With so many charities sharing stories of people that need our support, it is understandable that some people talk of ‘compassion fatigue’-The idea that we get so used to hearing or seeing stories of people in need that we respond with a blasé attitude, or don’t respond at all. For me, having worked in international development for so long, I am sometimes amazed that I have not fallen into the same state of mind. Nevertheless, it has taken a personal and concerted effort to ensure that I guard my heart and mind from commoditising the people I am privileged to meet. People who live with the very real hardship of extreme poverty on a daily basis. People who have been cast aside by acts of injustice and exploitation. There have been so many stories over the years, I cannot claim to remember the details of every one of them, and I genuinely wish I could. However, there is at least a familiarity to their struggle when I look at photo I have taken or a report I have written. There are, however, a handful of stories – or rather people – whose names and faces stay with me at the very forefront of my moral consciousness. They are victims of trafficking, abandoned children, individuals dying of preventable diseases; they are people who have marked me with their character, their strength and their bravery in the face of incomprehensible hardship. As a man and a feminist, it is particularly stories of women that seem to impact me the most. Regina is one of those women, one of a small handful of people, whom I am certain I will never forget.
Sitting down to film an interview with Regina was fairly routine. We covered the polite introductions and then went thoroughly through our permissions processes. We did the sound checks, the lighting checks and ensured the translator and crew were ready to start. Unnerved by it all, Regina just sat patiently waiting for us to start our conversation. And so we began. With one question to prompt her, Regina spoke, uninterrupted, for about 40 minutes. I simply asked her – tell me about your life – from childhood until now. And she did so honestly, in great detail and with an accuracy that I have to assume could only have come from a daily recollection of the pain and regret she has known.
As Regina spoke, tears rolled down my face uncontrollably, the camera-man kept wiping his eyes to enable him to see through the eyepiece, the sound guy kept changing hands to hold his microphone, the translator dabbed her own tears away and our local partner representative just kept shaking her head in disbelief as Regina recounted her story. Our response was not contrived or superficially sympathetic. It was a response to an account of harmed humanity, of a woman who has been trampled on by the boots of injustice, whose vulnerability has been scorned and scoffed at and a woman who somehow survives the horrific onslaught of despair and complexity that each day throws at her. Time and again, Regina has been knocked down by one situation after another. Regina’s is the kind of story that makes you wonder how so much bad can happen to one person.
And yet, Regina starts again each day, with a demonstrative bravery, tenacity and strength, the depth of which most of us will never know or exhibit.
When you look Regina in the eye, you see a righteous and justified anger. Then you see abounding love. It is this balance and a deep and devoted faith that gives Regina her strength. That gives her the ability to show kindness, to share whatever little she gains with anyone else who needs it. Regina is 70 years old and cares for a household of ten. Four of those she cares for have severe disabilities. And most of her household are children – some her grandchildren as her eldest daughter died. Her own serious health complications and pain are side-lined for the sake of her family. Regina’s whole life is lived in selfless service to others. Perhaps it is this very virtue that has been advantageously exploited by so many in her lifetime. Yet still she carries on, not allowing her heart to be hardened, or humanity or dignity to be robbed.
Regina’s need is paramount for all of us. Yes, we can, and are, responding practically together with All We Can’s local partner in Cameroon and hope is coming for Regina. It has to. But as individuals, if we are to look at Regina, then turn away without responding, we have a much bigger problem. We would need to ask ourselves, where is our humanity? How many more accounts of real people will it take to move us to action?
So my challenge to each of you is to watch Regina’s story, and to really look at her face and listen to her words, and then ask yourself what your response should be.