Sunday, November 28, 2010

The needs we can't meet

The art of living.

Mapendo has faced a ridiculous amount of pressures lately. Barely into her 20s she has become the primary breadwinner for a struggling family. Her brother-in-law died recently, leaving her sister nearly homeless with ten children, and her mother is getting kicked off the land she built her house upon. It has been a particularly rough couple of months for Mapendo.
Mapendo playing handicapped sports.

But then again this is life in Eastern Congo.

What amazes me is the juggling of it all. Right now, through her sewing, Mapendo has more resources than anyone else in her family. But those resources are still very limited and the needs seem limitless. So how do you divide up the money you earn, for a family whose needs stretch far and wide? How do you give today, knowing that more needs will arise tomorrow?

In the non-profit world, they talk about "donor fatigue". It is hard to continue giving over and over again when problems seem never ending. We all like to give, when problems seem finite and manageable, when it seems that our one gift will make a world of difference, and there won't even be a need again next year.

But I've never heard a Congolese person talk about donor fatigue. And if anyone deserves to, it is probably them. Every Congolese person who takes one step out of poverty, is probably paying school fees for countless family members, buying medicine for at least a few people who are sick and being asked for no shortage of "loans". They know someone will come knocking on the door each night.

So what strikes me, is the way they open the door, time and time again, whether there is anything to give or not. How quickly I get fatigued and frustrated when the needs are too great or I have too little to give. To be honest in Congo I stopped answering the door sometimes, and here in the US, I switch off the news. And indeed, we can't meet all the problems of this world, nor fill every hand that is outstretched. But neither can they. The challenge is the living in the midst of that knowledge, without shutting down or shutting it out. And that is what I admire about so many people in Congo.

Mapendo has chosen to buy land for her mother to live on. A small piece of permanence for this family which has too long been refugees. It's a tiny piece of land on the outskirts of town but it's a beautiful act, and an incredible accomplishment. It deserves celebration. But Mapendo's sister and 10 children are still close to homeless and there are still so many more needs. And that is where life is, in the midst of that tension.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Where it goes

I believe in paradoxes. According to the Christian faith, "the first shall be last and the last shall be first". Of course, that is a promise for another world. But such reversals of fortune happen in our world as well. And there is beauty, and some kind of truth, in them.

The SHONA women were expected to be burdens on their families, at least financially. For poor families, in a war zone, a child who cannot walk, is going to be a struggle. She can't go to school, she can't carry water, she can't work on the farm, and she can't run from danger.

So it is an amazing accomplishment, when these young women go on to live independently and support their families. In fact, they have become the main breadwinners for their large families.

Suddenly they are the ones carrying the responsibility for their mother and father, brothers and sisters. It is a heavy responsibility, but they carry it with grace. I think that is the beauty of paradox. The person who has been carried herself, is in fact the most likely to carry others.

Instead of spending the money they earn on themselves, they buy medicine for countless family members, put children in school, and keep a roof over their heads.

Here are a few of the things SHONA women did, through your purchases, just this month.

*Riziki paid for a hernia operation for her younger brother. He was waiting until she got paid because there was no other money in the family to pay for it. Riziki also paid for medicine for her mom who is sick.

*Mapendo gave her mother money to rent a new parcel of land. The land that she was living on had been reclaimed by the government for road construction, and she literally had no where to go.

*Argentine paid the school fees for 4 of her younger siblings so that they could return to school. Argentine never went to school as a child.

*Riziki paid the school fees for 3 of her younger siblings so that they could return to school.

*Solange rented a small house by the road for her 2 younger siblings. Solange and her siblings are orphans, and the area they grew up in remains unsafe. Her younger siblings had been living in a refugee camp, and then had returned to their rural home to try and farm the land. However it is so unsafe in that area that the population farms during the day, and hides in the forest to sleep at night. Her siblings were literally sleeping in the forest. Solange rented a small house in a more secure area by the road so that her siblings would have somewhere to sleep.

*Argentine started saving money for a new set of metal leg braces for herself. The metal leg braces that all of the women wear have to be replaced every year and they are quite expensive for them. The women were previously able to obtain them for free, but now, because they are seen as successful women, they have to pay for them. Argentine started saving for her own leg braces...
but only after paying her siblings school fees.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Business in Congo

In all the furor over "conflict minerals" coming out of Congo there is a point that often gets missed. The point is why are "conflict minerals" practically the only thing coming out of Congo?

