Some time ago I returned home after two weeks in France. It was a magical experience from the start til the end, and today I am going to tell you about what happened in the very beginning of this trip. I also have a proposition to make, towards the end of this blog post, which I am hoping of all my heart that you will consider.
My story starts with something that happened almost 14 years ago, in Asia.
I am sure you remember the terrible tsunami that hit the shores of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand on December 26th 2004. It was a devastating event for thousands of people. Many lost family members and loved ones, many lost the roof over their head and the life they had known until then, in an instant.
I was very lucky, since I was not personally affected by this natural catastrophe, but I was deeply touched by the misery and despair that was reported in the news. I experienced something that resembled panic inside, because I could feel the pain but there was so little I could do to help. To ease this feeling I sent money to different organisations. I went through cupboards and drawers at home, to collect items that might be useful for the survivors, and still that did not feel enough. A few weeks after the tragedy I found a pile of fliers on the counter of my local coffee shop. A plead to become a sponsor to a child in need, somewhere in the world. I mailed it, thinking I could at least support one of the tsunami-survivors to get healthcare and help through school.
When the dossier with information came back from the organisation a couple of weeks later, it was almost anticlimactic – it had nothing to do with the Tsunami-area. Instead I was entrusted with Manoj, a nine-year-old boy who lived in a very poor area, not far from Bangalore in India.
This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that lasted for more than 12 years.
Three, four times a year we exchanged letters. In his there was always a drawing of something from his life. In the beginning I think these drawings were more or less a suggestion from the organisation, but with time and when I told him how much I appreciated them, they became his personal gift to me. I received pictures of animals, flowers, his home and how his family organised the crops on their plot. Drawings of wild elephants, who broke the fences on nightly raids and ate all the vegetables. In his letters he taught me about different traditional celebrations and shared with me special project in school or in the community. He told me stories about his family and with time it felt like I had a relationship with his mother and father too. The letter I received just after his twentieth birthday was filled with excitement. He had been chosen for a course held by the community to learn how to use and repair different irrigation systems. I got an explanation and detailed drawings of how the system worked, and he told me about his plans to ameliorate the farming to get more yield and how to care for the land.
The organisation I had stumbled on makes it possible to send a small amount of money for birthdays and Christmas through secure channels, so the money really reaches the child and family. I chose to do this, and every time he told me how they had invested the gift. I was so happy to hear about the new clothes, the kitchen equipment and how they managed to put a part away in a savings account. It was such a joy to read that his mother had gotten a new sari (as a woman, I could imagine how much it probably meant to her to get something new and beautiful).
Each year I received a photo and a school report about his progress and health. It was amazing to see this skinny and shy little boy grow from year to year and become a young man – both in body and in confidence.
For his 18th birthday the photo was taken outside his home, in front of that year’s investment – a plastic table and a fan. That photo still gives me a lump in the throat when I think about it. For the first time I was to see his parents. They were both an entire head shorter than Manoj, and I realised how this little thing I had done for this family had had a tremendous impact on their lives. For me it was a rather insignificant amount of money each month, but it gave Manoj access to better nutrition and healthcare, allowing his body to grow as it was supposed to (a possibility his parents had not had.)
An unexpected sadness
Then one day I received an email from the Swedish office of this organisation, letting me know that Manoj had chosen not to continue in school, but start working with farming full-time. Shortly thereafter I received a letter from Manoj, written a few months earlier (it always takes time for the “snail-mail” to go back and forth, since it passes through the organisation and needs to be translated from the native language into English). He did not mention directly that he would leave the sponsoring-program, but he thanked me in a very touching way for being his friend.
I was surprised by my own reaction – I was grieving the loss of contact with this sweet person. I still feel sad that I will never know what will become of him. He has been in my life for such a long time, even if we have never met in person.
Back to Paris
Maybe you wonder what this has to do with my trip to France, and now I will give you the reason. My flight landed at Charles de Gaulle-airport in Paris. I hopped on the bus that would take me to Gare de Montparnasse in the city centre.
I sat down in a free space beside a young man in his early twenties and let in my thoughts wander off. After about 10 minutes, my neighbour suddenly turned to me and with great politeness said: Bonjour Madame! Do you know if this bus will go to Gare de Lyon? in perfect French, but with a foreign accent. I suspect he had probably been rehearsing this phrase in his head, ever since the bus left the bus-stop). He seemed relieved when we switched to English.
We had a wonderful conversation that lasted the following hour through the busy Paris traffic.
He was a 22-year-old student from the Bangalore area in India, who had been rewarded with a scholarship in France, Spain and Italy (six months in each country). He was going to study IT and be part of a special project, in which he would create software to help doctors make more accurate diagnoses. He had never been outside of India, never been on an aeroplane before and now he was catching a train somewhere in this enormous city, to get to the university in Burgundy. I could feel my mother-heart swell –this polite and sweet person must be so worried, tired, jet lagged and confused with everything that was unfamiliar. I tried in this short time to give him all the information I could think of, that might serve him when coming as a foreigner to France and to Europe. I thought about the first time I went on an adventure alone out in the world, how little and scared I had felt back then. My first trip abroad on my own was very modest compared to what he endeavoured himself into. I could sense that behind his calm and composed appearance there was a turmoil of feelings about everything new that he would meet.
