Guiding Cross-Cultural Principles from Public Health

Muslim women's health

I work in public health. As opposed to being a nurse in an emergency room or intensive care unit where care is focused on an individual patient, as a public health nurse I look at whole populations and health projects that will ideally make entire communities healthier.

Before moving to Kurdistan, I had the privilege of working on a women’s health project in the foreign-born Muslim community in Massachusetts. It was a merging of worlds as I watched God uniquely use my background in my job. We were generously welcomed into the community during a time when people could rightly be suspicious and concerned. Women and men willingly met with us, answering often difficult questions about health care and prevention.

I could speak and write for hours about this project, but recently as I was thinking about why the work went so well, I realized that the principles behind it are relevant to cross-cultural work around the world.

I wanted to share the principles that we used as we developed and implemented the project with the hope of beginning a conversation about working in and with  communities around the world.

  • At every level, involve the community.  Attempts to reach a population group without first knowing the group are often inappropriately designed and poorly received.  This principle is especially important when working with populations that represent a variety of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, each with varying belief systems and barriers, among other situational, historical, social, and economic differences.  An effective outreach program will need to consider those characteristics unique to each group and tailor its design accordingly, incorporating participation from representatives of the population in all phases of the program.  A good question to ask a community is: “Is this a prioritized need of your group, or is it a perceived need by outsiders?”
  • In every encounter, use diverse community partners.  Outreach programs that attempt to reach diverse groups can face obstacles such as not having sufficient knowledge, experience, or access to reaching and serving the community. Another mistake outsiders make is meeting with only one group and applying broad strokes from that group to the rest of the community. A culturally competent approach to outreach must include innovative and creative community partnerships in order to educate and serve the community.  Effective partners can be organizations, individual community leaders, educational institutions, media outlets – virtually any accepted and trusted avenue through which people can be reached and served.
  • With every message, educate whole families.  Because three quarters of the world relies on and adheres to a family system of support, decision-making, and problem-solving, educating people as individuals in isolation from their families may deter long–term, health-seeking behaviors and result in wasted time.  Accurate messages must be targeted to whole families, as well as to the entire population group, to facilitate an environment in which diverse groups can seek health care without barriers or fears. Outreach messages and strategies cannot and should not ignore the context of people’s lives.
  • Plan with, not for, the community. While this may seem simple, it’s not. If you really analyze some of the work that any of us do, we may realize that we plan for communities all the time. “Let’s do this!” we excitedly say! “This will make a huge impact!” And then we are desperately disappointed when our projects fail. Planning with a community means doing their project, their way. That’s hard, especially when we come as experts in our respective fields. Planning with instead of for means listening and asking questions, clarifying and rephrasing, all toward getting a better sense of how the project is perceived by the group we are working alongside.
  • As a guiding perspective, look to the long–term.  It takes a lot of time to do cross-cultural projects well. Our project took twice as much time as we thought it would. Building relationships, drinking tea, testing programs, asking for advice, drinking tea, getting feedback, revising, taking a step back when you want to take five steps forward, drinking tea….did I mention drinking tea? Relationship-building is a huge part of effective public health projects. Outreach programs should incorporate a long–term perspective with a willingness to invest time and resources in developing a positive and mutually trusting relationship with those groups over time.

Those principles served us well in the project I described at the beginning. As I have moved on to work in Kurdistan, I have needed to look back at them. I want things to move quickly. I want to work for change. I want. I want. I want. And then I take a step back and I think about the meaningful conversations that I get to have every single day. I think about the laughter and conversations I’ve shared as I’ve sat in the homes of Kurdish friends and colleagues. I think of the things I’m learning, the humility that is inherently a part of being an outsider in a new culture and being like a small child in everything from learning the language to learning how to shop. I think about the ways God has uniquely prepared me for such a time as this.

I stop and I think about the privilege of working cross-culturally, the privilege of learning from people who don’t think as I think or live as I live. I don’t want to squander the privilege by being culturally arrogant and thinking my way is better. Instead I want to breathe, slow down, learn, and drink tea. 

