Task: Bartering Bracelets – each student will get the same amount of Project Wisdom bracelets. They must try to barter these for the best return possible. Honesty policy always!
Reflect: Why is travelling helpful for raising happiness levels (think Imperative Expectations)? Is Ghana happy? Are you?
So Poor, but So Happy?
“They are so poor, but so happy.” I was talking with someone about a mission trip to Honduras and those are the words chosen to sum up the trip. “They are so poor, but so happy.” I merely smiled and nodded in response. What could I say? For this person, that phrase represented what they learned. It was the great truth that they came away with. But what if it is not the truth, or at least not the whole truth?
Over the past ten years or so, I have spent part of every year in Honduras. I taught for a number of years in bilingual schools. I volunteered at a local Christian school, and I led small groups of Canadian school teachers who came to visit and help out some schools. These experiences enabled me to get to know people, to hear their stories, to become a part, in a way, of the community. I learned how to speak Spanish, how to eat tortilla with every meal, how to greet people on the street, and how to rest in a hammock (that one is not too difficult). I attended wakes and weddings, fifteenth-birthday parties and graduations. I was privileged to be invited into this community—the community of the Juan Calvino Christian Reformed Church, in Barrio Los Mangos, in the city of Choluteca, Honduras.
And so mission trips make me feel a bit uncomfortable, and also conflicted. What are we doing, what am I doing, when we enter into someone’s community armed with resources and good will, hoping to make a difference? As mission trips become ever more ubiquitous in North American evangelical circles, perhaps it is worth our while to step back and consider what we are doing. Are we really making the difference that we hoped for? Maybe we need to reconsider how and why we do mission trips, especially if upon returning we reduce our experience down to the mantra, “They are so poor, but so happy.”
Three words in that sentence make me uncomfortable. The first is the word “they.” It is a hard word to avoid once we come back from visiting another culture. We want to share about some of the people that we have met. The problem is that the word “they” can be ambiguous. Who do we mean? Who are “they”? Do we mean the small group of teenagers we met during an afternoon program or the entire population of the country we visited? In addition, the word “they” is all-encompassing. It includes everyone, and is often understood as referring to everyone in the city, if not the whole country we visited. This misunderstanding makes our sentence a gross misrepresentation of the situation. Chances are that not everyone in the country is poor, and chances are greater still that not everyone is happy. Using the word “they” begs the question: How do we know they are “so poor, but so happy”? Is this information based solely on our observations of the big smile and hearty laughter coming from the child wearing a torn shirt and flip-flops?
The second word that causes me to pause is “so.” “So” implies extreme, beyond what is normal or expected. It is not just that the people we visited were poor, they were so poor. They weren’t merely happy, they were so happy. Again, we need to ask ourselves: How do we know this? Are our judgments built around what we observed, what we were told, what we heard from others? We need to be careful about labeling others, especially extreme labels, especially based on a ten-day trip.
And lastly the word “but.” “But” is a conjunction word that suggests a connection, albeit a surprised connection, between the two clauses. Why do we choose to include poverty and happiness in the same sentence? And why do so in such a way that assumes the two are incompatible? And even more, why allow those two descriptors to be the handles we use to share about our experiences? In doing so, we have reduced an entire population to a simplistic (and might I add dangerous) understanding.
During my first visit to Honduras, I was invited out for ice cream with a teacher from the school. Her name is Yami, and she has incredible curly hair and a deep voice. The ice cream shop was close to where we lived, so we could walk there. A couple of kids, maybe eight or nine years old, were hanging out at the shop. They followed us to our table and said, “Dami una limpera.” (“Give me money.”) They said it a lot. Yami only ate half her ice cream and upon leaving, gave the cone to the little girl, along with some money. I felt shame. Entering into another culture is messy and complex. It does not neatly fit into our little boxes of poverty and happiness. David Smith, in his book Learning from the Stranger,uses Christ’s story of the Good Samaritan as a way of approaching cross-cultural experiences. He says, “The story does end with an invitation, an invitation to humble himself and enter the topsy-turvy world of compassion given and received in recognition of mutual vulnerability, and a life of loving God so wholeheartedly that cherished boundaries are redrawn” (76).
So what, then, shall we do? How do we conduct a mission trip that treats all parties with dignity and makes a lasting difference? Truthfully, I don’t know. I don’t know if it is even possible. But perhaps I may give you a few things to consider as you plan your next mission trip.
