When small things are big things

I’m fresh back from spending most of the last week in beautiful Burkina Faso (not Uganda, as my mother believed).  I say ‘fresh’ which is an unusual state to return from any trip in (especially one which involved 5.30am starts every day, temperatures in the high 30s and not a lot of food), but it’s how I feel.  Grateful, inspired, humbled.

Beautiful Burkina

I was making a film about how churches are doing small, beautiful, counter-cultural things in their communities to improve their lives and those of their neighbours.  (You might remember part one of the same project in Sierra Leone last year).  This time I was out with Prospect Arts‘ Ben Sherlock, a whizz with a camera and a failsafe vitamin supplier.

One day we drove off down a dirt track, and then turned off that onto a footpath (still in the 4×4) and continued on for about an hour across sandy, uneven scrubland, dodging bushes, trees and huge gaping pits.  We arrived in a remote village in the far east of Burkina and were greeted by some of the community who took us out the other end of the village on foot to see their school.

In contrast to the other simple, sandy homes scattered through the village, here was a large, clean, modern-looking structure with three big classrooms housing about 100 children from 4-16.  The youngest ones had never seen a white person (I went and said hello and shook all their hands to dispel their fears…).

Fascinated by white people…

We interviewed the pastor of the community who told me the beautiful story of how the school came about.  It began with a letter he received one day, there in the middle of nowhere.

He set off to the next town, the one we’d driven from, to find someone who could read it to him.

Was there no-one in his village who could read? the inhabitants of the next town asked. (Nobody). Did they not have a school? How many children were there?  Did he know that if he could prove there were 60 children with no access to schooling, the government had to provide a school and a teacher?

And that started the journey of the small, illiterate church community advocating to the government on behalf of their village.  The government sent a teacher and the church members built the teacher a house.  And then, a few years on, the government built a school.  And now how the horizons of those young people have changed.  Different futures have become possible.

That same day we spoke to a church elder in another community with a similar story, and he said something that has stayed with me.  “These things probably seem small to you, but to us they are huge.”

Heading off into unknown territory in faraway countries with a nice camera to make a film makes me anxious to find impressive sounding stories that will captivate people.  Some of this week’s stories were about church communities building themselves a church building, which can seem underwhelming, but the journey behind those projects is a deep and significant one.  It’s the story of people who struggle to meet their most basic needs starting to believe that they have the ability to do something for themselves, and for their wider community.  It’s the start of a longer journey towards a better life.

So I don’t count any of the stories as small.  To believe things can be different when you have never known what ‘different’ looks or feels like is an amazing act of faith and courage, especially when you live so close to the edge of survival.

These are big stories. And just think where they might lead.

Our impromptu crew (minus camera man Ben who was behind the camera)

(The work I was filming was part of Tearfund’s Church Mobilisation work, carried out in partnership with local NGO, ODE.  You can find out more about it here.)

Is helping hurting you?

There was book published in 2009 called “When Helping Hurts” which was about how lots of the development work we in the west undertake to reduce poverty actually does more harm than good.  Ouch. Its particular focus was work done by Christians. A further ouch.

It was familiar territory for Tearfund because we talk about that kind of thing a lot – in an attempt to work in a very different way. The main destructive habits the book identified were:

a) thinking we know what people need better than they do;

b) only addressing people’s obvious physical poverty rather than the more complex web of which it is factor;

c) doing things for people that they could do for themselves;

d) short-term thinking.

When I was in Sierra Leone last year (read the blog here), our Country Rep told me that millions of dollars had been thrown at the problems in the country in the last decade, and little had changed. It’s a tragedy, for the people of Sierra Leone, but also for the people giving that money. (And then I made a little film about a really exciting process that is helping people change their circumstances…)

Bad development hurts more than just people in Africa. It’s bad for all of us. Let me explain.

Last year Bond & Oxfam did a big piece of work around its communications with the UK public.  The Executive Summary of the report says this:

Simply put, people in the UK understand and relate to global poverty no differently now than they did in the 1980s…By many measures [the NGOs] have made amazing strides forward in recent years but the public have largely been left behind.

Maybe that sounds a bit cocky (although I love to think we make “AMAZING strides”), but as part of the process they also did a bunch of research into their own communications, and in fact the communications of many UK NGOs.  They found out that the responsibility largely lay with them (us).  We are telling the same story about the problem of poverty and how we can fix it, even though we might have come to believe a more nuanced and empowering story ourselves.  As a sector we still tell this story: ‘ here is a poor sick child, and here is how much you can give to fix it.’ (forgive my generalisations for now…)

So then there’s a big practical problem of how long are people going to keep believing you when the problems aren’t disappearing despite the cash invested.  And there’s an integrity problem in organisations not telling the same story as the one they’re outworking in communities.  And these sit alongside the already-identified problems of when organisations just do things badly, despite all their good intentions.

