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5 February 2007

today i bought myself lunch. two pieces of pepperoni pizza and a drink from ray’s for five bucks. i love ray’s pizza. and i didn’t feel much like making myself lunch. so i bought it and ate it while sitting in my car listing to PRI‘s news show “the world.”

and while eating my $5 lunch, i heard this story about liberia’s market women. in a nation with an 85% unemployment rate, these women are one small economic bright spot. working 12 hours a day, six days a week, they earn enough to support their families. and they’re petitioning their relatively new president ellen johnson-sirleaf for help in improving the condition of their markets. so they don’t have to work next to mounds of garbage. so they have bathrooms. so they don’t have to work in waist-deep water during the rainy season. on a really good day they earn as much as 1,500 liberian dollars–the equivalent of 30 u.s. dollars (more than a school teacher earns in a month). one of the women they interviewed, who is saving money so she can put herself through college, got her start with just $5. when i heard that, i couldn’t help feeling a twinge of guilt that my $5 could have helped a woman in liberia start on the road to self-sufficiency, rather than being used to facilitate my laziness.

tonight on my way home from fhe, i was listening to talk of the nation (more NPR?! what a surprise!). tonight they rebroadcast one of today’s earlier shows–neal conan interviewing author ayaan hirsi ali, a somali-born former member of the dutch parliament. she’s just published infidel, an autobiography of her childhood and youth in somalia, saudi arabia, ethiopia and kenya and her flight to the netherlands for political asylum. a victim of genital mutilation herself, she was asked by a listener why she (and others like her who oppose the practice of female “circumcision” or genital mutilation) do not make more of a concrete effort to change the practice. her response was that with 140 million women mutilated in this manner–one little girl every ten seconds–it would be “delusional” for an individual to believe that she could change this practice.

i sympathize with that sentiment. i often find myself feeling distressed by the prevalence of sorrow and trouble in this world and feeling frustrated that there seems to be nothing that i can do to change it. and to hear this woman–a woman who explains living with death threats as akin to living with a terminal chronic disease that could take your life tomorrow or next year or in ten minutes; a woman who has been named by time magazine one of the 100 most influential people in the world–to hear her proclaim delusional the idea that an individual can make a change in the face of such odds confirms the way i feel. but it bothers me. immensely. because i believe very deeply that if each of us would take our gifts and use them fully, if we would put to work even some of our surplus in order to make our own worlds a more beautiful place, then we could truly change our world. i think of muhammad yunus and the micro loans his bank extends which have changed the lives of millions of people who were able to get loans through the grameen bank when they couldn’t get financing anywhere else. and i disagree. it is not delusional to think that one person can change the world. perhaps they cannot completely solve a given problem, but no problem is solved in isolation; they are only solved in process and in context.

if i made myself a tuna sandwich and gave my $5 to a woman in liberia, her life would change and with it the lives of her children and their children. the real problem is not whether individuals can change their world; the real problem is how do i get my $5 to that woman in liberia who could set up a market business with it? our problem is not ability to change, but rather isolation. boxed up in my world of fast food and materialism and luxury, i can’t help someone in need. it is only when we find ways to break the barriers of our confined and anesthetized worlds that we can make a difference–if only for one or two or five people. so how do we break those barriers?

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