I read an excellent article at The Collegian about volunteering and voluntourism. Really nice example of storytelling to teach important lessons.
Here is my favorite moment. The writer has been experiencing development work in different parts of Africa for months, and one day she sits down to a meal with a local chief in the Saharan interior.
“Cheikh Mohammed, do your friends give you gifts?” I started in Arabic, breaking off a piece of village bread.
“Of course, it’s a friendly thing to do.” He adjusted his posture on the scratchy woven carpet.
“Now if I’m coming from America to give you gifts, am I your friend?”
His face darkened, and he chewed a great deal before he spoke.
“Heather, a donation is a very dangerous thing to give away. Your American world is filled with so many items and material goods, that you might not understand the gravity of handing something for free to someone who has never been handed anything.”
I watched him deliberately dip his bread into goat sauce and carefully chew, knowing that he would explain himself.
“Do you know what this village means? Generations of desert wanderers, learning and toiling for their bread and meat and homes. We are proud of this; we are empowered, by this. Now, give a village man a handout? You’ve just weakened him. You’ve increased his dependency; diminished his sense of self-esteem. One of the most widely-accepted notions is that Westerners are the solution to African problems. This requires portraying us as helpless and endlessly recirculating images only of abandonment and violence, or innocence and primitivism.”
I chewed on his Arabic words while he finished his bread.
“But poverty and hunger still exist, and our morality moves us to feed and clothe,” I broke into his silence.
“You asked me if my friends give me gifts,” he said. “Make sure that you are my friend. Make certain you understand me, first. Learn my strengths, my heart, my efforts. Once we are established in brotherhood, then yes, send me a present, one that won’t hurt me to open.”
“You see, Heather,” he set his meat down to look closely at me, ”We are not weak. We are not underdeveloped. If you believe we must be helped, look more closely. We are content in our hearts, affectionate to each other, and attentive to our souls. Perhaps the greater need is for us to be helping you.”
Our desire to help comes from good intentions. Probably with mixed motivations. But in our rush to “do” and “save” we can miss what is more important – relationship, respect, friendship, seeing the humanity of the other – and in so doing run a great risk of trampling on the people and communities we meant to help.