This is Abadou’s story, in celebration of Blog Action Day, and this year’s goal, to start a global conversation on poverty:
In 1988, I left a classroom of 24 well-fed, intellectually gifted fourth graders in Spokane, Washington for— well, I wasn’t sure what for.
I didn’t know where I was headed, just that I was taking a leave of absence from teaching.
I just knew there was something else out there for me. You know, that “leap and the net will appear” kind of feeling?
I answered a classified ad in the Los Angeles Times that August. Four weeks later, I was manager of Writing Services for World Vision, one of the most respected nonprofits in the world.
World Vision helps 100 million people in nearly 100 countries with programs that assist in natural disaster recovery, combat the root cause of poverty, and find lasting ways of improving the lives of children and their families.
I knew nothing about relief and development, but I would learn.
I worked with project managers in dozens of countries around the world to craft the messages that would sell their programs to donors: wells in Senegal, opportunities for Kenyan girls to go to school, relief supplies for Armenian earthquake survivors, food and medicines for families displaced by war in Lebanon.
Poverty has a face
The summer after I was hired, I traveled to the sub-Saharan country of Mali to help film a TV documentary on Third World poverty. My travel mates were Robin, a TV producer, Henry, the camera man, Marty, World Vision director of donor support, and Paul, a WV production assistant.
It was 106 degrees in the desert the morning I climbed into the red Totota 4-wheel drive van with the film crew for the 10-kilometer drive from the village of Gao to the CREN (a health hospital for infants and children).
Our assignment: to follow the doctors and tell some of their stories. We decided we would get in and out quickly, before the mid-afternoon heat and the sandstorm that was predicted could muck up Henry’s delicate video equipment.
Our plans were about to change.
It was on a mat on the floor that I first saw the boy. I’ll call him Abadou. He had twig-like legs and hands no bigger than golf balls. His head hung to one side, his eyes sunken and glazed over. I found out later he was exactly one year old, but he looked no more than three months.
His father, Muhammed, sat cross-legged in his long flowing robe, stroking the boy’s head with two of his fingers.
Abadou had severe diarrhea, had not taken anything by mouth for four days. The water he had been drinking was full of disease. Intravenous electrolyte solution was the only answer.
John, the World Vision doctor, spewed out orders I didn’t understand, opened his bag, and pulled out IV tubes and a bottle of clear liquid. He inserted the needle into Abadou’s limp arm.
Muhammed, rising from the floor, pulled at the edge of his robe and said, “Why? Why do you do that?”
“It’s the only way to save your son,” Dr. John said.
“Only Allah can save my son,” Muhammed said in a remarkably calm voice. “If the crops fail or the water is dirty, it is Allah’s wish and there will be hunger. Starvation, maybe.”
He pointed to his son.
“Look. You save my boy today by putting tubes in his arm. But will you stay until he is fifteen, until he becomes a man? How will I care for him after you leave?”
He had a point.
Muhammed leaned into Dr. John’s face and shook his fist.
“Maybe Allah wants me to help Abadou, so he can live,” Dr. John said. “Mariyah will show you how to give this medicine to your son.”
He put three oral rehydration packets in Muhammed’s hand and pressed his fingers closed. With this treatment, Abadou would live.
Most of the film crew left Mali when the week was over. I continued on to Senegal and stayed another two weeks, joining a team evaluating water, agriculture and health projects.
Back in Los Angeles, we all got busy with different projects and lost touch with each other.
One year later, almost to the day, I received an invitation in the mail. On it was a color photo of little Abadou, huge brown eyes gazing wisely into the camera lens, old-man-like. He had survived and Robin was inviting us to his second birthday party at her condo in Malibu.
We sat on the floor—Robin, Henry, Marty, Paul and me— munching on almonds and Cheetohs, drinking beer and Perrier, telling our Mali stories. Eventually, the conversation turned to Abadou.
“So how is he?” I said.
The room became quiet, except for the whapping of the ceiling fan.
Robin pointed to the photos on the wall.
“See for yourself. The new Mali field director says he’s gained fifteen pounds in one year. He’s such a fighter.”
We told Abadou’s story again, each of us chiming in with different memories.
Robin reached into her pocket and pulled out a letter. It was from Dr. John. He wrote that Abadou now has a sponsor, so he has regular meals, access to clean water, immunizations, and preventive health care. And his parents get tools and training to grow crops.
The amazing projects I saw when I was there were still going strong: the digging of freshwater wells, the pumping of water from the Niger River to irrigate bright green fields of rice, growing in the middle of the parched Sahara. And the rice cooperative, giving women the business skills to sustain their families over the long-term.
Robin slipped away to the kitchen and returned, holding out a half sheet of cake with white frosting, trimmed in blue squiggles The reflection of two flickering candles danced on her cheeks.
I squinted, looked at the corner of the living room by the front door. For a second I thought I saw Muhammed standing there, glaring at an American celebration for a child whose birth, by Islamic custom, had not even been recorded.
I could see him pushing the cake away, grabbing Abadou’s tiny hand, and stalking out the door.
We raised our glasses to a two-year-old boy 6,000 miles away. Robin blew out the candles. It’s the best birthday celebration I’ve ever been to, the only one where the guest of honor couldn’t make the party. Happy birthday, Abadou.
It’s not really that complicated
We can all do something about poverty and we don’t have to go to Africa.
Someday I will write a post about marketing lessons we can learn from the best nonprofits. But for now, I’ll just say that World Vision is a master of selling to the heart first, telling their stories and offering choices and benefit-rich packages.
You get what they are saying because they make it so real and you just know that you are making a difference in someone’s life.
Today is Blog Action Day 2008, an annual event that unites the world’s bloggers, podcasters and videocasters to post about the same issue on the same day. The goal this year is to raise awareness and start a global conversation on poverty.
It’s a multi-faceted issue, but if we think about kids like Abadou, it gets less complicated. Each one of us can do something. If you don’t have time to serve on a board or volunteer at a food bank or provide pro bono services for a nonprofit, visit World Vision’s online gift catalog for a bunch of low-cost solutions like these:
• $20 will get bed nets for malaria prevention for one family.
• $25 will buy two chickens, providing a lasting source of nutrition with their high-protein eggs and money for the family through the sales of extra eggs.
• $25 will buy necessities for an American child: diapers, blankets, brand-new clothing, and toys. One in every five children in this country live in poverty. Thanks to corporate donations, your gift will be multiplied 14 times.
• $32 will buy education for a child for a year: school fees and uniform, textbooks, backpacks, school supplies, to ensure that a child is able to learn.
• $35 will buy agricultural tools and training for one family.
• $35 a month will make you one of World Vision’s 6,000 child sponsors, providing one child with clean water, meals, health care, as well as agricultural tools and training for the family.
• $50 will buy water purification tablets to prevent cholera and dysentery after a natural disaster.
• $50 provides hope for sexually exploited girls, whose families were forced to sell them to brothels in order to buy food. Your gift gets a girl out of danger and into a shelter, where she gets medical care, food, education, training, and counseling to eventually reunite with her family.
• $75 helps to fund a well to deliver 600 gallons of safe water a day for drinking, bathing, irrigating crops, and watering livestock. Your gift means that children and their mothers won’t have to walk long distances, only to find water that is dirty and disease-ridden.
For more ways to help kids and families dig out from the poverty they were born into, see World Vision’s gift catalog.
What about you?
Have you seen any people around you doing good things to take a stand against poverty?
Have you done things as a family?
Do you know of a charity that is making a difference?
I’d love it if you’d leave a comment.