A Letter from Issafou

Yesterday, I receive a letter that passionately and poignantly convicted me of a crime that I was unaware that I was committing. It read as follows:

Dearest Sponsor,

I am writing you to express an emotion that I have recently come to feel towards you and towards people who are in your position. I am told that there is no word in your language for the emotion that I feel, and so I hope that by telling you how this emotion came about and by expressing some of the questions that it provokes, I will give you some idea of how I am feeling. It is my hope that if I am successful in conveying this emotion, lives will be saved.

The first inklings of this emotion were felt shortly after you became my sponsor. My family and I were overjoyed to learn that you had decided to support me. “Overjoyed,” is also a poor translation of the emotion we felt. This is a closer description: we finally felt that our lot in life was more than just to suffer. Before you became my sponsor, I lost two siblings to hunger and one to disease. My brother and I were receiving one meal a day, but winter was coming soon. We worried that our meals would not last through that season.

From what I am told about your world, it is unlikely that you will be able to relate to the experience of watching one of your kin slowly – and quite literally – wither away, so I will not bother to describe it. Similarly, from what I understand, it is likely that you have no experience of worrying that you will soon wither away just as your siblings have. Your imagination of these experiences will be sufficient, for these experiences and emotions are not the ones I am interested in conveying here.

Returning to my story, as we learned of your sponsorship and what it meant for our family, we wondered how it was possible that we could be blessed in such a way. The aid worker explained that some people in a far off country had enough to spare and that they had decided to share some of their excess with us. This was the first time I had heard of America, and I thought to myself, “America is a land of saints.”

I was quite curious about you and your America, so I asked the aid worker many questions about you and your people. As best as she could, she explained to me that America was a place where no one experienced poverty – or at least, not the kind of poverty we knew. She explained, moreover, that it was a place filled with tall buildings, that all children went to school there, that these children had the time and the means to play wonderful games.

My brother was fascinated by this description. He looked eagerly into the eyes of the aid worker, holding on every word. At first, I felt similarly. But as I listened more and heard about the ways of Americans, I began to feel that feeling that I’m trying to describe to you now.

Initially, I thought the feeling was jealously. I chastised myself and tried to forget of this emotion. I joined my family in their joy and forgot about the feeling, a feeling that clearly was not shared by anyone in my family.

I forgot about that feeling entirely for about 3 years. In the time that passed, many other families in my village had become sponsored. The village itself was coming a live again. Children were learning, instead of starving. Parents were working, instead of worrying. Seeing my village rise in this way gave me such joy; these moments were the best in my life.

One of the aid workers had arranged to show the children a movie. Solar panels had arrived the previous year, but just recently, we had received a television and a VCR. I can not remember what the film was called. All I remember is that, for the first, time I was presented with a true picture of the affluence lives that Americans enjoy.

All of the children were fascinated and talking amongst themselves.

And while they gawked at the accomplishments of a great people, I felt tears streaming down my face. The tears were only a part of the emotion that I am trying to tell you about now. The other part was the questions that I felt pressed upon me as I viewed images of affluence.

Why do they build such buildings while my people and I starve? Why do they spend money on a third pair of shoes while my people and I starve? How can they do these things and know that we are here and that we are in desperate need? Are we worth that little to them? Is our value not superior to that of a cell phone? Are we not more important than fancy cars? How is it that my sister could not compete with a Coach bag?

As I felt these questions pressed upon me the very VCR and television themselves became abominations, testaments to the choice of superfluity of some over the very lives of others.

How could they make such a choice?

Perhaps there were some, I thought to myself, who did not realize that in choosing superfluity, they were condemning us to death. This did not alleviate me of my feeling, for my emotion was not directed towards those who do not know of our plight or who have some knowledge of it but for some reason think that nothing can be done to aid us. My emotion was directed towards people like you, dear Sponsor, people who know that we are here and know that something can be done on our behalf.

Knowing that the affluent are an intelligent people, that they have many years of education, that they are a people who attempt to follow the dictates of reason, and that they may know something that I do not, I perhaps wondered if there was some smart “ethical” principle of which I was unaware that could excuse them for their behavior. But this did not console me, for the questions that expressed my emotion were not collectively asking, “Where is your reason?” Rather, my questions asked, “Where is your compassion?” And regardless, if some abstruse principle of reason permits the perishing of the impecunious, the perishing of my siblings, then my emotion compels me to ask, “What good is reason?”

Finally, I wondered if perhaps their religion permitted the poor to be treated in this way. I, after all, am a Muslim. We are taught to care for the poor. But I knew that you, dear Sponsor, are a Christian. I thought that perhaps Christians care not for the poor? But then I remembered a verse from your bible that we were taught in our schools, schools that are sponsored by people of your faith. The verse reads, “Whatever you do for the least of these my kin, you do unto me, Christ.” I remembered that Christians are people who love the Christ. But surely they do not think that they can neglect us and love the Christ? For, as the verse states, we are the least of these, and the least of these are the Christ.

And so you see, dear Sponsor, I am at a loss to explain your behavior.

Now you are in a position to see my emotion. I will use your English words to approximate it, but you know my story. You know that those words do no justice to what I feel:

I feel as though I must demand that you explain yourself. I feel a deep sense of grief for the needless deaths of my people. I feel a burning anger for your choices. I feel a frustrating bewilderment as to how you can make these choices.

My kin are too humble, too respectful, too loving to feel the way that I feel. So, I alone, in this letter, have spoken up. And if you understand the emotion that I have attempted to articulate here, if you have felt the questions as I have felt them, then you must know that you cannot continue making the same choices you have made in the past.

I, dear Sponsor, demand that you change your ways, for, as you know, people – and not just my people – will die if you do not.

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