BUT, and here is my point, I think it diminishes the humanity of everyone involved when we buy into shabby stories about how the world changes.  For someone living in poverty, wherever they are in the world, it diminishes them when their circumstances and the behaviour of people around them tells them that they are worthless, and powerless, and can only hope for somebody else to give them a handout.  But it also diminishes us when we believe that ‘just £10 can change this child’s life forever’, or that the circumstances that keep people in poverty are independent of us – our consumer choices and the trade laws of our own country, for example.

No-one gets to move forward by believing shabby stories.

So let’s all believe a better one, please!  (Further posts may expand on that. Do tell me what you’d like to hear about).

‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’

So writes Maya Angelou, and I wonder if it’s true.

I wrote a blog post with this title on another site a year or so ago, which I stumbled across this morning. “There are so many untold stories, so many wonderful untold stories,” I wrote. “Or stories that have only been told once, when they could be told thousands of times.”

Millions of stories don’t get told; does that mean millions are living in suppressed agony? Well, millions are, but we don’t usually attribute it to a lack of being able to tell their story.  But maybe there is a link.  I think I’ve quoted Isak Dinesen before saying “To be human is to have a story to tell.” Most of mine dribble out in conversation with family and friends, but that is life-giving to me – to be able to share my experiences and thoughts, to have them understood, to feel connected – this is totally vital.  And I can share them on a wider platform too.  Why isn’t this true of everyone?  Or do people just not want to tell their stories?

I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, and there’s a fascinating comparison of parenting styles between American households of different income levels. .  A sociologist, Annette Lareau, did a pile of research across a number of families with children of the same age and discovered essentially only two main parenting styles, which divided pretty neatly along class lines.  The middle class parents (stereotypically with high aspirations and heavy involvement in the kids’ free time) actively encouraged their kids to reason, negotiate, assert themselves through their parenting style; the children grew up with a certain sense of ‘entitlement’. By contrast the kids raised with a different philiosophy in the poorer families, were characterized by “an emerging sense of distance, distrust & constraint.”  These are gross generalisations I know, and Gladwell isn’t praising one parenting style over another from a moral perspective, but he says that the middle-class parenting style prepares us to find and get our way in the modern world more effectively.  I think it says something about the connection between our level of security and confidence in relation to our influence, and our willingness to participate and tell our story.  And why we might need to try harder to hear the stories that don’t get so much airtime – be it on the level of friendship, neighbourly interaction, or the global stage.

It makes me think of my friend Nyasha who works in Zimbabwe with those involved with and affected by the political violence. There has been incredible violence and injustice shown over a number of years across the country, and it has left people with obvious and enormous practical needs. What Nyasha does is bring people together to tell their stories. They have to listen to each other. The survivors and perpetrators. And somehow, talking and listening opens up the window to move past their bitterness and anger, and move forward together.

I realise more and more how much I want to hear and share (good) stories, and yet even in myself (middle-class, educated, white) I sense an enormous reluctance. My stories aren’t any good. I don’t tell that story well. Other people tell them better. None of my stories are impressive; they don’t even feel are finished. I don’t know her well enough to tell her story. Or, from the perspective of some one working in relief and development: my story doesn’t count because I am white and over-privileged and belong to a major former colonising power. My stories don’t deserve to be heard above the level of anecdotes to my friends.

But if we all bow out like that, all that’s left is the people with the most confidence or the biggest microphones and not a lot changes.

Surely the bigger challenge is to find the stories that don’t get told and tell them.  And to be willing to tell mine when asked. I get frustrated in my job that so many good stories don’t get told, or in the charity sector they get told like this: “look how this situation has TOTALLY changed because of YOUR DONATION and OUR PROJECT, so please give some MORE”; or “look at this terrible situation which we can FIX if you give us MONEY you kind rich people.”  The world is more complicated than that.  The problems and the answers are more complicated.  Are we too afraid to tell real, complicated, human stories because then it’s harder to find a quick solution?

I think there’s a yes somewhere in the answer. It just takes a lot more time to listen than to get on and do something, and I am in the camp of people who like to get on and do something.  The hardest thing about writing a blog of stories is that I don’t always find them – but that is clearly because I am not istening enough. Because they are there!

A good friend of mine is writing a blog this year recording his progress as he seeks to find out the middle name of a stranger each day. It means he has to engage total strangers in conversation every day. Terrifying.  But amazing and pro-active, and he says it’s making him much more open to engaging with people wherever he goes (a small miracle in London).

I’m taking some inspiration from his pro-activity and am going to find some more stories to tell.