Readers often ask: Why do I travel to places like Sudan or Myanmar when we Americans have so many challenges at home to worry about? As Janessa put it on my Facebook page: “Shouldn’t we take care of the issues within our own borders BEFORE we try and fix everyone else’s?”
It’s a fair question. We’re weary with the world, and so many humanitarian problems seem insoluble. We’re ready to turn inward.
Yet an encounter last month in Myanmar on my annual “win-a-trip” journey with a college student may help answer the question.
The winner this year was Nicole Sganga, a 20-year-old Notre Dame student. One day, we hiked into the remote village of Yae Thay and met a woman named Sajan, also 20.
We stopped and chatted, meeting her children and talking about her aspirations. Nicole and Sajan are both bright, hard-working and fun-loving, and they got along well. But their lives could not be more different — a reflection of the lottery of birth.
While Nicole grew up in a middle-class family on Long Island, thriving in school, Sajan dropped out at age 10 when her father died. “I couldn’t afford to go to school after that,” she explained.
Sajan, a model of resourcefulness and tenacity, became a cook to fishermen and married at 13, traded for a bride price of one cow. She has two daughters whom she aims to send to high school.
She has never seen a dentist. She wears lipstick but has no television, no radio, not even electricity. She has never ridden in a car, and she doesn’t have a bicycle to get around. Her wardrobe consists of two sarongs and four tops, but no shoes or sandals; she goes barefoot.
Sajan says she can leave home only with her husband’s permission. She loves her husband but declined to say whether he beats her. She added reflectively that a husband should beat his wife if she disobeys him.
Nicole told Sajan bluntly that she didn’t intend to marry until at least the age of 30. We wondered if Sajan would disdain such a lifestyle, but she quickly said: “I’d like to trade with you.”
She also estimated that a highly educated young woman like Nicole would get a huge bride price — at least five cows. That was perhaps a sign of the premium villagers place on educated girls.
(In another village, a man offered 100 cows for Nicole if she married his son. Nicole gently explained she was not for sale.)
Sajan and other villagers draw drinking water from ponds and mud puddles because there is no well. The result is sickness, parasites and death, especially among children. No one in the village uses contraception, and it’s not clear how many are even aware that it exists.
It was eerie to watch Nicole and Sajan talk to each other: Two young women, born at almost the same time, both with talent and dreams, both seizing opportunities, yet only one in a context in which her abilities can come fully into play. It was a reminder of a basic truth of life: Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.
That’s one reason I encourage young people to travel outside their comfort zones: From afar, it’s often easier to see our own privilege — and responsibilities.
There has been a much-needed focus this year on inequality in the United States. Even Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, says inequality is destabilizing America. But, of course, the greatest deprivation is in Asia and Africa, and it’s still far cheaper to create opportunity in poor countries than in rich ones.
Vaccines save lives. Iodizing salt raises IQs and reduces mental disability. Wells, bed nets and deworming improve health. Family planning would help the 215 million women worldwide who yearn for a way to avoid getting pregnant. Education allows people to transform their own lives. These are all bargains.
In some quarters in America, it’s considered glamorous to volunteer in Tanzania but not to mentor a child on the wrong side of the tracks. That’s myopic. But it’s also shortsighted to insist that we solve all of our own problems before beginning to address those abroad.
Compassion shouldn’t depend on skin color or passport. We can, albeit unsteadily and uncertainly, try simultaneously to chip away at problems both here and abroad — spreading opportunity so that the Sajans of the world are as empowered as the Nicoles.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.