What about you? Have you used these principles in your work? How have you worked alongside communities instead of in front of them? I’d love to hear through the comments. 

Note on the photo – we had the opportunity to do an amazing photo shoot for this project. This is one of the photos that the focus groups then chose to go into a community curriculum. It is of me with one of the project participants.

 *Author’s note: Some of the material from this piece was adapted from Communicating Across Boundaries Cultural Competency Curriculum developed by NAWHO and adapted by Marilyn Gardner and Cathy Romeo. 

Upside Down Dependency

Humanitarians often talk about the issue of dependency and how to avoid creating it. The whole: teach a person to fish scenario.

What if the conversation is backward?

What if the person at risk of developing the dependency is the humanitarian?

Humanitarians need the local person to be needy. We need a job, we need to feel useful, we need to feel value, we need to produce. We need gripping photos for fundraising attempts. On a more heart level, we need to feel powerful, in charge, and heroic.

The needier the local person and the longer they remain in that state, the more secure we are in our position.

The effective aid worker must be willing and able to clearly evaluate their impact and step away when they are no longer necessary. Isn’t that the whole point? If not, it should be.

Becoming no longer necessary needs to be one of our primary goals. If it isn’t, the program or project being implemented needs to be reevaluated and adjusted accordingly.

A true effort to avoid creating dependency is to make sure that effort goes both ways.

A successful aid program will mean those who implement it will one day become superfluous. This requires great humility and imagination, especially for the Westerner.

Me, no longer needed?! Me, step aside for a local to take over?!


If that isn’t the goal, something is wrong. The aid worker has become dependent.

Teach the community to fish and what does the teacher do once the students have learned? Many either keep on staying or simply never, truly, teach the community to fish without the foreigner providing worms, instructions, the market in which to sell the fish, or motivation.

It is still the outsider, bringing in outside information that is not indigenous. It is not the outsider looking at what the local community is already doing and coming alongside to improve and expand it.


In an incredible On Being podcast interview with Anand Giridharadas, he says, “It’s language like the “win-win,” which sounds great, but in some deep way is actually about rich people saying, the only acceptable forms of social change are the forms of social change that also kick something back upstairs — language like “doing well by doing good,” which, again, is like, “The only conditions under which I’m willing to do good is under which I would also do well.”

Maybe that doing well is economic, maybe it is emotional. Still, the ego of the humanitarian is dependent on the need of the local.


Sometimes I wonder if the people inside the projects established by Western aid agencies and faith-based organizations talk about how dependent that machinery is on them? I wonder if they say something like, “Take a fish from a Westerner and he’ll stick around for a day. Let him teach you to fish and he’ll stick around for a lifetime. (while eating a lot more fish than you will ever catch).”

The aid machine needs humanitarian crises. It needs war and refugees and massive camps and epidemics. The more dire the situation, the more money pours in and the longer people have job security. The more dangerous the situation, the higher the hazard pay.

That is on a large scale. But what about in your own work?

Is your job security dependent on perpetuating a certain level of need?

Is your identity dependent on feeling useful?

Is your sense of value dependent on maintaining a status quo of you being provider, instructor, leader, instigator?

Is your purpose dependent on another’s weakness?

Is your funding structure dependent on persistent need in the local community?

Or have you worked to develop a true, authentic sense of community and partnership? Have you come in as a humble servant, willingly placing yourself beneath local authority structures and adjusting to local systems?

Who is at risk of dependency in your work?

Resources to help guide your evaluation:

When Helping Hurts

Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa

Toxic Charity

Subversive Jesus and all things things Craig Greenfield writes

13 Things I Want American Christians to Know about Stuff You Give Poor Kids (by yours truly)

*contains affiliate links

One question to help you evaluate ministry among the poor

I learnt the hard way what NOT to do in poor communities. When I first came to Cambodia 22 years ago, the place was a mess. People were poor. Dirt poor. Frankly, you’d have had to be a heartless zombie not to respond.

And the missionaries came flooding in. We were full of compassion and big dreams. Some were here to plant churches. Others were here to bring development. Some ambitious souls wanted to do both. Every one of us was here to see transformation.

