We were on our way to care for the poor.
We were up a mountain. Our truck had made the nearly vertical track upwards in low gear We blew a tire, not uncommon, this was a difficult place to travel, the serrated volcanic rock slipped and slashed away at our tires in the attempt to hobble our progress.
My host mentioned that he had just bought a set of new tires for the vehicle and he was lucky to get 3, maybe 4, days of use out of them before he would need to fix another flat.
We weren’t more than a 100 kilometres from the city, but remote is not an odometer reading, remote is all about access, and this was remote.
We trundled upward, packed in the cab, the edge of the cliff along the switchbacks presented an expansive view of the ocean below. At once breathtaking, terrifying and so very familiar. I passed the time with the other passengers sharing dark-humoured stories of what rescue workers might be able to recover from our bodies if our driver misjudged the next turn and we rolled over the narrow edge.
We arrived in the village
The road levelled out and we made the last few kilometres to arrive as usual.
We met with members of the community in the small Catholic church. Curious children peered through the ill-fitting wooden shutters over the doors, cloud piled overhead and a merciful breeze blew through the cracks and into our meeting.
The first hour began down the hill at the cistern. We started our scheduled 20 minute after-meeting – four hours later we came towards the ending.
Disagreements had been resolved.
Opinions had been respectfully considered.
Jokes had been shared between us.
Listening to the plans of the community always matters
I was happy to hear that the local committee had wanted to talk about some changes to the project, this was a good thing as adaptation is the mark of any good project. At some point I would leave (we always do) and I needed to be careful that I didn’t take away the pride of the community to own these type of questions and problems. We all wanted to care for the poor in the community, but they were the ones who would have to deal with the next stages, this was their project after all.
The problem was that the changes they wanted would affect the budget.
Hard choices had been necessary, we needed to make some trade-offs and compromises. We agreed we would not complete the fix of the school cistern, rather we would listen to the community and increase a spillway on the major project.
We wrote the details down on paper and came to the moment of truth. We asked the committee to sign and date the paper. We gave the leader a pen, he signed, and then did something usual.
He did not pass the paper on to the next person.
Why this was Strange?
If you don’t understand – let me back up.
I too had done something different that day. I had brought a newcomer to this world with me. As an apprentice he had come to learn about development work and to share in the experience. He had provided some great support to our time together and I was encouraged at how he had paid attention throughout.
I had noticed that while the local leader held the pen that the apprentice had quietly spoken to him. The leader nodded in confirmation. He signed, and instead of handing the paper along to the next community member, he began to do the rest of the job himself, listing all the names of the committee on the page. I had my suspicions why he was doing this.
I asked the apprentice and he confirmed that he had suggested to the committee leader that he should sign for everyone.
Although minor, that was a bad choice.
I understood why the apprentice had done this. He was afraid that maybe some of the committee members could not read or write and would be embarrassed at the request to sign the page. This was not an unreasonable assumption, did I mention how remote we were?
Reasonable or unreasonable,there is a very fine line between “care for the poor” and “taking care of the poor”
A subtle difference makes a world of difference:
- We would say we care for our friends
- …but we take care of invalids, the children and the elderly.
- Caring for people assumes that they are capable
- …taking care of someone assumes that they are needy in some way.
Simply choosing the word “of” or “for” changes the way we care.
It is very easy for anyone who wants to work with the poor to make many assumptions about the abilities of the poor.
If we enter with the assumption that we need to take care of the poor we will always start off on the wrong foot. That first wrong assumption, leads to the next wrong conclusion, and eventually we come up with a brilliant solution, based on completely inaccurate information.
If You Truly Care for the Poor – You Look for Their Ability
In Canada we would assume that the people in the community would be able to sign their name and we wouldn’t think about asking the question.
If we thought that someone might not know how to write, it would be seen as embarrassing to people.
In much of the southern world, particularly in remote areas, illiteracy is not a stigma to the same degree. There is certainly pride in being literate, but not uncommon for people to simply make a mark for a local census or work through an NGO.
This assumption threatened to change our relationship.
- The visitor I brought with me that day had first of all assumed that people in the community would probably not be able to read or write.
- Next he assumed that if this was true, people would be embarrassed by the request for them to sign their name.
- The result was that a community saw us only dealing with one leader, showing preference and not including them in the process.
His actions were taken in the spirit of true care and solidarity, but they could have lead to division.
I asked the apprentice to ask the leader if the team could read and write, the team leader confirmed with a sense of pride that all of them could do so.
We asked everyone to sign the paper.
All was good in the world again. Time to head back down the mountain – The brakes held.
Have you ever made the mistake of trying to care for the poor and accidentally taking care of them?