How a problem shared can be more important than a problem solved
by Brad Miller
I like making things.
“Tinkering” is probably the best word for it. I have an abiding passion for pseudo-inventing: finding little everyday problems and then piecing together a solution.
When I was in junior high, my family’s basement flooded. We didn’t notice until there was already a decent amount of water, and it caused some damage. The next day, I went to my room and wired up a contraption out of old tea lights, spare change, wire, battery packs, and a buzzer. It resembled a copper octopus, with little tea-light suckers spreading across the floor. Whenever they got wet, the buzzer would go off. We would never have to be surprised by basement flooding again.
When World Next Door Magazine launched, we discovered we needed a light box – a special shooting space to get quality photos for our “In the Bag” section. I looked at designs online, and with a cardboard box, some tape, muslin, and poster board I made one. All our “In the Bag” features have used it since.
Overhead shots of a slum? Found some scaffolding.
Photos of a dye-throwing Indian holiday? Homemade plastic camera cover.
Ants invading my room? Improvised DEET floor polish.
I like solving things.
That’s part of the reason I love travelling with World Next Door; I get to see the incredible, creative, passionate, and powerful solutions the Church is putting into motion all over the world. I get to see ordinary people solving extraordinary problems through the love and power of Christ.
But in Bangladesh, in the Duaripara Family Project, I did not see that. I didn’t find any powerful, creative, transformative solutions. I didn’t discover a rebellion against injustice, or a comprehensive plan to relieve suffering. I didn’t see a fix – an answer to all the evil going on.
Try as I might, I couldn’t find any solutions.
Instead, I found something better.
What’s the Problem?
All I had to do was find out what the injustice was like on the ground, then write about the solution being used. Simple, right?
Turns out, doing this was much easier said than done.
It didn’t take me long to learn that garment factories are less a cause of injustice than a symptom. Girls are taken out of schools and sent to factories, ruining their chance at a better future. The real injustice is the poverty that forces them out of school, and the gender discrimination that favors boys over girls.
So the injustice seemed to be poverty and gender discrimination. That made sense.
But when I spoke with parents living in the slums, many earnestly desired the best for their daughters. Some simply believed that girls couldn’t be educated. Others would take their girls out of school once they reached adolescence – afraid that teenage love could result in a loss of virginity and ruin future marriage value.
Okay… so the injustice is poverty and gender discrimination and an oppressive social structure. I’m sure there’s a way to fix that. There must be.
But then I was invited to observe a marriage health class. I was told that one major problem is family breakup – fathers leave and take money with them, leaving mothers and daughters with nothing.
Family issues don’t stop there. Older brothers or uncles may get into debt or alcoholism and need family money. And if anyone gets sick, costs are astronomical – there is little public healthcare and no insurance.
So the injustice is poverty and gender discrimination and social structure and family breakdown and addiction and disease and… and…
What is the world was going on here?!
This was messy and complicated, and I couldn’t even grasp the entirety of what was going wrong. Who could possibly fix all this?
It would take an army of economists, a veritable battalion of social workers, a fleet of relief programs, a state-of-the-art health facility…
Or maybe just a brick schoolhouse.
As I came to discover, the people facing down this big, messy, complicated problem are working out of a modest brick building originally designed to house families. Only a small, sewage-stained river separates it from Duaripara slum, a tin and bamboo afterthought hiding on the ragged edge of the city of Dhaka.
This program is the Duaripara Family Project, an initiative of Oasis Bangladesh.
I couldn’t wait to see what their brilliant solution was to all of this. I couldn’t wait to discover how they had captured the problem in its entirety, and found a clever, grassroots solution.
I knew if I listened, if I watched, if I waited, I would discover their secret: the grand solution to this intractable problem.
So I followed, as we went from home to home, visiting parents in the labyrinth of tenements in Duaripara slum.
I listened as girls sang along to English-training songs in the after-school program.
I watched as savings programs were organized and parents referred to local microfinance agencies.
And I waited. Waited for some great revelation, some commonality to leap out – unifying and explaining all their programs, their strategy, their solution.
Nothing happened. For weeks. Broiling hot, soaked-with-sweat, power-doesn’t-work-so-no-air-conditioning weeks.
Maybe the heat was getting to me, but when I finally realized the common theme to everything they did, I wanted to laugh. Their grand method for battling injustice? Talking.
Not doing, not planning, not solving or distributing or even training. The one thing that unified all their work was talking.
So much for a grand solution.
It didn’t even seem to be working. For every family that stayed together, I heard rumors of another breaking up. For every parent they convinced to keep their daughter in school, there was another that sent their daughter to a factory.
I couldn’t understand what was going on. Didn’t they see how big the problem was? How could they solve anything by talking?
As the weeks dragged on, I grew more and more discouraged and confused.
