A Simple Wish For A Better World

We live in a world where money and things often define one’s worth. Yet, most people living in developed nations take for granted the simple and basic things that arguably should be available for everyone on this planet. Many of us fail to realize that those living in extreme poverty did not choose to do so. According to the World Bank statistics on poverty in 2008, “1.29 billion people lived in extreme poverty below $1.25 a day, equivalent to 22 percent of the population in the developing world.” This equates to about 18% of the world’s population.

This post is based on a simple wish that is achievable with a little actual effort by everyone. I got this idea from Dr. Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and 2006 Nobel Peace Laureate, who developed ten indicators that determined when someone had moved out of poverty. When I first read these indicators in his book “Banker to the Poor” and again in his other book “Creating a World Without Poverty“, I gained the insight that only one thing stops people from achieving self-sufficiency. That one thing is access to resources needed to put their talents to work.

For the past year, I have been reciting a simple wish as a daily ritual during my long morning commutes to work. I have modified Dr. Yunus’ model to focus on the the basic necessities that no one of us should ever take for granted. Following are ten parts of my wish illustrated by a photograph or statistical statement that allows you to reflect on the meaning of each one.

1) May everyone have a roof over their head that protects them from the elements, and the temperature inside is comfortable no matter how hot or cold it is outside.

This was taken in 2005 during my second trip to Liberia. A woman was renting this room with the deteriorating zinc roof.

2) May everyone sleep on bed that is above the floor and not overcrowded.

This was taken during my first year of residence in Liberia in 2007. This person had built a thatch palm hut near the ocean in Congo Town. Based on the location, chances were high they would experience flooding and therefore have to sleep on a wet mattress.

3) May everyone enjoy an adequate number of nutritious, tasty and satisfying meals per day that are prepared on a clean and safe cook stove/oven.

The photo to the left is what is known in Liberia as a coal pot. This was how my daily meals were prepared in 2009-2010. Source: The Hunger Project – Facts About Hunger and Poverty.

4) May everyone quench their thirst with clean, fresh and safe drinking water whose source is near their home.

Source: Water.org – Water Facts

5) May everyone have a private, hygienic, and environmentally friendly sanitation system and shower facility that is easily accessible.

This was taken during my second year of residency in Liberia in 2009. This is someone’s bathroom that has a makeshift curtain for privacy.

6) May everyone have access to affordable, reliable and compassionate healthcare that is within a reasonable distance and may they not be turned away if they are unable to pay.

Source to UC (University of California) Atlas of Global Inequality – Access to Health Care

7) May every child receive a world class, twenty-first century education that acknowledges all learning styles, provides a global perspective, and cultivates their talents and skills.

This picture was taken in January 2012 by Kelvin Fomba. We launched an adopt-a-school project this year to support this school in Congo Town Liberia serving 250 students in Kindergarten thru sixth grades.

8) May everyone of eligible working age obtain a job or create a business that fulfills their passion and compensates them well enough so all their needs are met.

This was taken in 2009 where I was living in New Georgia Estate, Monrovia, Liberia. This teenage girl is organizing the peanuts (aka ground peas in Liberia) on her market table as she waits for buyers.

9) May everyone regardless of their profession be valued and respected and cause no undue harm to people, other living things and the environment.

This was taken in 2009 on the Sinkor Old Road, Monrovia, Liberia. Someone’s business–their only means of livelihood–is being forcibly removed from its original location at the order of the mayor.

10) Finally, may we all come to realize that we each play a role in making this a better world by being good stewards of the earth and good neighbors to each other.

This is was taken in 2007 near the Ducor Palace in Monrovia, Liberia. It is from today’s actions or inactions that we determine the fate of children all over the world.

I want to end this post by Thanking all my faithful readers! I appreciate all your thoughts, comments and reflections about my posts. This blog’s goal is to UNITE all the DISTANT STARS in a thoughtful expression of how we have more in common than most people realize. I wish everyone the Happiest and Most Blessed New Year in 2013!!!

[1] Amartya Sen, Indian Bengali economist, 1998 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to welfare economics and social choice theory.

Our Invisible Society

One of the most amazing and unnerving observations I have made on my commutes to work in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, is how two societies converge with very little interaction. While one segment of society is heading to work, another is moving from their sleeping place to their next daily “hangout.” If you don’t pay close attention, you might not notice the difference between them, because they are both carrying backpacks or pulling small suitcases. However, once you take a closer look you will notice how one group is carrying or pulling their whole life with them.

I have worked in the downtown St. Paul area for nearly two years and have been learning about this often overlooked part of our society as I drive through town to and from work or take my lunch-time walk. During this two-year period, I have witnessed a growing homeless population and wonder how these people manage when so many programs are being cut.