First, be aware of creating value in your own life based on the (perhaps perceived) misfortune of others. Maybe you have heard, or even told, the stories of how poor the people were, of how little they have, of how much people have suffered. I know I have told the stories. I’ve told people about Don Bernabet, who works making hammocks at his house. It takes all day to make one, and in return, he earns two dollars. He is raising his family in a very small house. Included in his family is his grandchild, born to his daughter after she was raped. Why do I tell this story? It is not my story to tell. For some reason, I believe that I am a more valuable person because I happen to have met someone whose life has been so tragic. I have told Don Bernabet’s story in vain. Through my storytelling, I have sought to create value in my life, but instead I have taken value from another’s.
This leads to my second consideration. A mission trip should leave us feeling conflicted. We should not return home with happy, warm-fuzzy feelings about the great work that we did, and how our presence there made a huge difference in the lives of the people. We ought to be questioning and wondering at the sense of it all. We ought not to be able to encapsulate our experience in one or two sentences. We ought to feel shame and guilt, and at the same time awe and wonderment.
Because, and this is my final consideration, we have been given the opportunity to enter into someone else’s life. For us, the visitor, it is an experience, an adventure, a journey. For the people we visited, this is their home, their world, their life. It is not something to enter into, or to tread upon, lightly. For, although we may think that we are difference makers and that without us this village or community would be lost, in truth it is not about us. It is about God.
I dug out my journal that I kept during that first of many trips to Honduras. On August 18, 1998, the day before my last day, I wrote, “I like to think that I am the center of the universe. And if life goes on without me, then that must be a false premise. But then I guess that puts it back to the fact that life isn’t really about me, after all. It’s all about God. And life will continue here without me. And people, though they say they will cry and miss me, will dry their eyes and eventually forget me, as I them. I guess the grace in all this is if in some small way God is felt here, if God’s voice is heard.”
But now, fourteen years after that first trip, the true grace is that I have not forgotten, and neither have “they.” So go on your mission trip. Go, remembering that you will probably not make the big difference that you are hoping for. Go and follow David Smith’s “two very simple suggestions: ask questions and pay attention” (118).
Why Are So Many People Unhappy?
In those rare moments of true lucidity that I have, I can’t believe that in today’s world, in any economically developed country, there are so many bitter people bitching about their lives. Think about the conditions of our lives right now:
We make more money than human beings have ever made historically; taking care of our basic need for food, shelter and comfort is usually not a struggle;
We live in a society which provides us a wide range of options to develop a career, to spend our free time or to interact with other people;
Survival is no longer an issue for us (remember, I’m talking about economically developed countries, not Somalia); in comparison with our ancestors we live super-lives.
At the same time, studies show that the general happiness level in most well developed countries has been slowly but surely dropping over the last decades. In fact, the peak of life satisfaction in the United States and many other countries was somewhere in the 1950’s.
I’m willing to guess that for the most part, these studies just confirm something you already suspected. It was enough to take a good look at the people around you, and maybe into your own life, to get the thought that many of us are not very happy.
What’s going On Here?
Obviously, the problem is not the quality of our lives. We now live much better lives in terms of external conditions than in the 1950’s, yet we are less happy with them. Once you rule out this possibility, there is only one remaining explanation that makes sense: It’s all in our heads.
As a coach, I often help my clients to explore their own thinking and become more aware of their internal dialog, the way they interpret objective experiences and their personal belief system. I can tell you I’ve realized that most of us have a pretty screwed up way of thinking. We constantly distort reality in our heads and we create pointless emotional drama in our lives. This is the main reason why I believe that changing our thinking is a must for personal growth.
The Core Thinking Problem
Out of all the ways we make ourselves miserable through our thinking, there is one I find to be by far the most common and to create the most misery. This thinking problem is, in my view, the fundamental answer to the question: Why so many people are unhappy?
This answer has only two words: Imperative Expectations That’s it! You can stop reading now…
What? You’d like to know the details so you can change this? Fine! Then keep reading. Imperative expectations are exaggerated rules we set for ourselves which dictate what must happen in order for us to be happy. In a way, we tell ourselves that we will not permit ourselves to be happy until certain inflated things happen.
How This Kills Your Happiness
Here’s how imperative expectations work in real life:
You tell yourself that you must not make a mistake, but in fact you do make a mistake; You tell yourself that you must be first, but in fact you come out second; You tell yourself that everybody must like you, but in fact some people don’t like you; You tell yourself that X must love you, but in fact X is only somewhat fond of you.
Thus, you create I huge gap between what is and what you think must be, and you make it seem intolerable. It’s the perfect recipe to make yourself feel miserable.
