From here to Africa

People trying to help the poor are often targets of criticism. They are not effective, their intentions are not pure. But once you’ve witnessed desperation in fellow humans’ eyes, things change.

Ralf Bodelier | May 2006 issue
If Veronica Kuchikonde hadn’t called that November evening in 1999 I would never have written this. I probably would never have gone back to Africa. Veronica called from Blantyre, Malawi, where we’d run into her four years earlier. A cheerful African woman who invited me for dinner, she lived in the Ndirande slum area and was married to Sylvester Kamwendo. Together they cared for 13 children, one of whom was Veronica’s and two of whom were Sylvester’s. The rest were extended family members: sons and daughters of deceased brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces. Veronica and Sylvester took them in without question, making sure they had food, shelter, clothing and attention.
I became friends with the couple, a friendship that was initially limited to letters and the odd phone call over a crackling line. That was it until Veronica called that November evening. She was crying. The day before, Sylvester had suddenly fallen ill and died. In desperation Veronica went to the “telephone shop” and sought comfort from a friend in the Netherlands.
Although Veronica didn’t say a word during the call about the future of her 13 children, she put us on the spot. After all, I knew that without her husband she could never find the money to care for the children and send them to school. These 13 children would have no futures if we didn’t become involved in their care.
Since that phone call I’ve spent a lot of time raising money in the Netherlands and spending it in Malawi. Now, six years later, caring for these 13 children has grown into an official foundation. It sends 50 children to secondary school or covers their study expenses. It extends small loans to start-up businesses, helps people in the Blantyre neighbourhood earn money for an elementary school and uses that money to build classrooms. Currently, it is trying to prevent 10,000 Malawians from starving.
Sure, we could have chosen to do nothing. But how do you make that choice and still feel good about yourself? Could you let something happen in Africa that you would never allow in your own country? That’s why after Veronica’s call, I immediately contacted friends and family, begging for money. That’s why we have become one of the many thousands of foundations in the Netherlands—where meetings are held at kitchen tables with coffee and apple pie—dedicated to helping out in Africa. In Africa, you can make a difference with a small amount of money and attention.
But in writing about my modest efforts, I’m making myself vulnerable to criticism. Skepticism is widespread among intellectuals and the media about programmes to help the poor. Critics regularly point to the counterproductive effects of development aid. They don’t believe aid workers understand the political context in which they are operating, and often end up providing support for dictators or criminal types. Moreover, critics say, providers of aid are making poor people dependent on their help and therefore indirectly aggravating their plight.
Such criticism is not unfounded: Development aid degenerates into neo-colonialism when Westerners—despite good intentions—start prescribing to others what they should be doing. And yet… This analysis may be correct at the theoretical level, but the world is filled with heartbreaking social inequality and poverty. Should we refrain from doing anything because it might not turn out perfectly? Isn’t involvement, by definition, a risky business? By doing nothing, wouldn’t we be giving in to the forces of apathy and cynicism?
Critics direct their arrows at the intentions of people who dedicate themselves to helping poor countries. These do-gooders are accused of being motivated by an emotionally driven thirst for action and the need for the warm, fuzzy feelings they get in return. They are also said not to take responsibility for the consequences of these actions.
Those are odd points of criticism, since no one would apply them to charitable acts close to home. Who would dare question someone coming to the aid of an old woman who has fallen in the street? Would those rushing to her assistance be attacked for wanting to “do something,” for putting a jacket under her head, calling a doctor and notifying her children? And who blames them for the “good feeling” they get from helping her, or the idea that they take no responsibility for the fact that this woman will remain dependent on physical therapy and home care for months to come?
Of course the key issue here is that skeptics view residents of developing countries as nothing more than abstract pawns in an ideological debate, while the woman falling on the street is a real person.
It is late October 2005. We are travelling around Malawi with 16 students from the Netherlands’ Tilburg University. I know the country well; I have been a regular visitor since Veronica’s telephone call. I am now the manager of a small travel agency, and four times a year I take a small group to see the “Africa of the Africans.” Once in Malawi I introduce my guests to Veronica and her oldest children, who take them to visit villages and townships, see churches, schools, hospitals and leper colonies.
