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Earning the Right to Help Without Hurting

still(if you are just joining today please read the first two posts in this series:

When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They Are Being Rich Westerners

Good Intention, Good Practice)

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

Good Intention, Good Practice

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(if you are just joining today, please read this post first: When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They Are Being Rich Westerners)

Today, as promised, one of my (many) failures and what I’m learning about intentions versus practice.

I remember once being with a group of homeless women, eating spaghetti with our fingers, keeping our children from stepping in human feces, trying to keep flies from entering my mouth while I shoveled in noodles and greasy sauce. One of the young boys had a badly burned hand, he had fallen into his mother’s cooking fire the day before and didn’t go to the doctor. The burn was deep and raw and oozing.

I took a picture.

Writing that makes me want to cry. I don’t want to write that, I don’t want to tell you. And I certainly don’t want to tell you what I was thinking as the picture was snapped. But I am practicing humility, confessing my own weakness, asking forgiveness.

I was thinking, “That picture, and the story of a homeless woman and her son, of keeping children out of shit and flies out of mouths, will surely motivate people back home to give money to our development work.”

No matter that this wasn’t our development work. Our development work is my husband teaching at the University, under a Djiboutian dean, within the Djiboutian system, partnering with local professors. Our development work is something I can fully throw myself behind, whole-heartedly support. This was a weekly meal with women, trying to care for the alien and the widow and the orphan. Also a good thing, also something that met a felt need, but look at how I turned it upside down, look at how easily I could have manipulated to people back home. (I didn’t.)

I’m sorry. I’m sorry I thought it, I’m sorry I took the photo. I’m sorry that this is the story people ‘back home’ seem to expect to hear about Africa. I’m sorry that people are more inclined to say, ‘yes that is what happens in that place,’ when they see a burned child than when they see a room of Djiboutians earning a university degree. And I’m sorry for the ways I have perpetuated that by manipulating stories or photos. There is pressure to keep money flowing and tugging heart strings with emotionally charged photos, though perhaps not culturally accurate or fully truthful, is tempting.

There is also pressure to maintain attention (both on the need and on the development worker), to keep my overseas experience the most exotic, my ‘sacrifice’ the greatest, the most dramatic, the most tragic, the most other, the most sure-to-garner-a-lot-of-traffic. But to be honest and authentic, photos, stories, and attitudes  need to provide a well-balanced perspective of the beautiful and the broken, both of which can be found in every neighborhood around the world.

I had good intentions with that burn photo – of raising money for medicine, of stirring up an emotional response that could lead to further involvement. But is that the best practice for this mother and her son? To use their pain? To take her out of her community, make her rely on a potentially compassionate western audience? That would have contributed to relational poverty, which I address in depth here: Contributing to Relational Poverty.

“Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it – say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken – or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.” Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

Good intentions are just that, good intentions. They often leave a negative impact. Does that mean do nothing? Look at suffering and pain and do nothing? Absolutely not. It means we must work together toward good practice. This means we must listen to voices that don’t shout loudly, don’t have the largest followings or the most Facebook shares. This means listen to people who might not have internet, which would require personal, face-to-face engagement and probably a much longer time-table. Read books by non-western writers. Read history, be prepared. Dig deeper into cultural values than trying on a new outfit or going to an ethnic restaurant.

This also means donating and funding organizations need to think critically about their procedures, values, expectations, and their relationship with those they are funding. The relationship needs to be authentic, transparent, and the work should include local input and feedback.

“There is much more to doing good work than “making a difference.” There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” Teju Cole, The White Savior Industrial Complex

We have to be willing to apologize, clearly and often. We have to ask for help, confess our ignorance. We have to relinquish the reins of leadership and control and must learn to see the value systems of others as just that, valuable. I’m reminded of Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Poisonwood Bible in which the father refuses to plant the way the local people do, certain that they will learn from his expertise. His system fails. We have to take off our way of seeing the world and start to see a better way to plant, start to see a different story, a deeper story, the redemptive story.

“Where the world sees poverty, we want it to see a different sort of richness.

Where the world sees violence, we want it to see people longing for peace.

Where the world sees crime, we want it to see neighbors looking out for each other.

Where the world sees brokenness, we want it to see stories of hope and strength.

