Wednesday, October 29, 2008

crY when the cutting edge bleeds

There are stories I am afraid to tell.

I wish I could tell you it's been all sweetness and light, working to try to empower African communities. I wish I could tell you that I achieved all - or at least part of - what I set out to accomplish. I wish I could tell you that I clearly see the lessons in whatever these trials and ordealswere supposed to teach me.

Were I able to find nuggets of wisdom in the wreckage, I would want to share them in a way that inspires others to do better, to be smarter, to achieve more. I fear sometimes, that I might never find them.

And yet, there is the painful process of sifting through the mess of memories that my mind's eye is compelled to try and do. I lie awake nights imagining where to begin, and how to combine the memories of magical experiences with an acceptance of how things changed... of how my understanding of what I was up against changed... of how I changed. Writing is a tool that can help me with the sorting through. But I fear sometimes, that I won't tell the stories right.

At the gut of it all, I fear that the failures are all my fault. It was egotistical of me to think that my social experiments could offer value, to people I was presumptuous enough to think I could help in ways I thought were important. Who was I, after all, to think that giving the community control would be empowering?

One of my biggest AHA moments - when I finally started to realize just how off track I was - came after years of trying to convince the Life in Africa community (mostly craftmakers displaced or otherwise affected by the war in Northern Uganda) that they could design, manage and control their own activities. The thing was, they didn't actually want that level of control, and it took them a really long time help me understand why. One woman finally explained to me they were willing to ride on the metaphorical Life in Africa bus, to wherever we were going. But if they were supposed to build the engine and drive it too, I needed to realize that they simply didn't have those skills.

Few in the community I was working with had the basic literacy and numeracy skills required to manage community programs, and most who did have those skills weren't necessarily in a position to handle the responsibility well. That left very few people capable of getting the work done. When the community did take control over activities that I initiated, it got me in trouble more than a couple of times. Does their inability ever stop being my responsibility? On the flipside, at what point does advising the community from experience become dictating what they should do?

I sometimes fear that I'm no better than the decades of colonalist-minded fools who came to Africa before me, with their misdirected intentions of "developing" other human beings to fit successfully into a foreign values system. Some have argued that a mistake the colonialists made when they left in the 1960s was not leaving a strong enough capacity behind for the former colonies to manage their own governance systems. When I think about how Life in Africa Gulu fell through mismanagement as I pushed them to become more independent, I feel guilty. I should have known.

It's also true that in post-colonial times, well intended Western "charity" has created many new monsters in Africa, and brought out the worst in some monsters that were already a part of societal mentalities here. The best of my efforts to fight against the charity mentality were simply not strong enough. At the end of the day, an offer to work together with others to create a community-based social enterprise they would all own could not compete with charities offering ready-made free services.

Participating in professionally managed foreign charity programs is far easier, less time consuming and more immediately gratifying than participating in building and owning community operated services. From a consumer point of view in the charity driven economy they know, I really can't blame them for comparing. Why did I ever think that community owned and operated would be better? I know there were once some lovely, lofty sounding reasons. Whatever they were, though, they weren't good enough to convince the average Life in Africa member that a community owned and operated social enterprise was something they really wanted.

What they really want, more than any one thing as a united community, is charity to help pay for their kids' education.

Building the capacity to raise the money themselves is a nice idea, but would take too long. Meanwhile many of their children are growing up without consistent access to a structured learning environment. This is an urgent problem, that resurfaces every term when it's time to pay school fees, and causes persistent chaos and heartbreak at the family level. The amounts that Ugandans pay to educate even one child are high compared to average local incomes, and the vast majority of families have more than one child. Many have taken on caring for the children of relatives who have died.

Knowing that the school fees were there would GREATLY stabilize their lives in so many ways. I get it. I see it. I cannot deny that the need is very real. After all these years of me trying to fight against the charity mentality, the truth is there is no group I can think of who really needs charity more than these war-affected Ugandan women, for the purpose of giving their kids a better chance than they had.

After trying so hard to encourage them to define themselves as a community of purpose, I've no choice but to accept what they choose to become. It's painful for me though, to know that what remains of the innovative social enterprise ideas that Life in Africa pioneered, is a group that thinks charity is really the best thing for them after all. Maybe I was just wrong.

The cutting edge of change bleeds with unsuccessful attempts to make an impact on societal mindsets...

I sometimes fear that my heart has bled dry.



John Powers said...

This post sends my mind in several directions. Did I say mind? Maybe I mean gut?

First, I'm very happy you're telling the story. I also think the story will be told in different ways over time and that multiple ways of telling are important.

Last week I read a post that began:

"Dear everyone who’s ever thought of starting an NGO,"

"Don’t do it. You’re not going to think of a solution no one else has, your approach is not as innovative as you think it is, and raising money is going to be impossible. You will have no economy of scale, your overhead will be disproportionately high, and adding one more tiny NGO to the overburdened international system may well make things worse instead of better."

I was annoyed. There is some great insight there. Heaven's knows there are plenty of opinions making approximately the same points that always seem to receive lot of piling on.

You didn't mention some version of "I told you so!" as something that inhibits telling your story. So I mention it because I'm very much against that frame of reference about the story. Proceeding from that premise will never do justice to the truth.

I'm happy you didn't mention it, because that suggests you're not coming from that direction. LOL and that I'm ready to do battle with those who try to impose that sort of narrative on your story is probably not helpful at all! But the thing is, your stories are intimate and not to be trifled with.

Second, well I'm scattered--no news to you--I'll revisit this. But for a second, I'll also say that some seeds cast on rocky ground do sprout. You've probably seen mighty trees which seem to grow right out from under boulders. This story isn't past, it's a creation alive. You don't really know yet which seeds will grow, nor how they'll fruit.

Telling your stories is so important and I so much want to hear them. In a sense maybe a chapter in a book you're writing is closing. But the composition you're creating isn't a book of discrete essays, the stories cohere in ways you may not, or cannot now know. The book is still in creation.

L Palmer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
the fool on the hill said...

You have so many interesting insights about your experiences in Africa - have you ever thought of writing a book about it.

It would surely enlighten peeps about how it is at the grassroot level.

Shawn4lia said...

I was just discussing this with another member of my business networking group yesterday. The charity mentality is indeed a difficult challenge. I agree with John, though, that there will be no way for you to know all of the ways in which what you started will make a difference. But it has, and it will, for generations to come.

John Powers said...

Here in the USA today was the final cartoon of the Opus comic strip. There was a contest to support the Humane Society around the final strip. So revealing my nerd status have been reading what people have to say about the final panel, and came across a comment that seems to me to apply to your situation:

"Rollo May, in his book, "The Courage to Create," asserts that the artist is the one least likely to know about their characters. May believes that artists are conduits and that the pipe doesn't comprehend what it carries."

I believe we are all artists. No, I don't think you were in the business of creating characters, Christina. And, yes, I do believe reflection is important. But as your heart feels dry now, I do hope you'll remain confident that once again the blood will flow. Love increases when we give it away. That seems to me a natural law.

christina said...

thanks for the thoughts everyone. connectivity here is atrocious lately so i haven't been too active responding, but the feedback is most welcome.

Yes, I've thought about a book but only got as far as thinking about it. Always seemed like there was too much other stuff to do. Maybe someday...

Ceris said...

Gotta say, truly, much of what you say Christina I might have written about a sense of community ownership and responsibility here in Wales. I'll do you a deal - I won't give up if you don't ;)!