The Power of Proximity
Kirsten Penner Krymusa
Lispa walks into a room like a Maya Angelou poem. Hips swaying, eyes sparkling, large smooth arms picking up scattered toys and books without ever breaking her stride. She repeats my daughters’ names with her lilting Kenyan accent, over and over, her motherly mantra. There’s a quiet dignity to Lispa’s manner. A refusal to hurry. A steady rhythm that beats somewhere below the surface as she walks to the clothesline in her worn blue flip-flops or bends at the waist to scrub the floor.
Lispa works for me. She does my housework, bakes my bread, and occasionally watches my girls when I’m tired or need to run a quick errand. I’ve come to accept the bizarre reality of having a houseworker while I live in Kenya. I make a concerted effort to be a fair employer, to give her a generous wage, to inquire about her family and thank her for her help. But the truth is that when Lispa enters my house each morning, she brings with her an undeniable discomfort. Because although I lead a modest life by any North American standard - no large appliances, no screens on my windows, intermittent power and water - when Lispa walks in the room, I’m rich. Filthy rich.
I tend to bemoan my cramped kitchen and complain when the power goes out while I’m on the computer. I scroll through websites and long for high-tech toys for my 4 month old daughter. I rifle through my t-shirt drawer in despair, dreaming of the convenience of a Canadian shopping mall.
And then Lispa walks in. Lispa, who lives in a one room house with her husband and 3 children. Who irons her two dresses with meticulous care. Who can barely cram all my daughters’ toys into our large toy basket while her children play soccer with a ball of knotted rags.
Maybe there’s an immorality to having someone who is so poor enter right into the middle of all my wealth. But maybe there’s also value in the juxtaposition - a refining that comes with the discomfort. Because if Lispa didn’t work for me, the reality would be the same. I’d still be way too rich. And she’d still be somewhere in a tiny crowded room, way too poor. When I lived in my funky downtown apartment in Canada, washing my own floors and doing my own laundry in the basement laundromat, there were still millions of Lispas in the world trying to scrape by one more day - sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. The difference wasn’t in the disparity, just the proximity.
Whenever Lispa stands in front of my full pantry and asks quietly if I might be able to spare some extra sugar for her family, whenever I drive by the devastating Kiberra slum on a family outing to the giraffe park, whenever I slow down my Subaru for an elderly woman carrying a load of firewood on her back, I remember that things are not right. That ours is a broken and unjust world, and that I do not have the luxury of complacency.
I wonder how I’ll maintain that awareness when I do move back to North America some day. I know all too well how easy it is to exist in a comfortable middle class bubble. If I plan my route through the city carefully, I could probably go weeks without even seeing people poorer than me, let alone actually having a relationship with them. And I think there’s an immorality to that as well, or at least a grave danger. Because those of us who are rich cannot afford to be too comfortable with our wealth - especially those of us who claim to be “little Christs”. I know Jesus had encounters with those in circles of wealth and comfort, but most of the time, he chose to seek out the sick and poor and outcasts. So maybe there’s moral value in proximity with the poor. Maybe Lispa is helping me develop the spiritual discipline of discomfort.
- found on Burnside Writers Collective -