The stars we see

The plane trees on both sides of the street bow towards each other high above me, as if to shelter us beneath. They are still green, although October is coming to its end. A bit further, a whitebeam’s autumn leaves flame in the morning sun. A beggar sits on a blanket underneath a streetlight, her face is expressionless as the face of a Romanian woman can be. I don’t carry cash with me and I mumble good morning, but the words are lost in the drum rolls of an awakening city. She sits there day in day out, from early morning to evening, when I leave for home.

What enables us to look the other way, I wonder during a lecture on malaria. Four hundred and fifty thousand deaths a year, mainly children, and completely unnecessarily. The disease is preventable and very well treatable. Four hundred and fifty thousand, that’s more than a thousand children every day.

How did we learn to look the other way, I wonder again in the evening, when I listen to Verónica’s voice by a campfire. Her words are like shards, sharpened by her Mexican accent. While the flames are licking the branches, she talks about a man somewhere in Africa who didn’t let his sons go when the army came to recruit them. He was shot dead in front of his boys, and they were taken away. Murdering and robbing became the only way for them to survive. At the age of eighteen one of them was able to leave the army due to a gunshot wound. Supported by a charity he was able to go to school and years later he graduated as a medical doctor. Presently he works with Médicins sans Frontières, as a colleague of Verónica’s.

She speaks of a mission in South Sudan, where she’d seen more misery and injustice than she could believe. While she talks, her fingers touch my arm, as if seeking comfort. She’s not the same person she used to be. According to her friends, her views on the world and her place in it have changed radically. After the mission in South Sudan, she felt depressed for several months. And still she cannot freely enjoy life; it upsets her to see people dump bread into the bin, the careless life in London is unreal to her. Verónica may be traumatised, but she’s also determined to continue her work.

What remains of our humanity after we’ve seen children die of hunger or malaria, problems that should have been solved by now? Is it less painful for an African mother than it is for a European mother? Is their problem also ours?

It gets cold. The branches in the fire have turned to little glowing bricks, the flames have faded. Is it justified to look the other way, I wonder, is it justified to pretend that misery doesn’t exist? How can I walk by a homeless woman in the street? It’s so tempting to believe in progression that stands alone, to think that we have no influence on misery and injustice, and that it will all just simply sort itself out. How else can we spend a few pounds in the pub, aware that a child’s life somewhere in Africa may cost the same. But when you’re out there, there’s no way to deny it.

For most of the people the black reality doesn’t even exist, I tell Verónica. People look away, or they think that it happens in a different world, a parallel universe. Only a small minority feels connected to it, still fewer are willing to give up something in order to reduce the misery of others. How can we ever make a difference?

Look, says Verónica, and she points up into the October night, what is it you see?

I follow her finger and there is nothing but darkness.

But then I become aware of a star, glittering somewhere to the north. And there’s another one!

Almost all of it is dark matter, she whispers. All the stars together don’t even make up a single percent of it. But still… the stars are all we see.

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