February 15, 2008

Greasing the Skids

While giving a tour last month to some visiting students, I was describing all the various things we do in Itipini and a new phrase popped into my head – “greasing the skids.” What we do can best in Itipini is to grease the skids of someone’s life to help them overcome the manifold obstacles that confront them every single day. If you liked physics, you could think of these in terms of the friction formula f=μN. We can reduce the coefficient of friction (μ) and thereby reduce the overall drag someone is experiencing.

Examples of this are numerous:

  • We can pay the hospital fee for someone who needs more advanced care than we can provide. The fee isn’t huge, less than 5 U.S. dollars, but even that can put care out of reach of people here.
  • We can drive patients to hospital appointments. Itipini, as I’ve noted before, is a good hike from the nearest taxi rank and if a person is weak, say from HIV, the advanced care they need might be physically out of reach for them.
  • We can help a family buy uniforms for their children so they won’t get kicked out of school.
  • We can provide ready access to condoms and other forms of birth control to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and the spread of disease.
  • We can buy the beads for women who then turn them into crafts that they can sell.
What we cannot do is resolve the major issues that define the very heart of life in Itipini. We can’t cure HIV, we can’t make absent fathers provide for their children, we can’t build better homes to replace the decrepit shacks people live in, etc., etc., etc. But perhaps if we help people overcome some of the issues at the margins of their lives, some of the more substantial problems will become a bit more manageable and or at least seem in the realm of solve-ability.

I imagine this phrase has stuck with me because it appeals to that part of me that wants to be doing something, rather than “just” being present with people here. It turns out I’ve been doing something all along – it’s just that what I can do will always be at the margins.