Okay, many raw materials, not just those listed as "conflict minerals" do come out of Congo. But the point is, they come out as raw materials. Where is Congo's industrial sector?

Obviously there are a variety of different answers to that question. But it is an important question to ask. Because as long as there are so very few viable industries in Congo, not just in terms of export but in terms of any production at all, people will be exploited. They will choose to mine in dangerous, unhealthy conditions because it is the only way to make a living. Young men will continue to become young men with guns, and young men with guns will continue to plunder the local population, because...well...everyone's gotta eat.

Congo Siasa has a great little post entitled "the agony of doing business in the Congo" citing Congo's current ranking as 175th in the Word Bank report of on how easy it is to start and operate a business around the world. In other words, it is easier to start a business in Iraq or Afghanistan than it is to start one in Congo.

I am not really the business type, and had I not lived in Congo, I might have skimmed over this whole report as something for MBAs. But, having seen the Congolese economy in action, I know that this report does reflect a huge problem for the average person in Congo. There just aren't enough legitimate businesses in Congo. Because it is soooooo dang hard to make it work.

Everyday that the SHONA women are able to sew, and ship their handiwork, I consider it a small miracle. Not because of the work they do, they are talented and committed and it doesn't take a miracle for them to produce beautiful work. Unfortunately it takes close to a miracle for them to be able to share that work with you. We have been fortunate only because we are very small, and we keep things very local.

Check it out for yourself. Google fair trade crafts from Congo and see what you come up with. When I tried it, links to SHONA were in the first nine spots. Now of course that is awesome and I would love to claim some talent at "Search Engine Optimization" which has placed us there. But the reality is there just aren't many other groups out there. Congo is a huge country, full of talented artisans...where is their work????

Friday, November 5, 2010


I called the SHONA ladies this afternoon, which is evening in Congo. Only to discover that the women were already tucked into bed. On the table.

It seems there was a snake incident. Apparently some snakes have appeared in the SHONA women's house. After a long, convoluted story about these snakes which seemed to involve references to burning the snakes and digging holes (keep in mind this conversation was in Swahili over a long distance phone connection!), I established that three of the women are currently tucked into bed on top of the large table that they normally use for cutting cloth and eating dinner. I tried to establish why it was that they thought the snakes would not be able to climb up the table (or drop down onto the table), but it seems there was debate about precisely this question. You see there are actually 6 women living in the SHONA house, the four SHONA women plus Mapendo's niece and Riziki's younger sister.

Three of the women had decided that they had to leave the house all together. They went to sleep in the new apartment that we have just rented right next door (they haven't officially moved in yet, as the owner is still fixing the apartment, but apparently they decided that an empty apartment under repair is significantly better than a house with snakes). The other women appear to have decided that a house with snakes is better. As long as you sleep on the table, that is.

I have tried to give my strong opinion on this issue, and hopefully they will abandon the table tactic. But then again, nyoka (snake) is a very broad word in Swahili, and perhaps they have more information than I do about the situation.

Either way, we are very anxious for the SHONA ladies to move into their new home. Hopefully the repairs will be completed and they can move this weekend. Beyond the snake issue, their old home has also started leaking, and it really is time to move.

We have paid part of the required 5 month deposit on the new apartment already, and the landlord has generously given us a few extra weeks to come up with the rest. Please do continue shopping with SHONA and take advantage of our SALE this week (10% off everything!). Your purchases will help to make sure that we can pay the full-deposit, and the ladies can stay in their new home. This new home is very important because the ladies current house is being torn down (not to mention being taken over by snakes), and finding a safe, clean place for the women to live and work, with access to electricity and bathrooms that they can get into with their crutches, is not so easy. This apartment will give them all of that. And besides they won't have to sleep on the table!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Do It Yourself

The aid community is up in arms. The cause? Nicholas Kristof. It is truly amazing how much indignation this New York Times columnist seems to be able to stir up.

