Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Grassroots organizations

Here is the next question...

My first question is this: when you first arrived, was there any hesitation to receiving a foreigner into the community? Did it take time to gain the people's trust or was it easier than you expected?

I would also would like to piggy-back off of "Mama Rena"'s question: I have many friends who are strong proponents of grassroots organizations in comparison to international orgs. coming into the country and attempting to solve their problems. What is your position on this issue? Should both types exist in order to aid international ties for future development, or is it best to have a solely grassroots initiative?

Ok Jacqueline, you managed to sneak a lot of questions in there! I'll do my best!

1. Congolese are very welcoming people. They like to talk and are quick to joke and laugh. I appreciated this very much when I first came here because I found it easy to engage the culture.

People here are particularly happy to talk to people who have come from Europe or America. I can not count the number of conversations that I have which go like this...

"where are you from?"


"oh that is GREAT...I LOVE Americans...Do you have a husband? oh...that's about a younger sister? about a friend I could write to in America?"

People are anxious to have any connection they can to places they see as offering a better life. Additionally most Europeans and Americans who are here work with aid and development organizations or churches. And who wouldn't want to have a friend in high places, especially one that has come here to "help"?

I also found Congolese very friendly because I was trying to speak Swahili. When I came here I didn't speak French or Swahili. I decided to learn Swahili first (and I am still stuck on French). But the fact that I was trying to learn the street language here really made people happy. Even though I would butcher the language, they loved to see a "white person" trying to learn their own language.

Other than wanting to learn Swahili, I didn't think too much about trying to build people's trust, probably because they are so welcoming.

What I did spend a lot of time thinking about was how to break out of the box that people see me in. People trusted me, but they often trusted me as a white person, a foreigner who might help them out or give them something. The same thing that makes people want to talk to me, sometimes makes them see me in only one light. That said, I have been honored by the many people who have pushed beyond that. Sometimes I feel that the very people who have the right to ask the most from me, are the ones who have never asked me for a thing, and instead have given me the most. The SHONA women are some of my closest friends. They call me "Dada", which means "sister". When we marched in the women's day parade last year, I will never forget their reaction. As we marched together, people on the sidelines would often call out "mzungu" (white person). This is a common event here in Congo, and happens to me many times a day. But they truly seemed surprised by it. It was as though they simply couldn't understand why people kept calling me mzungu. To every single person they would calmly and earnestly answer "she's not a mzunugu; she is our sister".

On to the second part of your question...
2. That is an interesting comparison: between grassroots organizations and international organizations. Of course my natural inclination is to cheer for grassroots organizations. But unfortunately from what I can see here, many grassroots organizations and international organizations tend to have the same problem. They are often looking for funding. The constant search for funding tends to consume vast quantities of money on its own, creating top heavy organizations with people in offices getting much of the money meant for programs. The eternal quest for grants also tends to create organizations that take their shape based on whatever grants are currently available. For example when a lot of publicity is given to raped women in Congo (rightly so), grants for programs working with these women suddenly become available. And the next thing you know, you have a whole lot of organizations whose goal is to work with these women. But what were these organizations doing before? Whatever that program was, it is too often forgotten.

So I guess in both local and international organizations, one thing that I would look for is an organization that is driven by commitment to a specific goal (and by specific I don't mean "saving the world" or "ending poverty") and is committed to that goal long-term.

And perhaps more importantly I would look for organizations that have low operating expenses. This is perhaps my biggest frustration with international organizations. They often seem to consume so much money!

But one word on behalf of international organizations:
There are some roles that I believe the international community needs to play because local people can't. For example, organizations that research and publicize human rights abuses act as a watchdog in many countries where it is simply impossible for local groups to speak out. I wish that we, as an international community, would spend more time asking ourselves what exactly we have to offer. I do believe there are roles for the international community to play, but it often seems that we think we should play all the roles. when we take over responsibilities that can and should be held locally, I am not sure exactly what we are accomplishing.

But on the other hand...

There are MANY local NGOs here. I have been approached by many of them. They thought I might like to donate. Or have friends who would like to donate. For example, one day I was approached by an anti-smoking youth association, who also believe in helping the environment. What do they do? Well, nothing yet. But if they could just find some funding...

There is a strong belief here that no organization exists without outside funding. When I tell people about SHONA they say "oh, and you have found some good funding for this in the US. Perhaps you can help me find money for my organization". When I try to explain that we have no outside grants and operate largely on the money from our sales, they just don't believe me.

What is missing in Goma, are true community-based grassroots organizations that are led and funded by the community. These are the type of organizations that would be best suited to see and respond to the true needs of the population in a long-term, sustainable way. I often ask myself why they don't seem to exist here. Perhaps they once did, but when they saw the lifestyles of international NGOs and the possibilities of international funding, they changed course. Or perhaps the level of corruption in Congo makes it difficult for such organizations to exist without becoming simply one more way for the people on top of the organization to make a buck.

But I do believe this is one thing that Congo truly needs. I see the level of insecurity in Goma and wonder why people don't form community organizations to create security in their own neighborhoods. I see how strong the women of Congo are and wonder why they can't band together and use this strength to create real change in their country.

The women of SHONA attend weekly education classes. The courses cover basic French and Math, skills they need to succeed in this world. But we always have one class that has a wider focus. We just finished a course in "Faith and Action". We studied Harriet Jacobs, Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa and Wangari Maathai. I don't know why more community groups don't exist here right now, but I believe that change is possible.


kristine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bhk said...

before finding the solution for peace in Congo, you need to find the people who are creating all this. sorry for saying this, you need to stop waisting you time and do something else... peace will come but not soon

shona congo said...

I need to stop doing what??! Helping disabled, Congolese women, who were my neighbors and who are my friends, to sell their handcrafted work in an international market? I am under no illusion that I can create peace in Congo, if that is what you are saying.

However I deeply believe that we are all called to love and to serve those who are most vulnerable in our midst. And I believe that helping the most vulnerable to have a greater voice and a greater stake in their own communities, is the foundation upon which, they themselves can build peace.