I know what awaits the visitors and try to prepare them for the worst—for the deplorable situation in the Ndirande Primary School, for instance, which has nearly 8,000 pupils and no educational materials. There is no electricity, the thousands of students must make do with a single water tap and are crammed into just a few classrooms. Every day, hundreds of children faint from hunger. Another example is the Queen Elisabeth Central Hospital, where five people sometimes share a single bed inside a labyrinth of corridors, rooms and wards stinking of urine, vomit and phenol. Once inside, I register the horror on these students’ white faces—their repulsion against this hell.
Halfway through the trip, the students visit a few villages, far from the beaten path. It is there, in the middle of a peaceful place that feels like a throwback to the stone ages, that some of them are overcome by emotion. The villagers tell them that the famine, about which they read in newspapers, has already invaded this village. These people haven’t eaten for days. All that remains is a mango tree, but the fruit is still unripe. They face four more months of hunger. The students are shocked at the realization that the people of this village may die over the coming months because there isn’t anything left to eat.
It’s time for a confession: I want to confront Western visitors with strong emotions. The students and others know that when they sign up for the tour. A sense of empathy and involvement can only arise through direct involvement with hunger and poverty: seeing the miserable situation in hospitals and schools. Anyone who has stood at the bedside of a starving person becomes more sensitive to such a fate.
I’ve noticed that some people can’t handle the suffering and desperately seek an escape. They claim hunger isn’t as bad for Africans as it would be for Westerners. They say Westerners shouldn’t do anything because the responsibility lies with the Malawian government. Or they rationalize the death of millions of people as inevitable, or even necessary, given the overpopulation of this part of Africa.
But most people draw a different conclusion. They act as if an elderly woman has fallen in the street outside their home. These people decide they must do something. They are backed into the same corner as I was in 1999 with Veronica’s call.
It’s the same corner that philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once described as “the countenance of the other,” which forces us to make a painful choice. As Levinas explains: It is as if someone is knocking on our door. We cannot not hear the knocking, but will we open the door? Will I let the other in? Dare I take responsibility for a fellow human being?
That hungry village in Malawi, so isolated from civilization, becomes witness to a miracle. Several students answer the door, spontaneously deciding they must help the people of the village get food for the coming months.
A couple of days later they decide to take on a second village. Then they adopt 8,000 children from the Ndirande Primary School. They promise to see that these villages will be provided with emergency supplies for five months, including fertilizer and seeds for planting crops for the next harvest. And every morning from mid-November through March, 8,000 school children will get a warm breakfast of likuni pala, enriched corn porridge. College students who a month ago were barely able to locate Malawi on a map are taking responsibility for the lives of 10,000 people.
Weeks of feverish preparations follow: organizing the project, recruiting volunteers, collecting money, establishing contacts, meeting with the United Nations’ World Food Programme, consulting with the politician overseeing the Ndirande school, drawing up contracts, flying back to Malawi, checking food shipments, communicating with the hundreds of people who have donated money to this project.
At some point—as soon as a few months later—the memory of the students’ painful experiences in Malawi will fade. When the goal has been reached and 10,000 hungry people are able to carry on themselves, the rest of the world will inevitably reclaim the students’ attention. Those interested in staying involved will have to go back, to a dusty village or squalid hospital, where they will once again know someone is knocking on their door.
The foundation described in this article is the Stichting Het Goede Doel. You can become a regular donor or make a one-time contribution to Malawi. More information: www.het-goede-doel.nl (Dutch only), or send an e-mail to info@het-goede-doel.nl.
This article was adapted with permission from the Dutch-language Filosofie Magazine (issue 10, 2005), a publication that aims to bring philosophy closer to the general public.
Ralf Bodelier is a journalist who also teaches in the theology department at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He is the author of several books, essays and novels.
