’t reflect on them at all. When the rats were gone, they would be able to provide for their families again. We were only there to help them reach that day.
Whenever you help someone, you have a duty to make sure your help doesn’t make someone’s life worse.