Where the world sees destruction, we want it to see signs of God’s redemption.

Amidst the darkness, we want the world to see the Kingdom.”

Peter Anderson

I, for one, have a lot of work to do in moving from good intention to good practice.

There has been progress, though, since the burned-hand-photo. Next Monday I will write about learning how to learn, learning how to be still. And I will try to get a bit more practical.

*image credit Janet Ramsden via Flickr

When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They are Being Rich Westerners


*Follow-up posts: Good Intention, Good Practice and Earning the Right to Help Without Hurting

I have been wrestling with how to write about this for months. Starts and stops, lots of unfinished first sentences and barely coherent lists. Then I read this essay after the Rick Warren and race conversation flared up last week. When White People Don’t Know They Are Being White by Jody Louise on Between Worlds. She is humble yet forthright in the piece, a balance which is incredibly challenging to achieve around such a sensitive and potentially volatile topic. She spurred me on, inspired me, and clearly, informed the title of this post.

I’m giving you loads of links here that will lead to other links and I encourage you to take the time to read this stuff. I have been and don’t think I’ll ever be the same. It is hard, challenging, might make you angry. That’s okay, wrestle with it. Join me as I wrestle with it.

I am not surprised by, but continue to be disappointed in, the western attitude toward the developing world. It is an attitude I see often, though not exclusively, among Christians. It is an attitude of superiority, a god-complex. An attitude that communicates an underlying assumption, intentionally or not, that the rich westerner is the one with power and authority and agency. As this is communicated, of course the opposite is communicated as well. The local person is weak, a victim, and helpless. The rich westerner must charge in to fix things, build things, challenge the status quo.

This happens in blogs, books, movies, songs…And it isn’t just Christians. It is Hollywood and Random House and MTV.

These kinds of stories…give a paternalistic picture of urban communities as mere recipients. They do not show the heroic community leaders that are in every urban neighborhood, people working hard with little resources and little recognition… Cure for the White Savior Complex by Shawn Casselberry

For a horrifying example read this article (or don’t and just be satisfied with the title) in Glamour and then the comment section: Meet Mindy Budgor, the World’s First Female Maasai Warrior. Some people call this the white savior complex and there is most definitely an aspect of race involved, the conversations overlap at many points, but it is more than a skin color issue.

One point that must be made is that I am a rich westerner from a Christian background living in the developing world. My husband is a professor at the University of Djibouti. I am trying to figure this all out, trying to do it well, with integrity and authenticity. I am, like all of us, a work in progress.

So, when does the rich westerner not know they (we) are being a rich westerner?

When the rich westerner doesn’t need to actually get involved with those in the developing world because they can simply buy a cool t-shirt. I was hungry and you bought a cool t-shirt is all about the westerner and is not how Jesus talked about giving to the needy, without the left hand knowing what the right hand is doing. Matthew 6:1-3

When the rich westerner filters a cross-cultural experience through their own lens of comfort, possessions, affluence, community, and spirituality. This gives a distorted view that puts themselves and their values at the center. The other is seen as exotic, shocking, unusually positive or unusually negative. There is only room for the extreme, no space left over for commonality or understanding.

“Before we declare a woman’s life, foreign from ours in almost every physical detail, ‘poor,’ we need to seek to deeply understand that woman, her background, her place in the community, her desires, her talents. And we may discover that she isn’t poor at all but is a thriving, active, content participant in a societal system that works, different as it may be to our western eyes.” Who is Poor? Who Decides?

When the rich westerner views or presents the local as an object lesson not a relationship. The poor ‘African’ child with hungry eyes and a ripped dress teaches the rich westerner how to give generously. The poor woman with the hungry eyes and the ripped dress teaches the rich westerner how to find joy in a bowl of rice. This turns the distinctive person into a representative person and strips them of their uniqueness. It is a dangerous act of simplification (J.R. Goudeau). We can all learn from each other, we need to. I am constantly learning from the people around me (and vice versa, I hope) but let us put these lessons into the context of relationships and not form objects out of them.

When the rich westerner sees and shares what they expect to see. They want to see or take or share photos of children in torn dresses and ramshackle housing slums but not the fancy Kempinski Hotel, not the skyscrapers downtown, not the developed shopping malls and haut cuisine restaurants. Poverty and violence and disease and hunger fit the narrative the west prefers, expects. It is easier to continue that than to swim against it.

