Thursday, May 21, 2009

Witnessing = Responsibility

In the work I've done through the years, I've always been aware of the privilege I have to witness certain things in life usually hidden from large swaths of my peer group. The privilege of walking alongside men, women and children challenged by incredible life circumstances is humbling. I have always believed that everything I have witnessed has given me a responsibility...a responsibility not just to change myself or be personally inspired, but to be an interpreter to the larger world of these unique and humbling experiences.

Whether it is the daily victories of staying clean and sober celebrated by the crack addicted inner-city mother, or the more visible heroic efforts of Gail Johnson's Nkosi's Haven or Veronica Kgabo's Diepsloot School...all of these experiences bring with them a responsibility to share, reflect and interpret them to the larger world.

At one point in my travels to South Africa, I was unexpectedly brought into the sickroom of a woman struggling with HIV. As I sat on a low bench beside her mattress on the floor, I, the uninvited guest, was overwhelmed by my role as witness.

Mama, wrapped in tattered blankets, poured out her story of death and illness. Her youngest granddaughter had died the day before...just 6 months old. Her husband, sister, daughter, brother, son and another grandchild had all passed away within the previous 9 months. The woman interpreting all this from the end of the bed was explaining how she herself is no longer taking her ARV medications in order to have money for food for this ever diminishing household.

The interpreter told me I could take a photo. The mama wouldn't mind.

But I did. I minded being there, like a spectator or a tourist invited to take photos of the "natives". I minded my role -- like some kind of parasite feeding off of the human suffering of others.

But I had not asked to come there. I didn't even know where I was being taken when I walked in the home.

And so I witnessed a tragedy not so many people in my world ever see. And witnessing this very uncomfortable and tragic reality gave me a responsibility. A responsibility to tell you this heartrending story. A responsibility to bring you to that low bench in the dimly lit room with a fully realized woman not that much different than myself, pouring out her story to a stranger. I have to believe I was brought to witness her story just for this reason. For the reason that I would share this with you.

And now, it is your turn to take the role of witness seriously. It is your turn to be responsible with her story.

Witness the reality. Share the responsibility.

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