A Humane Society at Large

Article excerpt

North American upper and middle classes are a rich elite in the current world economy, and many people of this social standing feel an obligation to share their good fortune by donating time or money to humanitarian organizations. Some of these organizations, however, often are more effective at uplifting the moral conscience of their supporters and members than working toward their explicit goals of helping other people. In fact, some are actually creating problems for the people that they are trying to help.

In this category, I witnessed a five-day Church of Christ medical mission to the indigenous reservation of Kuna Yala, formerly called San Bias, in the Republic of Panama. Prescription pharmaceuticals were liberally distributed to thousands of people who did not need or understand the medicine and, consequently, misused the drugs. Nonetheless, mission participants returned to their comfortable North American lifestyles genuinely feeling that they had done good deeds, unaware that their visits were creating harm.

I first encountered these missionaries while I was seated on the sandy floor of the puberty ceremony house, fulfilling my responsibility for community work for the small Caribbean island where I was conducting an anthropological study. I casually chatted with representatives of the other households on the island as we helped prepare inna, a dark alcoholic drink, for a huge coming-of-age feast to be held in some weeks' time. Everyone suddenly grew silent as a North American man dressed in blue hospital scrubs walked into the dimly lit, palm-thatched building. Someone whispered in Spanish (for my benefit) that the man was one of the doctors. Two similarly dressed white women stood at the door and started taking pictures with a flash camera, which caused an outburst of shouts.

All of the missionaries, including the high-school-aged volunteers, wore blue hospital scrubs, which invited the label doctor. There were two teams of medical missionaries staying on the island where I was living, and they were sponsored by several congregations in the southern United States. Each team had only a single doctor, along with an optometrist, a pharmacist, a dentist, five registered nurses, and over a dozen volunteers unconnected with the medical profession. They had come to Kuna Yala in order to set up a temporary health clinic where, according to their own figures, in five days they saw 1,966 medical patients, filled 8,229 prescriptions, extracted 391 teeth, scrubbed 322 heads for lice, and handed out 303 pairs of eyeglasses. But the outcome of their visits is not as straightforward as their figures suggest. For example, I recorded several accounts of individual Kuna who in years past had taken the missionaries' free pills and, when they did not immediately produce the desired results, swallowed the rest of them, inadvertently nearly killing themselves in the process.

Most of the people who participated in this medical mission genuinely believed that they were helping the Kuna. Many of the volunteers made great sacrifices to come on this trip and paid a large portion of their,personal expenses out of their own pockets. One woman, who had been coming to Kuna Yala for years, told me, "I broke my arm the morning that we came, but I came anyway... I love these people. I take care of these people. They know I do. I'm seventy-seven years old, and I hope that the Lord gives me many more years to come down here and be a part of their life." These are only the best of intentions. This desire to help other people is widespread in our culture, and my own motivations for documenting the consequences of the missionaries' visits are related to those same ideals.

Latin American Missionaries (LAM), whose explicit purpose is "to reach 77,500,000 lost souls," is the parent organization of the medical team that visited Kuna Yala and a ministry under the Elders of the Forest Park Church of Christ in Valdosta, Georgia. …