As I drifted across continents, I found my excitement to come home growing deeper and deeper, even as I enjoyed my travels more and more. Surely, a part of it is simple homesickness for the ones I love. But there was something pulling far stronger than even that – it was an excitement to take what I was learning home. To become deeply engaged in my communities, just as those incredible everyday activists I was meeting were connected to and working for change in their local communities.
What’s more, I became increasingly disenchanted (if I wasn’t already enough) with the idea of “developing” anyone else’s community. The sheer complexity and moral quandaries involved were simply too great. How could I begin to understand this place and these people? Who do you talk to? How do you know you’re doing good? Even in Afghanistan, to which I can clearly claim a greater stake, I could not imagine trying to do “development” there, caught as I would be in webs of political intrigue far above my head.
This is not to say the temptation to “develop” didn’t arise. In the village of Goyale, Burkina Faso where I was invited by my affable French teacher to visit his family, I felt myself enamored by tradition and the richness of spirit, and yet ever so tempted to view it from the lens of a “developer.” The village is perhaps the only place in the world I have seen that the “development” machine has barely scathed – the only signs things have changed are the plastic buckets and the sons with tall tales from the cities to which they have migrated. There is not an NGO or government ministry placard to be found.
It was easy to romanticize the idyllic and fascinatingly different nature of it all. Smiling from ear to ear, the father explained the practice of giving the use (though not the rights) to land away for free to those who ask – land is neither bought, rented, nor sold. I could hardly believe my ears. They work on just enough land to feed themselves, nothing more, nothing less. Seven months of the year are full of hard work, for five months they rest and enjoy the fruits of the harvest.
But inevitably, they also began to explain their struggle with overpopulation and shrinking lands, which stretch their age-old generosity thin. While unspoken, there was the lingering question of gender roles and equity. And then there was the bridge.
They took me to the edge of a small lake, explaining that the school for their children was on the other side. It takes an extra two hours to walk around it for the half of the village caught on this side. They wanted to build a school on this side, or a bridge across. They explained that they would petition the government for a grant to build a concrete bridge across.
I had come without any pretense of “helping.” Refreshingly, I had no goal other than to get to the life and family of a friend. But within a moments, I found myself sketching and trying to explain the concept of the floating bridge – something they could do themselves with old tires, a few hundred feet of steel cable, and a few dozen wood planks, reducing the costs of the bridge immensely. The span was far too long for a conventional bridge within a reasonable budget, but the waters were calm – it would be a perfect candidate for a floating bridge. The “engineer without borders” in me had been unleashed. But thinking about how I might organize a fund drive and send an American engineer to work on the project, I remembered that a plane ticket to this remote corner of the world would cost more than the bridge itself.
It was in those moments that I remembered the thrill of feeling useful, of trying to “help.” But the complexity of it all – who would build the bridge, who would maintain it, how the very act of the schooling it would encourage gradually depopulates villages like these as youth seek “better lives” in congested cities – made me grind to a halt. I’d rather leave it for them to work out on their terms.
So before I got carried away, I caught myself and left them only with the sketches. I could not promise them anything and did not. Perhaps they’ll show it to their government, perhaps something will happen. Likely not anytime soon.
This quandary of being unable to imagine “developing” others made my desire to work locally even stronger. My rejection of attempting to “develop” other people to whom I had no connection was balanced by an equally powerful sense of inspiration from the examples of people I met who were struggling for change – succesfully – in their local communities.
Sometimes they were locals, born and bred in the culture and geography like Fathy in the Jordan Valley, Palestine fighting for farmer’s land and water rights or Heidi in Joburg struggling to mobilize South Africans to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel’s apartheid state. But others were foreigners who had been adopted over time as they sunk their roots and invested themselves – from Gail Omvedt, who literally married into a small village community, to Patrick Bond, who began to teach, research, and fight in the trenches with community activists in Durban. Sometimes being a foreigner helps bring an international dimension and global connections to a local struggle – but not if you are transient like me. You must be willing to have a stake in the fight that goes far beyond empathy.
Their examples – and the dozens more I have not listed – make me more determined to localize myself, but with the connections, inspiration, and solidarity gained by those I have met and will continue to meet who are working in their distinct communities, cultures, and geographies.