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Issue Date:  November 12, 2004

A journey from dayyenu to zaidi

Trip to Kenya brings home the meaning of ethics in a global context


From the comfortable luxury of Georgetown’s Washington campus to the desperate warren of Nairobi’s Kibera slum -- that was the planned summer research trip that initiated an unintended metaphorical and spiritual journey from dayyenu toward zaidi. Dayyenu represents a Jewish blessing for gifts already received while the Swahili word zaidi can reflect a desire to do more in service to others. Although not Catholic, Jewish or African, I gained insights from these diverse sources during a search for ways to teach ethics and globalization to undergraduates.

The physical trip is easy to explain. A group of Georgetown University faculty and administrators engaged in an “immersion” experience coordinated through Jesuit social outreach programs in Kenya. Participants sought to gain a deeper understanding of the university’s mission in a global community while discerning paths toward more effective service -- personally, professionally, institutionally. Having just completed a textbook on ethics for international business, I wanted to reconnect on an individual level with how policy choices impact daily lives in an emerging global community.

The trip provided opportunities to learn from individuals engaged in a daily struggle to attain the most minimal human requirements: safe drinking water; a life-sustaining meal; health care for diseases that claim individual lives while devastating families and communities. Long after the local visits ended, a collage of imprinted images remained.

  • The young Kenyan mother with HIV/AIDS whose daily income depends on a five cent arbitrage she can earn by carrying water, two liters at a time, through the maze of rutted, open-sewage paths from a private spigot near her rented hovel to more distant areas in the slum. What, I wonder, will happen to her daughter when the woman’s weakened limbs no longer permit such work?
  • The disheartened yet still motivated Ethiopian exiles at the Kakuma refugee camp, serving as headmasters in the camp’s schools during the day before seeking enough physical and electrical energy to study outdated texts in the still-oppressive night heat. When, I wonder, will they fulfill dreams of completing interrupted college studies to someday return home with needed knowledge of business finance and representative governance?
  • The Sudanese refugee woman, raped and brutalized during a torturous months-long flight from her burned village, struggling without authorized papers to support her dependent child in a strange country. How, I wonder, will she achieve her sole remaining goal, despairing of any personal future, to secure a primary school education for her daughter?

Yet in the midst of this desperation, two unexpected revelations emerged. Despite physical deprivation and psychological trauma, the people’s spirit and dignity remain remarkably resilient and resolute. Individuals with little often reach out to those with even less, stretching minimal resources to fashion innovative and effective programs on a true grass-roots level.

The spirit and vision of such local efforts is captured in the Zaidi Center, a new undertaking supported by several religious congregations and the lay community near the Kibera slum. Zaidi is one of several Swahili words that represent the concept more and is used to signify an additional qualitative as well as quantitative dimension to an effort. Among the center’s programs is a fledgling secondary school to serve children from Kibera families suffering from HIV/AIDS, providing free schooling, day meals and other limited assistance. Witnessing local volunteer teachers doing so much with so little, I realized how employing zaidi as an adverb for more service action contrasted with the common use of more as an adjective of material acquisition.

High-income, consumption-driven economies such as the United States’ fuel a seemingly unquenchable domestic desire for more and more “stuff.” Far outside the boundaries of fulfilling basic needs, marketing campaigns create the desires for products that promise illusory or only marginal real benefits beyond already-owned goods. Ironically, this acquisitive spiral leaves many individuals with a sense of less rather than greater personal fulfillment.

Some years ago I read an article discussing dayyenu, a refrain from a Passover song offering thanks for the Jews’ multi-stage redemption from Egyptian bondage. Often interpreted from Hebrew as “it would have satisfied us” or “it would have been enough,” the word is invoked to acknowledge the many blessings received. Most citizens of advanced industrialized countries should utter dayyenu, enjoying lives filled with opportunities and luxuries well beyond the reach of millions who struggle, and often fail, to obtain life’s barest essentials. A spirit of dayyenu should recognize the sufficiency of advantages already received, leading privileged minorities toward a moral responsibility for zaidi, that is, doing more (quantitatively and qualitatively) for impoverished populations in Africa and other less developed regions.

The Kenyan immersion experience combined a program based in Jesuit Ignatian spirituality with insights derived from African and Jewish traditions to outline a metaphorical journey from dayyenu toward zaidi. Can individual moral responsibility tolerate the acquisition of yet more “stuff” before providing support for people who struggle daily simply to sustain basic life? The collective response to this question will not only affect the future of innumerable at-risk individuals, it will also help determine whether expanding international linkages foster the shared human commitment essential to building a true global community. This challenge -- and responsibility -- should be posed to students early in their collegiate journey, but its relevance extends to the choices made by a much broader population, especially those of us who already have received enough.

John Kline is professor of international business diplomacy in the Edward A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 2004

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