As Peace Corps volunteers, each one of us has a little bit of a bleeding heart. You know the phenomenon: You see that homeless person begging on the subway and you’re sure he’s going to use that dollar for a cigarette but how could you not give it to him, really? You know those kids begging on the streets of that sprawling third world capital are really part of a mafia-like real-life Slum Dog Millionaire organization and that giving them money only helps to reinforce the problematic system underlying and reinforcing the roots of poverty, but you give them your spare change anyway. Having a bleeding heart is a rather snide way of saying you are easily manipulated by expressions of need and are overly eager to help. There is something of an implication when using this phrase that that your 25 cents, one dollar, or even twenty dollar bill really aren’t doing anything to help the situation at all.
This is a major problem with the way development is done in the world today: Money and resources are thrown at a problem because need is expressed, but a lack of true understanding of the problem causes well-intended help to be waisted, misused or misguided. Water pumps fall into disrepair with no one to fix them. That school that was built becomes vacant because there are no trained teachers or school supplies to fill the classroom. Latrines fall into disrepair and new and innovative farming techniques are not absorbed by the communities they are introduced to. None of this means that these efforts are not noble and worthy. It does however call into question how helpful aid actually is when billions of dollars every year are spent on development in Africa with very little to show for it.
As Peace Corps Volunteers, part of our project here is to combat the forces that make development go wrong. We're supposed to forgo 'charity’ for ‘capacity building.’ Instead of ‘give-aways’ we teach communities how to work with the resources they have to build themselves up. We spend two years learning a language we’ll never speak again and making friends in communities not on any map so that we can understand and respond to the true needs of its individuals. None of this changes the fact that some of us, including myself, are gushing, leaking, incurable and insatiable bleeding hearts. I’ve managed to patch mine up over the years with theory and intellectual hobb-nobbery on why helping others should be done in a more 'enlightened' manor, but none of that seemed to stop me last week when I made a bad bleeding heart decision.
I was sitting with my neighbors after dark drinking dolo, and I had one of my solar lights with me made by Luci Lux brand. This particular solar light is attractive and well designed, and while it is not particularly fancy or expensive it always draws an audience when I bring it out for a midnight stroll. My neighbors were frying fish, so I sat with them and held the light out so they could see. They swooned over it, passing it from hand to hand, excited by the fact that it didn’t need batteries. I looked around the dark courtyard, illuminated only by the occasional fire, and realized that I had an extra solar light that I wasn’t using tucked away in my room. Heavily, and knowing full well that what I was doing was stupid, I went to retrieve it. I brought it back and handed it to one of the children, saying It’s for the whole family. A gift. It immediately spurred a chasing and crying fit among the children, and while the adults seemed grateful I received far less gratitude than entitled requests.
Where’s mine? Another neighbor asked, You’re giving this one to me right? Yet another inquired, gesturing to the one I was holding. You have two of these. I’m taking this one home, said a young friend. The requests kept coming. You know, here we have nothing. Look at America, you have everything. You can have so much money there! You’re going to give me some money so I can start my own dolo business, if I make a profit I’ll pay you back. It is hard to deflect these remarks and requests after I’ve just handed a very valuable trinket to one section of a family whose last name probably comprises 40% of Solenzo. What makes them special? Why do they get the hand-out and others get nothing? If you can just give these things away, why are you being so stingy? Every single one of these is a valid question to be raised. And every single one is a reason I should not have done it. I tried to explain myself: That I was there to help them help themselves. That I was trying. That I had given up two years of my life and left my family and the comforts of home to live in a dusty, land-locked, unfarmiliar country where I had to fetch my own water and face down intestinal worms and malaria just so I could be there with them dammit!
But none of that ‘sacrifice’ means anything to someone who isn’t sure if dinner is coming tonight, and when I leave, this community will be largely as I left it. I’ll have to fight being the meat-buying-clean-clothes-wearing-iphone-owning-solar-panel-purchasing-ticket-to-the-promised-land-guaranteeing-money-tree that I can’t blame a Burkinabe for see in me. My flop with the solar light set me back a few battles in that fight.