Thursday, November 12, 2009

No Little People -The Caste and the Christian

A long time ago Francis Schaeffer wrote a book titled No Little People. I would like to go back and read it again as I continue to explore these thoughts of the little Vs big, as in importance. His book was a play on the cliche of the 60s or 70s "the little people," meaning of course the people who are not very important.

This is one of the issues that came to my mind almost daily in Nepal . . . the idea of there being some type of levels defining human worth.

Before departing, I read a couple of books about traveling in the country. A Lonely Planet book described in detail my personal ethical dilemma. The author said that many people, who go on treks in Nepal, feel guilty about having the lower caste porters waiting on them and carrying their packs. But--he adds--this is gainful employment for the porters . . . something which they want dearly so the terker is doing them a big favor by hiring them. The treks pay them about $4 a day, which is more than they can make doing anything else.

The Nepalese group, which I journeyed with, had expressed the same opinion. By allowing these little people (both in stature and position in society) to carry my things, I am doing a lot for them.

But, to use the term "caste" informally and loosely, I saw about 5 levels of caste-ness develop within our group. It went something like this; I) The Doctors, II) The PAs, III) The Nepalese health care workers, IV) cooks and lastly and far below the rest, V) the porters.

These porters are incredible. They are small, men coming in at about 5' 4" and the women 6 inches shorter. They carried loads (our stuff) that were heavier then their own body weight. They carried the loads in simple baskets with a rope or mesh across their foreheads. They carry these loads while walking barefoot (or maybe wearing cheap plastic sandals) down extremely steep mountain trails. They could keep a pace far faster than we could. We carried only light day packs with hiking essentials such as rain gear and water. (Below is yours truly attempting to carry a basket that is only 1/3 full.)

I signed on to this concept of being served when I agreed to go on this trip. However, watching this play out in real life made me very uncomfortable.

There were times when us western trekkers were sitting in our large dining tent (which the porters had carried over the mountains on their backs) eating a feast (which the porters had also carried) and drinking bottles of beer (which some porters somewhere had carried) and laughing, while looking through the thin gap in the tent flaps I could see the porters in the edges of the night. They were sitting crossed-legged in the dirt trying to keep warm around a makeshift camp fire. They were probably waiting on our left-overs for their dinner . . . or eating their own rice.

I don't know what made me most uncomfortable, watching the porters from my nice dinner table, or watching my fellow Americans feeling quite comfortable with this whole system. I could sense an attitude coming over us that was quite alluring. We started to feel like the imperialist British being served hand and foot by the conquered servants. I watched my fellow Americans telling me to throw my trash on the ground, and "don't worry about it . . . the porters will pick it up."

I don't know what the answer it. I mean, I do see the point that we gave these people the opportunity to work, for which they were very willing. But, I do believe that this type of situation some how gives us the license to feel entitled. It can be an opium for the ego. The concept of pushing others down, so we can get leverage to push ourselves up. We think, in the backs of our minds, "I'm an educated, rich American because . . . somehow . . . I deserve it!"

It is interesting that my wife attended a missionary meeting at our church while I was gone. The speaker, a missionary to Muslims, was pointing out that Muslims in Malaysia or Indonesia feel bitter because they earn a dollar a day making shoes for rich Americans. Then one of the church members said, "They shouldn't complain but be thankful to us . . . because without us buying their shoes, they wouldn't have jobs."

I hate the concept of WWJD (what would Jesus do) because of its yoke of legalism. However, I've wondered . . . how would Jesus react? I think we have to have a sense of grace, knowing that the only thing that separates us from the poorest of the poor are the circumstances of life, which are out of our control.

I tried to start hanging out with the porters and other Nepalese as much as I could . . . putting more and more distance between myself and my fellow Americans.

I think there must be a way where we can share our wealth by giving these people jobs, but at the same time acknowledging their great personal worth. Maybe, if I was leading the trek, I would pay them $6 a day and give them good shoes, good food and invite even the porters to eat at my table.

The Lonely Planet book's perspective seems a little too close to what I grew up hearing in the churches down south. When they talked about slavery the good church people would say things like, "Slavery is part of God's will for society to be productive" or "We did the Negros a favor by taking them out of that terrible jungle, giving them homes, food and jobs." There is something seriously wrong with that kind of thinking.

It reminds me of one other thing. Four years ago when I was in the Himalayans last (after the earthquake in Pakistan) I saw something amazing. We were told by the Pakistani government officials, and other NGOs, "Don't give any hand outs to these earthquake victims because it will teach them to be beggars."

Ahmed was a Pakistani medic working in NYC. He spoke the local language. His heart had been deeply moved and he had a plan. He walked up to the one of the terrible refugee camps and walked through in his "widow walk." He shouted, in Urdo, "All widows come forward!" Eventually about 25 ladies came out of their tents, whose husbands had been killed in the earthquake. He lined them up . . . then pulled out a roll of $100 (US dollar) bills. He took the rubber band off and handed each lady one. This was like a 3-4 month's salary in that part of the world. One by one these ladies started weeping and kissing his hand. It was deeply moving . . . and it violated every rule that has been made about helping the poor. However, in that circumstances, in the wake of that horrible earthquake . . . I think this Muslim man, Ahmed, did what Jesus would have done.


Recovering Alumni said...

Yes, I hear what you are saying. I often struggle with this as well in my purchasing decisions...If I buy this $10 t-shirt am I exploiting the people who made it working for 50 cents a day or am I helping them b/c they wouldn't have a job otherwise...I lean to the former...but it definitely is murky..

I'm suprised the leaders of your group did not allow the porters to eat with you. That does seem odd.

MJ said...

You would have to have been there to see the situation (about allowing the porters into our dining tent). This was a Nepalese led group and they, being Hindu, are more comfortable with the levels of caste. The porters numbered about 40. Our tent could seat about 10. I think it was very reasonable, in their perspective, to set up this system. This is how all tourist treks in Nepal are set up.

But, as a Christian, who believes that we are all created equal, I have a different perspective. If I was the leader of the trek, I would invite them in to eat the good food. The trek would be far more expensive, but is the way it would have to be.