Was I a rogue who was attempting to rob someone? Was I a son returning home after caring for my ailing mother? Was I a father coming home after a long day of working and hustling to provide for my wife and children eagerly waiting my arrival? By just looking at my decaying body you and the many onlookers could not determine who I really was or even why my life was cut short.
As you continued your journey to town, I know many questions filled your head because you were haunted by what you had witnessed. Let me paraphrase these questions for you. “Did the war desensitize everyone to where [my] body could lie uncovered alongside the road for several hours as if no one cared? Did any of the onlookers consider that it could have been them lying there, instead of [me]? Did I brutally die somewhere else where [my] body was moved later and placed along this busy highway? Did [I] have any identification so that [my] family could be notified?”
These are questions that I cannot answer for you, because I died with no witnesses or at least ones that were willing to talk. I was someone who was still young and I had so many possibilities waiting to be discovered. However, my life story ended when I took my last feeble…shallow…breath. Now I am just a mere statistic, a number on a report that marks a person who had a name, a life and a future.
This story was based on an actual scene that I passed on my way town last week. It clearly illustrates how death is a cold harsh reality in Liberia and many other developing nations. In fact, dying is an everyday occurrence for most people living in the southern hemisphere. Children die of treatable diseases like malaria, because pharmaceutical companies find saving their lives not profitable. Mothers and fathers are dying of terminal diseases such as cancer, because their hospitals or clinics lack the necessary diagnostic equipment (i.e. ultrasound) for early detection and life-saving treatment. And many more people die because they are food insecure (i.e. hunger and malnutrition), live in areas that are prone to flooding or drought, and lack safe drinking water and proper sanitation.
As someone from the northern hemisphere and a prosperous developed nation, I could easily surmise that the Liberian people have been desensitized by death, because of what they saw or experienced in the long and brutal civil war. Instead, I have witnessed people being overwhelmed with loved ones dying that extending sympathy to a stranger lying along the roadside can be difficult.
I recently saw how one family in my neighborhood was impacted by an untimely death of their mother, who was in her 50’s. It was a Monday morning when I heard a woman across the street wailing in total despair. I knew right away it was their mother, because she had recently been diagnosed with cancer though I did not know the extent of her condition. So, I rushed over to the house and found one of her adult daughters crying and pleading with God, because their mother suffered all night in excruciating pain. I asked a neighbor in the room, if she had been given any pain medication like morphine. Sadly, this woman was not prescribed anything.
I then walked down the hall to the mother’s bedroom and as I entered there she was lying awake on the mattress surrounded by her family. I could see the pain in her face as she struggled to resist it. I noticed one woman was calmly telling her to let go that she did not need to struggle anymore. As I listened to this woman coaching the mother, I looked around the room at the faces of each person, and I quickly noticed that we all shared the same look of helplessness. I went to work that day just mortified knowing this woman had to suffer in so much pain and there was nothing I could do to ease it. That afternoon, I received a phone call that the mother had just died and I was grateful for that blessing since this entire family had suffered greatly.
When I came home that night I visited my neighbors to sympathize with them. This is where I learned how they spent over five months taking their mother to one hospital or clinic after another, but with no accurate diagnosis. They finally went to JFK (i.e. John F. Kennedy) Hospital, one of Liberia’s better medical centers, and this is where the doctors determined it was terminal cancer. It is difficult for any family to watch someone die of cancer, but it was more difficult for this family knowing that if it could have been detected earlier with proper equipment their mother could still be alive. Instead this family had to sit and watch their mother’s body waste away from cancer.
Liberia’s medical sector is still below standard, because of the war’s devastation and the lack of resources to rebuild the system to better serve the healthcare needs of its people. In fact, diagnostic equipment or at least operable ones are pretty scarce in Liberia leaving many to die miserably from treatable diseases because they were not detected early. Also, the pain-numbing narcotics such as morphine are usually not available in the nation. Regardless if Liberia had the right medical equipment or supplies, the fact remains that most Liberians are unable to afford the specialized diagnostic tests, and the life-saving or pain management treatments. So, this is how poverty becomes their death sentence, and their plight is usually oblivious to those who live in developed nations.
Since my first visit to Liberia in 1998, I have been unable to escape the reality of poverty, because it is staring me in the face everywhere I turn. I have analyzed this realization and discovered how people of developed nations can ignore the problem of poverty by simply diverting their attention away from it. In countries like the United States, the impoverished areas are usually isolated in inner-city neighborhoods, rural areas or Native American Reservations like Pine Ridge, South Dakota, the poorest area of the U.S. So this makes it easy for many people to avoid places of poverty as if they do not exist. I believe this point was summarized well by this quote from Mark Twain:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
I have discovered from my own experience that when we leave our comfort zones, we become more aware of the world around us. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to travel to war-torn developing nations like Liberia, because there are areas nearby that can give a glimpse to the suffering and uncertainty people face in developing nations. In fact, one can easily compare the poverty related issues for the people living on the Pine Ridge Reservation with those in Liberia and how it is very similar to a “third world country.” It is when we enter this “world” that we discover the “real world” for so many people living in continuous peril.
The stories of the young man lying along the roadside and the woman with cancer could happen anywhere in this world. Death is the reality for everyone, because it happens to every living thing on this plant. And yet, it is justifiable that nearly one half of the world’s population living in abject poverty is dying because they lack the basic life essentials that the other half of the world’s population possesses? This is a question that those of us living predominately in the northern hemisphere and in developed (i.e. first-world) nations need to ask ourselves.