I’m not the first one to give a lot of meaning to imperative expectations, by the way. Albert Ellis, the father of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) had the same idea about four decades ago.
How to Be Happier
To me, happiness is a process. One of the key elements of this process is eliminating imperative expectations from your thinking.
If you think about it realistically, there are only a few things that “must” happen and if they don’t it’s really a tragedy. The rest is only in your head. Try doing this kind of shifts in your thinking: From: “I must not make a mistake.” To: “I would like to not make a mistake, but if I do, it’s not the end of the world.”
As you practice identifying your imperative expectations, eliminating them and switching to a more constructive and carefree way of thinking you will notice that you’ll start to feel less stressed and to enjoy life more. You’ll reach that sweet spot where you want the best for yourself and you go for it, but you can accept anything life throws at you. You’ll reach that point where you can be happy with life as it is and as you make it. This is, I firmly believe, the best emotional spot to be in.
Happiness Index Chart
Gallup Inc. asked about 1,000 people in each of 148 countries last year if they were well-rested, had been treated with respect, smiled or laughed a lot, learned or did something interesting and felt feelings of enjoyment the previous day. This poll was taken in 2011. Results are on the next page.
Lesson 6 – Water, Water, and Water
“The lost productivity of people collecting water is greater than the combined number of hours worked in a week by employees at Wal*Mart, United Parcel Service, McDonald's, IBM, Target, and Kroger.” ~ Gary White, co-founder of Water.org.
Read: Water.org’s country profile: Ghana
Read: “Water for a Thirsty Sahel” by IAEA
Read: “Children and Water Aid Case Study”
Task: 30% of Ghana lives on less than $1.25 a day. Can you do it? Each student will get GHS 5.00 for the day (roughly $1.70). Besides your meals, you must do laundry today. Good luck.
Record: Record your day.
Discussion: Discuss your day. What role did water play?
Water.org’s Country Profile: Ghana
Water.org is working in two rural areas in Ghana: Volta Region around Lake Volta and Upper East Region, which borders Burkina Faso and Togo. Both districts are remote and poor, with less than half of the population unable to access safe water and very few families with access to improved sanitation. The rural areas suffer from many waterborne diseases, including diarrhea. Water.org and partner organizations work with communities to construct wells, latrines and biosand filters in Ghana as well as to provide health and hygiene education.
The Water & Sanitation Crisis
More than 80 percent of people in Ghana have access to safe water, but only 13 percent of people have access to improved sanitation. Dependency on unsafe water sources is higher in rural areas. Due to drinking contaminated water, diarrheal disease is the third most commonly reported illness at health centers across the country and 25 percent of all deaths in children under the age of five are attributed to diarrhea. In addition to lack of sanitation infrastructure, some cultural beliefs and views encourage people in rural areas not to use latrines. With our local partners, Water.org is educating and encouraging people to use latrines through community-led sanitation initiatives.
What a Latrine Can Mean in Ghana
As an old woman who cannot see, it has always been a problem to find a suitable place for defecation. I was so very happy when I heard about some good people coming to support and enable us construct latrines. With the help of my family and some good community members, I have been able to construct my own latrine which I am now proud of.
Thirteen communities in rural Ghana are working with Water.org and Afram Plains Development Organisation (APDO) on a project to bring clean water and sanitation to 2,902 people. Progress to date includes construction of 15 biosand filters, rehabilitation of five boreholes, drilling of seven new borehole wells, and construction of forty latrines.
Also as part of these holistic programs, 3,022 adults and children received training on effective hand-washing and environmental cleanliness. Three schools formed health clubs, with a membership of 109 students, to facilitate hygiene and sanitation activities among students and community members.
The project also provided Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) in three communities. CLTS is a series of activities around raising awareness of open defecation. The exercise empowers community members to build their own toilets out of locally available materials.
One of the women benefiting from Water.org and APDO’s program is Madam Ama Ataa, a 74-year-old blind woman from Chamba Akuraa, Ghana. Ama talks about the benefits she will get from the new latrines in her community:
"I have been living in this community for several years with my family. As an old woman who cannot see, it has always been a problem to find a suitable place for defecation. I was so very happy when I heard about some good people coming to support and enable us construct latrines. With the help of my family and some good community members, I have been able to construct my own latrine which I am now proud of. I only have a little work left to complete so that I can finally use it. The one have been using for years is open and not clean at all because the birds go there with us. I can’t just wait for the day when the new latrine will be ready for me to use. I thank you for the support!"
Water for a Thirsty Sahel