As I’m preparing to return to Honduras next month, I’ve been thinking a lot about what sacrifice means.
A health promoter in one of the villages served by our program left a big impression on me after the trip in March. After an interview conducted for our research project, she said De verdad, me da pena porque ustedes sacrifican tanto para venir aca, para salvarnos la vida. “It gives me shame, because you sacrifice so much to come here and to save our lives.” She went on, saying “You leave your families and your country. You travel here to serve us. You come here and you save us. And we cannot pay with with anything more than our thanks. We can do nothing for you because we are too poor, you sacrifice so much and it gives me shame. ”
Folks, this was one of the most humbling moments in my life. This softspoken woman said these words with tears in her eyes and conviction in her voice – the shame she felt was present in the room and I was unable to come up with the right words to chase it away. In one fell swoop, her shame shamed me.
This woman, who supposedly could do nothing to thank us, had woken up at 4am – shortly after the roosters and long before the sun – to begin the backbreaking work of grinding corn to make the tortillas she served us for lunch. She had hours working over a hot wood fire in her unventilated kitchen to prepare us a meal of rice and beans while we rested from our journey on her front porch. She had chased the chickens away from the latrine and given me a look of embarrassment and a few prized squares of toilet paper, warning me that the facilities were humilde (humble).
This woman, who was impressed by our sacrifices, described her work as the volunteer health promoter in her village. She described her neighbors shaking her awake in the middle of the night asking for relief from their latest ailment. She described the confusion and fear when her limited training prohibited her from knowing what to do, the satisfaction of being able to treat them, and the shame she felt when she had no medicine and had to turn them away with nothing more than comforting words. She described making the long journey to Choluteca, often at her own expense, to accompany frightened women to their follow-up appointments after a positive result from their HHA pap smears. Though shy by nature, she navigated dozens of them through the day-long journey to the city, haggling taxi fares and advocating for them during their appointment (paid for by HHA, but inevitably facilitated, and ultimately made possible by her.) She spoke of fatigue and exhaustion and constant worry and powerlessness – set against a backdrop of poverty, but also untenable hope and a dogged determination to improve the health of the women in her community.
I, on the other hand, had hiked to her home with my brand new, fancy backpack with ergonomic straps and a custom-molded, self-ventilating hip belt. I was here because I was born into relative privilege and studied at a fancy school. My fancy school and relatively wealthy contacts who donated to our cause, purchased my plane ticket and bus fare that transported me to this place. I’m praised by my rich friends for “roughing” it in Honduras, I write a blog that impresses my family, and when it is all over I’ll be rewarded with another diploma to hang on my wall (in an expensive frame that would feed this family for months). I’m swooping in and out of these community – sleeping in their homes, eating their food, and recording their answers to my research questions – which will eventually turn into a research paper for a class, which I will write in air-conditioned coffee shops sipping expensive, imported Honduran coffee that this family could never afford. Not to mention – I’m being given an experience that will both enrich me as a person and appear on my resume.
I don’t mean to lament what a spoiled brat I am (although there is an element of truth there.) The paragraph above leaves out significant pieces to the the story about our work in Honduras. I also don’t mean to belabor the “white man’s burden” or denounce the lifestyle I’ve been born into (and to some degree, have chosen.) I am merely trying to convey how difficult it was for me in that moment, in the sweltering heat of March in Honduras, to identify what sacrifice I could have possibly made for which this woman owed me a gracias. I can’t describe how humbling it was for her to thank me for my highly compensated “sacrifice” when her entire life was sacrifice – every day, every moment, with nothing but more hard work, suffering, and want in return.
In that moment, I think all I could choke out was a semi-emotional, broken-Spanish, “You are welcome. You should not feel shame because we are doing this together. And only because of you and the things you do, it works. So thank YOU.” I don’t think she believed me.
I can’t stop wondering…what should I have said? And really, what is sacrifice? Does it exist in the eye of the beholder…or in the heart of the do-er? …And does it matter?