Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Day I Felt Powerless

I wrote this blog last week, but haven't had the heart to post it. I post it tonight, equally heavy-hearted, but maybe slightly more hopeful. 

Disclaimer: I don’t have a hard life. I have challenges, but many of them result from the intentional choice to live a certain kind of life. I can, at any time, quit and go home. I live around people who live hard lives, and I know the difference. That being said, allow me to use my lens and experience to try and shed some light on the challenges I know they face on a regular basis.

I very rarely feel powerless. For starters I am a kind of big guy…and I trained in martial arts for a while, up through my first year of college. I just don’t get nervous about my personal safety very often.  Economically we as a family are doing okay. We don’t make much money, but we make enough that we get to choose, within limits, what we do with it.  I have a college degree, which does not guarantee a job by any means, but it does give me options, options of continuing into graduate studies like I am doing now, and options of a great variety of jobs that I “qualify” for.  I am also a US citizen, which if nothing else gives me the ability to travel to the majority of the countries in the world. As someone that has attempted to obtain visas for Tanzanians before when they had an opportunity to improve their lives and in the end where not able to take advantage of the opportunity, I do not take lightly the ability/the choice of travel. In short, I am blessed with the freedom of choice and the feeling of control that comes with those choices. With freedom and choice comes a feeling of power over my life.

Right now in my life though, I feel powerless. A debilitating level of powerlessness.

Last week we tried to apply for a visa so that Derrick could travel with us to the States this fall when we go to speak at supporting churches. We were denied. We are currently caught between Tanzanian law which says that a letter from the commissioner is enough to travel with a foster child and American law which says that nothing short of a “full and final adoption” is sufficient to travel with a child. We are caught between the extremely long process of Tanzanian adoption (4 years and counting) and the claims that family and work have on us. We are caught between legal definitions and the feeling that the government is trying to tell me that I am not allowed to make decisions for my own family…because, well, they don’t see him as fully part of our family.

I cannot adequately express the feeling of powerlessness that comes with not having any options, especially in regards to your own family. We can travel, but not outside of Tanzania. He is part of our family, but he cannot go to meet the rest of his family. There is a process for the completion of the adoption, but people have a hard time explaining to us what exactly it is. We are a family…only in so far as we are allowed to be by the Tanzanian and American governments (and each one has their own definitions).


Therein lies the rub. It doesn’t matter what I try, the law will not change. My good intentions and our love as a family are not enough to keep us together.  Derrick’s cute smile, which is enough to work on most people, was not enough to get past the rules at the US Embassy. All the paperwork in the world doesn’t help (trust me we had a lot) if it is not the right piece of paper.

All of this tears us up, but I cannot help at the same time appreciate what this teaches me about the people I have been living and working with for so long. Even today, I returned to a familiar conversation with a friend about the lack of choices that comes with poverty, especially generational poverty. A quick example is the child born in the village, without a hospital nurse nearby to explain the birth certificate procedure. A child grows up and prepares to enter into secondary school but he doesn’t have a birth certificate.  A non-choice by his parents at his birth is now working to determine a large part of his future (I think we all understand the importance of education). Now, he has a few options even at this point, but few of them are legal. A lack of choices, means a lack of power over your own life, which often means a lack of development because it is RARE in this life to find someone with the time, resources, and desire to advocate for you.

As Amartya Sen says in his book Development as Freedom:
“Expansion of freedom is viewed, in this approach, both as the primary end and as the principal means of development. Development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency.”

If there is a silver lining to this new experience of having run out of options, it has been a new sympathy and sense of compassion in my life. Next time you wonder why someone has “chosen” to continue to live a life of poverty and hardship…let us first stop, think, and try to understand what kinds of choices they have really had.

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