The following appeared in the Capital Journal in 2012.
Part of my frustration in working in a rural African village is the lack of immediate results or proof of a job well done. In my other professional experiences, I’ve always had some example of my labor, a trophy to proudly celebrate, to reassure myself that I am doing the best I can.
Here in Lesotho, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I usually do not get such visual verification.
One project that daunts me is a well covering for a spring not too far from my house. The water source is covered with rusted pieces of aluminum and doesn’t properly keep out trash and dust, so the water is not as clean as it could be if there was a brick and cement covering.
A village man approached me about building a covering shortly after I moved to the community. At the time, I was concentrating on integrating and had yet to learn about grants available to volunteers and so I explained to him that I would check in with him after a few months and we could develop a plan.
Months passed and I occasionally ran into the man on the street and he would ask about the covering, but these meetings were never official. He continually suggested that I, as the stereotypical rich Westerner, pay for it. I explained to him that is not my role but I would be more than willing to help them develop a plan and come up with funding sources. So, until he was ready to have a formal meeting with other members in the villages, I wasn’t going to push the issue.
During one of these casual meetings, I took out a notebook and made a list of steps and needed resources to complete the project. On paper, it seemed simple enough. We could get sand and stones from the river valley and the community members would help with labor. All we needed now was cement, which is about $75 USD. Not enough for a grant and a seemingly attainable sum for community contributions. I was proud of our organization and confident we would have a nice new cover in a month.
The man collected the stones and another village woman knocked on doors for donations, yet we were only able to gather $15 for cement, which would allow us to buy just one bag and we needed six. People didn’t have the money or didn’t want to give to the cause. The man and woman I was working with continued to put pressure on me to buy the bags of cement, or at least just one and they would also buy a few.
Even on my tight living allowance, I could give the money for a bag of cement and forgo a couple jars of peanut butter for the month or dip into my American savings account. We could have the cover soon, the project would be successfully completed and I would have something to feel proud about.
But by giving them the money, from me or someone else, I am failing them. I am not teaching them how to help themselves. I am not showing them they have the power to solve their own problems. Instead, I am just another white hand full of cash.
I understand that this project may fail and that the cover may never be built. But, as I’ve come to learn, I would rather fail than succeed the wrong way. No trophy is worth that.