I believe in the power of stories. Stories carry a weight that no amount of essay and exposition ever will.
Did you know that when you listen to someone speak, you engage the language processing portions of your brain- where you decode words into meaning? That’s all.
But when you listen to a story, you not only engage language processing centers, but you also engage any other area of your brain that would engage if the story were happening to you!
When you listen to a story, your brain engages as if you are experiencing the story.
(You might be interested to read my source here, but do it later. Don’t get distracted because there is a story coming.)
This is a story about Kountouma. (Koon- TOO-ma) I want to tell you her story, because telling you her story will allow you to experience the reality of material poverty better than anything else I could write.
This is Kountouma’s Story
Kountouma is our housekeeper. She is a Togolese woman whom I hired when we first arrived in Togo in October of 2015. She works for me three days a week helping me keep a house clean in a dusty and humid climate. She frees me to write curriculum, teach seminars, and to sit at my desk and write blog posts.
A few months ago, one of Kountouma’s two college-age daughters was in a motorcycle-taxi accident. She was wearing a helmet and at first it seemed she was just a little scraped up and sore, but otherwise fine. Then about four weeks later, she started having extreme pain. Even walking hurt.
Kountouma is a single mother. She was married once for a few years, but her husband’s mother opposed the marriage. She didn’t think Kountouma was good enough for her son, so she manipulated to separate them and eventually her son chose his mother over Kountouma. He left her, refusing even to help her financially support their little girls.
Kountouma does have a legal recourse, but he is an officer in the military, which means he is connected in the government. If she took him to court, there is a chance a judge would rule in his favor due to his position, rank, or influence. Even if she won a ruling in her favor, it would cause him enough disgrace to lose his rank and position, which could make him vengeful. She’d be required to give him access to her daughters and she would fear for their safety. It was much easier for her to make an agreement with him. He stays away, and in exchange, he owes her nothing. She has traded financial security for the safety of her daughters.
I’d like to tell you that while she lives modestly, she is managing. But the truth is, she is not.
She has very little. She works for me part-time and I pay her significantly above minimum wage for her job, but she still only makes about $70/month. She has not been able to find another part-time job in the 16 months she has worked for me, so she is supporting all three of them on $70/ month.
Financial poverty at this level is a downward spiral. The World Bank defines extreme poverty as an individual living on $1.90/day or less. Do the math- she and her daughters are living on $0.77/day.
Her home is a little ways out of town because that is where she can afford to live, but it means that transportation to work each day costs her more. She pays about $1.25 per day for a ride on a taxi-moto. [Edited to add, I pay this for her, in addition to her salary.] Her daughters also need transportation money. During the rainy season, her neighborhood is inundated with mud. She has trouble getting a moto to come to work, and a car taxi would cost her $5.00 or more. Either way, even the weather can lead to loss of income.
She has no electricity at her home and no running water. They draw water from a well in their neighborhood, and the water isn’t clean. Lack of clean water, electricity, and adequate sanitation means that she wages a constant battle with preventable illness. The swampy area where she lives means that she constantly has malaria.
It costs less than $10 for her to visit a locally-trained physician, but even that amount means she only goes to the doctor in a dire situation. It’s much easier to go to the pharmacy , purchase whatever the pharmacist recommends, and hope it works. If the pharmacist is wrong, she’ll have to come back and try something else at more cost to her.
But even more devastating is the catastrophic effect one setback, like a motorcycle taxi accident, can have.
When Kountouma’s daughter was unable to get out of bed from the pain, Kountouma took her to the hospital with money borrowed from a neighbor. Her church helped her pay for blood tests and exams. Everything came back negative, but her daughter continues to be in extreme pain. The next step is for her to have a scan. (The word she used is generic. It could be an MRI, or it could be a CAT scan.) The price is going to be about $125.00. Almost two months salary.
Kountouma has no other resources. She is just out of options. She has been crying at work off and on for a week. She tells me she hasn’t been sleeping.
You may be wondering at this point why she didn’t ask me for help. About a year ago, Koutouma’s other daughter found a lump in her breast. Kountouma’s financial situation was exactly the same then as it is now, and at that point, we helped her pay for the surgery to have it removed. We gifted her some of the money and she borrowed the rest. She just finished paying that sum back a few months ago and she didn’t want to ask us for help again. It was humbling. Humiliating.
Without help, Kountouma’s financial situation will continue to deteriorate. She didn’t ask, but the Lord spoke to us to help- because it was within our power to do so.
Kountouma needs help in two ways. She needs help that falls under the category of “relief,” and she needs help that falls under the category of “development.”
1. Kountouma needs the kind of help referred to in humanitarian circles as “relief.” She has an immediate and urgent need that she is unable to meet herself. This afternoon, we gave her a gift to pay for the scan for her daughter. And even more importantly, we prayed for her. Will you join us in prayer for a miracle for Sarah?
2. Kountouma also needs the kind of help that falls under the category of “development.” She needs someone to work WITH her (not FOR her) to create long-term solutions. When we leave for the US in a few months, she will be unemployed again. But she needs to be able to support herself, even when something unexpected arises. She needs to own a solution with dignity.
We are trying to help her with this need as well. Before she came to work for us, she had a stall in a local community market. She sold dried pasta, canned tomatoes, oil, and rice– basic staples in the local kitchen and the kind of thing that people buy daily to make a daily meal. She has managed to pay the subscription to keep her market stall, but she needs money to start back up again. Getting a start-up loan from a bank is difficult and comes with exorbitant interest.
Will you pray with us for this need as well? We want to help her, but this is a step of faith for us too. The amount she needs is not a comfortable amount for us to lend. This falls outside of the designations for our missions account, so this will be a personal arrangement.
I’m not telling you this story to make us look good. In fact, I didn’t really want to tell you what we are doing to help her, because we aren’t trying to brag and we don’t want praise.
But I decided it was important to tell you this story because I want you to see the face of extreme poverty. It isn’t laziness, or bad management. It isn’t lack of determination. It isn’t even lack of faith. Koutouma is why I have trouble swallowing the validity of the “health and wealth” gospel.
The world is not fair, and that is just the honest truth. It is broken and fallen. Some people have, and some people don’t. But where there is great need, there is also great faith. The African church sees so many more miracles than the American church because so many believers in the African church have nothing else to fall back on. And where there is that desperation of faith– that need for God in which there is no plan B if God doesn’t answer– God answers. In fact, we got to be part of a miraculous answer to prayer just a few days ago.
This is the hope we all have in Jesus. You. Me. Kountouma.
Will you join with us in prayer for her needs, and for the needs of millions of other individuals with just as desperate of circumstances whose names we don’t know?