I don’t know if I would have paid attention to this “invisible” society if I had not experienced nearly 800 days in Liberia, West Africa. It was quite clear from my first visit in 1998 that I could not avoid the extreme poverty in this nation devastated by nearly 15 years of war. This experience made me realize how easy it is for us to bypass and even ignore our impoverished areas in the U.S. After living in Liberia for two separate years from 2007 to 2010, I gained an appreciation for these people who are very much part of the greater society.

One of the greatest lessons I learned from people living in poverty is… “those who have the least have the most to give.” For example, I have observed more than one Liberian give their last “dollar” to someone they felt was more in need. Another example, was a medically trained Liberian who provided free malaria treatments for up to four people in his tiny one-room living space that he shared with his wife and daughter. Even I was recipient of this unexpected generosity when I was down on my luck during my second year of residency. I can attest that such an experience humbles you and makes you appreciate the wonderful gift of humanity regardless of their “perceived” value.

The harsh reality for many people living in poverty or homeless is that they are often ignored or degraded by those who are more fortunate. I will never forget when a Liberian in 2008 explained that “the poor take care of the poor.” This statement is even true with the homeless people in St. Paul, because I have seen younger people help an older person across the street or another carry their load. It is obvious that this community stays close together and take care of each other.

While homeless and poverty may seem like the norm for the 80% or more Liberian people classified in this condition, they cannot fathom that such a thing exists in the U.S. In fact, anytime that I have mentioned that the U.S. has homelessness and poverty, they look at me suspiciously and believe I am lying. These are people that look upon the U.S. as the land of prosperity and good fortune based on what they have heard from others or seen in pictures or movies.

Sometimes it hard to discern the differences between developed and developing nations when it comes to how they treat their “outcasts” in society. When looking at the homeless faces in the U.S. and Liberia, there is little to no difference. They are the products of war–U.S. Veterans and Liberian ex-child soldiers. They are the usual marginalized groups–women, children, disabled, elderly and ethnic minorities. They are people who are battling addictions or dealing with mental illnesses most likely from some traumatic event.

It is so easy for human beings to compartmentalize groups of people into boxes of “isms” without realizing it. I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. However, we do have the capacity to open these boxes (and our hearts) and discover that it is not fair to stereotype people based on societal assumptions. The reality is, we have not walked in their shoes or can even relate to their circumstances. Yet, if we take moment and imagine ourselves in their situation, would we not want to be visible?

Transitioning back to U.S. Living

As time has elapsed so quickly into the new year, I noticed that it has been over two months, since I have done any serious writing. I have been struggling with putting my thoughts into writing during this time, because certain life’s stressors were blocking my creative flow. So, after a long absence without sharing my experiences and stories it seems that now is a good time to start writing again.

So much has happened since entering 2010 that my life is in total transition right now. First, I had to return abruptly to the U.S. on January 18 to resolve some concerns that had arisen during my time in Liberia. Surprisingly, this is the second time within an 18-month period where I was summoned home after residing in Liberia for one year. And in both situations my dreams and plans were stymied by the fallout of a failed business partnership in Liberia in which one of the four partners had misappropriated the construction funds and project supplies and equipment.

Secondly, after having no success finding non-profit paid work in Liberia, I returned home seeking employment in one of the toughest job markets in U.S. history. According to a 2009 second quarter Job Vacancy Survey from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, there are eight job seekers for one job posting, so this translates to “240,000 unemployed workers competing for 31,000 unfilled jobs” in my home state (source: Jobs Now Coalition). However, while these statistics are daunting to this eager job seeker, it is far better than in Liberia where their unemployment still stands near 85%.

Thirdly, with living abroad since June 2007, minus a seven-month break to complete my bachelor’s degree in 2008, I no longer have a home, vehicle or other household possessions. As part of my marriage dissolution agreement, I gave up my interest in our home since neither one of us could afford to buy-out the other due to financial constraints of the failed business venture. Also, to graduate debt free I sold my prized 2004 Jeep Wrangler to cover my final semester’s tuition that was paid with my credit card. My final tuition bill was rather costly, because I had registered for 40 credits—combination of classes and independent studies—during my last semester of college.

Fourthly, returning to Minnesota during the winter has been very difficult, since I left the tropics for the bitter cold and dry weather. Even after being back for over a month, I am still FREEZING! Besides wearing two layers of clothes, my winter coat usually remains on while I am inside. At night, I sleep covered with flannel sheets, three blankets and a down comforter to keep warm. Then there is the problem with the cracking and flaking dry skin that takes continual applications of lotion to only give temporary relief. The drastic weather change has taken a toll on me, since I still struggle to adjust.

