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November 27, 2012
African Voice
Poverty, Love and Compassion
by Imo Eshiet

The closest to winter in my tropical homeland is a rare hailstorm. When lashed by such weather in the open, say in the farm, on the sea or any other unsheltered place, the exposure leaves human beings shivering with the cold. Hence we say that only those trapped in a hail know the fangs of biting cold!

I have pretty much been exposed to different degrees of coldness at various times: the chilly wind of poverty blowing strong with disease, starvation, neglect and the shame of living with thugs and critters such as roaches, mice and rats. Life in our tropics is muggy, frowsy, uncreative and intolerant of contrary ideas. Not even the abundant sunshine has been good at staving off the chills, the muck and mire of our frosty poverty.

I grew up in a large family. Because Mother was always bringing in waifs, much to Father’s annoyance, we had to cope with fifteen or more people at home. We lived in a cramped and deplorable space and slept like baboons on the floor, one on top of another. Since I slept flexing my muscles violently like a kick-boxer, I was the only one with much room to myself even though that meant being shunted into a tight corner where no one else wanted to be.

We had a common pot of water. We drank from the same cup and ate from the same plate and spoons. It is a miracle none of us died from the contagious diseases that rampantly wasted our community. We had one soap dish and, in our wretchedness, shared one towel.

Searing as our misery was, poverty bonded us into a tough family even when hunger fluttered violently in our stomachs like a beheaded chicken. We often had food fights, but could also ride any wave so long as we worked together. With sharp machetes we chopped down pristine forests, hollering and whooping work songs all the while. We stared down animals in the wild, and took their carcasses for meat.

Living in abject poverty is a grimly horrendous experience. It means gratuitous groveling, fear, grief, groans, guilt and resentment. It means stinking like a skunk after working in a warm and humid atmosphere, sweat pouring from every pore yet being unable to bathe with soap. It means living with the gut-wrenching tyranny and spectacle of people cynically destroying their people over a mere morsel and being brutally penalized for speaking out against the establishment.

Thorns spiked our bare feet and hands and sometimes due to carelessness and youthful exuberance, we slashed ourselves with knives in the course of bushwhacking. Our parents bound our wounds with barks, roots and herbs. Sometimes, though, someone came down with tetanus and was rushed on a bicycle to an under-equipped clinic thirty miles away. But neither the lockjaws nor the ever present threat of death drowned our spirits.

When rich kids picked on us, we clawed them hard enough that they stopped bothering us. Survival was for the fittest, and labors that fatigued even adults made us fit. Yet the hardship clothed us with enduring insights, made us sensitive to the plight of those gnarled like us by poverty, and helped us walk not by sight but by faith as we trudged through the peculiar humiliations in our jungle.

Because of these horrific experiences, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” to borrow a line from Langston Hughes’ The Negro Speaks of Rivers. I have known the anguish of living without the basic necessities of life, poverty of leadership in a failed state, and (before my conversion) the abject destitution of a religion without the power of the priesthood.

But to soften the hurt, poverty taught me to be a good servant, something ignorantly scoffed at in my country. It taught me humility, too. Its fires purged me of the dross of haughtiness and pride and thereby prepared me to receive the gospel. Also, it taught me patience that, though bitter as some say, comes with rewardingly sweet fruits.

Although by the time the missionaries contacted me I had by rugged determination managed to outwit poverty, the hard knocks it burned into me stayed long enough to help me discern the redeeming power of the atonement when I received the missionary discussions. By that time I had become a college professor earning enough to live decently even though I was surrounded by a sea of abject poverty. Our home had modern amenities and my three children at the time had rooms to themselves — a far cry from the deprivations of my own childhood.

Investigating the Church, I discerned true leadership that is utterly lacking in my country. This struck a sympathetic chord because it was so desirable. Instead of hard-eyed crocodile meanness where everyone ate up everyone else, I saw hands and hearts of people who, in spite of their own challenges, were willing to make a difference in the lives of others beset by sorrow and misery.

It was the Tree of Life, and I of course wanted it for myself, my family and society. With that desire began a journey. That journey has brought me wholeness. From it I have come in contact with total strangers from whom I have learned more than I ever did in college and graduate school. In the course of this I have learned things of inestimable value, things of eternal consequence.

The journey has not been easy, but even when displaced, I met people with whom I have absolutely no kinship but who have shared their shelter and bread with me and my family in ways words cannot wholly express. From these folks I have learned the power of kindness that President George Albert Smith said “can soften hearts and encourage others to live righteously.”

A fortnight back, I received a call from missionaries to drive them to Statesville, North Carolina, for a transfer meeting. I had the time and a truck, but to go sixty-five miles outside my usual routes would have affected my family's tight budget and I told them so. I added I would try to figure out what to do and call them back if I succeeded.

I prayerfully placed a call to a family that early morning and explained my situation. The family fueled the truck and with a grateful heart I took the appreciative missionaries for their appointment. On the way my passengers wanted to know how I worked the magic.

As I shared the information with them, they in turn narrated how the week before the family that had fueled my truck had bought a van for a new convert family of ten who could not afford to attend church meetings if no one offered them a ride. Though pleasantly surprised, it was not shocking because these succoring folks were the ones who snatched me and my family from a lion’s mouth and gave us back our lives.

In this season of thanksgiving, my heart turns to those who sanctify the Lord in their hearts, lift the forlorn with compassion and hope, and give them reason to live.

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