In 2009, I launched myself… head first… into a very intense community upliftment project in rural KwaZulu Natal (here in South Africa). Being the (very!) impulsive type… I saw the need, I felt the urge, I wanted to help, and so… I co-founded a project called Tapestry of Dreams with my friend, Roz Thomas. I wanted to help the women of rural KZN. I wanted to…. fix things.
My intentions were good (and oh so naive) – and there were many important lessons that I learned on that first journey. Here are some of them:
- ANYONE can make a difference in this country, continent… world. Even the person who believes they have nothing to offer – actually have the capacity to make a difference in the lives of others (although – that ‘difference’ may look a little bit different to the way you imagined it).
- There are hundreds of cultural and social issues to deal with when you work with communities that are unfamiliar territory to your cultural upbringing or social understanding. Never ever assume that everybody thinks the way you do… or sees things the way you see things… or views the world through the same eyes. What you may think is straight-forward ‘logic’ may often be illogical for others – and vice versa. Instead of trying to convert or persuade people to see things your way… or think the way you do… try a different approach: try to see the world through their eyes, their circumstances, their culture, their social situation. It’s enlightening – often uncomfortably so!
- You don’t have to *get* people… or understand people… or even agree with people… before you have the capacity to love, help, teach, inspire or encourage them.
- Don’t push your own solutions on to unwilling participants. Projects will only really work if the communities you’re working with believe in and understand what you’re building towards. (Don’t build them a clinic – if they’re desperately pleading for a creche. Don’t give them English Bibles – when they’re Zulus who are asking for work / education / food). Help people become masters of their own destiny – and this process will require lots of patience and LOTS of listening…. LOTS and LOTS of listening.
- Relationship, relationship, relationship. “We” cannot swoop in to foreign communities and decide we can ‘fix things’ on our own. It never works. Relationship with the locals is absolutely critical – and did I mention… listening to them (?)
- People know when you really don’t care about them. If you just want the glory… and the glossy photo of you standing in the midst of the AIDS infected community… or, like a politician or beauty queen, hugging impoverished AIDS orphans and pretending to care (when the REAL motive is your very own PR campaign). If this is your motivation – you will forever miss out on the very real opportunity to be beautifully transformed. CSI budgets are nothing more than corporate marketing budgets (corporates tend to give most to the projects which offer them the most publicity and brownie points in return for their cash). Many individuals do the same thing. They give or ‘serve’ – only because they want the brownie points and/or publicity. Without love and genuine concern for the community that you serve – your contribution is like a watery meal replacement shake – but with the vitamins removed. It briefly satiates – but there’s no long-term sustenance – either for yourself or for the people you profess to serve.
- Leave your ulterior motives at home – whether it’s religion, politics or other hidden agendas. Whether you intend converting the masses to the religion of your choice (and that’s why you’re helping them)… or whether you want to be viewed politically or corporately as a caring humanitarian (and that’s why you’re helping them)… or whether you simply want to add another notch to your belt of things-you’ve-done-to-help-the-poor so that your relatives and friends will be impressed with your kindness and consider you saint (and that’s why you’re helping them)… know that the locals won’t be fooled. People know a fake hug, a fake smile and feigned concern. And not just that – it’s condescending and selfish.
- Learn everything possible about the culture and belief systems of the people you’re trying to help and embrace the fact that they’re different from you. Celebrate their uniqueness – and yours. How boring the world would be if we were all the same!?
- Let trust come naturally – even if it takes a long time. Even if it takes a very long time.
- Say what you mean and mean what you say. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Don’t make grandiose promises to desperate people in order to ease your own guilt – or to placate them for a while. Don’t make any promises that you don’t fully intend on keeping. And – if you do make a crazy promise (as I did) – then make sure, that come hell or high water, that you see it through! And don’t let anybody else tell you that it’s impossible.
- In fact, that’s a point on it’s own: Don’t let anybody tell you: “It’s impossible!”.
I’m the first to admit that I failed in a number of the points above. Some times, we just have to learn our lessons the hard way… and learn them I did! 2009 was one of the most transformational years of my life – and largely due to Tapestry of Dreams.
It was an very exhausting and very, very emotional year. My emotions swung from excitement and expectation to feelings of hopelessness… from elation – to exhaustion… and back again.
Tapestry of Dreams provided an incredible opportunity to 10 women of rural KwaZulu Natal. Because of our little project – more people now know about Isibani Community Centre (run by Sofi Cogley who is one of my heroes)… and more people know about Amangwe Zulu Beaders. And yes, we did what we set out to do: give 10 special women the experience of a lifetime and the opportunity to tell their stories and to shine.
But Tapestry of Dreams also changed me. It utterly turned my life upside down – and set me on a completely different path. That same year, I was nominated as a Tearfund Inspired Individual. My other projects, WOODO, VENT! and, of course, Beautiful Life Project were all born from the lessons that Tapestry of Dreams taught me.
But… I never did manage to ‘fix’ that community… and I probably never will.
It’s the heroes who work at Isibani Community Centre (and other similar grassroots organisations) who are doing – by far – the most important work. It’s the community themselves who have the most important role to play. The best that we… as outsiders… can do when we go into communities like Khetani or Loskop… is to: build relationships… listen… learn… and serve.
“May those of us involved in the peaceful struggle for human promotion bear this in mind always: it is good that our hands help the flight of the poor, but may we never dare to take the place of their wings” –
Dom Helder Camaro