Several years ago I was sent by the INGO where I worked to a nearby country to accompany and translate for a photographer and a reporter who were touring a post-conflict zone. They were going to take photos and write stories about the situation in the country and the work we were doing to address the impact of the situation on the most vulnerable communities. A driver and someone from a local NGO counterpart accompanied us.
There were many indigenous groups in the zone that we visited. It was my first experience at translating in a multi-lingual rather than bi-lingual setting. The journalists would ask a question in English. I’d put it into the official language of the country. A man from the indigenous group would make sure he understood what I was saying, and then he’d turn around to the group of men that had gathered to meet with us and relay the question or comment to them. They would have a long discussion, or sometimes what seemed like an animated argument, and come to a consensus on their answer. Then he would turn around to me, give me the group’s answer, and I’d put it into English for the 2 journalists. Sometimes the two journalists would clarify to each other in their native language, which I didn’t speak.
The group that we visited in one particular community had been forced off their land by the government who declared the area they had always inhabited an ecological reserve. They believed this was a political move rather than any real government concern for the delicate ecology of their homeland. They felt the government wanted to weaken them by removing them from their land and decimating their culture and their capacity to resist. This was part of the government’s approach to dealing with ‘lack of development’ in the country.
The photographer took lots of pictures. The reporter was thrilled with the story. The local counterpart representative looked happy. He was very supportive of our visit. Certainly it was worthwhile if it meant some more funding for his local NGO. I was excited to be in communities I’d never normally get to spend time in, plus, the journalists were really fun to hang out with. A great visit for everyone involved…. right?
As we prepared to say our goodbyes to this particular community, the headman said to us. “There is one more thing before you go.”
“Yes? yes?” said the reporter, adrenaline surging at the fascinating stories she would write about the lives of indigenous peoples and their romantic struggle for survival. “Tell us,” said the photographer, spirits high, imagining the colorful photos he’d print of the people in native dress against the pristine natural background, the bare-breasted women with babies tied on their backs, washing in the stream.
“Don’t take our photos and our stories with you if you are not going to help us.”
We realized we might be there a bit longer, explaining ourselves.
The photographer promised heartily that he’d send copies of his photographs. The journalist, instinctively holding her hand over her heart, promised she would send a copy of any articles that were written. I translated the promises, and made my own promise to send any articles and photos to the local counterpart, who promised to get them to the community.
They didn’t look satisfied, so now it was us conferring amongst ourselves to come up with a response. We agreed that I should carefully tell the headman that we couldn’t help them directly. I should explain to them the concept of ‘advocacy’, and tell them how the work we were doing would help ‘raise awareness’ about their situation and pressure their government so that they would not be moved off their land. I should help them understand that the local counterpart, the journalists, my organization and I were all ‘advocates’ for them.
They understood all those ideas just fine, but shrugged, not so satisfied. We felt uncomfortable. We didn’t have anything concrete to offer. And anyway, we didn’t see ourselves as ‘whites in shining armor,’ coming to save them. No no, we were beyond that, better than that. We had progressed beyond all those other organizations. We were ‘changing policies’ not ‘giving hand outs’ and through our work we would be ‘catalyzing sustainable and lasting changes‘ in people’s lives. At least that was what we wanted to believe.
But what we were really doing was taking their story to use as a way to shine a light on our story about how any funds donated to us would empower them (and other beautiful, brown and colorfully dressed people like them) to save themselves. We really did believe that we could make a difference with our newspaper articles, our photos and our advocacy. Truth was that it was still more about us and our organization than it was about them.
“People come and take our stories, and they never come back, and our situation doesn’t change,” they said. “We hope that you will be different.”
Sure, we wanted to be different, but I’m pretty sure that the story that the reporter wrote and the pictures that the photographer took didn’t help this particular community at all. I never heard anything else about them after our visit, and I’m fairly sure they never heard anything about the 3 of us. Though I bet the next few times they saw the local counterpart, they asked.
The journalists got some fantastic photos and nice stories about the organization I worked with placed in the most popular newspaper in their home country. We all believed those stories were helping a larger cause somehow, and therefore that it was a good thing. Who knows, maybe we did make some kind of small difference in the big scheme of things.
Several months after our visit, I got a press clipping in a language I didn’t speak, which I sent off by post, not really knowing if the community would ever get it. We fulfilled our promises in deed, but that visit has always stayed with me.
“We hope that you will be different.”
We were not.