Now 20 years later, it’s easy to see what worked and what didn’t work. And more tellingly, we can now see what worked while the foreigners were here, and what fell apart after they left.

In this circus of good intentions, no one wants to waste their efforts. And no one wants to prop up something that will inevitably collapse. So, how can you know? How can you evaluate whether what you are doing is going to last? How can you create something that will continue to bear fruit, even long after you have gone home?

Over time, I’ve discovered a rough way of measuring whether something holds the seeds of long-lasting impact or not. It’s contained in this simple, 3-word question: Is this replicable?

In other words, is this approach to church planting, or development among the poor, an approach that local people can repeat when I’m no longer around? Or does it require my expertise and outside resources to make it last?


Example 1: Church Planting

So, how does this actually play out in practice? What is, or is not “replicable”, when it comes to starting a church in a poor community?

I once heard the story of a church planted by an American missionary in South America. While the missionary was pastoring the church, leadership retreats were fully paid for by the missionary. Outreach costs were covered by the missionary. Church expenses were heavily subsidized by — you guessed it — the missionary.

After all, that American missionary knew that his church members were poor. He had access to American resources and he just wanted to bless them. But he didn’t realize he was actually doing them a great disservice.

Eventually, it came time for the missionary to move on. So after about 12 years, they handed over leadership to a local pastor. You could almost hear the screech of metal and grinding of the gears as this poor leader tried to get people in the church to take ownership and responsibility for the expenses of the church. Many left. Others questioned why they had been abandoned by the Americans. The church struggled to find its feet and lacked a viable vision for planting more churches.

To put it another way, there is a reason why so many foreign-planted churches never multiply. These churches are just not replicable. Often, they are not even sustainable.

Now check out the alternative missions strategy of Jesus in light of this discussion:

Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits. These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff — no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town….” (Mk 6:7-10)

Jesus encouraged an extreme reliance on local resources. As his disciples travelled through town and city, they encountered some who were willing to partner with them and welcome their message of the Good News. In every place, there were some who already got this radical Kingdom sharing principle. Some were willing to open their homes and share their resources, even without really knowing Jesus’ message. These were the folks they could work with. These were the men and women Jesus called “People of Peace”.

Others didn’t get it, or simply didn’t want to participate in such a radical experiment. Jesus told his missionaries not to spend time in these places, but to shake the dust from their feet and move on.

So, not every situation will be ripe for transformation. We need wisdom to know who to work with. And not use our money to make it happen, when the timing isn’t right.


Example 2: Development Project

So maybe you’re not a church planter. Maybe you’re a development worker, hoping to bring about change in an impoverished community. Let’s take a look at a development project and ask ourselves: Is this replicable?

Let’s say you are living in a place with a lot of malnutrition and hunger. People are struggling, and kids are missing meals. They are hungry. So you think, I’d better start a feeding program. People need food. I can raise money to buy food. Problem solved!

And just as in the church planting example above, you will certainly have solved the immediate need. Hungry people will no longer be hungry — as long as you are around to raise money to buy them food. This may actually be the only response possible in an emergency situation.

But what happens when the next crisis comes along? The local people have “learnt” from your model and they know just what to do. They need to raise funds from outside to solve their problems. Unfortunately, they don’t have the contacts or resources to pull this off. An opportunity for growth and true transformation has been missed.

But what if instead of a feeding program, your intrepid development worker developed some way to encourage those with food to share with those lacking food?

This is exactly what we’ve tried to do in the Alongsiders movement. By training Christian young people to walk alongside one vulnerable child each in their own communities, we’ve created a simple self-help model that anyone can participate in.

For example, when their “little brother” or “little sister” has no lunch or stationery for school, these Alongsiders share a simple meal, a pencil, or a half-used notebook from their own home.

These tiny acts of generosity may seem kind of pathetic on the surface. After all, I could easily raise funds to give a whole school bag FILLED with awesome stationery to every single one of the thousands of kids in the Alongsiders movement.

But I can guarantee that those Alongsiders mentors would never give again from their meagre possessions. Why give when the big NGO can give so much more? And thus, we would have killed something beautiful with our “generosity.”

