We Don’t Know Best

Please take a moment to read Dan Haseltine’s words about orphanages. I like this very much. It is due time for Americans to re-examine the actions we take in places like Africa. There is no us and them. And we certainly don’t know best.


“I remember the conversation as if it just happened.  I was sitting at a table in a beautiful hotel in Rwanda.  I was there to learn about the complexities of helping people in communities overrun by HIV/AIDS.  
The idea of orphanages came up.  For one of the African community health workers, it was more than she could take.  She described what orphanages do in the area where she worked.
An African’s identity is deeply connected to the land where they live and sweat.  The toiling that is done in the fields is an expression of the roots that reach generations and generations down into the hard soil of their communities.  It is not unlike many of us.  We still have connections to the places we were born.  It is as much a part of our identity as the color of our hair, or the shade of our skin.  We cannot change where we were born.  The setting of our story was set before we arrived. 
I have now lived in Tennessee longer than I have lived anywhere else.  But my roots are still firmly planted in Hampden, MA.  On the occasion that I get to travel to New England, I find myself breathing more deeply, and feeling more at home.  I never worked the earth when I lived in MA.  I mowed a rather large lawn, and maybe that was work enough to make me feel connected to it.  Africans have a deeper connection to home and land than we do.
There is also something about the work ethic of an African.  If they do not grow crops, and tend to the care of those crops, they will not have food to eat.  The amount of work they put into their land often directly affects their ability to sustain life.  If they cannot feed their families, then they will starve.  So being lazy is not really an option.
And maybe the most obvious thing we can recognize from experiencing rural villages in impoverished parts of Africa is that there are not many resources to go around.  Material possessions are few.  Many people don’t have access to new clothes or shoes or schoolbooks. 
In an attempt to fight against poverty and chip away at the massive orphan crisis due to the amount of parents who have died from AIDS, So enters the orphanage. 
On the surface it seems like a good idea.  It most definitely has the ability to save lives.  And we do not want to see children starving, or living alone. 
The orphanage is a well-intentioned idea.  However, in the places where my African friend works, it is problematic. 
She describes the effects of the orphanage model.  Orphanages get built.  They identify orphans and pull them from their land.  This immediate strips them of their identity.  You give them food and shelter apart from the work of their hands.  So you take away their work ethic. 
In villages where orphanages exist, the children that are not orphans can feel penalized.  If a child loses their family, they gain access to schooling, and clothing, and books and a bed.  They have resources that are better than the ones the rest of the children in that community have.  This creates competition and animosity. 
She says that you have just developed a person with no identity, no work ethic and negative relationships with everyone in their village.  She says, “You have just contributed to the growth of poverty.” 
And then she asked, “Did the orphanage model work in the United States?”  My response was to say, “No, it didn’t work in the U.S.”   There are other ways to deal with the orphan crisis in those communities.  But it was a classic example of a western idea being implemented in Africa.   In development and relief work, it is a common theme.  We desire to do good things.  In our haste and sometimes in our arrogance, we end up hurting or demeaning the people we want to help. 
The other hard part about community development work is that not-for-profit organizations function off of donations from people who often need to see the proof of where their money is going.  This seems reasonable as far as accountability and transparency is concerned, but what about the ways this takes shape in Africa?
Organizations are constantly wrestling for money.  The best way to build trust in a donor is to develop a solid trustworthy brand.  Branding is an issue.  It means that we have to spend lots of time propping up the work that is being done. 
It also means that many organizations use tactics for engaging people that are incredibly dishonoring to those who they seek to help.  How many images of bloated bellies can we take in?  How many pictures of children with fly resistant eyes can we stare at while the dramatic music plays in the background?  When did we have to feel sorry for someone to help them?  But this is a VERY common tactic.  Many organizations don’t tell the story of people doing good work in their own communities because that could jeopardize the messaging that a particular organizations work is what is saving people. 
Thus, a song is born. 
Light Gives Heat was a critique of the ways we engage people in the grip of physical poverty.  It was a song that was written almost like a play.  The narrative at the beginning is in the head of a well meaning, but slightly arrogant aid worker. 
“Catch the rain empty hands, save the children from their lands… wash the darkness from their skin.
Heroes from the west, we don’t know you, we know best.
So many organizations think that the answer lies in our ability to Americanize African people.  If we can strip them of their culture, and replace it with our own, than they will live healthy lives.  And they can’t do it on their own… so we are the great white hope that will sweep in and save you. 
The African voice enters:
“You treat me like I’m blind, setting fires around houses on the hill,”
Can we even think for a second that Africans don’t feel dignity being stripped away?  Do we think that they are not smart enough to know when someone is ultimately working for their own gain, or for the gain of branding an organization? 
When we tell Africans that we are here to save them, it implies that they cannot save themselves.  This is especially true with ideas.  We can help with resources, but when we choose not to listen to Africans and learn from them about how their culture works and what ideas they have to bring healthy infrastructure into their land, we strip them of their dignity.  And we remove the ability to empower them.
The song draws from history as well. 
“Segregate my mind, burning crosses from our fears”
We repeat history when we approach people as if they are less than human; If people are less than capable of good ideas.  We fear what we do not understand.  People enter Africa knowing only the story of poverty and disease.  They don’t know the story of spiritual richness, deeply rooted culture, soulful living, passionate music, wondrous storytelling, courageous acts, daring and thoughtful and poetic humanity.  And so we are in control of a relationship that is never equal.  We always have the upper hand.  This feels safer. 
Most organizations go to places and never once try to learn the language of the local people.  It is up to the villages to communicate in English.  It is up to the people of the village to extend beyond their reach.  And this is a problem.  It is another way that we devalue people and their culture. 
That is why we wrote this song.  I had the opportunity to sing it in Kenya.  I sang it to the people who have inspired me.  I sang it as an apology.  I sang it as a confession.  And they sang it back to me in forgiveness and solidarity.   
“But Light Gives Heat.”  African’s will take our charity.  But they want our relationship.  They will work with the arrogance we bring, and use it to benefit their communities.  They have survived enough to find the good in the worst of circumstances.  And so even our most arrogant acts might have something in them for Africans to repurpose.” -Dan Haseltine



 


Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s