Fasting for Darfur

Last September my eyes opened a bit wider than they already were. A headline that had wrapped itself around and through my heart morphed into an immense tragedy. Over 300 people, many of them children, died after undergoing horror when Chechen rebels attacked a school in Beslan, Russia. When I brought up the subject with my father, he told me about Darfur.

At that point in my life I already felt compassionate. I went out of my way to learn about the world and I yearned to be more active in the world. I wanted to make my views known; I wanted to help change the world to be just a little bit brighter. But I didn’t know the full scale of our planet’s woes. I failed to understand the true scope of human suffering occurring across the globe. When I heard about Darfur, my world exploded. I had to rethink everything. At that point, violent militias were ravaging villages in Western Sudan, a region called Darfur. They killed and raped and destroyed in a fit of genocide. There were stories of infants thrown and shot as if for target practice. Women were held as sex slaves for weeks. Refugee camps were terrorized. Last September, about two million Sudanese had fled their homes. They were facing starvation and fear. Tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands had been killed. Thousands had been raped and countless villages had been razed to the ground. It had been happening for almost two years, yet I was just barely hearing of it. I knew right away that my world, the first world, was sleeping through this tragedy.

Rather than fall into despair and helplessness, rather than resort to being bitterly cynical, I searched for hope. My eyes had opened to better understand the true scope of human suffering on this planet. I needed to help ease that suffering.

Over the past ten months I have learned much more. I have heard the stories of Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. I have felt despair and regret for the millions I was never able to save. I have heard stories of current human suffering from the darkness of Abu Grhaib and Guantanamo to the civilian massacres in Uzbekistan and Nepal, the loneliness of political prisoners in China to the plight of women across the globe, the hopelessness of children soldiers in Uganda to the hardships of being a refugee anywhere. I have retained hope by busying myself fighting against this human suffering, by taking steps to ease it.

Now, I feel I need to do more. Writing letters, signing petitions, attending rallies, and spreading the knowledge of human suffering are all important. But they aren’t enough. I need to give more of myself to feel as if I am actually making a difference, or making an effort. I must suffer myself if I am to understand the true scope of human suffering. I must suffer myself to open my own eyes wider. I must give up my privilege and comfort to achieve comfort for those weighed down by suffering. The actions I take to ease human suffering must be intense, emotional, and personal if they are to make any difference at all.

I have decided to fast for the displaced people and refugees affected by the crisis in Darfur. I will give up the ultimate privilege for three days and my thoughts will be with those who suffer. It is both an effort of solidarity with the people and a tool for raising awareness and action on their behalf. Others have made the decision to join me. We will fast and let our community know why we are. We will make an immense difference, not only in the world, but in our own lives.

I wrote the preceding piece about a month before I began fasting. I was immensely hopeful and determined then. I was sure that my action would, at the very least, create a sense of concern in the community for Darfur. As you will find out in the next piece, that wasn’t exactly the case…

When I decided not to eat for 72 hours, I envisioned a remarkable and moving experience. I imagined turning heads throughout the community. I thought that my fellow fasters and I would move people to care.

We fasted to generate attention for the plight of refugees in Africa. We wanted people to donate money to ‘Save Darfur’, an organization working to raise awareness about the apparent genocide in Darfur, Sudan. We urged people to sign a petition calling on Mr. Bush to do more to protect civilians in Sudan. In the end we made a measly $100. We didn’t even get 100- not even 90- signatures. We failed miserably.

Young people don't usually do muh, especially in Boise, Idaho. We aren’t out there trying to change the world. We are selfish, and people see us that way. In my naivety, I thought that if a determined group of young people gave up food for three days, people would listen. I thought people would become interested. But they didn’t. I’m still stunned and hurt. I’m still trying to figure out why.

On the first night of the fasting, I felt completely crushed by the world. I was miserably hungry, but that didn’t matter. As I was setting up our table (with information and petitions and such) at a vacant lot in Boise’s north end, three drunken men from a neighboring house approached and started lightly harassing us. We had heard them earlier blasting horrid music out of their open windows.

These men were the epitome of ignorant, selfish America. They started ranting to us about how immigrants and refugees of different races make life harder for proud white heterosexual males such as themselves. I tried my best to ignore them but I was really just clenching my fists and gritting my teeth, building up anger to release later. These drunks hovered around us like vultures for over an hour. They wouldn’t leave us alone. Eventually, they sensed my hostility and left, but it wasn’t over.

Later that night we were hosting refugees from Sudan who would speak and we were showing the film ‘Hotel Rwanda’. This was a public event, and it was shattering for me when no one showed up. Not one person cared enough to learn a little more about Africa, refugees, and how they might help. Even the refugees who were supposed to speak ended up not being able to come. I was crushed and angered.

