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The Fragility of Life

Last week a Peace Corps volunteer was murdered while sleeping on her porch in the Beninese village where she had taught children English for a year and a half. Today, I attended a funeral for a colleague’s three-year old daughter who died suddenly a few days ago.

I’ve only been in Benin for six weeks, but it doesn’t take long for the subject of death to come up. And once again, I am led to ponder the role of death in different parts of the world.

The volunteer, Kate Puzey, was by all accounts beloved by the community she lived with and nobody seems to be able to make sense of her death. My colleague’s child was fine when she went to school in the morning. In the afternoon she became ill and was taken to a clinic (one of the better ones in the city). She seemed to be recovering, but then she went to sleep and never woke up. The cause isn’t really understood, but medical malpractice is suspected.

The threats in underdeveloped countries are diverse and often subtle, but they are very real. Violence, disease, poor health care, accidents; all generally take a much heavier toll in developing countries than in rich ones. Life expectancy is over 82 years in Japan. In Swaziland it is less than 32 years. One out of four children in Sierra Leone dies before their fifth birthday.

I’ve had my share of moments that made me face my own mortality, most notably after a 737 I was in crashed (in my own front yard, in fact) in Angola. Then there was the time when police and taxi drivers were in a shoot-out outside my house. Or when I was preparing for evacuation as rebels were invading Chad. Then there was the bout with typhoid fever. Or being held up at gunpoint a couple times, being attacked by street children, being attacked by street adults, learning that Colombian rebels had tried to detonate a car bomb not far from my house or that a governor had been kidnapped on a peace march I nearly went on. In other words, sometimes life in certain countries is just a bit more…exciting. As Colombians like to say, “A day in Colombia is like a year in Switzerland.”

I’m not saying all this to malign poor countries or to bring everyone down. I’m saying

it mainly because these recent deaths within my small world have once again brought my thoughts to the fragility of life. But I’m also saying it because we need to keep in mind the disparities between different regions of the world and the enormity and urgency of the task of changing conditions in many parts of the world. Being able to put a human face on the statistics helps me keep focused on what needs to be done.

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