Among the many newsletters, magazines and Internet articles which I receive about Nicaragua, every so often someone’s reflections about being in the country capture my attention. I found one such article in the most recent newsletter from ProNica, the U.S.-based organization which works to build cross-cultural relationships between Nicaraguans and North Americans using Quaker values. It’s an organization which has done good work in Nicaragua focusing on community cohesiveness and just, economic development.
ProNica’s new Program Director is Bambi Griffin. In the most recent newsletter, she has written an introductory piece which I think captures an important element of providing assistance of any kind in Nicaragua, or any other country. She writes of her first visit to Nicaragua shortly after Hurricane Mitch devastated the country in 1998. I have excerpted her article below:
When I arrived, it was the dry season, hot and dusty. I was going to help community members by digging postholes. Wooden posts would be cemented into the holes so the black plastic tarps could be wrapped around them to create basic shelters, the residents’ new homes. I made it a point to wear my oldest, grungiest clothes that I planned to discard when leaving Nicaragua. When we arrived, women were hanging freshly washed clothes on anything they could find: barbed wire or a tree stump, to dry them under the sun. Children were running around. Little girls were dressed in bright frilly pageant dresses that looked out of place with the dusty brown earth and rows of black tarp tents. People were trying to put order into their day-to-day lives while living without running water, electricity, or even walls.
The community members came out to meet the volunteers, and when they did, I realized something very embarrassing, something that was the start of an important transformation for me.
The residents of Nueva Vida had done the opposite of what I had done. They had taken the time to put on the very best they had. They didn’t come out to meet us looking disheveled. They were neatly dressed, their hair was combed, the lady whose house we were going to dig postholes for that morning had applied lipstick. In contrast, I was wearing stained jeans with a hole ripped in the knee. I had on an old tee shirt that I used to sleep in, that was also stained, and I had a bandana on my head.
Although the community members had lost almost everything they owned, in some cases even their families, they looked presentable that morning when they came to meet the volunteers. I was ashamed. I was going to meet people I had never met before to work with them on a project. Why did I think it was OK to wear clothes that I planned to throw away? Why did I present myself to them in a way that I would never present myself to any other group of people that I would be working with? Did I feel that they deserved any less than anyone else? Why had I not done for the residents of Nueva Vida what they had done for me? Put their best foot forward. They, who had so little, offered what they had, and I, who had so much, didn’t consider that these people deserved the same basic respect I would have shown to anyone else. That day I started questioning myself, my motives, and my actions.
I realized that I unknowingly went into a community under the impression that I was going to “help.” I entered their space with a lack of sensitivity and awareness of who they were, what they had experienced, and I focused on my own needs and wants. I had not even thought about them, but rather me. I thought I was going to do a job, to “help.” I realized that they did not need me to dig postholes for them. They were just being kind to let me do it. What they needed was to be treated with dignity, respect, and compassion. That is what they needed. I mistakenly thought I was just there to dog postholes….
I don’t often talk about my first experience in Nicaragua because I didn’t live through what the residents lived through. I did not live with a dirt floor, four posts surrounded by black plastic tarp for my walls, struggling daily for the survival of my family. I talk about it now because it was the start of my understanding of my privilege, something that I will never be able to un-do. When I think I am helping, I might actually be causing harm. That first experience was when I seriously questioned my motivations, the purpose behind my actions, and my understanding of what I was doing and why….
Like so many other occasions in life, we are sometimes subject to the unintended consequences of what we do. The desire to “help” in a country like Nicaragua may be well-intentioned. But without an understanding of the current context, the traditions, the social milieu and even the international histories between nations- being there in the fullest sense- aid workers and organizations run the risk of perpetuating inequalities, power disparities or even creating setbacks for Nica progress. Bambi Griffin writes perceptively about that reality, one from which many other aid workers could learn an important truth.
As hard to believe as it may be, giving of yourself isn’t always an easy thing, even if it’s nearly always a good thing….