Janet and I have learned or relearned some particularly important things living in Burkina Faso. Most of the people here are what we in the USA would consider to be poor—very poor. On the surface that is very true. While people who work for the government, nongovernment organizations, or who work in various professions are economically better off, the average Burkinabé may earn less than three dollars a day. However, we have also learned that there are very different types of poverty.
As we walk or drive around the country we always see young dust-covered children without shoes who may be wearing tattered shorts and perhaps a tee shirt that is one or two washings away from dissolving into a handful of fibers. Some of those children could be struggling to push fifty-five gallon drums of water on small handcarts over heavily-rutted dirt roads in clouds of dust raised by passing cars and motorbikes. We know from experience that most of the children and their families even in our “quartier” (neighborhood) eat one meager meal a day.
Children whose families can afford the equivalent of $20 or $30 dollars a year to send one of their children to school for a year may only be able to do so until the child is old enough to work as an adult in caring for the farm crops. The family struggles to raise crops in a land where it does not rain during the nine or ten-month dry season. When more serious drought conditions strike, some families resort to eating their seed stores and have nothing to plant when the short rainy season begins. Then they must search for food such as roots, seeds, or small animals to eat in the dry brush of the countryside.
Parents work long hours often starting before the blood-red sun rises and working until many hours after the dust-obscured sun has set. People here are very industrious and entrepreneurial. A father may labor all day under the scorching sun digging ditches in the city, making cement blocks by hand, making deliveries with a donkey cart and then work as a night guard for a private home. Many work two or more jobs. Mothers often work at raising their children which may number five, six, seven, or more. Often the mother will leave the oldest child or children in charge of the other children as she works as a cook or housekeeper for another family or she may sell hand-made items or simple foods along the roads.
Everyone, even children as young as four years old may have a job to do. It is not unusual to see a six or seven-year-old girl with a small infant strapped to her back running across a busy street choked with huge tractor trailer trucks and hundreds of motor bikes. In the countryside boys as young as eight or nine may be responsible for herding cattle as large as small cars. Children grow up very quickly here in Africa.
Yet, there are very different types of poverty. Children freely smile, especially at white strangers who are called “Nasara.” Children play with whatever “toys” they can find or make. An old bicycle tire or a football (soccer ball) made from rolled-up plastic bags can entertain a small group of children for hours. Children almost never play alone—they usually have a least one friend to play with. Laughter and squeals of joy are recurrent, especially with others.
Adults are very social creatures as well. They almost always try to work in groups. There is always much talking and almost as often there is laughter. Smiles authenticate the love for friendship and comradery among the Bukinabé. The Burkinabé love friendship and company. It took me a while to become accustomed to holding hands with another man while walking along the road.
There are also many churches in this largely Muslim country. Churches are as small as a home or as large as the National Cathedral in the capital of Ouagadougou. The churches we have attended in Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Cameroon, and Ethiopia are usually filled to capacity with row upon row of worshippers standing for hours in the rear of the church. It is not unusual to have five or six pastors preaching and as many choirs leading the congregation in joyful worship. Prayers of pastors and individuals in the congregation fill the service with adoration, thanksgiving, and praise.
Whether Christian, Muslim, or Animist, the concept of atheism is largely incomprehensible. To not believe in something, either Jehovah God, Allah, or spirits is like not believing in the ground upon which one walks or not believing in the air that one breathes. I was once asked, “How is it even possible to believe in absolutely nothing?”
As we celebrate Christmas, the day a loving God became man to call us to a renewed relationship with Him and offer everyone the choice to spend eternity in His presence if one just believes and trusts in Christ as the one who can erase all of our sins, turn our thoughts to those things that are truly important. God is not the most important thing, He is the only important thing in all of reality. Without Him nothing would exist. There would be no purpose to anything. In Him we have our being.
When we have the blessed opportunity to look into the eyes of a child who once sat on death’s door step because of malnutrition, but now coos and smiles, when a withered, emaciated woman receives a couple of bags of rice and beans and turns to another woman as in need as she and shares half of what she has just received, when a church celebrates opening a case of Bibles in long prayers and song, we celebrate God become man whatever the date. There is a material poverty that robs billions of people of food, clothing, shelter, and a full life. But even in this poverty they can and most often do find faith, love of family and friends, and loving obedience to the will of God. In these ways even the poorest are actually very rich.
Then we begin to discover our own dire poverty amidst our abundant material riches. We have more food than we need, we each have closets filled with clothes enough for a family, we live in a house big enough to hold the population of a small village, and we rent space for possessions that will not fit into our homes. We become painfully ashamed when we think of trash cans that hold what would be feasts for those who eat one meal a day…or less.
We are often so caught up in the busyness of each day that we fail to pray. We fail to thank God for his protection of our family during the night, we fail to thank Him for each new day filled with promise, liberty, and a degree of luxury that leaves at least a third of the world in stunned disbelief. We often fail to see rain as a blessing rather than a bother of damp clothes or muddy shoes. We fail to thank God for another day for each child spared any of the myriad diseases that are deadly in the developing world but have been eradicated in much of the rest of the world. Many of us have complained of having to work in jobs that would cause most of our African neighbors and billions like them to fall to their knees in thankful prayers to God. We possess so much that we may often suffer from a poverty of spirit.
I am mortified when I sit at the laptop on which I write this message and realize that it represents years of some people’s incomes. I am more than embarrassed when I realize that my small collection of hand tools is beyond the dreams of my neighbor or that when I fill our old and rumbling (by American standards) pickup truck with diesel fuel that I just spent someone’s monthly rent, food allotment, water cost, and spare change for medicine. I think back six decades and cringe when I think that the cost of batteries for my few Christmas toys could have fed some families in the world for an entire week.
It will soon be Christmas again. Gifts will be shared, packages opened, an abundance of food will be consumed, holiday celebrations will be viewed on television, families will gather to celebrate and to make new memories, and warm glows will radiate from countless homes filled with holiday cheer. Not too far from the celebrations and merriment someone will be sitting alone, perhaps in the cold and dark of an empty home, in an institution, or under a bridge. Close to home there will be someone dreaming of the next day’s meal in a nearby dumpster or trash can. Not too far away there may be a homeless person bundled against the biting cold counting on a cheap bottle of some beverage to dull the chill and dreaming of some past pleasant Christmas only to not wake up Christmas morning.
We talk about the spirit of Christmas. We recall that it was the Magi who gave gifts to the baby Jesus as angels announced to shepherds that God has become man. Christmas night the cries of millions of hungry babies will waft around the world and may cry that night for the last time. Christ told the rich young man to sell all he had and give it to the poor. The rich young man walked away sad because he had many possessions.
May we who are indeed very rich ourselves not fail to comprehend that the joy of the season is not in what we receive, but in what we give and to whom we give it and from whom we receive so much. We should celebrate the day and give thanks to God who blessed us with abundant riches. We rightly gather to share the abundance of a loving God. We remember that God became man that He could reconcile us with a just and merciful God.
But also remember those who live on the margin’s and knife’s edge. It was after all the poor about whom Christ spoke the most. Let us not allow the abundance of our riches make us the most pitiable of the truly poor this Christmas season.