(january 13, 2012)
i am openly critical of people who visit a country on holiday and return home needing to do something about the poverty that they likely witnessed from their safari mobile or while on their wander through a capital city or rural area.
i don’t doubt people’s motives or believe that they don’t mean well in deciding to take up donations of used clothing to ship overseas or want to start their own foundation to put girls through school, but the reality is that what is witnessed on a two week vacation is not going to be easily fixed by starting a new ngo or from someone naively adopting a community or individual as their personal cause.
however, these same values have been challenged recently. first, when i was put on the spot to explain why stopping our safari mobile on the side of the road in rural tanzania to give away our football to a stranger was a bad idea hidden by the good hearts and intentions of family members. trying to explain that by picking out a child from the side of the road to give away a prized football could cause them and others to expect or hope that future vehicles travelling by with foreign faces will also deposit footballs. and the last thing that is needed is more children hanging around roads waiting for gifts to come. it would also make more sense to have the football donated to a school that could ensure it was available to more children to play with. and to give the ball to the teacher in front of the students to prevent it from going missing or being taken out of the school.
luckily, we came up with a creative solution that didn’t make me look like a total asshole and included giving the ball away to a local tourism company that we were travelling with that has developed a sport and education programme in a village near their safari lodge that we had recently stayed at. but it was interesting to see that as soon as there was effort involved in finding the office, a shop that sold a pump and other items to include with the ball, and dropping it all off, the interest in ‘doing good’ decreased, probably because the ‘problem’ was now no longer in front of our eyes.
another challenge has come whenever i walk out of my house to head into town. my street is optimistically called 3rd street, but it is really a dirt alleyway without a street sign and you wouldn’t be blamed if you drove right by it on the main street (which happens rather regularly with delivery drivers…). on the same street where i live in relative luxury is a house that was clearly bombed and/or burned during the civil wars. and now a few families are living as squatters in the property without electricity or running water.
on the other side of my house is a similar beachfront lot with a house that was once undoubtedly a gem on the coastline, but now is a skeleton of what it once was. and again, it is occupied by a family with a newborn that sometimes wakes me up in the early morning hours, our houses are so close to one another.
and i can appreciate how those same people who come to a place like liberia and are overcome with the poverty and want to do something to remedy such an ethical wrong would also look at the disparity that exists right on my street. and part of me just wants to give the kids that i see, having their daily baths or playing in their backyard that is cordoned off with pieces of scrap metal, whatever change i have in my pocket because i know a few liberian dollars will go much further for them than for me.
but, i also realize that just as giving away a football on the side of the road, my few liberian dollars are not going to overcome the systemic challenges facing a country and its people still rebuilding after devastating civil wars. and because someone before me has clearly given something away on my street, i am regularly asked for ‘a chocolate’ or ‘a dollar’ or ‘a pen’ by the kids.
instead, i do what i can and purchase local produce and support the small enterprises in my neighbourhood and the greater city of monrovia. in fact, i am now looking for a good tailor to make something out of all the fabric i have collected!