The 1.4 Billion Reasons presentation aims to be a lightbulb moment for audience members, to illuminate, somehow, a clear path ahead and provide the strength of heart to walk it. Everyone has her own lightbulb moment, when she glimpses the part she must play in the larger world (and, correspondingly, bore all her friends and acquaintances describing it). This is mine.
The girls told me that their employers called them donkeys, ânes. In the shed where we talked, they reported this with little visible anger, only small traces of bitterness, just a hint of shame in the creases of their eyebrows. They cried when they reported being beaten, raped, or when they worried about losing their jobs as domestic workers, and some raised their voices in anger; but none seemed particularly disturbed about this dehumanizing appellation.
When I started interviewing domestic workers in Mali for a project during my study abroad, I expected to hear terrible stories. I wanted to know the worst about this system of servitude, and I certainly learned awful things, but the first time I cried in an interview was when a girl told me that her employer called her an animal.
Their words affected me so strongly, I think, because they demonstrated so clearly the foundation of the issue. Domestic servitude in Mali is fraught with problems, and each instance of abuse relies on the basic assumption that the servant is not a person. The women related sagas of long hours, horrible conditions, sexual abuse; and all of these things could be summed up with one powerful epithet: donkey.
It's no surprise that humans have trouble understanding that other people are, well, people. But this particular instance brought home to me how even subtle dehumanization can lead to large-scale abuses. These girls became domestic servants because they had no other options. They grew up, for the most part, in farming communities, and came to the city at age twelve or thirteen to raise a dowry. They wandered the streets until an employer picked them up, and they worked seven days a week, eighteen hours a day. What happened to these girls in their employers' homes was an obvious violation; but the revelation to me was that their rights had been violated a long time before they ever arrived in Bamako, from the moment they were born.
When we see cases of extreme abuse – child soldiers, or victims of torture – we know instinctively that rights have been compromised. It's easy to identify the perpetrator and the victim, and accordingly, we open our wallets and our hearts. But we often forget that people end up in dangerous and harmful situations because they have been denied their rights from the very beginning. When we see someone who is hungry, but not famine-level, ribs-sticking-out, Ethiopia-in-1985 hungry, it's simple to write it off as an unfortunate matter of circumstance, but not really requiring our attention. We see no need to alter the way we live our lives, because the connections are too distant, and the abuse not severe enough.
Before I went to Mali, I certainly planned to donate to worthy causes, to spend a spring break or two with Habitat for Humanity, and read even the most impenetrable articles about famines. After Mali, I found a new determination to stretch my understanding of the human experience, and to address human problems at their most basic level.
Seeing a lightbulb is about understanding in a place deep in your bones, in your belly, that all people have equal value, that no person deserves to be called an animal. That the poverty of whole nations is not an unfortunate circumstance affecting some, but an injustice to all. I can't say that my lightbulb illuminated my path forward with blinding clarity; but I can say that in a small, dark shed in a back alley of Bamako, I talked to some women who made me certain that I should walk it.