Lastly, there is the cultural shock. The adjustment of returning to the “land of plenty” after living one year in a post-war developing nation is a day-by-day process. Since my economic means in Liberia was stagnant, I lived on a very tight budget [hand-to-month]. I adapted to not having running water or 24-hour electricity, since these sources have not been restored yet in Liberia. I survived mainly on one meal a day, which occasionally was dry rice (i.e. cooked white rice) and an egg fried with onion and African pepper. Though a vehicle was usually at my disposal, there were times that I crammed into an overcrowded taxi or bus to transport me to town or home. As someone who was accustomed to a higher standard of living before June 2007, I was living for the past year on what would be considered upper-poverty level in Liberia.

What I just described were a few of the transitions that I am facing right now. And as I go through this process, I remain cautious, because I do not want to forget what I endured during this past year. Though it seems that the daily struggles in Liberia would be hard to erase, I cannot ignore how easy it is to assimilate into the structured U.S. system to where your life seems like a computerized program. These experiences living in Liberia have shaped and changed my life so drastically that my existence in this world resides in two countries. This makes the transition between the developing and developed world that much harder.

So since returning home, I have been actively seeking employment while considering my plans to pursue a law degree. I have been keeping pretty flexible with my employment options including type of job and location as long as it is near a law school. As I focus on these goals, my returning to Africa remains in sight.

It is my hope after languishing in uncertainty for over two and half years that the doors of opportunity will soon open. I am ready to go through those doors as I create a new life that is bound with a sense of compassion and humility for those who live on practically nothing. After experiencing many heartaches and losses of my own, I want to go forward with my dreams and goals of giving voice to those who screams of suffering are continually ignored.

I have something to share with the world…

My name is Kelvin Fomba and as a 44-year-old Liberian, I have something to share with the world. When I was growing up my mom told me “it is good to be good.” My mom’s advice has been guiding me throughout my life. However, the way I see the world right now I have become confused and frustrated with how people treat each other. For the last two weeks, I have been doing plenty of thinking, because many things are bothering me to where I am seeking the answers to these five questions:

1. Are good people going to remain suffering for the bad people?
2. Why do the rich use the poor to get more rich than to help the poor out of poverty?
3. Is money the only family and friends in the world now?
4. Is it a crime when someone loves people enough that they are willing to sacrifice to help others?
5. How can a person, who has a plan, experience and skills, and the effort to help their own people, implement that program without having the opportunity or support? What should they do?

These are questions that can disturb a person like me who has struggled all their life for something more. Since being a young boy the one thing I love most of all is education. However, when my father died my mom did not have the chance or the help to continue my education. When she became ill, I worked to support her until she passed away. Also, I started having responsibility of providing for my own family. So many things including war interrupted my education and have added to my struggle since I don’t have the paper that says I am educated.

My schooling may have stopped, but I have not stopped learning and this has allowed me to help my own children with their school work. As a self-learner, I was able to learn a good trade that has allowed me to support myself and my family. I have gained all the qualities of being a professional in two trades: driver and automotive mechanic. It was my dream that these trades would not only be good for me, but also for other people.

I have been trying for so many years to really succeed in my aim and objective to help my nation’s people by training them in my two trades and sharing my knowledge to make them better at what they do. Part of this objective was to start my own garage, and this has been a ten-year struggle in trying to implement, and I have yet to succeed.

I was not able to do what I wanted in my life, which was to continue my education in high school and beyond, because of poverty and lack of support. However, I want to help the young people of Liberia to know these professional trades and to advance their skills so that they can achieve success in their lives. I know my skills are a gift from God, because the vehicles and machines I learned with when I was younger are not the same today and this has allowed me to drive and fix any vehicle or machine that comes my way.

I know there are good people in poor countries like me who want to help their own people to become self-sufficient. We have love and compassion for our own people and if we had the opportunity we could truly make a difference in their lives. But, here we all struggle just to survive, and hope and pray that our current situation will change and someone will trust and recognize that we too are capable of helping our own people.

The Untold Stories of the Dead: A Reality of Poverty

I know you saw me as you drove by that fateful day. There I was laying face-down on the wet and muddy driveway with my face turned away from you. You could not divert your eyes from seeing my dull listless body and my blood-soaked hair. You pondered whether my bashed-in head was the cause of my untimely demise as you imagined someone beating me severely with a blunt object until my limp body slumped to the ground. Here I lay lifeless…fully clothed without shoes surrounded by several onlookers as they contemplated who I was.

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.