Friday, March 22, 2013

Doing Good? Making a Difference?

It's been several months since we finished our three-year term in Tanzania and since my last posting. I could leave it at that, but I feel a lack of closure with this blog. Reaching completion on things is really important to me. So I'm going to write a bit more about our stint abroad.

"... when it came to the crunch they seemed to accomplish very little. For every problem they solved they created two more. I rather felt that it was people who claimed to be the sole possessors of the truth who should be ill at ease for the disruption they caused in others' lives. At least one can say of the anthropologist that he is a harmless drudge ..."
From The Innocent Anthropolist: Notes from a Mud Hut, by Nigel Barley, after he had a conversation with an agriculturalist whose promotion of growing cotton in Cameroon resulted in a shortage of food.
I think it's fair to say that for almost everyone who goes to a developing country for volunteer work a primary motivation is to do some good for the people there. (There may, of course, be other reasons as well — our egos and our ethnocentrism are always in play.)

As Westerners we like to get things done, to make a difference. In a field such as health care a physician may be able to see immediate, measurable, tangible results. If you're delivering food to an area of famine you can get satisfaction from simply keeping human beings alive.

For those of us who do what is generally called "development work", though, it's really, really hard to know what the consequences are. We as outsiders are dealing with histories, traditions, cultures, ways of living on the land, politics, etc. that are not our own. That ignorance provides a minefield to step through — and sometimes we don't even know what kind of explosions we're setting off. Our very presence may be a disruption of the local life.

I do in general believe in the value of education, in the teaching of literacy in English and Swahili, science and math, African history, and computer skills. In our case we were invited by the local Tanzanian bishop to a school founded by Tanzanian parents and governed by a board of Tanzanians. I have very moving, positive memories of moments when I was in the classroom or the computer lab. I knew that I was supposed to be there.
"... in Zen meditation we cook ourselves into a state of even-minded ease with things as they are. Tasks are undertaken not because we want to do them, or like to do them; not because we choose to do them; not because we have suitable talent, temperament, or ingredients; not for reward or appreciation; but simply because it is time. Without thinking, we engage wholly in tending to needs as they appear and, in this way, live with clear purpose and total fulfillment."
From Hand Wash Cold: care instructions for an ordinary life, by Karen Maezen Miller.
Karen Maezen Miller was writing about finding contentment in the tasks of ordinary daily life in an ordinary setting. But her description can apply really well to a larger task such as stepping out to a distant land, albeit with some thought beforehand. Diane and I heard such a calling and answered it because it was our time.

Nevertheless, I find myself still left with feelings of unease about the consequences of doing so. They come with the ambiguity that I will always live with.