Humanitarian work is complicated. We speak about it here in some practical terms.
As we pack for our February trip to Zimbabwe (checking passports, cringing through vaccines, practicing colloquial Shona), I am also carrying with me a recent conversation I had with Christie in which she emphasized the importance of listening.
“We don’t use Western agricultural techniques in our education gardens," she said. “We just adapt existing methods so they’re more sustainable.”
Contrast this approach with that of Reverend Price, a character in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, who travels to what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1959 to preach the Good News. One particular sequence stands out to me: the Reverend is working in their new family garden, smoothing his Georgia bean seeds into compact little rows. Mama Tataba, a woman native to the region, scolds him, saying that his garden won’t grow that way, and begins to shape the soil into hefty mounds. He resists her efforts, retorting that he knows what he’s doing and that it is his job to teach her. Needless to say, the Reverend is surprised when he awakes one morning to the sight of his newly-ruined garden, awash with the first October rains.
We often make this mistake in humanitarian work, usually because we mean well and want to help but don’t know how. Humans have an essential desire to be asked much of in response to great need. So often, though, we do not go far enough in addressing the needs we see, and I suspect that we first fall short in our failure to listen to what the people are saying.
This is why we’re so passionate about what we do here–because we’ve found that listening works. Applying temporary, quick-fix solutions to the multifaceted problem of widespread malnutrition would be easy but not ultimately helpful. So we built relationships with our sisters and brothers in Zimbabwe and learned from them how best to allocate our resources in moving from a spirit of “charity” to one of empowerment. The learning process is lifelong, and we’re bursting with excitement as we prepare for this month’s installment in our journey.