Sunday, June 17, 2007

About a boy

I have a story. It is about a boy.

This boy lives in a rural village that lies outside of the reach of the city, the electrical grid and other amenities that comes with modernity. He is second born of 9 and the first born son. Like the rest of the community, his is a farming family and their life is synchronized with the sun; they get up as it rises, work in the fields with it overhead, and head home as its travel down the horizon. The family works a modest plot of land that for the most part, allows them to put food on the table and at times, even has some money left over to send a few of the 9 children to school. As the eldest son, this boy is one of the lucky ones.

One day, the small boy goes to his father with a simple request: to have his first pair of shoes. Shoes after all, rank low on the list of household needs.

The father thinks for a bit and says to the boy. ‘I tell you what. You know that we don’t have very much money. But you get up every morning at 5:30 before school, feed these ducklings over here and look after them. Once they grow big enough to sell, you and I will take them to the market. With the money we make, we will buy a pair of shoes. Deal?”

As so, the boy gets up before the crack of dawn and diligently feeds the ducks before heading off to school. After a few months, the father tells the boy the news that he’s been waiting for “Son, the ducks are looking nice and fat. I think that they are ready for the market.” and off they go.

Carrying the ducks over their shoulders, they weave through the stalls of the market and find a buyer who offers a fair price. Ducks and money exchange hands and just as the father promised the small boy, they make their way to the shoe stall. They enter the stall and the little boy can barely contain his excitement. ‘Imagine, after all this time! Shoes!’.

But the thing to remember is that it takes time to raise ducklings. Just as ducklings grow big, so do small boys. And over the course of all of the 5:30 mornings, over the course of all of the daily feedings and disciplined patience, feet that were small enough to fit into children’s shoes had now grown into feet that only fit into the more expensive adult size shoes.

The little boy’s feet had outgrown the profits of his ducks.

And father and son have no choice but to leave the shoe stall with money in hand, and feet as bare as when they arrived.

Some of you may read this story and feel sympathy. Some of you may pity the small boy. I feel empathy and to me this story represents the meaning of opportunity and is part of my story of why I care.

This story doesn’t take place here in Zambia, far from it in fact. It takes place in the rural village of Wan-Sah in southern China some fifty or so years ago.

This story is a about a boy, and this boy is my father.

My dad grew up in poverty similar to what I see around me. He grew up with hopes, dreams, and abilities and I see these, in abundance, around me. My dad had to travel to Canada to access opportunities that enabled him to translate these hopes, dreams and abilities into a life of security. And I, by happenstance of being born in Canada, enjoy a life of choice and freedoms, just one generation later.

When I think about this, I simply can’t accept that the opportunities of access– to health, education, markets and technology – that enable people to leverage abilities and make something of hopes and dreams should confined to our Canadian or ‘western’ borders. I just can’t accept that; not when I meet people who are just like me, just like my dad, but happen to fall on the broadside of the injustice of global poverty.

Dad, I want you to know that I see you in so many of the inspiring people around me who have hopes and dreams and abilities just like you; in people like Frances, the porter who moved my bed 4 km by wheel barrow to my new place to earn some money so he can send his young daughter to school; in Mr. Moyu, the PROFIT mechanic who is so proud that his eldest son will attend university; in Mr. Chiyombwe, the pragmatic farmer who doesn’t take risks but has worked hard in his fields and his family is now more secure than when he was growing up. In so many of the people I see, I see your story of working hard, of searching for and taking advantage of every opportunity to give your children a better future, a better tomorrow.

I know that it might be hard to understand why I have chosen this path after getting my engineering degree. I know that in your deepest dreams, you too had wanted to be an engineer, but couldn’t afford to go to school. I know that after owning your own factory in Hong Kong, for thirty one years, you worked at someone else’s. Day in and day out you worked hard, not because you loved you job but because you loved your children.

Thank you. Your gift of freedom and opportunities has allowed me and my brothers to follow our passions and to lead lives that we value. This is a gift that inspires me. And this is a lifetime gift that I will cherish, always.

Happy Father’s Day Ba. I hope you and mom are off enjoying the freedom of retirement as you tour around New Foundland. I miss you lots and can’t wait for you and mom to come and see Zambia.