 

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From here to Africa

People trying to help the poor are often targets of criticism. They are not effective, their intentions are not pure. But once you’ve witnessed desperation in fellow humans’ eyes, things change.

Ralf Bodelier | May 2006 issue
If Veronica Kuchikonde hadn’t called that November evening in 1999 I would never have written this. I probably would never have gone back to Africa. Veronica called from Blantyre, Malawi, where we’d run into her four years earlier. A cheerful African woman who invited me for dinner, she lived in the Ndirande slum area and was married to Sylvester Kamwendo. Together they cared for 13 children, one of whom was Veronica’s and two of whom were Sylvester’s. The rest were extended family members: sons and daughters of deceased brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces. Veronica and Sylvester took them in without question, making sure they had food, shelter, clothing and attention.
I became friends with the couple, a friendship that was initially limited to letters and the odd phone call over a crackling line. That was it until Veronica called that November evening. She was crying. The day before, Sylvester had suddenly fallen ill and died. In desperation Veronica went to the “telephone shop” and sought comfort from a friend in the Netherlands.
Although Veronica didn’t say a word during the call about the future of her 13 children, she put us on the spot. After all, I knew that without her husband she could never find the money to care for the children and send them to school. These 13 children would have no futures if we didn’t become involved in their care.
Since that phone call I’ve spent a lot of time raising money in the Netherlands and spending it in Malawi. Now, six years later, caring for these 13 children has grown into an official foundation. It sends 50 children to secondary school or covers their study expenses. It extends small loans to start-up businesses, helps people in the Blantyre neighbourhood earn money for an elementary school and uses that money to build classrooms. Currently, it is trying to prevent 10,000 Malawians from starving.
Sure, we could have chosen to do nothing. But how do you make that choice and still feel good about yourself? Could you let something happen in Africa that you would never allow in your own country? That’s why after Veronica’s call, I immediately contacted friends and family, begging for money. That’s why we have become one of the many thousands of foundations in the Netherlands—where meetings are held at kitchen tables with coffee and apple pie—dedicated to helping out in Africa. In Africa, you can make a difference with a small amount of money and attention.
But in writing about my modest efforts, I’m making myself vulnerable to criticism. Skepticism is widespread among intellectuals and the media about programmes to help the poor. Critics regularly point to the counterproductive effects of development aid. They don’t believe aid workers understand the political context in which they are operating, and often end up providing support for dictators or criminal types. Moreover, critics say, providers of aid are making poor people dependent on their help and therefore indirectly aggravating their plight.
Such criticism is not unfounded: Development aid degenerates into neo-colonialism when Westerners—despite good intentions—start prescribing to others what they should be doing. And yet… This analysis may be correct at the theoretical level, but the world is filled with heartbreaking social inequality and poverty. Should we refrain from doing anything because it might not turn out perfectly? Isn’t involvement, by definition, a risky business? By doing nothing, wouldn’t we be giving in to the forces of apathy and cynicism?
Critics direct their arrows at the intentions of people who dedicate themselves to helping poor countries. These do-gooders are accused of being motivated by an emotionally driven thirst for action and the need for the warm, fuzzy feelings they get in return. They are also said not to take responsibility for the consequences of these actions.
Those are odd points of criticism, since no one would apply them to charitable acts close to home. Who would dare question someone coming to the aid of an old woman who has fallen in the street? Would those rushing to her assistance be attacked for wanting to “do something,” for putting a jacket under her head, calling a doctor and notifying her children? And who blames them for the “good feeling” they get from helping her, or the idea that they take no responsibility for the fact that this woman will remain dependent on physical therapy and home care for months to come?
Of course the key issue here is that skeptics view residents of developing countries as nothing more than abstract pawns in an ideological debate, while the woman falling on the street is a real person.
It is late October 2005. We are travelling around Malawi with 16 students from the Netherlands’ Tilburg University. I know the country well; I have been a regular visitor since Veronica’s telephone call. I am now the manager of a small travel agency, and four times a year I take a small group to see the “Africa of the Africans.” Once in Malawi I introduce my guests to Veronica and her oldest children, who take them to visit villages and townships, see churches, schools, hospitals and leper colonies.
