Monday, December 26, 2011

Not quite camping

I have (of course) a million things to tell you again, and I've got about four hours until I need to head back to base for dinner. Let's see how this goes!

This week was completely different from our mountain climbing excursion last week. We spent most our time down in the camp, which isn't a camp at all. "The camp" is our nickname for the slums, a name that refers to the tents people live in rather than their social status. These are the poorest of the poor, the ones society pretends don't exist, and the main focus of our days. I thought I knew what poverty was until I came here.

The people in the camp are so dirty, they almost look like ghosts. The children have matted hair, and the youngest ones don't wear pants. Many of the adults numb their pain with constant alcohol, but the children aren't yet old enough to realize how hopeless their situation truly is. The teenagers are starting to know; their eyes are starting to reflect the sadness that haunts the adults, but they haven't completely given up. It's like watching hope die, day by day.

Walking into the camp is so difficult to explain. It's dirtier than I thought a place could be; the children's bellies puff out in their shirts, and even the little ones have such calloused feet they can run through rocks and garbage without flinching. There's no sense of order; the children are all so desperate for love that they'll literally jump off rocks, hoping someone will take notice and catch them. They tug at anything that's hanging from you, a bag, jewelry, your hair, wanting something of yours to belong to them. Nail polish is like gold. Boys and girls alike flock to anyone with nail polish, the colors making a striking contrast to the dust and grime on their hands. I can't help but think of the little girl in the red coat - a splash of brightness on an innocent child caught in a desperately colorless situation.

There's no question that it's hard being there. I found myself wanting to "rescue" all the kids, take them home with me, wash their dirty bodies, clothe them in Disney Princesses and Spongebob, and send them to preschool. I want them to come home to fluffy beds and warm dinners; I want them to have shoes. I want them to know comfort the way American children do.

But it's an impossible paradox. They belong here; they belong in the arms of the mothers who gave birth to them, and they deserve to know their native culture. The solution to poverty isn't tearing every poor child away from his family and dropping him into an American home. The solution also can't be to throw money at the families who need it, because someone has to teach them what to do with that money so they don't land back in the camp when it runs out. It's much more complicated here, with castes choking the hope from these people's eyes. There's no quick fix to poverty, just as there's no immediate end to cancer or violence. The roots are too deep to tug out and expect the weed to be gone forever.

We'll spend the rest of our time while we're in the north working with people in the camp, and most of our time in the south will be spent loving and teaching street kids, children born to women in prostitution and often abandoned to raise themselves in the streets. If I'm going to feel any culture shock here, it won't be because the food is too spicy or the bathroom is a patch of grass; it will be when I'm holding a child who smells like she's never had a bath and wondering how our world can be considered "civilized" when a hungry, dirty child is utterly forgotten.


  1. This is the saddest post I have ever read. Wow I can just imagine the feeling of no control of how to help these kids :( Don't give up Nikki!!!!!

  2. you brought tears to my eyes. that's all i can say.

  3. Well, I am originally from South Africa where and I have moved to United States for last 4 year. There is no concept of RV camping in South Africa. I have learned about the RV Camping tips recently. I am happy to see your post.