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Recognizing Privilege

Visiting a third world country, it’s obvious that we come from an extraordinarily different place than the people we meet. Recognizing this, we can either let our previous circumstances create an impenetrable barrier between others and us, or we can try to break through it. Sometimes in Madagascar I was able to make that barrier very, very small, and other times it felt larger than the oceans that separate the places we call home.

I have some wonderful memories of the attempts I’ve made to shorten the barrier between us, like washing my clothes in Ampefy: I waded into the river amongst all the other women washing their family’s clothes, and one by one dunked each article into the river. Next, following what I observed from the woman next to me, I sprinkled laundry soap on top and kneaded it into the fabric, rubbing it against itself over and over. Once I was satisfied with the lather, I dunked and squeezed the clothing into the river until no soap bubbles remained. I got some laughs, curious faces, and weird stares as I questioned their preconceived notions of a vaza. After all, for a small amount I could have just paid to have it done by the hotel staff like most other travelers.

Another memory, when I saw the coconut that my sister had shredded and asked if I could contribute. My sister laughed and pulled out their coconut-shredding chair. She showed me how, then handed me the coconut to try myself. I tried to mimic the quick, rounded strokes she confidently made against the jagged blade of the chair, but was stuck with my clumsy, unpracticed hands as I scraped slowly and unevenly. Within two minutes my biceps were already throbbing and my back ached from the strain. My dad’s cousin Joe laughed at me, saying, “It’s funny to see you struggling with it because most girls can do it at age five!” I giggled and continued to scrape as I imagined how odd I must look, and a life where this practice would be second nature, just as brushing your teeth.

We are told that we question a Malagasy person’s image of a vaza every time we attempt to have a conversation in Malagasy with a stranger, or are seen on the streets with our families. Many foreigners don’t make much of an attempt to interact with locals or experience their way of life. Abroad with Dragons, we make a constant effort to bridge the gap between us. Washing clothes, helping cook, conversing in Malagasy, bargaining in the market, joining our families at church, playing with our siblings, helping clean…Doing theses things, we hope that we have shrunken the barrier. And maybe we have. But at the end of the day, it’s not enough. Our efforts are important and noble, but they don’t change the reality of the situation. Despite all the efforts we make, there’s a hard truth we have to face. Our families in Madagascar will never have access to the same opportunities that we have. They will work harder and live shorter. Objectively, they will have a lower quality of life.

I have done nothing to be born into a tremendously privileged family, and the people in Madagascar have done nothing to be born into one of the poorest countries in the world. And when a plague sweeps that country–I am brusquely flown out and right into a new one I’m given the opportunity to explore. Nothing can quite show the difference between us more effectively than that. Thousands will die from the plague this year. They wont be able to afford the medicine that we were quickly able to buy an excess of, and they certainly will not get evacuated. Chances are, they will never leave Madagascar, even if it’s their biggest dream—the circumstance that they’ve been born into does not allow for it.   The unfairness of our situations brings tears to my eyes whenever I let it stagnate in my brain, because never will I be able to bridge that gap. To give them all they rightfully deserve and woefully will never have. It’s unfathomable, indigestible, and undeniably the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with yet.

So what to do? Honestly, I don’t know. I suppose the lesson is to appreciate what you have, because many people live their lives blind to their own privilege. Give what you can? Even though it will never be enough. Sit with the knowledge, but don’t let it fester to the point of deteriorating your own quality of life…I really cant pretend to know anything because I’m still learning how to cope with it myself, much less give advice to others. I don’t know how to fix things. As much as I wish I could, I don’t even know where to begin. All that I can do is make a promise to myself that I will never live blindly again.