I know what awaits the visitors and try to prepare them for the worst—for the deplorable situation in the Ndirande Primary School, for instance, which has nearly 8,000 pupils and no educational materials. There is no electricity, the thousands of students must make do with a single water tap and are crammed into just a few classrooms. Every day, hundreds of children faint from hunger. Another example is the Queen Elisabeth Central Hospital, where five people sometimes share a single bed inside a labyrinth of corridors, rooms and wards stinking of urine, vomit and phenol. Once inside, I register the horror on these students’ white faces—their repulsion against this hell.
Halfway through the trip, the students visit a few villages, far from the beaten path. It is there, in the middle of a peaceful place that feels like a throwback to the stone ages, that some of them are overcome by emotion. The villagers tell them that the famine, about which they read in newspapers, has already invaded this village. These people haven’t eaten for days. All that remains is a mango tree, but the fruit is still unripe. They face four more months of hunger. The students are shocked at the realization that the people of this village may die over the coming months because there isn’t anything left to eat.
It’s time for a confession: I want to confront Western visitors with strong emotions. The students and others know that when they sign up for the tour. A sense of empathy and involvement can only arise through direct involvement with hunger and poverty: seeing the miserable situation in hospitals and schools. Anyone who has stood at the bedside of a starving person becomes more sensitive to such a fate.
I’ve noticed that some people can’t handle the suffering and desperately seek an escape. They claim hunger isn’t as bad for Africans as it would be for Westerners. They say Westerners shouldn’t do anything because the responsibility lies with the Malawian government. Or they rationalize the death of millions of people as inevitable, or even necessary, given the overpopulation of this part of Africa.
But most people draw a different conclusion. They act as if an elderly woman has fallen in the street outside their home. These people decide they must do something. They are backed into the same corner as I was in 1999 with Veronica’s call.
It’s the same corner that philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once described as “the countenance of the other,” which forces us to make a painful choice. As Levinas explains: It is as if someone is knocking on our door. We cannot not hear the knocking, but will we open the door? Will I let the other in? Dare I take responsibility for a fellow human being?
That hungry village in Malawi, so isolated from civilization, becomes witness to a miracle. Several students answer the door, spontaneously deciding they must help the people of the village get food for the coming months.
A couple of days later they decide to take on a second village. Then they adopt 8,000 children from the Ndirande Primary School. They promise to see that these villages will be provided with emergency supplies for five months, including fertilizer and seeds for planting crops for the next harvest. And every morning from mid-November through March, 8,000 school children will get a warm breakfast of likuni pala, enriched corn porridge. College students who a month ago were barely able to locate Malawi on a map are taking responsibility for the lives of 10,000 people.
Weeks of feverish preparations follow: organizing the project, recruiting volunteers, collecting money, establishing contacts, meeting with the United Nations’ World Food Programme, consulting with the politician overseeing the Ndirande school, drawing up contracts, flying back to Malawi, checking food shipments, communicating with the hundreds of people who have donated money to this project.
At some point—as soon as a few months later—the memory of the students’ painful experiences in Malawi will fade. When the goal has been reached and 10,000 hungry people are able to carry on themselves, the rest of the world will inevitably reclaim the students’ attention. Those interested in staying involved will have to go back, to a dusty village or squalid hospital, where they will once again know someone is knocking on their door.
The foundation described in this article is the Stichting Het Goede Doel. You can become a regular donor or make a one-time contribution to Malawi. More information: www.het-goede-doel.nl (Dutch only), or send an e-mail to info@het-goede-doel.nl.
This article was adapted with permission from the Dutch-language Filosofie Magazine (issue 10, 2005), a publication that aims to bring philosophy closer to the general public.
Ralf Bodelier is a journalist who also teaches in the theology department at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He is the author of several books, essays and novels.
 

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