Living closer, yet so far away

power outWhen she asked to host a holiday program in a class I was running, I felt like I had to agree. The program was for the next day. I had only just become a full-time staff member and this was one of our closest partners. She had already secured approval from my boss. I had my doubts about the program, but didn’t feel like I had a choice.

Truthfully, if they had asked to run it in the slum I actually lived in, I would have done everything to turn them away. But I felt I had less voice to object to activities in classes in the “other” slums and, sad to admit, I had less invested there.

My first concern was that the holiday wasn’t even one our kids celebrated. It was a holiday of the nation’s majority religious community, and in this particular slum about 90% of our students were from one of the minority religions. Throwing a party for them for some other religion’s holiday felt kinda weird. Possible to pull off, but only with a lot of sensitivity.

My second concern was that this group would not have such sensitivity. They had not once entered the slum in my tenure there. They didn’t work in my program, they didn’t know these kids. Why come just for this?

At first the program started off okay. The two people running it talked about the holiday and taught the kids a song. The kids, happy for anything new and anticipating they might get something out of this, participated well. I watched from outside, not wanting to be associated with something that the kids’ parents could blame me for later.

The train came off the rails when they tried to teach a craft related to the holiday. The activity was too complex to be explained in a short amount of time, and the teachers weren’t explaining it well. Not a single kid could do what they were being asked to do, and they all ended up asking the teachers to do it for them. So the teachers sat there and made every single craft themselves while kids crowded around fighting to hand over their materials and get their crafts made. “Let’s give you an activity where you are proven incompetent so someone else has to do everything for you and give you the end product like you’re a charity case.” Not exactly a self-esteem or competency-building exercise.

The treat distribution was worse. When it become clear they were handing out free candy, a minor melee broke out. Then word spread and all sorts of kids with no connection to the reading program rushed in from the surrounding neighborhood to turn it into a major melee. The number of children tripled. The staff began just shoving candy into outreached hands as quickly as possible, but the number of hands didn’t diminish as kids simply stuck the hand with the candy behind their back and reached out with the other hand.

It dissolved into a mess. Frustrated, the staff threw the bags of candy straight into the crowd of children, leaving them to fight over the remains, and stormed out of the room to their SUV as quickly as they could.

So for our kids, their experience of wealthy people coming to “celebrate” someone else’s holiday with them is that they teach them a song, shove crafts into their hands then shove candy into their hands. So when outsiders come to the slum, these kids will expect handouts. And trust me, they will carry that handout expectation in their lives going forward – we have seen it time and time again.

Of course, those who ran the activity blamed the children for things not working out. It didn’t occur to them that practically anyone who worked regularly in the slum could have told them that any poorly planned craft activity and any poorly controlled treats handout would have gone the same way in most similar neighborhoods. The day was designed to fail.

That moment was a bit of turning point for me. The climax came a few months later.

My head boss decided that she wanted to make a film of my students (quite a lot of energy is spent in promotional films). I was a bit skeptical of their idea for the film, but as she was my boss I told her, “Okay, I will go to the parents today and discuss it with them and see if I can get their permission.”

“No, don’t worry about that, these people in the slum don’t mind. I want to make the film today.”

Her statement took me aback. In my experience my friends and neighbors in the slum care MORE about being filmed than middle-class locals do. They don’t want to be filmed without the reasons being explained to them, they don’t want to be filmed if they feel the films might be used for any sort of exploitative purpose, and they don’t want to be filmed without advance notice so that they can look decent and make their homes look decent and also have tea/snacks ready to serve their film crew, whom they consider guests.

After an awkward pause I responded, “No, they really do care. I don’t want to bring anyone in there without notice.”

We fought about it a little, and in the end I won for whatever reasons (maybe because she respected my closer association with the people there, maybe because I simply wasn’t going to back down). I got the filming project delayed until I could give the residents fair warning, and it ended up not happening at all.

That interaction was the final blow for me which made me willing to say to others out loud, “For the most part, middle-class locals who don’t engage in the life of the slum don’t understand the people there any better than a considerate foreigner would.”

And these two interactions are just for demonstration’s sake. In fact, there were dozens of such incidents, from offensive statements made in the presence of people from the slum to hugely consequential miscommunication between the NGO workers and the slum residents, that confirmed the same point for me.

In my previous two posts I emphasized the ways in which foreign charities can mess up charitable actions when they fail to ask the right questions or take into account the ground realities of the place they’re trying to serve. Here I want to note that being a national provides no immunity to such mistakes. Even if you’re a local, if you haven’t engaged in their lives on a regular basis, and haven’t asked the right questions to get to know the things you don’t know, you will make many of the same mistakes. The cultural and relationship difference mean that the slums and the suburbs at times may as well be on opposite sides of the world.

How can you avoid these mistakes? It isn’t simple, but as a bare minimum I think it starts with these rules.

1. It is unlikely that you will serve people well if you don’t know them. First get to know the people, and THEN work to serve the people. And don’t get to know them as a perfunctory step before you start your preplanned service. Be willing to dramatically change what you had been planning to do or even scrap it altogether based on your actual experience in their lives.

2. Ask questions. Lots of questions. If there is a power imbalance then you may have to ask repeatedly and in different ways and be sensitive to subtle clues in the response, because people on the lower end of a power imbalance often have a lot of difficulty answering questions straight before trust has been earned. Speaking uncomfortable truths to people in power has hurt them too many times already.

3. On that note, give people a reason to trust you before you ask them to trust you. Trust is earned, usually over meaningful periods of time. If you haven’t done the hard work to build that trust, it is unlikely that the people you wish to serve alongside will stick their necks out to partner with you in a meaningful way.

4. Always remember that other people’s good has a lot to do with their agenda, not just your agenda. If you are always defining what is good for them, without their input or redirection, then you will probably get nowhere. Even Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”1 and at times changed his initial response based on the pleas of other people.2  Jesus’s disciples redirected their plans and intentions based on the witness of others, including the complaint of the Hellenists leading to the appointment of the deacons3 and the interaction with Cornelius leading to the ministry to the Gentiles.4

We need to gain the same humility. Those of us who follow the Lord Jesus Christ in service follow him as servants, not masters. And if we are truly serving, we need to listen.


[1] Matthew 20:32, also John 5:6, Mark 10:36

[2] Matthew 15:21-28, John 2:1-11

[3] Acts 6:1-7

[4] Acts 10:1-11:18

2 thoughts on “Living closer, yet so far away

  1. shar

    This is such a great and important post! The story sounds all too familiar–it’s hard to watch this kind of development, hard to stop, and hard to know what to do (even though I’m definitely not an expert). I think what you managed to capture here is that ‘foreigner’ isn’t just videshi , but also what outsiders would call locals who are foreign to the cultural/socioeconomic setting in which you work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Spot on.

    In fact the cultural divide between a middle-class local and the poor, can be GREATER than that between some foreigners and the poor. Both middle-class locals and foreingers have been brought up being told that they ‘know’ better than these poor folk. Sadly, some middle-class locals have been taught additionally that they ‘are’ better.

    The humility to realise that none of us are better, just different, and that the knowledge, coping mechanisms and perspectives of those at the bottom of society, may in fact be more appropriate than our own, is huge. Only a few are willing to set aside our cultural assumptions (that we know better; that we are the ‘experts) to stop, listen, and learn form those at the bottom of society.

    The development guru, Robert Chambers is claimed to have said that good development requires us to, “Sit down, shut up, and be a nice person.” I agree.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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 )

Connecting to %s