300 Cups of Tea
As a peaceful country in desperate need of ‘Western assistance’, the footprint of humanitarian/ngo assistance is everywhere in Mali. Not only is Peace Corps a large, well known presence across the country, but so is USAID (our development agency) and initiatives by the State Department, the Millennium Corporation, various UN agencies, Save the Children, World Vision, Canada, France, Japan, Korea, China, Libya—just to name a few. The people of Mali are very used to receiving handouts, aid, assistance.
My village has a solar pump that was generously built by some well intentioned people. It’s a brilliant idea: to use the sun, a huge Malian resource, to pump water for the village. Unfortunately, it is broken and no one in the village has any idea how to fix it. Neither do I. Whoever built it has not returned to check up on it, so the faucet remains dry. Sometimes the villagers charge cell phones using the solar panels, and people sit in the shade of the cistern part of it. Otherwise it is useless.
A community garden was built for my village women, women who all have at least one, often more personal gardens. I am told the well is dry and the women grow only okra in their community garden in rainy season, because those are the seeds they are given by the ngo that built the garden (even though they could save seeds and not have to be given seeds every year). As of yet, I do not see the utility of having an additional place to grow okra together, but perhaps it will come to me over time?
Shittan, my 15 year old host sister, showed me her new shoes the other day—a pair of TOMS shoes (a fairly well known US company that for each pair of shoes bought, a pair is donated to the needy…). Again, she is 15, and the shoes were probably a child’s size 4, entirely too small for her. But those were the shoes specifically given to her, her new shoes. Over the past week I’ve seen them on multiple children; obviously they’ll fit someone in village. But the overall point is that these charities have such good intentions. The idea of giving kids shoes is noble. However, the way these things actually play out is not generally how the Americans at home envision them. You don’t think the shoes you’re donating are being given to someone to whom they’re completely useless.
Likewise, you don’t think about the boutiki (corner store) owner who is expecting to sell a ton of notebooks right before the school year starts, who is screwed over by a well intentioned box of free school supplies from some American charity. Now what does he do when he already spent money on a product he cannot sell because his market was undercut by the well intentioned? Not to mention the uncertainty of Malian parents who start off every school year unsure if they should be buying notebooks or not due to the inconsistencies of charitable donations.
There is a charity that will send kids teddy bears. Every American kid would probably love a teddy bear, so all kids would probably love a teddy bear, right?…I mean, there is nothing wrong with giving kids teddy bears, but in Mali, kids are not sitting around wishing they had American toys. There are Malian toys that suit them just fine, and wouldn’t the money spent on getting teddy bears all the way to the African Sahel be better spent on something a little more…useful? That being said, teddy bears are at least not harmful towards development, like many other project ideas can be.
With this in mind, I have spent two months in a village. I do not claim to know much of anything. I can tell you what my villagers have told me about their lives, their selves, their situations. My Bambara seems to be improving every day. I have friends in village, including a core group of people who are kind enough to speak slowly to me and enunciate. But, besides my desire to find a way to help my friends and neighbors, I have no idea how I could be useful. And I shouldn’t. It has only been two months. My job at the moment is to build relationships with villagers, to see who I might be able to work with later, what is being done, and what could perhaps be improved. As of now, I do not know enough of what is being done to know anything about what could be done. However, I say all of this not with an ounce of frustration, but rather with excitement. I was given the opportunity to not only offer assistance but to offer friendship to a group of people I would otherwise not be able to know. My job is not only assistance, but my sheer presence brings an outside viewpoint to my village, with the potential to see their challenges in a new light, possibly with solutions that may not have come about with my villagers working on their own.
However, this philosophy is not common among Western organizations. Americans particularly tend to approach problems with a ‘results’ attitude, which is useful in many situations, but it can breed naivete when working to solve complex, long-term problems. Donors enjoy seeing numbers of projects completed, the picture of the toubab standing in front of a freshly built school surrounded by smiling children (nevermind that there are no teachers). But, there is no instant gratification in development work, and the Peace Corps recognizes that more than arguably any other development organization. I have the time, the resources, the encouragement to take my time with my work, to advance slowly, and to develop small projects that match both my abilities to teach and my villagers capabilities to learn and change. None of this is profound. Nothing I do here will change the world. But gradually, I will begin to see ways I can make an impact in my village, and when the time comes, I will seize those opportunities. As it was put to me, it takes not just 3, but 300 cups of tea to breach the surface of useful development work.← The Bugs Travels and Tribulations →