The disciples were still getting their heads around this concept when they got back from their successful mission trip in Mark 6 – having been forced to rely only on God and the generosity of local people. They come back pumped with excitement at the impact and transformation they have witnessed.

As they head off on a debriefing retreat with Jesus, they are derailed by the urgent need to feed 5000 people. That would take some feeding program, eh Jesus? Still confused by the lessons they should have learned by now, the disciples suggest that Jesus should send the crowds away. The need is simply too great.

When Jesus rejects this idea, they consider using their salaries to bring in food from the outside. Again, Jesus refuses. He knows that this approach might solve the immediate problem, but he has the big picture in mind. He is helping them to learn lessons about sustainability and trust for the future.

Finally, a boy who is willing to share his bread and fish comes forward. Local resources are found. They lift these up to God… And the rest is history.

Jesus showed us the way. By centering local resources and looking to God for miracles, we can ask and positively answer the question: Is this replicable?


Note: I realize there are some situations where it wouldn’t be appropriate to prioritize being “replicable” — e.g. a humanitarian emergency, transferring technical skills, or an infrastructure project. However, all too often, nothing we do is replicable, and that’s a problem. Let me know what you think in the comments.


Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International and the author of the recently published Subversive Jesus. During more than 15 years living and ministering in slums and inner cities in Cambodia and Canada, Craig has established a number of initiatives to care for vulnerable kids and orphans, as well as formed Christian communities for those marginalized by society. His postgraduate research in International Development led to the publication of his first book, The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor which is currently available for free on Craig’s website. He loves God, the poor, and fish and chips. He’s on Twitter and Facebook too.

To Donate or Not to Donate?

*This was originally published as Don’t Send Your Used Shoes to Africa on Djibouti Jones in 2014. I bring it up again because on a recent flight to Kenya, my husband sat beside a Kenyan small business owner. Her clothing shop sells locally made dresses using Kenyan materials and Kenyan employees. She said these used clothes imports make it incredibly difficult to sustain her business. She gave my husband her business card and the next day he and I visited her shop and I bought a gorgeous dress. And then I read The Crisis Caravan: what’s wrong with humanitarian aid. Mind-blowing.

There is a debate in the development world about whether or not people in developed, wealthy nations should send their used shoes and clothing to less prosperous nations.

You have a pile of used clothes and old running shoes or sandals and purses and hats from last season. What do you do with it? Donate seems like the best answer, right? Is it? Is it the best practice for wealthy, developed nations to send their used items to Africa? (I’m using Africa because that is where I live. The issue is globally relevant.)

What are some of the problems with sending used things?

About TOMS: “A 2008 study found that used clothing donations to Africa were responsible for a 50 percent reduction in employment in that sector between 1981 and 2000 on the continent.” Some Bad News about TOMS shoes

Some of the shoes and clothes that land here are not just used, they are trash. Torn, stained, faded. When people send their garbage, it makes those on the receiving end feel like garbage. Would you wear a bra with two different sized cups? Underwear with one leg stretched so big it sags and the other is tight, or stained? Stained used underwear?

There are wealthy, well-clothed people in Africa. To be specific, there are wealthy, well-clothed people on my block in Djibouti. There are also poor families. Local people, and I include myself while we live here, need to rise up and get involved in our own communities. Outsiders sending free things undermine that by giving local people, from the neighborhood level to top government levels, excuses to turn a blind eye.

When it comes to running shoes, they have already seen hundreds of miles. You stopped wearing them because they are too old and could cause an injury. It is not any different for an African athlete.

Sending shoes does not solve the underlying problem of shoelessness, which is poverty, which is complicated and has other underlying causes. Job creation and economic growth will address poverty. Sending shoes undermines the jobs of shoe makers and shoe sellers (see the study referenced in the TOMS section and see the NYT article link at the end of this post).

Sending shoes costs money. Why not donate that money to a job-creating charity or a local initiative who could purchase shoes locally?

Studies have found that doing one perceived good deed can contribute to a failure to do another. So, doing the easy and anonymous, faceless act of donating used clothing might mean a person is less inclined to get involved in an actual person-to-person interaction that could meet a real and pressing need.

