Here is a story of progress and wrestling, of trying to help without hurting, a piece of my on-going journey.
“If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.” Teju Cole, The White Savior Industrial Complex
I once spent the morning seated on a thin foam mattress on the dirt ground in Amina’s* house. Six structures, each made from sticks, old clothes, flattened and rusty powdered milk cans, stood in a semi-circle inside a woven thorn branch fence.
(*her real name. This forces me to write with integrity. Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others, “It is significant that the powerless are not named in the captions…to grant only the famous their names demotes the rest to representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights.”)
From where I sat I could see through loops in barbed wire and thorns to the mountains on the Ethiopia-Djibouti border, burnt orange and brown and close. I sat in the middle of two running coaches. One softly hummed a gentle song about beauty and nature. The other coach and I teased two little boys about their plate of rice and why they didn’t go to school.
Amina’s mother came and kissed our hands and cheeks. She gave us traditional beaded jewelry: a headband, two strings of black and white beads tied around my ankles, and a stick with fluorescent green and yellow feathers. We were laughing and talking and I wanted to cry.
I wanted to cry because it was beautiful and wrenching and this woman was humming about beauty in this desolate, empty place and this woman was giving to us and it felt so good and right and even spiritual to be there in that spot, in that moment.
Later, this bothered me. Because it was totally cliché. Totally, “I went to Africa and the poor woman was happily giving to me out of her poverty and now we’re sisters and I’ve seen God and my life is changed and this is real faith.” This was the quintessential ‘when the local gives back’ moment that sometimes makes me cringe in narratives by rich westerners who have spent time in the developing world.
There is the ‘they’re poor but they’re happy’ line. They do have nice smiles and good senses of humor, but that’s entirely different.” Tracy Kidder, quoting Paul Farmer in Mountains Beyond Mountains
But as I reflected (both on my experience and on why these narratives bother me) I recognized that this wasn’t what I was thinking and this wasn’t a simplistic local woman smiling and being more generous than she could afford because a white woman stepped through her door. This was not simple and wasn’t reducible to basic emotions or broad sweeps of declaring sisterhood.
This was a relationship that has been built over trial and time and investment. There was language comprehension, we were communicating. There was history. I was able to enter into the situation and respond to it and interact. I was not overwhelmed or surprised by the poverty, which was extreme, or the circumstances. I was pleased to see where Amina keeps her running shoes.
I didn’t think the kids were cute, with big eyes, orange hair from malnourishment, and flies on their faces. I thought they were Amina’s brothers and it was nice to meet them. I didn’t think her father was a poor suffering old man, I wondered when he would be able to get medicine for his aching hip. I knew that the anklets were an Issa custom (a Somali clan) and that the bright stick was for the dashboard in the car. In other words, my response stemmed not from culture shock but from a relationship and a cultural knowledge. One that will last longer than one morning.
I was thinking about her needs, though. This family has a lot of needs. But I wasn’t thinking, ‘these poor people are suffering.’ I was thinking, how can we help this family secure stability for the long-term, for example by keeping Amina in school. Accomplished not by economic incentives or purchasing supplies but by a simple rule of the running club I had helped launch in 2008. Any members of the team, which Amina desperately wanted to be part of, must remain in school. The family made it happen because they care about Amina.
I believe it is important to tell stories like Amina’s but in a way that is less about me and more about Amina. In a way that doesn’t stem from culture shock or exoticizing or othering. In a way that requires me to step back and not be the hero, not be the person the reader is left thinking of.
In the same way I believe it is important to help people like Amina. Our involvement has ranged from rice to vitamins to running clothes, all associated with being a member of the team. But we are learning to do this in a way that is less about me, more about her. Not so I become a hero but so she becomes a partner. Not with strictly my ideas but with her creativity and initiative.
I could take photos of Amina’s house that would shock most readers. I could tell stories about her experience that would make you cry. I could do this, like I thought about with the boy with the burned hand a few years ago, and ask you to help me help Amina because ‘look how terrible her life is.’ I could ply your guilty conscience and make you feel like a savior. I could play savior myself, dump boxes of food at Amina’s house and never learn about her talent on the track.
Or, I could tell stories about Amina’s improved time in the 400-meters. About her beautiful form as she leaps over hurdles that I’m too scared to step over. About her sister who wants to be a runner too, but whom Amina hopes just stays in school. It is obvious that Amina has needs, a minute inside her story reveals this, but what I choose to emphasize in sharing that story determines the level of dignity, authenticity, and ownership she maintains.
I could bring Amina boxes of food because she is a member of a team and she has earned it with practice and dedication, just like runners on a team in an American high school are given awards and team prizes. Now I am getting to know her and her unique talents and challenges. Now she feels proud of her contribution to the family and the strength in her legs. Now you can watch a girl grow into a community leader, a dedicated student, and a runner who could crush you in a race. A unique individual, representative of herself.
I’m not saying I know how to do development work perfectly. I most definitely make mistakes and need to regularly check my attitude and actions. I’m saying that I am learning how to be. How to sit, to be still, to build relationships. I am learning to earn the right to be heard, to earn the right to offer a hand, to earn the right to make a statement, to earn the right to write a blog post or an essay or a book, to earn the right to try and help.
I know not all bloggers, writers, thinkers, travelers, have the opportunity to develop language skills or the time to invest in long-term relationships. I don’t expect them to, we are each called to a different style of living and working. But, if they plan on writing about a cross-cultural experience, if they plan on getting involved in a local community, I believe they have the responsibility to at least do research, to be clear about their lack of cultural competency, and to ask questions and be careful of assumptions. To read how some people are trying to do this, check out D.L. Mayfield’s series War Photographers.
They could read books before going to a place, both by authors from that place and from authors who know the place well. They can become familiar with food, clothing, geography, history, music, film so that when they arrive they are ready to delve deeper. They can educate themselves about possible roles their own country (especially relevant for Americans) have played in this place. If a person is willing to invest significant amounts of money and time to spend in the developing world, they need to also be willing to invest intellectually and in preparation.
Let us, rich westerners and poor westerners, rich easterners and poor easterners, serve and love with passion and abandon and let us earn the right to help without hurting.
*image credit Travis Miller via Flickr