So I’m on a field visit a few years ago in a particular country and I’m having a bit of trouble adjusting. I look around at my (all male) colleagues and wonder if there’s an equivalent to the Freshman 15 as applied to local male development workers. Seriously, how many times have you met a skinny young guy on one trip and seen him a few years later and he’s gained the gut? This was somewhat of an inside joke with my Latin America colleagues at one job. “Éste ya tiene sandia” (This one now has a watermelon), eg, “that guy is sure cashing in on his fancy new job – look at his fat gut.”
On a previous visit to this country, I’d spent a few weeks out in a community at a workshop. There was a big push at the organization I worked for to be child friendly and so some of the staff made a big fuss that the kids had to eat first. Sometimes that meant that there were no utensils and food left for some of us adults. If you’ve been up since 5 a.m. and are super hungry, that really sucks. But as far as I’m concerned, you need to just deal with it because you can be pretty sure that some of the kids at the workshop haven’t had any breakfast at all. But some of the men from the community, the local partner organizations, teachers and staff weren’t down with this flashy new idea of the kids eating first (and yes, I realize kids eating first is not a tradition in many places), so they would just go to the front of the line and cut all the kids (and those of us letting the kids eat first), get a huge plate of food and sit down to eat.
On this particular follow-up trip however, we’ve switched to working with “youth” instead of “children” so (woo hoo!) we don’t have to let them eat first. We have a special table where we get better food and don’t have to wait in any lines. (Insert sarcastic “rock-on” emoticon) The pot bellies I’m seeing all around me start to really get to me.
Same country, different day. We’re at a run-down secondary school. Once a beautiful colonial style building, it’s now kinda trashed. We arrive for a training session with lots of nice new supplies. The school doesn’t really have any supplies from what I can tell. They do have desks, but they are old and broken. I try to open one of the heavy doors to get rid of the musty, dank smell in the classroom where I’m supposed be spending the day but the little bolt that slides into the hole in the floor at the bottom of the door is missing a piece and it’s stuck closed. There are bits of the roof that have fallen off and are lying in a corner. There’s graffiti all over the place. The tiles are falling off the walls in the formerly glorious bathrooms. I think about my own house, in need of a new roof, landscaping and a paint job, and how I’d mistakenly bought a place that’s too big for me to afford to maintain. I can’t imagine how much it would cost to keep this giant old building up…. I wonder whose fault it is that this school has no supplies. I feel uncomfortable that we walk in with a ton of them.
But I also start thinking about the week before when we visited a rural school an hour down the road that had an entire storeroom of supplies. One half of this locked-up storeroom was all computers in unopened boxes. One of the (rare) women teachers was friendly with our local staff. She told us on the side that the computers had been there for over a year in those boxes and the (pot bellied) director liked to show them to everyone who visited. He was proud of himself and his achievement of getting those computers from the government to his school, but there was a catch. “See we are very poor here at this school. We have these computers but no where to put them. We really want to let the children use them, but we don’t have a building for them.” I got the sense that he was holding the computers hostage to try to blackmail us into building a computer center and was glad my (pot bellied) co-workers weren’t falling for it. “Why not work on re-vamping the old empty library?” they asked – it was obviously not being used any longer. I wondered why on earth a (most probably pot bellied) government official would send a ton of computers to a school that had no computer teachers, intermittent electricity, and apparently nowhere to put the computers. How many years would it take to get a secure place for the computers and a teacher who could teach students how to use them? How soon would those computers be in disrepair due to lack of a budget for maintenance and upgrading?
Anyway, back to the second run-down secondary school where we’ve brought our training supplies. The students come up and talk to me after they’ve realized I’m not there expecting any hard-core deference. They still assume that I’m the one with the money and the one who’s in charge – though that’s not true at all, since our local (pot bellied) staff call the shots and my role is quite clear – I don’t make any decisions about what goes on in country and I’m not a (pot bellied) big boss or a fund-raiser or a donor. The students tell me they are very certain that as soon as we leave, they won’t have access to the materials that we’ve brought with us for the training. They say that the (pot bellied) director will lock them up or take them away for personal use and they won’t see them again. I tell our (pot bellied) local staff what the kids have said. They say they are well aware of that problem – it’s a problem with schools everywhere. They’ve written up an agreement with the (pot bellied) school director to guarantee that the materials will be distributed as agreed upon. I wonder how those agreements are actually enforced.
Because surely we want to keep working with the school and we can’t piss off the (pot bellied) director. The school and its students are part of our project. We want to improve these youth’s education, to help them build skills that will be sustainable and will allow them to earn a living in the future, because it’s what they and their community have said they want during grassroots community planning sessions with (pot bellied) community leaders. But we have to be careful too, because when youth move on to use their new skills as individuals, donors complain that youth have left the group and we’re criticized for a project that isn’t sustainable because the group hasn’t maintained itself, the group members aren’t sticking around to serve as mentors to the new students to keep the groups going. Damn youth grow up and get married, get bored, change interests, have babies, leave the community or in one way or another live their lives without asking our permission. (What’s that all about?!)
If only we could just do a better job of inducting them into NGO culture, so that we could continue to rely on them as newly formed (and future pot bellied) community leaders to organize “our” communities. Then one day select young men (and hopefully at some point, women too) could grow their pot bellies by working at an NGO or a CBO or in the government even… or they would have a set of skills that would be useful to run or support that social enterprise or business that will arrive with the next wave of development trends and they can grow their pot bellies there….
Most of the time visits to “the field” invigorate me. Other times the little things (like pot bellies) symbolize big things and big attitudes that I don’t share. They start to get to me and I’m not sure what I believe any more. I am struck in the face with a crisis of purpose and wonder if there is any point to doing anything – for profit or nonprofit – or is it all just a huge waste of time because it just replicates existing inequalities and human behaviors? Or do I just have a bit of culture shock? Or do some programs just work better than others because of a ton of intermingling factors and I should stop letting one place get me down — think of the programs I’ve seen that seem to be achieving something? Or am I getting the wool pulled over my eyes? Am I being fooled? Or am I getting cynical? Blase?
I start wondering if maybe I shouldn’t just stay in the head office and believe all the theories rather than spend time on the ground to see them in half-assed action.
It’s lunchtime again, and I sneak off by myself and write my thoughts down furiously in my notebook. I have the sense to realize that I’m annoyed and being judgmental and I need to disengage for a bit. Get an attitude adjustment, lighten up or something. (In today’s world I’d have just accepted that I was working for an HRI affiliate….)
Post lunch I go back to the musty room where the door is bolted shut to watch the goings-on; but it smells bad and I don’t want to sit in there. There is music playing in a classroom across the school yard, so I walk over. Some kids are learning dances. I watch for awhile through the open window, and the woman who’s teaching calls over to me. Come, join us. Do you want to try? Why yes, as a matter of fact I do. I get into the back line and try to pick up on the moves and the sequences.
There is no mirror in the room, so no one knows if they look stupid or not, they just do their thing. I begin to feel better. We all mess up the steps all afternoon. But we find a pattern and a flow together that eventually leads to something that’s somewhat coordinated. It’s nowhere near professional or smooth, but it makes some sense and we each find our place in the choreography.
I hear the motor of the car chugging and realize it’s time to leave. I get my stuff and climb in, sweaty. My co-workers are animated as they discuss the day’s challenges, joking and laughing. I only half pay attention as I stare out the window of the car, thinking, adjusting. My stress levels are down thanks to the dancing. What’s prickliness going to achieve anyway? I forgive the pot bellies. I start to re-engage.