He really impressed me with his knowledge about geography, history and culture. We talked about our different countries (and as always when someone hears that I am Swedish, Stieg Larsson and the girl with the dragon-tattoo came up and he had read the book!). We talked about French film, about food and architecture. I could sense that he had received a thorough and great education, and yet he had a great insight about life and seemed much wiser than his years and outer appearance.
Someone who has experienced both sides
I got the explanation why – he came from a very poor region in India, and from a hardworking but financially struggling family. His father, who he referred to as “very extrovert and with high drive”, had managed to convince a representative from a help organisation to take his son under the wings so his boy would get a good education. So with the help of a sponsor he had gone to school, where he had worked so hard that he even had received a scholarship. I have the feeling that he has an extraordinary gift to give the world, that will make a huge difference for many of us. He just had that kind of air around him.
Then we arrived to Gare de Lyon and it was time to say Good Bye. We had been so engaged in our conversation that I had been unaware of the time. I did not have the chance to give him my address, in case he would need help, or even to learn his name. There was just enough time to wish him the best of luck, which I did wholeheartedly.
The rest of the bus ride I was thinking about Manoj, and about how a very little gesture can turn around another person’s life completely. I felt very humble before this young man I just had met, who really had taken care of the opportunity life had given him.
So, are you ready, here is my question?
And now to the request I wrote about earlier. If you have ever thought about becoming a sponsor to a child in need, but never gotten around to take the step, please do something about it. There are many organisations out there who work with child-sponsoring. Find a serious one with a good reputation, where the support reaches those in need.
Personally I started off with Childfund International, and have stayed with them. When Manoj left the program I took on two girls, both happened to be at the same age as my daughter: Teddy in Uganda and Kiran in India. I write 3-4 letters a year, pay a monthly fee which is withdrawn automatically from my account and then give a little extra for birthdays and Christmas. It practically takes no time at all, and it touch many people’s lives in a big way.
What I like so much about Childfund is that they help not only the child, but offers healthcare for the entire family, they arrange social events in the neighbourhood, meetings about preventive healthcare, information meetings against child marriages (one of the important topics lifted up in Manoj’s village), they arrange activities for children to raise their levels of self-confidence, computer-training and much more. Whatever is needed and appreciated in the local area. There are many serious and hardworking organisations that need more sponsors. So, have a look and see which one speaks to you, and then go for it!!! You will shift the life of another human being that needs help to flourish, and you will help an entire family with the basic needs, but also you will give them the feeling that they do not struggle alone against poverty. There are others who actually care about them and their situation.
Unexpected learning, and what is the truth?
For me, it all started with a desperate need to do something for people who were suffering in a way that is beyond comprehension for many of us, but it progressed into a wonderful learning for myself. Writing to Manoj made me see my own life in a new light. I feel a tremendous gratitude for the safe and abundant life I lead. It has given me the chance to take a closer look on my beliefs about people on the other side of the world. We often hear the words “underdeveloped countries”, and that lead our thoughts in a certain direction. . Are the people living there really different from us? Do they have different hopes and dreams? What is abundance? What is poverty? I warmly recommend Professor Hans Rosling’s book: Factfulness, which is a real eye-opener.
The white one, in English ISBN 9781250107817 (Flatiron Books)
The orange one, in English ISBN 9781473637467 (Sceptre)
The blue one, in Swedish ISBN 9789127149946 (Natur och Kultur allmänlitteratur)
When I received the most recent letter from Teddy in Uganda, her father wrote that Teddy was sad for my daughter’s sake. She was sad that Reni do not have any sisters or brothers. Teddy herself have six siblings who she loves playing with. Are those who are struggling in a material sense abundant in other ways? We can help each other see different things and there is a beautiful opportunity of learning and sharing.
I have enjoyed the feeling of sisterhood with the sponsor-children’s mothers, with whom I have had tiny exchanges about life (and beneath the seemingly mundane topics there has been a feeling of connectedness woman to woman). From the fathers I have received happy news, filled with joy, about the little goat they bought with the Christmas money, who just had a “baby-goat”. I hear behind the lines how relieved they are, because it gives the family safety. These mothers and fathers, they worry, they love, they care, they cook, they clean and worry some more –the same way as I do, as all parents do.
When I first became a child-sponsor, I thought a lot about being a “good person”, the responsibility to make this world a better place to live in for all. I have been mulling over at length, how to “be the change I want to see in the world” (one of my favourite teachers’ motto, which is so true). In the end (or as far as I have come in my reflections to this point) it is only about being human. To be able to put oneself in someone else’s shoes.
Contradictory to what I thought in the beginning, that it was all about me giving to those in need, to my surprise I have been receiving. From these people I’ve been connected to, I have received far more than I have been giving. They care about my life, they care about my health and happiness and they care about my family. They think kind thoughts about someone they consider being their friend, on the other side of the globe. There is room for a lot of love in these envelopes, sent back and forth in the world. I wish for you to experience that too!
Avoid the overwhelm
It also stop that feeling of powerlessness that so easily takes hold of us, and behind which we sometimes find it practical to hide. “There is so much pain and suffering in the world, and I cannot do anything about that…”. “There is no point because it doesn’t make any difference… “.
–Yes you can! And of course it will! The student on the bus is a shining and bright example of just that. How something very small, done by someone, can inspire another person to do fantastic things in their life. There are tons of small things you can do to make a difference. No one can do it all, but everyone can do something!
I hope by sharing this, you are inspired to take action! 😉
See you soon,