It’s been a long time since I’ve written. I’ve been busy with work, busy with teaching, busy with a lot of things. Well, it’s time to redirect, because I leave for Ethiopia in a little over two weeks. It’s been a year since I was last in Africa (too long really) and it’s snuck up on me a bit. Every time I go to Africa, I understand a little more, and realize how little I knew before. This also frustrates me when I talk to people who have never traveled, and who have never done missions. I have to look back at myself five or ten years ago, realize how little I knew then, how much I still have to learn, and let that grace then pass on to other people.
I had one of those situations happen this past week. Inevitably when I am going to Africa, someone comes up to me who has been storing away used or new clothing, shoes, flip-flops, glasses, etc, and asks if I can take them over with me to Africa and hand them out. I understand that people are trying to help, and sometimes some of these things can be helpful, but let me be clear. Africa does not need your used flip-flops. The person who came up to me this past week went even further and asked that I take pictures of people wearing the clothes they wanted to send over, after telling me how much they’d spent on various items. I refused.
There is a point where giving becomes selfish. If this makes no sense, let me explain a little. It can be noble to try to donate clothing and supplies to people that may need them. It might be noble, but it is also likely ineffective. The point where it becomes selfish is when you insist on the satisfaction of knowing that someone in Africa is wearing your unsolicited donated clothing. At that point it goes from being a donation made out of a well-meaning heart to being all about you, and at that point I find my grace tested.
I understand why people want to send clothing and things with me. In the West, people with means usually think of poverty in terms of lack of resources. But if you go to the poor and ask them what poverty is, they might mention lack, but they’re also going to talk about things like powerlessness, despair, lack of hope, fear, sickness, and isolation. Poverty is much more a state of mind than it is a lack of “stuff”. As the great western savior comes over and starts handing out free things, it does a number of things. First, it reinforces the idea that Westerners are the haves, and that they are the have-nots. If it is obvious that a lot of materials are being handed out, it makes people a target to those who did not receive. This is a problem we came across in Kibera slum in Kenya, but it applies almost universally. It also undercuts people who are selling those same things in the community when someone comes in and starts handing out things for free, thus stifling business in already poor communities. So I’ll say it again; Africa doesn’t need your flip-flops, your old dancing shoes, your worn out pants, or your bags of disposable diapers and water bottles that add to the garbage problem that plague communities all over the developing world. But if I stopped here, I would be remiss and would be doing nothing but complaining.
The inevitable question after reading what I’ve already said is, “what does Africa need then?” Or perhaps, “if donating stuff isn’t the thing to do, then how can I help?”
The idiom goes, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” I would go one step further and say, “Find people who already know how to fish and equip them to teach others.” Identify those people and resources that already exist, and leverage them to help other people in the community around them. Wherever possible, it needs to be Africans helping Africans, and not just people coming from overseas to fix their problems. Africa is full of talented and intelligent people. Often they just need someone to stand behind them and give help when needed to spread that talent and knowledge around. Did you notice I said stand BEHIND? Your presence should be seen as little as possible.
I know it’s harder to give of yourself than to just donate things you have lying around, and some people are not equipped to do that. The more effective alternative though, if you can’t go or do, is to simply give money to organizations that focus on long-term development rather than sticking band aids on problems.
Sometimes someone will ask for donations of clothing and such, like someone who might be running an orphanage, for example. In this case it’s ok. But we need to be mindful of the fact that helping, really helping, often requires more of us than just going through our closet. Often the things that help the most are the things that take a long time and don’t offer us the instant gratification many of us would rather have.