This all came to a head at one of Duaripara Family Project’s big events: Children’s Day.
This day celebrates the rights of all children, especially the right to an education, food and healthcare, and protection from early marriage.
It was an incredible celebration. They had been planning for weeks. On the big day, balloons were hung from the doorframe, and big posters depicting children’s rights were plastered all over the walls.
All the girls lined up in their blue and pink uniforms for the opening ceremony. An official red ribbon was tied across the door and two little girls, no more than eight years old, nervously gripped the scissors for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
At a signal, the ribbon was snipped, and balloons were popped overhead. They had been filled with glitter and all the girls shrieked in delight as the sparkling dust filled the air.
I thought, “This is nice, this is fun. But it’s just fun. I mean, where is the transformation? How is knowing they have the right to education going to help if their parents take them out of school?”
As everyone piled in to the poorly ventilated brick room, a borrowed projector was turned on. The excited chatter and whispering instantly died down. This was the highlight of the program: Meena Cartoons.
Meena Cartoons are a fun way for kids and parents to learn what growing up as a girl in Southeast Asia is really like. Click here to see an example of a Meena cartoon.
Meena is a UNICEF-produced cartoon series depicting a Southeast Asian girl and her struggle against injustice. I was astounded at how accurate it was, and found myself laughing and cheering right along with the rest of the girls.
But I couldn’t help thinking, This is just talk. Where are the programs? Where are the economic outlines or the corporate strategies or political reforms or SOMETHING solid? These girls can laugh and cheer for their hero, but at the end of the day they’ll be going home and nothing will have changed.
The cartoon ended, and the group dispersed. Some went to coloring contests, others to games. I wandered aimlessly, confused and increasingly discouraged. Looking desperately for some story, some concrete evidence that Duaripara Family Project was fixing something.
By the time the program ended and the staff called all the girls together, my confusion had curdled into frustration, and my discouragement was inching closer and closer to anger.
After a short speech by the teachers, the girls were invited to stand up and share what they had learned – to tell the story of how their rights had been violated or how they had lost something in their past.
At this point, I had a bit of an American moment.
I wanted to jump up and say,
“What are you people DOING? There is a BIG, MESSY, COMPLICATED problem right outside your door and you’re just TALKING? How can you sit here when all that is going on? How can you stand here and not DO anything?”
But then one girl stood up, and started to speak.
She began to talk about how her father had left her and her mother without warning. How he had abandoned them, and how they were struggling to put food on the table and stay in their tin home. She spoke about her fears of not being able to stay in school.
And as she spoke, her hands started to shake. She looked down at her feet and fidgeted with her navy-blue dress. And then she started to cry.
And the whole room changed.
In an instant, teachers and students began to gather around her. Some of the teachers led the younger girls out of the room, the ones too young to understand.
With everyone gathered around her, I was struck by the image of a mother hen gathering her chicks about her.
Suddenly other girls were crying too, and little group-hugs were popping up around the room. And I watched, awestruck, as they solved absolutely nothing – and changed absolutely everything.
In that moment I realized: sometimes it’s not about solving problems, it’s about sharing them.
I walked away from that program in a daze. Overwhelmed by how backward my perspective had been.
I realized at that moment that love was what Duaripara Family Project had been about the whole time. In looking for how they were curing people, I’d missed how they were caring for them. Somewhere along the way, I’d started putting solutions over sharing, and success over love.
I felt strangely lighter, liberated by a new understanding of God’s hope for the world. Not a world where evil and injustice are absent, but where they are defeated – overcome and overpowered by love. Where every tragedy and struggle is transformed into an opportunity to re-discover how much your family loves you.
Because the simple sad truth of it all is that these problems exist now, and there is no simple or clear solution. No amount of money, or time, or effort is going to suddenly make all this injustice go away. It will take time, generations perhaps, and these girls don’t have generations to wait.
They are living in injustice now, and in ten, twenty, thirty years these girls are going to grow up and say, “I grew up in a slum, and it was hard, and it was miserable.”
I know this is true all over the world. There are children who will grow up to say,
“I grew up in a ghetto, and it was hard, and it was miserable.”
“I grew up as an immigrant, and it was hard, and it was miserable.”
“I grew up unloved, and it was hard, and it was miserable.”
Before, when I longed for solutions, this truth would have filled me with anger and frustration and an uncontrollable sadness. But now I know there is more to it.
I know there’s a place, a tiny brick building next to a smelly river just down the street from a city of fifteen million. A place where the unloved, the unwanted, and unfairly-treated can go and share their burdens. And the girls who grow up there will say,
“I grew up in a slum, and it was hard, and it was miserable, but I wasn’t alone.”
Sometimes it’s not about solving problems; it’s about sharing them.
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