I had a crisis while I was living in Liberia. I was living in a lovely, air-conditioned apartment that was a few hundred feet from the American embassy, with a mzungu roommate who worked for the World Bank, and I was working on public-health-capacity-building matters. I would lounge in the spacious living room, admiring the green plants that dotted our living room, lovingly tended to by our Plant Guy, and I would casually flip channels on our telly, switching between watching E! or some other satellite movie channel. Then I would go to the kitchen to wash my dishes and, beyond our iron-grated windows and high stone wall that was completed by a twirl of fencing wire for security, I would stare upon the families that were squatting on the heap of trash and dirt that were located behind our large building. They lived in makeshift huts that were often made of a combination of plastic paper, mud and stones. It broke my heart. In more ways than one, because I was African, living in West Africa for the first time and confronting severe poverty right at my front door. I cannot say that I have never been poor but I can honestly say that I have never been THAT poor. My parents sheltered me for my first seventeen years, then I took off for the US and for that grinding life there. I was conflicted during my time in Liberia because I thought my work was helping those who needed it the most. However, right in my backyard, there were some people that obviously were not benefitting from my USAID-funded organization. Thinking about it, my work focused on midlevel workers at the Ministry of Health so, despite my best efforts, the chances of anything I worked on reaching the people on the bottom floor of the social strata in Liberia depended heavily on these folks that I was helping. I hoped that these folks would come back, improve the health system and make certain that the folks in my backyard were able to have positive or better health outcomes in case illness, disease or anything fell on them.
I don’t have that same experience here in Ethiopia, though. Don’t get me wrong, I am not looking for a poor family to make me feel sad about my path in life. I see poverty daily, whether it is in Ethiopia, Liberia or in Kenya. Perhaps I have slowly become more comfortable with seeing those less fortunate than myself so it doesn’t register as it did for my first international outing assignment in Liberia. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how self-centered human beings really are. We all want to do well and have things. We want to be successful, based on our own individual definition of success. But some of us also want to change the world and this is defined in different ways by different people. I opted to go into public health and focus on community health changes because nothing is worse than being poor AND having consistently negative health outcomes, especially with preventable illnesses and diseases.
My experience in Liberia was my first and only introduction to life in Western Africa. My crisis led me to question my career path, my existence as an African woman and my life-learnings from my time in North America. I felt guilty because I could not give that family what I had. I felt bad because they did not get and take the chances that I was exposed to, even when my life was rough in the US. I wouldn’t change my experience in the US or in Liberia for anything because it made me who I am today. That crisis made my path clear to me, at that time. Perhaps because I know that I am working on my passion, influencing community health by program designing and implementing, I feel better about going home to watch my satellite television. The women in the village that I worked with last year, in response to a question from a moderator, noted that the only difference between us was that I wore pants and that I spoke English. It made me realize and appreciate the opportunities that I got in life. I worked hard to take myself through school (undergraduate and graduate) and I knew that I wanted to come back to Africa and work on public health. I am exactly where I wanted to be those many years ago, doing activities that promote health on a community level so that these women and poor families can have access to health care and to making healthy choices. And their children can have a chance to access similar opportunities to what I had.