Stomachs and souls

Facebook can be a geat time-waster. But I bet it can also change your life. Or at least, in my case today, inspire you to blog.

Today my friend Jane (not a real world friend, but a Facebook friend whom I did meet once for coffee to hear about the fantastic new incubator she and others created to save premature babies in the developing world) posted something on Facebook. It was a video. Not the usual amusing but quickly forgotten videos people post about kittens that play piano or daredevil skiers (though don’t get me wrong, I love a musical kitten as much as the next guy), but rather a video about a CNN Hero nominee from last year.

It’s the story of Narayanan Krishnan, an award winning chef in India who had the opportunity to move to Switzerland and become one of the great chefs of Europe, but who had what Oprah would call his ‘A-ha moment’ when he saw a man in his neighborhood literally starving to death on the street. Narayan not only fed the man, but Narayan quit his job, mobiilized his family, and started feeding the homeless and the hungry. You hear about stories like this, but watching Narayan tell it himself can put goosebumps on anyone with skin. Imagine if we were all so moved to forget ourselves and help others. I think the video should be mandatory viewing. We should be required to watch it every morning as we start our day. Billionaire corporate CEOs should be required to watch it twice a day. Eventually Narayan’s inspirational and infectious spirit would seep into the toughest hearts and thickest wallets. It’s a story of filling stomachs that fills souls.

This simple story of man helping man on the most basic of levels makes me think of Anna. She’s around 7 or 8 and lives outside Moshi, in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania. I first met Anna when I went to visit her older sister Zera in December of 2008. Zera, 12, lived at an orphanage with which I worked closely, and I was doing home visits. Unable to care for Zera properly, Zera’s mama had turned Zera over to the orphanage years before. Their mud-brick home was a poster for African poverty, and even the local social worker found himself wiping away tears. Still, little Anna had a sweet happy smile and even displayed a bit of fashion sense while playing with my blue safari hat. Zera accompanied us back to the orphanage, and we waved goodbye to Mama and young Anna.

Two years later, I visited Zera again at her home, and she greeted me with a tight hug. Her mom was not there, and though several children had suddenly gathered, I asked ‘Anna yuko wapi?’ (Where is Anna?).  Zera pointed to a smiling, but painfully thin girl in front of me. I didn’t recognize her. Even GO Campaign’s Moshi program administrator, Happy, did not recognize young Anna, and she had seen her as recently as 6 months ago. Her arms and legs were rail-thin, and her hair looked almost grey in certain lights. Zera and Anna were home alone, and Zera (visiting her home for the holidays) was cooking and cleaning. We learned that Mama was 7 months pregnant and had contracted tuberculosis and had been in the hospital for over a month. Neighbors said the situation was grave. We asked Anna if she attended school, but the answer was no.  She should have started two years ago when I first met her, yet she had never attended a day in her life. No education, little food, yet still she smiled.

GO Campaign is not in the business of solving the problems of individual children around the world. We are project-based, and help local leaders empower their own communities to help children. We build schools and clinics, fund food and vocational training programs, and sponsor workshops that inspire youth to seek a better future. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t love to help each child we meet along the way. After leaving Zera and Anna, we were stopped by three other women mistakenly thinking we ran an orphanage, each one asking if we could take their child. We could fill football stadiums with the children being given away by parents too poor or too sick to care for them.

Still, GO Campaign prides itself on being nimble. We don’t want to be one of the large aid organizations that has to have three board meetings and six corporate resolutions to respond to children in crisis. We have firm rules, but even the firmest of rules can be bent. While going about her work for GO in Kilimanjaro, Happy quietly inquired about homes that could take in young Anna. She knew of a great one and convinced them to meet Anna. Last week they went to the mud house, but they found Anna alone. It was 3pm and she had not eaten anything since the day before. Mama was still in the hospital but was supposed to be coming home any day now. The village leaders rightly said they couldn’t release Anna to anyone’s care without consent of a parent. Happy didn’t give up. She went to the hospital and found Mama, now 8 months pregnant and – in Happy’s words – “skeletal”.  She was thrilled to hear about a home that would take in Anna and she agreed immediately. While there, Happy learned that Mama was was supposed to be transferred to another clinic that specializes in TB, but this current hospital would not release her until she paid her bills.

Yes – you’ve got it straight – A hospital that could not cure her TB after 3 months determined that she should go to a TB-specific hospital, but they wouldn’t let her go because she couldn’t afford to pay her bills. Thankfully, Happy called a doctor friend who confirmed Happy’s suspicion that hospital bills can be waived for indigent patients. (Hospitals apparently don’t advertise this, and too few citizens know their rights.) Happy went back to the village leaders, got the paperwork proving Mama was indeed indigent, went back to the hospital to get the bills waived, and Mama is now being transferred to the TB clinic.

Anna will be going to her new home next week, eating 3 meals a day for the first time in her life, and starting her first day of school at age 10.  We’ll make sure she’s reunited with her family during school holidays.

Even though this is not normally what GO does, and even though last week we funded computers in the Congo, a food program at a school in Peru, and an eco-business for youth in Kenya – getting Zera’s little sister into a safe home is by far the most satisfying thing we had a hand in doing last week. Saving Anna is not going to change the world. Nor is feeding 400 homeless people, as Narayan does daily. But it changed Anna’s world. And I’m sure the 400 hungry people in Madurai would tell us that their worlds are changed by the meals, the haircuts, and the hugs. And if we all watch Narayan’s video once a day (billionaire corporate CEOs twice a day), maybe we’ll all be inspired together and then we really can change the world.