Ways of giving that promote trendy consumerism, like TOMS, that offer a buy one, give one incentive are more about the consumer than the receiver. “So next time you’re faced with buying some slick $200 Armani shades (whose parent company gives a MASSIVE 1% of its total revenue to the Global Fund) why not grab a $20 pair and donate $180 to something worthwhile on the ground.” Craig Greensfield

Donating can feel good, can be helpful, but it can also promote a savior complex. Pippa Biddle

The idea that you can simply donate used clothing to Africa allows the endless consumption of goods in wealthy nations to run on, unabated. Why not buy a new wardrobe every season? Surely some naked kid in Africa can use these out-of-fashion clothes. This is harmful for the environment, damaging to our souls as consuming turns into religion, and it promotes a wasteful mentality. If all that used clothing wound up in American garbage dumps instead of African markets or African garbage dumps, Americans might start to reconsider the need to constantly purchase new items.

All that said, I do think there is a place for donations in the world of development and I think a generous, giving spirit is a commendable, spiritual, and beautiful character trait. We are often on the receiving end of incredibly generous donations – from money to books to shoes to school supplies to soccer balls…for which we are grateful and the things go to really good use. I will not tell people to stop donating but I will make some recommendations on how to be smart about it.

How can you be wise and generous?

Don’t send your trash.

Don’t inflate the impact of your donations. Saving the world won’t be accomplished with a t-shirt.

Don’t send it in ignorance, thinking Africa is filled with naked people. Do a little research, learn about where you are sending your things, use the desire to donate as a launching pad for educating yourself and your family and your community.

Don’t send it simply so you can feel better about an addiction to consumption.

Find a useful, appropriate, and relational way to donate. Engage with a community development project, like Girls Run 2 or a school, an organization with which you can form an ongoing relationship or an organization with a proven track-record of relationships and development.

Pay for the shipping yourself, don’t ask the receiving organization to pay that or for port fees or the inevitable import taxes, especially if you are donating things they have not specifically requested. It is incredibly frustrating to go through the paperwork and fees required to import boxes only to find melted candles, used notebooks, broken crayons, popped balloons, and stained clothing inside. I am not being facetious.

If you aren’t sure clothes or shoes will be useful, appropriate, or relational, donate money instead and trust the people on the ground to make wise decision in allocating that money.

Consider the amount of waste involved in constantly updating your wardrobe and shipping those goods and consider renewing your wardrobe less often.

Invest, but not in stuff. A personal example from just this month: A 14-year old girl faces two options: get married or go to school. She only speaks English but the English school her mother can afford ends after 8th grade. She goes to her community and they raise the funds for one-third of the cost of education at our school. What does she need? She does not need used shoes or a cheap t-shirt. She needs money for the tuition and for transportation. Her community has already committed to supporting her but they need a little more. Either, her mother needs a better job or she needs a donation via the on-the-ground people who can provide her with a quality education that is an investment into her family right now and for the future.

Think about this quote, from Amy Medina in Sometimes the Starfish Story Doesn’t Work:

One person asked me what kind of things people should send to Tanzania as alternatives to shoeboxes. My response was Nothing.
Please don’t send stuff to Tanzania. Tanzania has a huge amount of untapped natural resources. Tanzania doesn’t need stuff. If you want to invest financially in Tanzania, invest in training. Job training, pastoral training, agricultural training, or children’s education.

Ask yourself, really truly ask and demand an honest answer, Why do you want to donate your used clothes? Why does it make you angry to hear it might not be helpful or that cash would be more useful? Does it challenge your ideas about a specific people or country? Does it challenge your consumerism? Does it make you feel guilty, confused, uncertain? That’s okay. I repeat, that’s okay. Everyone I know here, in the US, myself, my family, we all face these issues (and disagree, even at my own kitchen table!). Answer the question with courageous integrity and then go about addressing the answer. We are all on a journey and instead of judging or boasting, let’s grow.

