Thursday, November 3, 2011

Poverty's Choices

I didn’t remember her name. Her pretty smile was familiar, and I listened, trying not to be distracted, as I was late for our team dinner. My shirt was still wet from bathing my daughter. And my hair was half-done (half straight, half frizzy), interrupted by the sitter who said there was a visitor. We were supposed to be walking out the door for our weekly team dinner and Bible study.

But I am trying to embrace the Interrupted Life. So, I waited for her to say what it is she wanted, even as I guessed what that is. Money. And I was right.

She told her sad story. Her grandmother has diabetes and isn’t getting better and needs money. And this girl—who I remembered is a neighbor of a close friend—wanted to borrow what is equivalent to half month of her husband’s salary for her grandmother.

There was more to the story, as I prodded. The grandmother wanted the money, not for medical bills, but for a trip home to her remote village on another island. So she could get medical help from a witch doctor. This young woman promised she’d pay me back in two weeks when her husband got his salary.

I pressed on, asking why her grandmother couldn’t wait another two weeks for the salary to come so that this girl doesn’t have to go begging for a loan. She shrugged, saying that her grandmother is impatient to go home.

I offered to take the grandmother to my doctor, and pay for it, so that we could see if she could get better treatment. The young woman declined my offer and walked home.

Though I wanted to help, I refused to put her in a prison of debt for something that had another solution. And I’m thankful now that I didn’t give her the money.

I went searching for her yesterday, couldn’t find her, but talked with her neighbors—the family members of my close friend who has moved to another island. They’ve all lent her money that she never returned. Her husband hasn’t been home in months. And she just shouldn’t be trusted. Lucky me, they said, that I hadn’t given her any money.

Yeah, sure, lucky me.

I left, not completely relieved, rather, haunted by her sad story. Not the story about the grandma. But the one I remember her telling me some five years ago when she came with a group of girls to my house to make pizza.

A favorite, wealthy uncle had invited this girl from this small island to Jakarta to go to high school, with him paying the bills. She had aspirations. She wanted to be a journalist.

Then her family in Tarakan called her home for a visit. She went and helped them as they made preparations for a wedding. Finally she asked who was getting married.

It was her.

Her dying grandmother had made a request that she marry her distant cousin (common in this ethnic group) to keep the family together. This girl didn’t know the guy. And she felt like she couldn’t refuse without losing all of her family.

The next day she got married, had a baby some nine months later, never graduated from high school, And five years later, she lives her life in sad stories, some from her own choices, some from choices she never really had.

Her sad story is one of probably a hundred that I’ve heard since moving here. And usually they are that heart-breaking combination of situations they couldn’t control, and choices they didn’t have to make.

I drove home on the narrow road, squeezing around tight corners, slowly through the pot holes, through this neighborhood of poverty and bad choices and hard things that just happened.

And I wish, hope, she will change her path, her direction, and her story.

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