We decided to show the movie, since there were ten to twelve of us there fasting anyway. The drunken metal-heads, however, were blasting their music loud enough to drown out ‘Hotel Rwanda’. We practiced patience for some time, but they wouldn’t quit. Four or five of us gathered as diplomats to politely ask them to stop or shut their windows for two hours. We knocked on their door but no one came. We shouted up the stairs but they didn’t hear us. We counted to three and yelled simultaneously and finally their leader stumbled down the stairs, beer in hand; a smoky, drunken stench behind him. His eyes were sleepy and empty. He spoke with a slightly obnoxious fake British rock-star-type accent.

He greeted us with hostility after we explained our dilemma and our simple request for the men. I continued to negotiate with the leader as an even drunker man without a shirt and with a sizable beer gut and incredibly greasy black hair practically fell down the stair well. He looked angry and dangerous.

By now, we had accumulated into a small group in their front lawn on the corner. The fasters were on one side and these drunks on the other. The drunkest of them seemed ready to attack. He began throwing racial slurs at us, because he knew we wanted to help black African people.

“I hate niggers!” he shouted. “Just kill ‘em all!”

He repeated it over and over again. His eyes were narrowed and full of hatred as he began barreling toward us. Fortunately, another of the drunks kept him from engaging us in some kind of combat. We were defenseless and hungry. We didn’t want to fight. We just wanted to show the movie as some kind of remedy to the devastation we already felt.

Up to this point I had kept my cool. It is best to remain a diplomat. Stay peaceful and avoid confrontation and we can work it out. My fists were clenched and my heart was breaking, but I somehow managed to keep my cool. I was very near the breaking point.

I broke when the drunkest man began to verbally attack my sister. I’m not sure what he said, because as soon as he said it I exploded. It was a cool explosion. I pointed a finger in his direction and told him to fuck off. I wasn’t gong to let this disgusting, greasy older man objectify and sexually harass my 16 year old sister. I told him to fuck off repeatedly and turned off my ears to his incoherent drunken rambling.

At this, the men angrily strolled down the street, looking for a bar where they might have an easier time being sexual predators and racist pigs. We were fasting in solidarity with African refugees, and these men were the militia to our refugee. We turned on our movie and I lay down in front of the screen, shaking and angry and hurt.

I didn’t watch the movie. I saw it, but I couldn’t think about anything but the utter failure of the evening. I felt like crying{see footnote below}, but I was too shaken and crushed to shed a tear.

Later, I took a walk with Hannah down to Hyde Park to retrieve a sign we had left there. Just being with her, someone who holds immense compassion and care for the world, comforted me. We sat down on the curb, faint from hunger, but also heavy with disappointment about the events of the evening. We held each other and wondered why people could be so awful. So careless. So ignorant. She reassured me that if we reached just one person, it was a victory. That is an easy way to remain optimistic, and it is true, but I wanted more. I expect more from my fellow human beings. I think Hannah felt the same way because she cried. I wanted to cry, but I was still too shaken and angered to shed a tear.

Seven or eight of the fasters slept at the vacant lot next to the drunken men’s house that night. I was one of them, and so were Hannah and my sister. We all crowded into the tent and hoped that after a good night of sleep, the second day of fasting might turn out better than the first. I was worried. I knew the drunks would be home sooner or later. They had left very irate at us, and I was worried they would harass us when they got back.

I was especially worried about sexual harassment. These men were completely careless. That, combined with being complete perverts and ridiculously drunk, was dangerous. After I heard them ramble home and turn on their loud music, it was hard to sleep. I held Hannah close, trying to push the men out of my head. When I heard noises or tricked myself into seeing shadows that looked like they came from the men, I stood up quickly and looked around. I didn’t want anything to happen to my fellow fasters, especially Hannah and my sister. Thankfully, the men were too drunk to do any damage, and they left us alone. But I still didn’t sleep much.

In retrospect, the whole experience seems educational. Though I am in no way suggesting we learned what it is like to be refugees, we gained a bit of perspective. The hunger and discomfort of that night, combined with the haunting potential of harassment or worse, turned my thoughts to the feeling that must come with being a refugee. After being forced from their homes by militias, civilians in Sudan’s Darfur region must live with the same feeling I experienced, albeit much more intense and real, for months, even years. They lack not only enough food, but also enough water. Their shelter doesn’t protect them from the heat or the winds. And the enemies they fear are far more potent and dangerous than three drunken men. Darfuris living in refugee camps live with a very real fear of militias armed to the teeth with guns, bombs, and other deadly weapons. The women in the refugee camps must constantly worry about rape, especially when they must venture from the camp to find necessities. If they are raped, the resulting stigmatization they face can be an insurmountable challenge. Clearly, what I felt is no where near the fear and worry that Darfur’s refugees must face on a daily basis. However, what I felt did help me gain some perspective.

If fasting for three days can’t raise any significant awareness about the plight of refugees in Africa (or awareness about any other issue), then what can? I decided to fast for the intensely personal nature of that action, but also because I thought it was a drastic action that could generate attention. What more can I do? I feel like I’d have to become a martyr to affect any real change.

