I live on a small island nation. It is one of the 20 poorest countries in the world. The government has been wracked with political crises since its independence in 1975. There are not adequate transportation links. The economy balances precariously on the export of three main crops. Staple foods including rice and chicken are imported from as far away as South America. The nation is crippled by international debt but dependent on the charity of richer nations for its very survival. Medical care is subpar, at best. Any family with means will send their children abroad if they have hope of a good education.
On an individual level, islanders make an average of $1300 per year. Since I live an urban area, the poverty I notice is minimal. I see people selling and buying. They have clothing. Children go to school. Most adults go to work. (Unemployment is 20%).
When I have the privilege to enter an islanders’ home, I am treated as an honored guest. Soda and treats are brought out for me to enjoy. I am invited to wedding celebrations, birthday parties and religious ceremonies where everyone is dressed in their finest and food is freely given and partaken. Mounds of gifts exchange hands. Gold is paraded down the street in a show of wealth. But this is all a charade.
I have little idea what real life is like on a daily basis. How many meals were missed to buy that gold? Was the power bill not paid this month so that a new fancy outfit could be purchased? How many nights did the children cry themselves to sleep from hunger so that 100 people could be given a parting gift at the wedding ceremony? Society and culture dictate many things on my island. Shame prevents people from living within their means. While I know this, it is easy to forget day to day. Until yesterday…
I was on my way home from my first English class of the day. I love to teach but when I finish a class I feel like a deflated balloon. All my energy has been sucked out. I was buying a sugar-filled juice from my neighbor, to chemically regain some of that energy, when I received a phone call from A.D., my host sister and one of my students from my second class. She sounded like she had lost her voice. She was speaking in a whisper and when I asked the obligatory, “How are you?” she told me she was not well. Immediately, my mind re-engaged. Islanders almost always answer that they are well, no matter the truth. I asked if she was sick. She said no, but then she could barely breathe enough to tell me the rest. I heard, “sister”, “they died”, “boat” and the neighboring French island. I told her I would be right over.
Sixty miles south of my island sits another island. While a part of the same archipelago, when the three islands that make up my island nation voted for independence this island voted to remain a part of France. This French island is the Promised Land for many Clove Islanders.
Much like Mexicans traveling illegally into the United States, Clove Islanders often travel illegally to the French island. And just like in the US, it is expensive and it is dangerous. But the same human tendency is at play in both places: Hope.
Islanders hope for better jobs. They hope for a better education for their children. They hope for better medical care. They hope for a better life. Who can blame them?
Reality is not all it’s cracked up to be though. Many Clove Islanders living on the French island live in squalor. They cannot get legitimate work without the proper paperwork so their employers take advantage of them. They live in constant fear of being discovered by the French police and deported. It’s that tenacious feeling of hope that fuels, from the outside, what looks like foolishness.
Half an hour after I received the call from A.D., I walked into her compound to find two of her sisters in tears. She came down the stairs and greeted me with the French bisous. We sat while she explained. I knew much of the story already. Her older sister, Atira, was in a bad car accident several months ago. Since then her hands have alternated between intense pain and numbness. Doctors here are unable to help her. Her only hope was to take a clandestine boat in the middle of the night to the French island. Once there, medical care is free, even for illegal Clove Islanders. She had been waiting for weeks for the call to come in the night. Clandestine boat runners never tell passengers until the night of when they will leave. This, they hope, will prevent the police from being tipped off. So the passengers wait anxiously for weeks on end, with their bags packed.
The boats are small. They are overcrowded and there are no life vests on board. Every month or so, the island is rocked by the news of yet another clandestine boat that didn’t make it to its destination. A freak storm, a small leak, a malfunctioning engine and the boat disappears into the depths during the long night.
Two nights ago, Atira received the long-awaited call. Her neighbor, Adam, came to their house and pulled his five-year-old daughter Clarissa out of the bed she shared with A.D. They were on one of the boats too. Clarissa needed medical care; this was her chance.
In the darkness, three small boats cast off, filled to the brim with hopeful Clove Islanders, most from M-town (the town I will be moving to in 2 weeks). Most of those hopes would be dashed before sunrise.
At 6am, fishermen, on their way to work, began finding bodies washing up on shore. They were being found all along the 30 miles of the southern coastline. Men jumped in their fishing boats and cast out to sea in hopes of saving some. And soon they found survivors clinging to anything that could support their weight. By the time I made it to M-town, several survivors had trickled in. These survivors reported that Atira was not on the boat that sank. Adam and Clarissa were. No one had seen them.
News came that the second boat had ben captured by French police. The passengers were on their way back to Clove Island with a sandwich, courtesy of the French government. Hopes of a better future dashed for the moment. But at least they were still alive. A French-island family member confirmed that Atira was not on that boat either.
Which left the third boat. It was lost at sea. It should have arrived hours and hours ago, but no one had heard from anyone onboard. A young man whose mother was on the third boat came to A.D.’s house and sat with us, not speaking, simply drawing comfort from others in the same difficult situation.
What could I do for my friends? I could pray. I could get others to do the same. So as I sat there surrounded by islanders I have come to love as family, I began texting my teammates. I sent out a mass Facebook message to my friends back home and the response was immediate. God’s people started praying.
After an hour, I was hesitant to leave but I had my M-town English class. I walked to class with a heavy heart, passing houses filled with mourners. Five minutes into class, not even half my class had arrived. Those that had come were mostly from another town and had not yet heard the news. I broke the news, devastating one of my students, the cousin of Atira, who had not yet heard. I began class with a prayer and asked if any of my students would like to pray. One of my tough, male students (not from M-town) prayed for several minutes with tears streaming down his face. I was touched by his compassion. He later told me that he lost an aunt five years ago in the same way. No islander is untouched by this reality.
In honor of the grieving, I ended class early. On my way home, knowing my ties to M-town, I was stopped multiple times by those in my town asking for the news. By the time I made it home, I was exhausted physically, emotionally and spiritually.
But then I got a late phone call from A.D. Atira’s boat had just landed on the French island! She was safely in the arms of family members there. After a harrowing time on the ocean for almost 24 hours, she and all those on her boat were on dry land again. Their hope still burns strong. Praise God.
My heart aches for those who lost loved ones yesterday. Since I last heard Adam washed ashore alive but Clarissa has not been found. Amidst the joy of Atira’s safety is the so much pain. What’s worse, this will continue. As long as conditions are harsh on Clove Island and better on the French island, hope will be kindled and islanders will chase that hope, sometimes to their death.
There is a hope that will never lead to death. My prayer is that islanders will find this hope. They will still go to the French island. Even followers of Jesus desire good medical care, a good education for their children and more economic opportunities. But if that desire leads to a physical death, it does not have to mean eternal death. Hear my prayer.