Research, ask questions, learn, and then act, with eyes open wide and a heart filled with humble generosity and humble gratitude

We want to help, right? I know that. I wrestle with how best to help. Sometimes the answers are painful and sometimes they aren’t answers, they are gropings in the dark, prayers for wisdom, confessions of ignorance. And sometimes we simply need to act, to not be paralyzed by fear, to do due diligence in seeking wisdom and then to take a risk and act in faith.

Useful articles:

For Dignity and Development, East Africa Curbs Used Clothes Imports New York Times, 2017

Amy Medina published an article about Christmas Shoeboxes. I wrote about them here.

Second Hand Clothes in Africa on CNN

Am I a Bad Mother or Has Africa Run Out of Shoes?

You Can’t Buy Your Way to Social Justice

NFL T-Shirts

The series: When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They are Being Rich Westerners

Is Foreign Aid Bad for Africa in Time

Why Sending Your Old Clothes to Africa Doesn’t Help in the Huffington Post

White Savior Barbie Nails It

Barbie has an Instagram account. In case you’ve missed it, White Savior Barbie goes to Africa where she poses in a variety of absurd scenarios with over-the-top hash tags that perfectly capture the White Savior mentality.

Of course, as this article points out, Savior Barbie is largely preaching to the choir; people who are already savvy and aware and debating the issues. Most people outside the aid and development world or not engaged in the global South probably don’t care and their attitudes won’t be challenged or changed by a parody Instagram account. Fine, point taken.

Also, the photos reek of sarcasm and cynicism and stereotypes. Got it.

But can we poke a little fun? At ourselves even, as how many of us (myself and Savior Barbie’s creators included as they admit to the Huffington Post) have been guilty of some of these things? Maybe, hopefully, not to the extremes of Savior Barbie, but most of us start our experiences abroad pretty naïve and at least in my own case, rather arrogant. Sometimes then we turn cynical, then bitter, then mockingly cruel toward the new, naïve, generations. I hope instead that these hilarious and in-your-face hashtags and photos will help keep us from going that route. If we can laugh about it, then maybe we can talk about it.

The hashtags are the real genius of Savior Barbie. Photos do communicate, but as a white person who lives in a country of brown people, I take photos with friends who aren’t the same color as me. I’ve held black babies and smiled for the camera. Because the baby is the son of my best friend here, not because I intend to ‘save’ this baby or mother. So judging me as a ‘white savior’ based on a photo I post would be misguided. The beauty of a diverse world is being able to engage across cultures and colors and if we take pictures, so be it. I don’t think that people should only post photos of people in matching skin tones.

It is when the hash tag, or the attitude, conveys something like, “Poor cute orphan baby! Good thing I brought bananas and clothes and vaccinations,” that there is a problem. When the hash tag or attitude is, “My (actual) friend just had a baby!” no problem.

One thing about the Instagram account that makes me really sad is the profile. The first word is “Jesus.” The obvious conclusion is that the majority of the good-intentioned and utterly ignorant White Saviors who inspired the account and who have propagated this attitude are Christians.

Perhaps this is because we have somehow twisted Jesus being the savior of the world to ourselves, as his ambassadors, being the saviors of the world. Perhaps this is because Christians are so eager to serve and Christian organizations are so desperate for staff that people will do things for which they are totally unqualified. People in the developing world are not stupid.

I once translated at a UN meeting and a government leader from a Muslim country stood up and said, “We are tired of these NGOs coming and pretending they know how to teach or how to do construction. They don’t know what they are doing. Why don’t they ask us what we need and send people qualified for that? Most of these people are Christians.”

That also made me really sad.

Perhaps the lesson of White Savior Barbie is that there is nothing wrong with service or with enjoying another culture but it needs to be done with integrity. Let’s be qualified and well trained for the work we do. Develop authentic relationships based on more than great photo ops. Educate ourselves. Be wary of quick clichés like, “I fell in love with Africa the moment I got off the plane.” Be learners.

**As of June 1, a blog is now associated with the Instagram account and it is here that the creators actually wrestle through the issues. I’m glad they aren’t just poking fun but are providing a space for thoughtful discussions.

What do you think of Savior Barbie?

Beyond criticism or poking fun, any tips on appropriate cross-cultural engagement?

