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 … 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.
I think that many of us have good intentions – and especially when we’re exposed to the deep and desperate needs out there in the big, wide world. If you’ve visited homes for orphans and vulnerable children (and especially in poverty-stricken communities)… if you’ve sat down and talked to folk about their stories, struggles and hardships… if you’ve walked through the streets of communities where people are (literally) dropping dead like flies… it’s kinda hard to shrug one’s shoulders with an “Oh well, poor you”… and then walk away from all that heartache, unmoved and unaffected.
And especially if you’re a bleeding-heart-idealist (like me) who wants EVERYONE to live happily-ever-after.
In 2009, I wanted the people in the rural communities of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa – to all live happily ever after. Especially the women and children who have endured unimaginable hardships. The orphans. The home-based caregivers. The women who have taken in 7 – 14 orphans after those caring from them dropped dead from AIDS.
I wanted them to be able to earn a decent living. I wanted the young women to stop having sex without protection (and the young men to stop demanding it). I wanted the orphans to grow up in a safe, loving environment – with enough food. I wanted them all to have access to decent education. I wanted men to stop raping. I wanted the government to pull it’s finger out of it’s butthole to ensure that rural communities had regular access to ARV’s… so the HIV virus could be kept at bay – and people could live longer (and thus raise their kids instead of dying in their shacks… leaving tiny children to fend for themselves!)
I wanted the whole god-awful situation to be… FIXED.
So – I dove head first into a “We’re-gonna-FIX-this-thing!” campaign.
Yes… me. Well-meaning, mom-of-two from the ‘burbs of the city. Lilly-white, can’t-speak-a-lick-of-Zulu ME… with my happy, privileged upbringing… having never experienced lack or hunger (unless on diet)… with zero experience, zero cultural understanding and zero knowledge of what life-in-those-communities was truly like.
But, I was gonna just swoop in there and FIX it. And even if we could only fix life for 10 women… at least those 10 women would somehow be rescued from the horrors of that world.
I cringe when I think of it now.
I cringe for a number of reasons… but at the same time, I’m not ashamed of the state of my naive little heart. It really was in the right place. I really DID feel very deeply for the people I met and whose stories I heard.
It wasn’t one of those fake “I’ll-pretend-to-care-because-this-makes-me-look-good” thing that a couple politicians and evangelists are famous for. I DID care. At one point, I thought my heart not recover if I heard one more sickeningly tragic tale about another orphaned child. The more I took it in… the more I couldn’t sleep… and the more I thought (as many of us do):
“But… we MUST DO something!!! We can’t NOT do something! We just have to fix this!”
Honestly… I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn‘t just shrug my shoulders and walk away
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’ will probably end up being very 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, 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 – listening to them is critical. This is why I firmly believe that it’s the long-term volunteers and community members who are the crucial change-makers. Not people (like me) who swoop in with all our short-term, well-meaning projects.
- 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. And y’know… it’s actually kinda gross.
- 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 … again… it’s kinda gross. Ew.
- 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!?
- They’re not gonna trust you – and why should they? They’ve already heard so much well-meaning bullshit-promises over the years. However, if you’re there for the long-haul… (and the right reasons)… trust will slowly, eventually be built.
- 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!
- Accept this fact: You will learn more than you teach. And you will get more than you give. And it won’t be anything like what you imagined it to be.
2009 was a year of tough lessons for me. It was an exhausting and very, very emotional year. My emotions swung from excitement and expectation to feelings of hopelessness… from elation – to exhaustion… and back again.
But Tapestry of Dreams 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… we can only “fix” ourselves.
“Yesterday, I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today, I am wise, so I’m changing myself” – Rumi