I don't remember much about social studies from junior high or high school, do you? I don't remember learning about the real life experiences in poverty stricken and war-torn nations. I was never given the opportunity to raise money or awareness for a girl my age living in Congo. What I do remember in Tennessee history was my teacher's fruitless attempts to get one kid to pronounce the word oil correctly, with two syllables rather than one. Teacher: "Oy-el." 7th grader who studied trucker magazines at the lunch table: "Oll." Back and forth, for at least 5 minutes. "Oy-el." "Oll."
In Half the Sky, authors Kristoff and WuDunn dedicate the chapter "Study Abroad — In the Congo," to getting out and seeing the world. "One of the great failings of the American education system, in our view, is that young people can graduate from university without any understanding of poverty at home or abroad. ...If more Americans worked for a summer teaching English at a school like Mukhtar's in Pakistan, or working at a hospital like HEAL Africa in Congo, our entire society would have a richer understanding of the world around us. And the rest of the world might also hold a more positive view of Americans."
The authors continue to tell the story of Harper McConnell, who grew up in Michigan and Kansas. After graduating with a degree in political science and English and studying poverty and development, she learned her church (Upper Room, in Edina, Minnesota) was planning to work with a hospital in Congo. Harper moved to Goma to oversee the relationship with the HEAL Africa hospital.
From the website, HEAL Africa’s hospital and community development work address the root causes of illness and poverty for the people of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The hospital and the 28 women’s houses in Maniema and North Kivu have provided a safe place for many victims of the war, and have been a motor for combating poverty and promoting community cohesion over the past 14 years.
Kristoff and WuDunn describe Harper's life in Goma, that though she may miss a paved highway and a morning latte, there are "compensations for the lack of shopping malls and Netflix movies. Harper has undertaken two major projects that make her excited to get out of bed each morning. First, she started a school at the hospital for children awaiting medical treatment. ... Second, Harper started a skills-training program for women awaiting surgery. Many of the patients, like Dina (whose story was told in the previous chapter), spend months at the hospital, and they can now use the time to learn to sew, read, weave baskets, make soap and bake bread. Typically a woman chooses one of the skills and then works with a trainer until she is confident that she can make a living at it. When the woman leaves, HEAL Africa gives her the raw materials she needs ... so that she can generate income for her family afterward."
In Harper's words:
"There are times when all I want is a fast Internet connection, a latte, and a highway to drive on. Yet the greetings I receive in the morning from my coworkers are enough to keep me here. I have the blessing of carrying a purse sewn by a woman waiting for a fistula surgery at the hospital and watching how these new skills have changed her whole composure and confidence, ... of seeing children in school who previously never had the chance, ... of dancing with my coworkers over a grant awarded for a program. The main factor that separates me from my friends here is the opportunities I was given as a first-world citizen, and I believe it is my responsibility to work so that these opportunities are available to all."
Read more about the hospital and personal stories at healafrica.org, and find out how you can participate in this story. Just $10 can provide education during treatment, HIV testing, counseling, vocational training and more.
(Photos from HEAL Africa)