My favorite song from Somalian rapper K’Naan begins with the line, “And any man who knows a thing knows he knows not a damn, damn thing at all…..”
Contemplating this lyric recently, I realized it is a strikingly appropriate expression of exactly how I feel my time in West Africa has humbled me. Simply put: it seems there is nothing like being assumed to have all the answers to make you realize that you actually have far fewer easy solutions than they think you do. That is, if you have any at all. Being positioned immediately as a change-maker in the community, someone who has been brought in from the outside to come here and to help us, sets you up for self-questioning later on when you begin to wonder who died and made you the expert at everything. Being in this position is both an incredible blessing and, sometimes, a burden.
I am a 24-year old woman who left for my Peace Corps service in Mali at 22, literally within days of graduating from university. Compared to the sorts of jobs I might have landed just out of university in the States, it’s sometimes astounding to me how much immediate decision-making latitude I am given, and how much people just automatically assume that I have the solutions for any problem they throw at me, mostly because I came all the way here from the USA, and why on earth would anyone cross the ocean to live in a mud hut if she didn’t have some world-altering knowledge to share? For some, it doesn’t seem to matter what I’m actually qualified to do: I have been asked to help teach math (Ha! Ha!) and for advice on tree planting and farming (the only farming I have ever successfully done was under the close supervisory eye of my teen host brothers in Mali, and this success was owed to them, not me). You’re American, people seem to think, so you must know. And rather than throw up my hands and say, “actually, I don’t know!” I try my best to help people find solutions. That’s probably the most apt description of the role a PCV feels she must play in the community: “solution-bringer.”
I’ve been thinking about this idea of “bringing solutions to the people” a lot lately, since it is sort of what I have been trying to do in Burkina with the hearth model. The program utilizes community actors and builds on malnutrition activities that are already taking place in the community, but goes a bit further- requires a bit more purpose in its selection of participants, organization, and follow-up In short, it requires that a few key people make a bit more effort than they are currently making. It requires me, the cheerleader of this whole idea, to ask people like health workers and volunteer educators to have a little volonte, as they often say here—a little bit of a will to work, and not always with direct compensation. It’s a request that can be much trickier than it should be at times. But, one figures, it is not too unreasonable, especially if the benefits—want to recuperate some malnourished kids, anybody?–seem like a no-brainer.
However, the process is a bit like trying to sell a new product to people who have never heard of it and may have only marginal interest in it. I feel sometimes like a kid selling wrapping paper (or Girl Scout cookies, or those coupon books….) for an elementary school fundraiser; I know that my potential buyers probably have 35 shiny rolls of last years’ paper still stuffed in their closets, that they think they’ve heard the sales pitch countless times before, but somehow I have to make buying wrapping paper from me seem like the best idea ever. That’s kind of what introducing the hearth is like. Many potential solutions have been brought to the table when it comes to malnutrition. Women are used to occasional culinary demonstrations and to going to the health center to get some free porridge powder if their kids are moderately underweight. So this idea of organizing a program which requires them to come every single day and asks women to actively participate in the recuperation of their own children can be a bit of a hard sell, both for the women themselves and for the health workers who strongly doubt the motivation of women to participate.
That is why, when it comes down to it, my job seems to be as much about community organizing and mobilization as it is about public health. Sure, I am focused on nutritional education, but half of what I do seems to be trying to motivate people to come together, to open parent’s eyes to a new way of looking at the health of their children—to see that it is, in fact, in their hands. This has turned out to be somewhat of a messy process at times. I have had hearth groups where everyone got along, the dynamic was great, and we spent two fulfilling weeks together and I still keep in touch with the mothers. On the other hand, I’ve also had groups that I have had to end after 4 or 5 days because the women simply stopped coming, and there seemed to be no ‘group dynamic’ to speak of. The successes keep me going, of course, but the failures have at times made me question my efforts at being Mother Teresa. I consider myself a very patient person, and I pride myself on getting to know the women on an individual basis, but to put in all the effort and find participation lagging after just a few days can be discouraging to even the most idealistic person.
I wrote in a previous post about the challenges and rewards of investing in people rather than handing out Band-aid solutions, and in the end I still believe highly in the value of engaging the community in creating its own solutions. Those challenges are still there. I still feel like the cheerleader trying to drum up support for something new, not always knowing if people will go along with it or will just think that she’s crazy. At the same time, there are some great moments. My former-participant-turned-friend, Awa Zorome,has returned to help me with the hearth sessions, and few things make me happier than seeing her deliver the message that she’s learned to other mothers. She has even brought a few of her neighbor friends over to my house so that we could cook together. And that, more than anything else, makes me take heart that somehow, someway, the message resonates, one person passes it on, and change does percolate in the community in this (slow, imperfect) way.
Mali and Burkina have indeed shown me how little I know, how few clear answers I have. But I’ve also learned that this is not necessarily bad; sometimes it IS better to come to the table empty handed, to turn things around and to say to people used to being the receivers of help, ‘What do YOU have to teach me?” The value is not in my coming here to simply tell women what they should or should not be feeding their kids; nor is it in my handing out bowls of enriched porridge that I myself have prepared. Rather, the value of my time is found in the exchange, in the preparation and sharing (both literal and proverbial) of a communal meal, of helping one woman at a time see that the tools they need to assure that their children grow up healthy and strong are well within their reach.
The most beautiful moment as a volunteer implementing the hearth is the moment you realize that the program is no longer about you at all—that you have become secondary to the women from the community, who have risen up naturally to lead the process of change. I’m not sure I’ve had one extraordinary moment like this, but I am beginning to see, in small ways, the ripple effect occurring, to see a few women taking the reins, sharing information more and more, establishing a dialogue about nutrition and coming up with some of their own answers. And it’s a beautiful thing.
I may not hold the be-all, end-all answer to any problem. I don’t need to, I’ve learned; I may not know, and you may not know, but when we come together we realize that we know more than we thought we did and can do more than we thought we could. And that realization is the beginning of something very good.