The Starfish Theory

I tripped over a big rock the other night while walking through my village. I was staring up at the stars. “You like stars. You always looking up!” My friend Hans found it funny that the sky amazes me and my undivided attention was focused upward for most of our walk home considering that life doesn’t really go on up there. Today, less than 20% of Americans can see the Milky Way due to light pollution. In my home village of Rwinkwavu, you can see the Milky Way on every clear night.

There seems to be an infinite amount of differences between here and home (the Milky Way is looking beautiful, by the way, for those Bostonians who haven’t seen it lately) and I think I’m pretty quick to notice most of these differences. For instance, small monkeys bravely sit on the side of busy roads. Women walk around town wearing fabrics containing every color of the rainbow while balancing woven baskets atop their heads. Children have family duties like taking their cow for a walk or fetching water from the village pump. At 11am, the local radio unfittingly plays fast-paced reggae music designed for late night clubbing. And, a BIG one, the Snickers bars taste drastically different in Rwanda, in a bad way that is.

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(Another difference…market options are sparse around here.)

Despite these evident distinctions from what I’m accustomed to, I’ve noticed a major parallel between here and home: kids greatly enjoy activity and attention. In fact, regardless of where you are in this world, kids undeniably love these two things.

With this being said, I possess a bothersome thought: there exists a massive number of children in need all around the world, but how do I choose whom to aid when inexhaustible service is needed and only so much service can be done? Shouldn’t we help within our own country first? With millions of children in the slums of India, hundreds of thousands of refugee kids from the Middle East repositioned in Europe, and villages of Rwandese youth all around me every single day, I’m torn. Even back at home, inequality within the schooling systems threatens our nation’s future right before my eyes.

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(“Coach, take photo.”)

After pondering my unsettling thoughts for some time, I came up with this: if you’re out and about helping, no matter where you are, you’re doing something right. Right? I can’t just sit back and waste time assessing who needs my help more, this hungry kid or that hungry kid, I just have to get out and act. I have to simply help how I can. And so I’m doing that and it just happens to be here, supplying activity and giving attention to the kids out in Eastern Rwanda. I know my mom wishes I chose some place closer to do this, but the opportunity came up and I took it. You would think, having my mindset in this manner, I’m doing ok emotionally, but even with these efforts, it’s stressful at times when I finish a day’s work and look at the big picture once again. I want to help so many, but I can only help so much. I try to think about the “starfish theory” when living in this world, and I remind my co-workers here about it often.

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(In need of a few more basketballs…)

The “starfish theory” goes somewhere along the lines of this: A boy is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands of starfish are washed up upon the shore. The boy notices an old man walking, crouching down every once in a while to pick up a starfish and toss it back into the ocean. The boy asks the man why he is doing this and the man tells him that the sun is out and the tide is going in, and if he doesn’t do this, they will die. The boy explains to the old man that there are miles and miles of beach and he can’t possibly save them all, not even 10% of these starfish if he spent all day on the shore. The boy tells him it won’t make any difference at all. The old man calmly bends down, picks up another starfish, and tosses it into the ocean. “It made a difference for that one” the man claims.

I love this, and I try to think of this theory whenever my thoughts are spinning because of the overwhelming effort required to aid the greatest daily struggles of this world. Again, knowing this, I still find myself upset every now and then. But that’s because I’m sensitive (I blame my parents for giving me a blankie to sleep with every night when I was younger).

Anyway, if you want to help me in helping one more starfish, contact me. It costs $4 a year for health insurance for one person in Rwanda. Starbucks coffee isn’t that great – we could take a day off from it…yeah?

 

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(I’m doing just fine without coffee. African tea, 24 cents, pictured above.)

I’ll leave you with this: I think I’m starting to mean something to these kids here. You would think that was a guarantee, you know, spending six hours a day on the court with them, smiling, laughing, dancing. However, it’s a little more complex than you may think. I’ll be real with you, being white in this society comes with its struggles. I eat three meals a day, sleep in a nice bed, have running water, and my electricity is always working. But like my co-worker Jake so nicely put it: “Sometimes I feel like I’m just a walking bank here. It’s so frustrating.” You can have an unbelievable moment with a kid and then he or she will go ahead and ask for a pair of shoes. It makes it feel like the 10 minutes of laughter, the multiple high fives, the big smiles, like those were all fake. What I’ve come to realize is that it isn’t fake, it’s real, and it’s just the philosophy here for kids to ask foreigners for money. Some of my little neighbors can’t speak a lick of English except for one request: “Give me money.” These kids are out here trying to survive. I don’t blame them for looking at me and seeing money. My clothes are clean, my water bottle is full, my phone can access the Internet, and my fingers wear rings. I have to take a step back and realize that this call for help is what these kids are brought up to ask and when someone like me or Jake comes into play, they will surely ask it. That sentimental moment I had with the kid was real, I just have to try and ignore this dispiriting demand that comes with it.

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(Dio Donne (left) and Obama (right) displaying some brotherly love.)

This is a really hard thing to do, and even though these seesaw interactions continue to occur, when I tell you I feel like I am starting to mean something to these kids here, I really feel like it’s happening. Redirecting my mindset away from the money pleas and focusing it on making a positive impact in these kids’ lives, I see these kids actually starting to reciprocate my care for them.

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(Satisfied with her reflection through the phone screen.)

I was running (struggling) up a huge hill in town the other day and one of our younger players leaps from his front yard to join me. When we reach the top of the hill, he says bye and runs back down to return home. I help these kids, they help me. They might still ask for money and shoes and food, but what they really want is friendship. The only problem is, what they need in life is that money, those shoes, and that food. If we could survive off friendship, these kids would take that over any food or health insurance or shelter. But want is different than need, very different. Again, these kids are out here trying to survive and I’m just out here trying to distract them from the difficulty of survival. I’m not a money bank, but my attitude towards helping, well, that bank never runs out.

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(Friends, Rwinkwavu.)

When one of the young basketball players tells me he hasn’t eaten in two days, my sadness that follows is immense. When I tell him I want him to come over to my home to eat a meal and he responds that it is not he that comes first, but rather his baby sister that has also not eaten in two days that comes first, my sadness becomes immeasurable.

I helped that boy and his family that day. The starfish effect…I have to focus on the starfish effect. As for the next day and the day after that, I hope somebody else crouches down to throw back that starfish into the water while Jake and I are focused on helping the next one.

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Thanks for reading.

-Chloe

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