When you grow up in the so-called ‘third world’ you never ask Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s famous question of “why bad things happen to good people.” Catastrophe and disaster are known entities, and when posed with this sort of question, the only reasonable response is “and why wouldn’t they?” Kushner’s is a question borne out of privilege and luxury–where safety is an assumption: societal structures are in place to stave off most predictable disasters and most crimes are located on some ‘other’ side of the tracks.
When you grow up among the poor, you realize that safety nets are illusionary and death is a possibility.
The first few years in Papua New Guinea, we lived in the capital city of Port Moresby. It was the most modern (and therefore western) city in the country, and I remember when the first stop lights were installed, and the first escalator was built-in an office building. It was both amazing and amusing to watch a grown man barefoot and in traditional dress (tanget leaves and a bark belt) step onto the escalator and then jump back in surprise when it began to move. It took him hours to brave his first ride.
Port Moresby was a clash of cultures and climates. Situated in a coastal basin, it was surrounded by mountain ranges. The heart of the city was almost desert-like, whereas the mountains were lush rainforest. There were no external highways that led over these mountain ranges, so the city remained virtually isolated except by air and sea. There were many highlanders who had heard of jobs and educational opportunities in the capital, and had pulled together enough cash to buy a one-way plane ticket to the city. They left their villages with the promise of earnings and all too frequently found themselves jobless, homeless, and stranded without wantoks (one-talks: people who speak the same language and are therefore from the same village) to help them get started. As such, a growing mass of squatters accumulated in the capital. And with squatters, crime. Juxtaposed with the extreme poverty of these transients, were the luxury homes of plantation owners and diplomats which dotted the hilltops. As such, white-skinned people were targeted: the assumption of wealth based on skin tone was clear. We all had security fences, guard dogs, house boys, etc. to maintain our own tenuous facade of safety. But even with those measures intact, crime was something we lived with: I remember buying our own radio back on the black market: our name painted clearly on the top of it for all to see.
One week during fourth grade at the international primary school I attended, Lorraine, one of my classmates, went missing from class. No one said a word to us students about it, but her desk was packed up and belongings were sent home. I went home and asked my mother about her. Mom didn’t know, but we pulled out the weekly paper to see if any news would enlighten us. There it was: Lorraine and her mother had been gang-raped and were immediately removed and sent back to their home country. Her father was tying up loose ends and would be meeting them there soon. I remember the look on my mother’s face when she read this aloud to me. I didn’t know what ‘rape’ meant at the time, but I figured it must be just about the worse thing that could ever happen to you–worse than even death.
That night, I laid in bed and fantasized about what the ‘worst’ might be. My ten year old mind could not wrap itself around a concept of sexual assault: at the time that was a distant and meaningless reality. So what could be the worst thing ever that could happen to you? I remember comming to the conclusion that it must mean that someone cuts off your arms and legs (I’d seen folks from the leprosy colony nearby: I knew you could live with one of these missing, but I couldn’t imagine how you’d live with all four gone!). From that night on, whenever I’d get scared (such as at fortnight when guys got their paychecks and had been out drinking and carousing), I would lay in bed in a ball, facedown on my arms and legs, trying to protect them from being ‘raped’.
While I’d gotten the specifics wrong, it never occurred to me that such a thing couldn’t happen to one of my family members: we all knew someone who’d been touched by violent crime or some other type of catastrophe. In my head, it was a matter of time: odds were, something awful was going to happen sooner or later–it was an issue of numbers.
And so we lived in expectation of the worst: danger lurked everywhere, but it didn’t keep us isloated nor was it paralyzing: the work of the church was far more important than any ‘thing’ that could happen to us. And if something bad did happen, it would be “all to the glory of God” (thus enforcing the cycle of the work of the church). How much money could be raised if something truly bad happened! It was fascinating to imagine: I could be the armless, legless little girl who brought salvation to New Guinea. Money from the U.S. would pour in! As would my guilt, subsequently, for fear that if I imagined it–it might actually come true: and I didn’t want to be an armless, legless little girl! I didn’t have the courage to be ‘raped’.
It was this sort of magical thinking that led me in college to, upon spying an utterly disgusting and unsuitable male, declare him my ‘future husband’ to anyone within earshot. To do so would ‘trick’ God into thinking I wanted it to happen–and I knew that nothing I wanted–my happiness–was the ultimate preventative: God would never give me the desires of my heart (because I failed to focus and ‘delight’ on Him). Better to pretend to want what repulses me on the off chance that it might produce an opposing effect; God would instead find someone truly wonderful for me to marry. God ‘worked’ that way (His mysterious ways).