I spent several hours the other day with some neighbor kids, flipping through a few Spanish-language children’s books and reading with them. And while this is not changing the economic fortunes or impoverished dispositions of any my neighbors and their families, there is hardly anything more fulfilling and heart-warming than watching little half-naked, dirt-streaked children absolutely enamored with the colorful pages and adolescent rhymes of a storybook.
As I paged through plot-line after repetitive plot-line about a dog that had lost its way, or a man who owned a very small automobile, it occurred to me that each one of these books is basically the same: the brief setting, the bare-bones character development, the fleeting rising action that then culminates in an innocent “Oh-gee-whiz!” kind of climax after which everything returns to happiness and butterflies. I kept thinking how I must have read or been read hundreds of little stories like this as a child (Couldn’t someone have started me on Shakespeare at an earlier age?). My childhood could not be a starker contrast to the lives of these children. For most of them, this was not only the first of such stories that they had ever heard, but probably also the first real books that they had ever had the opportunity to hold and handle and page though and interact with.
One girl in particular caught my eye--her name is Isa and she is the youngest daughter of one of the families I am closest with in my community. I couldn’t hardly imagine anyone more enthralled with anything in the world than she was with those few books on that hot Paraguayan afternoon. The only thing that seemed to excite her more than slowly reading each page aloud, more than carefully enunciating each syllable and unfailingly correcting every error, was when she realized that I was listening. Once she realized she had an audience of one, she put on the airs as if the whole world was watching.
When she finished the first book, “Los Tres Osos” she quickly jumped to the next one, “Si Le Das un Ratón una Galletita...”. I showed her how to turn each page carefully and slowly, so as not to bend or rip them. She proceeded to do so meticulously, treating every thin, paper leaf--delicate and soft from the South American humidity--as if it were a precious piece of fine art. For her in those moments it was as if “El Auto Pequeño” was on par with the Bible or the Koran in both its importance and transformative power. Surely, no one has ever poured so much love into such simple phrases. She payed no attention to the pigs rummaging beside her or the crackle of the open fire over which her mother was cooking diner, she had no mind for the calluses that riddled her bare-feet or the trash that littered the ground around her thatch-roof home--with a calm reverence, she simply sat in the dirt under the avocado tree and followed “El Paseo de la Gallina” from page to page to page.
After a few hours, as I began getting things together to leave, she approached me with all her shy hesitancy, overcome by some burning conviction that propelled her to ask, “Mario, puedes dejar algunos libros acá para los estudio” (Mario, could you leave a few books here for me to study). The words tumbled out of her mouth and I could tell that she was anxious but still so excited at the mere prospect of having a book, all to her own, for the next few days. I agreed, “Claro que si, pero tienes que guardar bien y cuidarle buenisimo” (Of course, but you have to take care of it and treat it very well). She looked as though she might explode. I tried to hide my smile so she knew that I was serious about the importance of taking good care of the books, but it was impossible not to feel elated at the ability to share so much joy with this little girl through such a simple action.
As I smoked my cigar later that night, watching a brilliant thunder storm blow over our community, I kept thinking about how many other children there are out there just like Isa--obviously very intelligent, enthusiastic and infinitely curious, but living in conditions where such intellectual potential can never come into full bloom. Whether through poverty or the necessity of life and survival, how many possible scientists and artists and doctors and teachers are never given the light or the space to realize their passions and talents for the betterment of humanity? How many, instead of receiving proper educations and opportunities, are instead wallowing in hunger and sickness with only the prospects of perpetuating an inevitable and predictable cycle of poverty?
Nelson Mandela, who was one of the prime fighters of apartheid and father of the reborn country of South Africa, grew up in such a situation: a poor cattle-herding boy living in the Transkei region of the extremely impoverished South African Eastern Cape (this is the area I studied and worked in during my trip to the country in 2011). He is just one example, a rare and fortunate individual who escaped such conditions and went on to lead a nation and change the world.
Unfortunately, there are still millions more--not only in South Africa and Paraguay, but everywhere around the world as well--who are never given such opportunities. And even if these many children, for now quietly forgotten in the shadows of economic and social dis-empowerment, are not going to necessarily change the world as Nelson Mandela, don't they all still deserve the basic dignity that comes with education? Don't they still have a fundamental human right to learn to express themselves, to speak for themselves, to partake in an informed democracy, to fully experience the freedoms afforded all people?
One of the greatest disservices we do to ourselves as nations and as a collective humanity is to delegate any portion of our population to poverty and disenfranchisement. Especially in an era where the problems of the world are no longer local, isolated affairs but instead global challenges that effect us all, how can we afford to miss out on the infinite human potential at any and all points of the socio-economic spectrum? How many entrepreneurs and inventors and activists and potentially world-changing individuals are currently waiting among the masses of the billions of impoverished people in our world? We must understand that, while traditional political and economic ideologies might assume and assert otherwise, in the greater scheme of our world, no one benefits by submitting others to poverty. No one is better off for having exploited and taken advantage of another. Our species does not achieve and progress when a select few prosper at the expense of so many others. The disenfranchisement of one of us is the disenfranchisement of all of us.
And so what do I do from my little community here in the middle of Paraguay, South America? The great changes that need to occur to combat the enormous problems of our world are far outside my capacity to effect from this place and at this time. It would be hard enough to make such changes in the life of even one of my neighbors, let alone on a global scale. Still, there are those little things that I can do--teaching classes at the school, showing how to implement organic agriculture methods, explaining my country and my culture, even sharing a book with a curious young child--that can and do have small impacts on the lives of the people with whom I currently live and work. Its not enough to change the world, probably not even enough to change a life, but it is enough to change someone’s mind, and that’s gotta be worth something in the end.