Essay: My life as a spiritual director in Niger

Joshua Korn is the spiritual director and community liaison for the CURE International hospital in Niamey, Niger. In this personal essay, he describes his work with CURE and explains how he is contributing to the fight against global poverty. Stay in touch with Joshua on his blog, Josh and Julie.

I grew up in West Africa. I lived in Togo and la Côte D’Ivoire until I was 14 years old. Ever since then, I always wanted to come back. Africa gets in your blood, and stays forever like malaria. That is cliché, but true. I heard about CURE and the great work they do through a friend, so when the opportunity to come to Niger came up, I jumped at it. We jumped at it, I should say. My wife, who works here with me, is actually much more jumpy than I am.

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Josh and Julie with one of the children from the CURE hospital
The CURE hospital is primarily a children’s hospital, and we specialize in treating burn victims and children with cleft lip or cleft palate and clubfoot. As spiritual director, I provide spiritual and emotional support to the patients and staff at the hospital. In practice, this can mean many different things. My job description is pretty vague, and purposely so, I think, because it is hard to define what I do. I work very closely with the hospital’s social worker in trying to determine what the needs of our patients are and what we can do to help. Giving a child a life-changing, life-saving surgery is a big deal, but I am realizing more and more that often, it is just scratching the surface.

For example, consider this (hypothetical but very typical) case: A mother of a child with cleft lip lives in a village a couple hundred kilometers from Niamey. She hears about our hospital, decides to come. She gathers together all the money she can for the trip; maybe she sells a few chickens, or some roasted peanuts. Usually, it does not amount to very much. She is not used to handling money anyway. She comes to the hospital and her child is treated, but she learns that they have to stay in the hospital for three weeks. She also learns that the child will be fed, but she will have to feed herself. Her money runs out after the first week, and she has nothing to feed her other baby (the one that is always on her back) or herself. Also, it is cold at night and her child does not have anything warm to wear.

So we try and figure out how we can help, aside from the medical care that we provide. There are so many things that I would have never thought of, and I am learning new things all the time. There are also a lot of emotional issues to deal with, for the patients and for their family members. People with disabilities are viewed with suspicion, discriminated against and generally mistreated. Usually people say that their condition is because of some sin they committed, or the result of a curse someone put on them. Life is very difficult even for people that are totally healthy in Niger, for the sick and disabled it is nearly unbearable.

They are suffering physically, but often they are also traumatized by the way they have been treated. Having a disabled child is a burden for the whole family, and community, in many different ways. Not least among them is the financial burden it represents. It is another mouth to feed, and usually one that cannot work. The surgeries we provide are very literally helping people get back on their feet, back to a normal, productive life, and back to work. They alleviate a real burden, which frees up resources for other things, and the impact of these operations is felt well beyond the patient and immediate family.

The culture in Niger is very communal. When you talk to someone, you are not just talking to them, you are talking to their whole family, their whole village, their whole tribe. The same goes for healing. When a child is brought to the hospital and receives treatment, it is not just the child that is healed. The child’s family is healed as well, and their whole community is blessed by it. Almost every time we talk to parents after their child has been healed, their first reaction is, “Wait until we get back home and everyone sees this!”
Everything and everyone is connected.

But more importantly, at CURE, we try to encourage and empower people, even as we offer them help. We do this by asking the patients and their families to contribute towards their own healing. We ask them to pay for their surgery if they can. If they cannot pay for all of it, we ask them to pay for a part of it. Even if it is a tiny fraction of the real cost, it makes a difference, for us and for them. Even if they cannot pay anything at all, they are still expected to contribute in other ways. They have to follow the post-op instructions from the doctor (which can be quite extensive and can take months, especially with the clubfoot cases). They have to come to their follow up appointments. They have to take their medicine. Sometimes they even have to change the dressing, etc.

The point is, they are involved in the process. They come to our hospital for help, but not for a handout. They don’t want a handout. They come to us for help, but we try to give them a chance to help themselves.

To sum it up, I love my job. Basically, I am here to welcome those who are usually unwelcome, to care for the uncared for, and to love the unloved. I am always blown away by how generous the Nigerien people are.

Even if they have nothing, they will share with you the little they do have. And they are really full of joy. Niger may be one of the world’s poorest countries, but they have a wealth of natural resources: smiles, handshakes, laughter and general friendliness abound. Also, it seems to me like they really embrace the fullness of life, both the good and the bad. They don’t ignore the aspects of life that are difficult. You can’t when you live in a place like this, where signs of poverty and hardship are everywhere, and drought and famine are common. But they also don’t dwell on the hardship. They don’t sit around feeling sorry for themselves, letting hopelessness set in. They take the good with the bad because they recognize that life is filled with both good and bad.

Read more about Josh and Julie’s life in Niger on their blog, http://joshjulieblog.wordpress.com/.