A Philosophical (Running) Life Overseas

running wealthOther posts in the series:

A Practical (Running) Life Overseas (tips for starting to run as an expat)

A Communal (Running) Life Overseas (building community while doing what you love)

A Philosophical (Running) Life Overseas 

I run with my iPhone. In an armband. With earphones. In Djibouti this makes me feel excessively wealthy, especially when I consider that runners I knew, interviewed, ran with, have died in search of a better life than the Horn of Africa can offer.

The armband Velcro melted off months ago so I twist it all around itself to keep it on. The earphones are missing the cushiony part on one side and only one earplug actually works. In places were suffering means you still use the iPhone 4 or can only go out to eat twice per week, this constitutes severe deprivation.

I wear a waist belt packed full with four bottles of water I freeze overnight and Gu and Chapstick and enough change for a taxi or a phone call or another bottle of water. The zippers rusted out on the pack so none of the pockets close. The Velcro salted over and I have to continually retighten it to keep from losing the belt. This means I drink more water while running than some people drink in a day. I have more money in my running belt than some earn in a day.

I alternate between Asics and Saucony shoes. I wear running pants and shirts and sports bras and socks that, even though I bought them on clearance and keep them until they literally fall apart, mean I spend more on my running clothes than most of the people I run by in the early mornings will spend on clothing for the year.

I struggle with this. Here I come, burning calories because I have more than enough to eat. Here I come, with the leisure time to spend running. Here I come, wearing my rich clothes. Here I come, with my fancy gadgets.running and wealth

Am I not supopsed to run until everyone, everywhere, has the time, money, and energy to run? I could stay inside and use exercise DVDs to stay in shape, I could join a club (if there was an affordable one with functioning machines) where I would exercise indoors and street kids wouldn’t see me. I could quit exercising altogether.

But. I am very aware of my privilege, running is an example of that privilege. Not running, or running in secret does nothing to address this issue. It would simply mask my abundance. There is a subtle lie here, easily believed, that hiding behind walls or being ashamed of quality running shoes would somehow make the economic difference between myself and many Djiboutians less true.

So I’m not going to stop and I’m not going to hide and I’m not going to run in terrible shoes that will cause an injury.

What should I do? I can make wise choices about my clothes and shoes and gadgets. I can make them last as long as possible and can not be pressured to buy the latest model or fashion when there is nothing (drastically) wrong with the one I have. I can give my water bottle, still half-full, to the boy begging, when I realize I won’t need it all today.

I don’t plan on quitting running. I don’t plan on running barefoot (tried) or without water (tried) or naked (never tried). But I do think about the people I run by and pray for them. I smile at the kids and slap their hands, high-five style. I greet the older women, macooyo, grandmother. I cheer on the few other runners.

When I run in Djibouti, I’m entering the dust and heat and sunrises of this nation. I’m passing the donkey carts with loads of grass and sticks, jumping over cat carcasses. Smelling rotisserie chickens and fresh baguettes. I’m waving at women weaving baskets and humming along with the call to prayer. I pound my fist on taxis when they drive too close and explore side streets that lead to the ocean. I’m greeting shopkeepers and promising fruit stand guys that I’ll come by later for their delish-looking mangoes. I know when construction starts a few blocks over and when a new family set up a shack in the empty lot on the corner.

Instead of hiding my abundance from Djiboutians, when I run, I am learning to engage with them.

running and wealth

And I don’t feel the disparity in those moments. I don’t know, maybe they do, but I have had men selling bananas tell me the only reason they went out to watch the half marathon was because they thought I would be running in it, felt they knew me, and wanted to cheer.

This idea of ‘relationship’ doesn’t solve issues of economic divides. But at least running in the streets makes me aware and forces me to think, relate, respond. I’m still working on how to live with my plenty with integrity, how to be generous without feeling pressured, how to live with gratitude without guilt, how to live with my eyes wide open and my heart tenderly malleable.

This issue is a marathon issue, probably even an ultra. I have a long ways to go.

Do you run (or engage in other similar activites) in a developing country? In what ways do you feel compelled to mask your abundance?