When it takes seventeen hours of driving through the bush to arrive at a village, it is a pretty safe bet that you won’t run into other Americans. In fact, in this particular area, my white skin stood out so much that fingers pointed, adults stared, and children swarmed. One woman asked twice if she could have my skin. I was not sure how to respond either time, except to say that I was pretty sure it would hurt a lot if I tried to take my skin off. And that her skin was quite lovely as it was. She laughed, and so did I.
Race, privilege, socio-economic status....all these things are stark here, and this woman wanted my privilege. I understood, and despite the laughter, I was once again reminded of the privilege that I never earned, and was simply granted by virtue of my birth. So, I could handle the stares, the swarming, the fingers pointing. It was a reminder of the things I have that I never earned. No, white skin is not better than brown skin. But my white skin told everyone in that village that I had access to things they could never even touch.
After three days, we moved on to the next town, three hours away. It was a bit bigger; and this rest house had actual toilets, instead of an outdoor squat latrine. It also had electricity, so I was feeling quite excited. But after all the travel, I really wanted to run. In the last village, I had done my exercises in the cramped room within the guest house. But here, I wondered if I could get away with actually running outside.
I asked my colleague, a pastor who had once served in this area. He gave me a weary look. “The children will run after you, and all the adults will be so surprised.” I nodded. It was fine; I could continue to exercise in my room. But Moses, our driver, had a suggestion. “I can drive you outside of the village, and you can run in the bush.” My colleague was concerned, “You will watch her?” Moses nodded and smiled, “I will watch, but I cannot run. I do not have the proper attire.” We all agreed that this was a very kind solution, and I thanked Moses for his generous offer.
A few hours later, after I had changed into running shoes, running clothes, grabbed my iPod, and filled my water bottle, I climbed in the truck. We drove to the edge of town. Moses parked the car. I set my timer and my music and took off, promising to be back in thirty minutes.
As I ran, the red dirt path wandered over a tropical landscape, banana trees bending in the strong wind. After some time, I passed a very small village, five houses made of mud, covered in thatch. People stared, children waved, and I continued on.
A little while later, I passed a group of women. They were carrying trees. Not logs - trees. Huge trunks over their shoulders, enough weight to curve their backs as they struggled up the hill. Through the headphones, my music continued to blare, as I greeted the women, bent with their labor.
When it was about time to turn around, I encountered a work crew. A large group of men, covered in sweat and dirt, carrying picks and shovels. I was far from the truck, Moses couldn’t see me, and I was in the middle of nowhere. I smiled at the workers, they gave me bewildered greetings, and I continued on.
As I ran back towards the truck, I thought about the women carrying tree trunks up and down these hills; the men pounding away at the rocks with heavy picks; children walking miles with buckets of water on their heads. I chose to run and sweat in these hills; they did not choose their backbreaking labor. I listen to music and time my run; they listen to birds sing and hope there is time to get home and do all the chores that await them.
I have the running gear, running clothes, iPod, water bottle, and even a driver who will take me out of town to run on the red dirt. When I return to the rest house, I will eat a granola bar and bathe. Now, it is true that I didn’t have running water for three days. It is true that my only toilet was a shared, outdoor, squat latrine. But it is also true that there was a woman to bring me a bucket of warm water for bathing, and it is also true that in my current guest house, I have electricity most of the time, and running water for a few glorious hours each day.
Perhaps the most important truth of all this is that I can choose. I can choose to sweat in the hills, or I can choose to rest in my room. I can choose to travel to a remote area of Zambia and deal with squat latrines and bucket bathing, or I can choose to live in luxury and never worry about water, toilets, and electricity. I can choose my career, and I can choose to never carry an entire tree on my back. I can even choose what music I want to listen to, as I run over the red land in my proper attire.
And so, when the woman tells me that she wants my skin, I am reminded that it is not fair. It is ridiculous that my skin, my birth, my origin, gives me so much privilege, so much choice, so much freedom, when her skin, her birth, her origin, limits her options and forces her into a life of illiteracy and poverty.
They make me uncomfortable, these realities. But running makes me uncomfortable, too. And I think they are both healthy things. Struggling with the reality of our privilege is a healthy thing. And while my rural run made me uncomfortable in many ways, I am grateful for the discomfort that it brought. Because we have a choice, with the privilege we have, to work for justice. We have a choice, with the privilege we have, to do something. So let’s all get uncomfortable and do something healthy with our lives - to seek justice, to love mercy, to run humbly with our God.
If you are feeling uncomfortable, check out these links:
Donate to empower women through our organization: http://www.presbyterianmission.org/donate/E051151/
Donate to address global poverty through our organization:
Donate to address global health through Partners in Health:
Advocate for foreign assistance through Church World Service: https://secure2.convio.net/cws/site/SPageServer?pagename=advocacy_alert_foreign_assistance_saves_lives
Advocate for food aid through Bread for the World: