What’s your ‘status calculator’?

“Anywhere he goes I follow, anything he want me to do, I did”.

These were the words of 20 year old Sunny, a former child soldier in Liberia’s bloody 15 year civil war, as he described his unconditional loyalty to his ‘general’ as a 10 year old boy, in a conflict that has left Liberia the second poorest country in the world today.

With 80% unemployment and basic necessities such as clean water and electricity unavailable to the majority, children continue to suffer the after effects of the war, with the orphaned and abandoned surviving on the streets, and many of the over 11,000 ex child soldiers involved in  criminal activity and drug abuse.

In Liberia one will see children breaking rocks in order to earn a few dollars. Here you will witness children with ‘short sleeves’ and ‘long sleeves’ – depending on where the machete fell on their small bodies.

As I reflect on the above, my mind and heart are again attempting to reconcile the two paradigms I am confronted with daily, even hourly. In Australia, many young people I know measure their ‘have’ and ‘have not’ status by the brand of sport shoes they wear or the I Pod they have fastened to their ears. This is the culture they breathe, they are integrally a part of it, it’s ‘normal’. And how can I, or any one else, even begin to judge these youth for simply inhaling this most potent of oxygens – get more, have more, display more!  Our media exists to make sure this is the message they hear – constantly.

In most of the rest of the world, as I have been painfully made aware of over these recent years, the ‘have’ and the ‘have nots’ measure their place in society by vastly different criteria.

In Cambodia and Laos if you have enough rice to eat every day you are well off. If, perchance, you can add a little fish or meat to your rice, then you are wealthy.

In Tajikistan if you are a child who is able bodied and well, you are one of the fortunate. Statistically a rising number of children are being born with horrific birth abnormalities because close relatives, first cousins for example, are marrying each other because of cultural tradition.

In Zambia if you are a child who can actually get  to school, even by walking up to ten kilometers to get there and back, you are extraordinarily blessed. And if you own a backpack to put your school books in, you are rich.

As I learn about places like Liberia and Sierra Leone and DR Congo, my personal  ‘status calculator’ suffers another necessary displacement.

In these countries if you are actually alive and whole, in body and mind, you are in the ‘have’ category.

Numberless millions, adults and children,  live with memories we wouldn’t choose to conjure up in  our worst nightmares. In  civil wars, under brutal regimes, they have lost not just material possessions, not just their homes and livelihoods – but their identities.

Young boys conscripted to be child soldiers, young girls forced to be child brides – or prostitutes, women trafficked across borders and never seen or heard of again, elderly grandparents struggling to care for grandchildren whose parents have died of HIV AIDS.

‘Short sleeves’ or ‘long sleeves’?

I didn’t know what that expression meant until a few years ago. It is a fashion statement of a very different kind. And it clearly draws the line between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in countries like Liberia.

I am asking myself right now what I, as a mother, would be feeling if soldiers came into my town, into my home, and asked my son or daughter that question as they raised the machete over their arm.

I am asking myself what I would feel as I watched the machete fall.

We are all so good at taking in statistics and we are very good at compartmentalizing. We may not articulate it, but somewhere in our soul we say ‘ yeah, that’s Africa, that’s India, that’s how it is’.

Many people I’ve met have chosen not to live inside the ‘that’s how it is’ worldview. They speak out, they give, they GO.

They choose to become THE difference for someone else.

Are you a ‘have’ or a ‘have not’?

Check out the length of your sleeve!

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