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The face of poverty


Children in Benin die young. The median age of the population is 16 years; life expectancy is 50 years, despite a low AIDS/HIV rate in adults of 1.9% ( A clean water supply, good nutrition, and basic medicines – all taken for granted by Canadians – are not widely available to most Beninois.

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August 22, 2005
-by Nancy Frey and Bruce Yoder

Cotonou, Benin — What does the face of poverty look like? It looks like a man, rail thin, wearing old clothes that are rumpled and torn. He is clean though. He has come to tell us that his daughter, the one we helped him buy school supplies for last fall, had been very ill in the hospital. She was in the main hospital for three weeks and every day they fed three bottles of serum into her body by IV drip. He spent every cent he had and the church helped him out. This daughter, who was 8 years old, was his only child. She died this afternoon at 3:00 PM.

Now he needs to figure out what to do with the body. He doesn’t have any more money. He can’t pay to put the body in the morgue. He negotiated with a taxi driver who will drive him with the child’s body covered up with a cloth so no one can see the precious cargo in the car. They will go to another town where he has family. There they can bury the body without any ceremony. But he needs money for the taxi. Just 5.000 francs or about US $10. The pastor can’t help him anymore. Could we help him out?

There it is. We can’t close our eyes or will it away. It is there in front of us. Children die. Too often. And most of the time it wouldn’t have to happen that way. Clean water, good nutrition, a mosquito net to sleep under, decent primary health care – these are not complicated or expensive medical technologies. Just the minimum needed to ensure survival.

Our common interest

Tony Blair, Prime Minister of England, commissioned a study on Africa. In the report, it states:

“There is a tsunami every month in Africa. But its deadly tide of disease and hunger steals silently and secretly across the continent. It is not dramatic and it rarely makes the television news. Its victims die quietly, out of sight, hidden in their pitiful homes. But they perish in the same numbers.

“We live in a world where new medicines and medical techniques have eradicated many of the diseases and ailments which plagued the rich world. Yet in Africa some 4 million children under the age of five die each year, 2/3 of them from illnesses which cost very little to treat.

“We live in a world where rich nations spend almost US $1 billion a day subsidizing the unnecessary production of unwanted food. Meanwhile in Africa hunger is a key factor in more deaths than all the continent’s infectious diseases put together.”

The naked truth

These figures and statistics are too large for our minds to grasp. Yet it comes down to this scene – a man crying and trying to figure out how he’s going to hold himself together long enough to take his child and bury her.

My children ask me why he is crying. I try to explain that his daughter was ill and she didn’t get better. They have not yet understood the permanence of death. As the bereaved father walks to the gate Deborah asks again why he is crying. How can I explain to her what I can barely understand myself: that in this world there are people who are privileged and advantaged and others who are not. That where you are born determines in large part your chance of survival. And that most people live blissfully ignorant of this reality. But today I cannot ignore this truth. I looked into the face of poverty and saw a human face looking back at me.


The Africa report speaks of hope. There are a number of good things happening in Africa. Africans are very resilient and they have a strong sense of interdependence that leads them to help each other out. The rich nations also have a chance to play a role in changing the tide of death. Often times a very small investment makes a big difference.

A business loan of US $50 enables a woman to generate income to feed her children better and send them to school. Simple lessons on basic hygiene or teaching about how to treat diarrhea with rehydration fluids (a mixture of water, salt and sugar) can save lives. Garbage collection and proper storage of dangerous waste makes the community a safer environment in which to live. Monthly baby weighings accompanied by instruction on the importance of breastfeeding can increase a child’s chance of survival. These are just some of the areas where Mennonite Church Canada Witness its partner, Mennonite Mission network, has invested over the years in Benin.

Our Christian faith is also a source of hope. In Benin, physical health and spiritual health cannot be separated. Illness is a spiritual issue. A strong Christian faith is an important component in people’s ability to accept change, a necessary component in adopting a healthier lifestyle.

Gratitude: “And be thankful!” Col 3:15b

If reading this story makes you feel guilty or uncomfortable, I‘d like to share some thoughts written by our young mission intern, Janessa Otto, on her blog:

“I also miss a lot of the way I got to live in Canada. So unbelievably privileged but it's strange, maybe I will get to the point of feeling guilt but right now it's more just gratitude. We live blessed lives and should not forget it”.

Rather than feeling guilty, we should feel gratitude. We don’t deserve to be among the most privileged people in the world; we didn’t earn that right by our own efforts (much as we like to think we did!). There are too many factors beyond our control to take credit for our privileges. When we are grateful to God for what we have, we acknowledge the true source of our well being. Perhaps our gratitude will make us more humble and more willing to share? It will certainly place us in a better position with our creator.

Nancy Frey (St. Jacobs Mennonite Church, Ontario) and Bruce Yoder (Martinsburg Mennonite Church, PA) are Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers, in partnership with Mennonite Mission network.