A Need to Feel Useful

My patient, swathed in layers of black including a cloth wrapped firmly over her lower face, was indicating the problem that had brought her to clinic today. I could not understand the words, but the actions were clear enough as she clutched almost every joint in her body one at a time.

'And has she got a headache?' I asked my translator.

'Yes,' she answered, 'she has a headache all the time, for the last six years.'

'And what makes it worse?'

'It's worse when she works.'

It took me more than two months of living and working in that rural community to begin to understand what 'work' meant to the women there. Two months of hearing over and over again about chronic neck, back, knee and arm pain. Two months of watching anonymous black shapes mounting impossibly steep paths with brightly coloured objects on their heads, before I realised those objects were 20-litre containers of water and that the women were carrying them uphill two or three times a day as well as working the fields, cooking the meals, baking bread and looking after their many children.

I felt embarrassed that I, supposedly open-minded and aware, could be so ignorant of how hard these people's lives really were. We can never know what it is like to live the way they do. I finally realised how dependent we need to be on God and his guidance to have any positive impact in such communities.

One of the most ancient lands on earth, this country is also one of the world's poorest nations, with high maternal and infant mortality. Despite this, the population is burgeoning, stretching already stretched resources further and further. Most of the illnesses we saw were due to water-borne diseases. Our medicines were only a temporary solution to deep-seated problems. Slices of modern medicine have made an impact, but sophisticated scans and the latest antibiotics do not seem the best solution. We felt like an ambulance parked firmly at the bottom of the cliff struggling to keep up with the injured fallen.

We needed to lean on God the whole time we were away. We had many questions. Why had he called us to this country when we were able to offer so little? What are the best ways to help break cycles of poverty and improve health? How does he regard their religion? How far should we conform to strict standards of dress and protocols that may identify us as members of the religion ourselves? How should we cope with our own feelings of inadequacy and sometimes of not being wanted by certain people there?

God used the time to challenge us too. Why did we need to feel useful? Why did we need to feel that we had made a difference? Although God calls us to be agents of change in a broken world, he wants to do it through us rather than have us take it all on ourselves.

This has two implications. One is that we can let God take on responsibility for the problems that are just too big for us to cope with. His power is sufficient and we can rest in that knowledge. The second implication is that any success in our work is God's success, not ours; we should be pleased to give him the glory. God used our time in this country to teach us humility and the need to trust in his power and goodness. We are now working on the application of this lesson!