I have never seen the harrowing war film, 'Saving Private Ryan' but the title has always intrigued me. It points to the story, the complications, of following one's heart to do good for another.
When I met Lasma, she was in a state of desperation. The purchase of medicine for her chronically ill mother used up all of the family's resources and Lasma had not been able to qualify for a grant to go to university. The spectre of perpetuating the poverty into which she had been born stared her in the face. She would have to kiss goodbye to her youth. Her friends had gone off to school and she was left behind to work in the fields. With tears in her eyes she defiantly claimed that she had honest hands that could do an honest day's work, that she would follow in the footsteps of her ancestors and there was no reason to feel shame.
I couldn't bear to see the unhappiness in this young woman who was so articulate and clearly so intelligent and deserving. I took her under my wing. It was a gradual process that took a few years, but now she is firmly lodged there, under my wing. I have committed to walk with her on her path and to confront the devil of poverty with her. Lasma and I are on a journey together. Where it will end we do not know. Where we want it to go is clear to both of us.
Lasma is a kind-hearted soul. She is bright and capable. Perhaps her only fault is her boundless sense of her own capacities. But this is also her greatest strength. It is the source of her positive 'can do' approach to everything. She shoulders every challenge thoughtfully and enthusiastically with both feet solidly on the ground. I know that this kind of drive in an individual can change the course of history. I don't try to correct her. I try to facilitate her dreams. I approve of them. Time will tell how far she will be able to run with the ball.
I try to put myself in her shoes. What would/could I do in her position? I dialogue with her, challenge her, think with her. What kind of course is strategic and effective? What is wise? I ask myself and her, what can I do as an outsider to clear away obstacles and facilitate her marching to her own drum? What are the needed interventions? I want to save her from that breaking point that I have seen far too often in the lives of young poverty-stricken Batak adults: that moment when they concede to poverty, when they know that they are defeated and are fated to never get ahead or achieve their dreams or realize their capacities and ambitions. This is the spectre that terrifies Lasma. It is what brought us together and continues to bind us: this need to present some opposition to the needless, senseless waste of talent and life!
The question that Lasma and I share is huge. Where is the path that will give her a good, fulfilling existence? What does it mean to have a 'good' life? What does it mean to be fulfilled? These are existential, political, social, historical, cultural and environmental questions; the soul-searching is not just psychological and individual. The answer does not lie in tearing her away from her family and village and turning her into a relatively wealthy Westerner. The answer is so much more complex. It lies in negotiating a path that is appropriate for her within her culture, situation and environment. It would break her heart to become alienated from her home in any sense. She would not be able to live with herself. She cannot rest until her parents are secure in their old age and her neighbours are no longer suffering. She is not the kind of person who coûte que coûte will run off to seek gain for herself leaving the rest to face hardship. The path to her goal is not lying there waiting to be trod; it will have to be constructed while walking on it.
'Saving Lasma Sitanggang' means saving the whole village. It means struggling to answer the challenge of how to make a good life despite all the forces that slap down the little farmer in Indonesia. This past year alone, four people in her village have committed suicide for reasons related to poverty. Lasma wants to honour her cultural heritage as well as find her way through this world that champions only the value of money. For me, traveling with Lasma Sitanggang means being willing to share the burden on her shoulders, to help construct strategies that fit with her local circumstances, to construct ways that will give everyone a chance to win and climb out of the hole together. What we undertake, the interventions that we construct, must meet the criterion of serving the well being of the whole village.
This must be possible because the alternative is not bearable to consider.
Lasma is not the same as all the other people in her situation because I am there beside her making sure that she does not drown. That lightens her load a little, but it does not render her challenge easier. And I also must not flag.
|Life in the city is not what Lasma wants
In future blogs I will write about our choices and selections. Saving Lasma Sitanggang is about a different kind of war, the everyday kind that we really have no choice but to fight.