“These sights carry a double message. They show a suffering that is outrageous, unjust, and should be repaired. They confirm that this is the sort of thing that happens in that place. The ubiquity of those photographs, and these horrors, cannot help but nourish belief in the inevitability of tragedy in the benighted or backward – that is, poor – parts of the world.” Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

When the rich westerner comes away after spending a week or a month in a country and claims cultural competency, is now an expert because they have eaten that food! Danced in that festival! Worn a headscarf! These things are merely the tip of the cultural iceberg. It is often said that the longer an expatriate lives in a place the less competent they feel to write about it, I can attest to the truth of this. The longer I am here the more I know how much I do not know, the more I need locals to correct me, clarify, the more (and deeper) questions I ask.

Jody Louise’s post introduces the term cultural humility and it is a good one. Katherine Boo talks about the earned fact and while not everyone will have the time to spend three years researching a single slum community, everyone does have the capability of asking questions. Of being a learner. Of not taking a leadership position but serving beneath a local person.

When the rich westerner believes they are here to save people. We are here to help, to come alongside, to try and do some good, to learn, to be in community. God alone performs the saving work.

When rich western Christians impose their theology on a local fellowship. Many books (written by rich western Christians) on discipleship and Bible study materials assume that everyone faces the same needs and can meet those needs in the same way. I once heard an American say, “Let’s just translate the catechism for this people group. We’ve already figured out all the theology they’ll need.”

When the rich westerner talks about Africa but not Nigeria. Africa but not Uganda. Africa but not Lesotho. Michael W. Smith sings a song: A New Hallelujah. “From Africa to Australia, from Brazil to China, from New York down to Houston.” The United States gets to be named by city, most of the rest of the world by country name, and Africa is one solid chunk of continent. We need to learn our details, our facts, we need to name places accurately. Naming implies seeing, honoring, respecting.

When the rich westerner presents a single story, a story often about hunger, disease, filth, violence. About all the broken and lacking things. A popular blog series (by an author I much admire, respect, and who often cuts to my very soul) talks about the generic Africa and repeatedly mentions hunger, repeatedly shows photos of children in torn clothes, mentions their lack of forks and spoons, talks about the bleeding of Africa in her red dirt. This is not Africa. This is Uganda. This is not even Uganda, this is a particular village where it might be a cultural practice to not use forks and spoons. I have eaten with wealthy Djiboutians who used their hands. Rich westerners need to be very careful in how they interpret and present what they see. I am not of the “don’t tell these stories” position. I believe stories must be told and I will tell them, but we need to be careful about assumptions.

When the rich westerner presents the other as victims by focusing only on issues like rape, trafficking, poverty while ignoring local initiatives, leaders, community strengths, progress, and the reality that these people have lived here for decades, centuries, without a westerner intervening on their behalf.

When the rich westerner presents the other as holy in their suffering by focusing only on their generosity, smiles, and non-verbal communication while ignoring issues like greed, selfishness, gossip, and cruelty. Katherine Boo refers to this as the “western conceit that poverty is ennobling.” This kind of one-dimensional presentation makes cardboard characters out of real, complex people.

Rich westerner, and please know I am talking to myself as much as anyone else, we must be aware of our position, our privilege, the way history and current social structures affect us, our view of the world, and our interaction with the world.

“The system is set up for us, and gives us power without us even having to ask for it… When white people don’t recognize how our position of cultural dominance influences us – when we don’t know that we’re being white – we can be like bulls in a china shop, throwing everything in our wake askew without even realizing what we’ve done.” Jody Louise

I have been that bull in the china shop. I have behaved with superiority and arrogance, have made things worse by stepping in to help, have plowed past the opinions and voices of local people in my exuberance.

Lest I leave you feeling paralyzed (which I often feel), I am not saying do nothing, say nothing. Next week I will share just one example, of many, of how I have failed and will write about the difference between good intention and good practice. The following week I’ll share an example of positive progress, ways to move forward.

What would you add to this conversation – rebukes to any wrong-thinking I’ve presented here or thoughts on moving in a positive direction?

*image credit Olga Lednichenko via Flickr