So what did he say now? He wrote a piece about "Do-It-Yourself foreign aid". In this piece he was talking about the current trend of Americans (and people around the globe) to start their own aid projects, rather than work with big, established aid organizations. It seems that thanks to the internet and social media more "regular people" are learning about large, global problems, and then feeling empowered to actually start a project to address that problem themselves. This is what he means by a do-it-yourself approach to foreign aid.

The aid community has come back talking about the importance of professionalism and accountability.

But I'd like to talk about something else. Don't you think we're misusing the term "do-it-yourself" here? When we take on a do-it-yourself project isn't it usually in our own homes? We work on our kitchen sink that won't stop leaking, or remodeling our bathroom. And yes, the problem with do-it-yourself projects is that we aren't professionals, and we don't usually know exactly what we are doing. But then again, that's OK, because it is our house, and when we remodel the bathroom and discover that new tile is all crooked, we can debate the value of taking it out and starting it over again. And when that sink develops another leak in a month, we can go back in and try and fix it again. Usually we have to live with the results of our own do it yourself projects. And that makes us both invested in the project, and uniquely qualified to decide whether bright pink is really the right color to paint the bathroom wall. And for precisely that reason, do-it-yourself projects tend to be more like open-ended discussions, where the wall changes from pink to blue to beige, as the years wear on.

I'm not really sure about the idea of do-it-yourself projects in strangers houses. I mean who really proposes a do-it-yourself project as a way to get to know random people, or to make friends? At best, it would be an incredibly awkward way to start a relationship.

So I think there is often a contradition in the term "Do-It-Yourself" foreign aid. D0-It-Yourself probably shouldn't be done in a place we consider "foreign". I agree with Kristof that we have become too dependent on big companies and big organizations, and we have lost faith in our own abilities to affect change, indeed our own responsibility to affect change. But that responsibility to affect change starts in our own communities and in our lives. Sometimes it is easier to go global. The problems that exist in hot spots around the globe can seem overwhelming but they have a unique power to motivate. Because the further away a community is, the less experience we have of the community, the easier it is to romanticize the problems and simplify the solutions. And the further we live from that community, and the fewer real relationships we have in it, the easier it is to believe our own publicity and fool ourselves about the successes. Do-It-Yourself does have successes but it also has a lot of failures and a lot of changes to make along the way. And when we are working in a community that we learned about on the internet, and visited for 2 weeks, chances are we aren't well-equipped for the long haul.

That is not to say we can't affect change in the global community. But instead of surfing the internet for the next hot cause, we could stand to look carefully at our own lives and the inequalities that exist in the midst of them. Ultimately we'll find that we do have real connections to our neighbors, both across the street and abroad. The way we shop, where we choose to live, the way we treat the environment does matter to real people around the globe.

Tales from The hood mentions Greg Mortenson (3 cups of tea) as an examples which is often used of "do-it-yourself-aid". Indeed Mortenson is an interesting example. He went half way across the world not because of altruism, or because he was inspired about some problem, but because he wanted to hike a mountain. And he got to know the people in a small village because he fell sick and they cared for him. His project was born not out of some big vision, but out of a promise he made to some friends he made there. And it was born not out of altruism but out of relationship. He had no idea what he was doing, and was certainly not professional. In fact he came back to build a school only to discover that what they really needed was a bridge. But he had the investment in this community that had first cared for him, and a sense of responsibility to those people. Wherever we find ourselves we have similar responsibilities.

Our responsibility to our fellow man isn't reserved for professionals. In fact it is a responsibility we have no right to hand off to professionals. But that responsibility should be born out of our long-term investment in communities and in relationships.

To tell you the truth, sometimes I get frustrated. Sometimes I wonder why SHONA doesn't get the spotlight. Why couldn't we be the next Oprah guest or whatever? But that is the point. Is that really what SHONA is? I work on SHONA because I have a responsibility to my neighbors in Goma, to these incredible women who daily remind me what it means to live humbly. If I have given them the tools that I have, and they can now stand on their own and create change in their lives, that's enough. We are "do it yourself". And this is our home. We don't have to build a mansion or give neighborhood tours, to make what we do valuable.

I'm not a professional, but then again I don't have to be. Because this isn't "foreign" aid. These are my friends and my neighbors, and no one needs a degree for that.

"Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies."
Mother Teresa

"What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family." Mother Teresa