There were, however, small successes in the midst of overwhelming failure. We made it on to two local television stations. That is a bit of awareness, but without action to follow, awareness seems futile. We also had two refugees speak to small crowds on the second night. David from Sudan and Morris from Liberia had great words to share with us, and they were enlightening and inspiring. The largest victory was the personal experience. Giving up such a normal privilege for Americans was eye-opening and inspirational. Dealing with the hunger and discomfort wasn’t easy, and seeing food was torturous. When I woke up the final morning, however, I felt completely cleansed and peaceful. I was weak- I couldn’t hold a comb up to my hair for long and needed help hauling tabling supplies to the car- but my mind felt sharp and my soul felt calm. It is hard to communicate the sensation. I recommend fasting to anyone feeling weighted down with life and looking for a small glimpse at inner peace. As a political statement, however, good luck. I’m quickly losing faith in humanity, but I won’t stop trying.

{footnote} The last day of fasting, I also felt like crying. I woke that morning with a renewed spirit. We had decided to table in the high-traffic Hyde Park area. We set up our table on the sidewalk and were making some progress when a nearby restaurant manager asked what we were doing. Thinking he was just another pedestrian, we told him and asked for his support. He proceeded to kick us off the sidewalk. I began protesting, explaining we could use a little good will because of the various set-backs throughout the weekend. He was cold- cold hearted- and he refused to lend us a helping hand. Hungry and immensely frustrated, I tried very hard to hold back tears as I aggressively took down the table to move across the street where there was less foot traffic. I sort of half-cried, while my friends calmed me down and helped us move across the street. Later, when the restaurant manager strolled across the street to return to us a small piece of trash we left by his restaurant, I told him to fuck off. I only say that to people when I completely lose respect for them. The drunken man and this restaurant manager had lost my respect. They are also contributing to my recent decline in hope.

Untitled Essay

All in all, despite everything, I am really thrilled to be alive. Despite all the heartache and turmoil ravaging the planet and its people, I am happy. Headlines can temporarily numb me, personal disappointments can shake my faith in humanity, but ultimately I will prevail, and I already have, so far. To be happy, or maybe to come close to a sort of inner peace, one must acknowledge despair and its deeply ingrained role in our lives. We must live with and be able to cope with atrocity- for it is a reality- if we are ever to call ourselves content. Atrocity is an inevitability but our ability to hold onto hope throughout the ordeal is not. The only way to keep a firm grasp on sanity, and a loose hold on happiness, is to remember that hope exists somewhere outside of our vision, and when we have time once again to look around, we will surely find it. Disparaged we may be, but that doesn't mean we cannot be happy. Happiness as a general content feeling, anyway, is a vastly different phenomenon than those fleeting moments of exuberance we feel at certain times, whether it be for the thrill of first love or the satisfaction of an extraordinary meal. We feel that momentary excitement from time to time, but that isn't what makes us happy.

To be happy, we must understand and experience more than those fleeting moments. We must have a relationship with both despair and exuberance; we must learn both to cry and smile- sometimes both at once. So when I call myself happy, do not picture me trapped in a cage of exhausting exuberance but rather learning to accept a content sensation for the long run- a feeling that constantly depends on cultivation and understood experience.

To be happy, or content, one must also invite the future which is already pounding down the doors we sometimes tend to lock. We must welcome this faceless friend to wrap us in its arms and deliver us through broken-down doors into unpredictable but entirely exciting new territory. We cannot fear the future. We cannot fear it because we cannot avoid it. A comfortable impossibility will ultimately lead to disappointment, and will only disrupt happiness. Understanding that tomorrow may be cloudy or much worse is crucial. I don't mean that we should expect the worse, or look forward to nothing. Instead, we should resist the temptation to surrender hope to failed expectations. Rather than formulate expectations, we might try instead to cultivate an intense yearning for tomorrow and all of the new days after that. We should learn to be content knowing not that good or bad will come our way, but that something- anything- is bound to come barreling out of tomorrow and into today.

But my words are hollow. I feel happy. I feel deeply in love with the world and I marvel at my simple existence in the midst of it. I feel grateful and lucky to live among such beautiful but difficult people, to uncover unsettling and incredible new discoveries about myself, to face such challenging times, and to feel a genuine satisfaction and mixed skepticism for what I make of my life. I'm happy for more reasons than I care to list here, or that you care to hear. Besides, I don't need to validate my happiness to you. Synthesizing my happiness into a few paragraphs of advice that is hardly universal ultimately means nothing. I just write this to reassure you that I'm okay. You may or may not care, but at least you know. Maybe, just maybe, my words will echo in the ears, long after this is read, of someone who needed a new outlook on their day. Don't forget that hope is intangible- it simply cannot burn up in the flames of our world's mistakes.

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