I have to say, there is no “user’s manual for implementation of a project in Africa” (or anywhere else for that matter). As I have come to learn, trying to help always starts with yourself. How do “I” position myself in relation to the different realities, cultures and traditions around me? How do “I” manage my emotions and feelings? How do "I" cope (or not) with what ”I” used to call “injustice – pain – sorrow – etc.” And then, it is important to see the scene, issue or project on a large scale, in total and not just a piece of it. Of course, this is not always easy, mainly when it starts illuminating situations that are very different from one’s own background, education, belief system, and so on. Nevertheless, the whole management and action plan is highly influenced by these comparisons. Many issues have to be taken into consideration. Let me give you an example.
While having had the ASEM office downtown during war and an outbreak of cholera at that time (it was a kind of bloody “cholera,” that begins first with diarrhea, then pus and blood, and then in most cases, death), the main door gave access directly to the main street. A 7-year-old boy came in and asked for help. He said “Aunty, I have a lot of blood coming out of my a…. I asked him if he had diarrhea and he said “No.” Do you have stomach pain, and his reply was “No.” As it happened, another “child from the open sky”** passed by and told me without stopping, “Aunty, ask him where he slept last night…”
I have a truck-full of stories like this one. He was just one of them, probably getting a (half of a) meal in exchange. I came to know a lot of the men that practiced those acts.
Now coming back on the above, how do “I” assimilate a situation like that? How will the management of those situations have to be handled, not in a short-term action based on the emotion of outrage, but for a long term solution with a positive and lasting outcome for these children?
** One day a girl from outside the Center was talking at the gate with a boy. The conversation got confused and the girl said: “… you are a street child…”. I expected the boy to explode and the situation to get ugly. Instead, the boy calmly asked the girl: “Have you ever seen a street giving birth to a child? We are all born from the tummy of a mother, even if now, she is gone…!” From that day on, we call them “the children from the open sky”.
Many people think that I do a great job. There are also many who, if they could, would like to see me depart this beautiful planet Earth. And some have tried. WE CANNOT FORGET THE CHILDREN! For some unconscionable humans, children are nothing more than “goods” or “merchandise.” They are being used for prostitution, organ harvesting, non-paid labor, human sacrifices, slavery and the list goes on. It is obvious that if someone helps them, that the people who are taking advantage of these children and profit from them, will become an enemy and they will try to take that person or organization down or try to “eliminate” them. All of this has to be taken into consideration while implementing and leading a project. Another complication is the fact that donors and sponsors have often their own interests and mostly require where and how to apply their donation. It has to fit into their idea of “humanitarian aid,” local or political interests, religious interests, etc. And then, sometimes, when we are fortunate, we find sponsors that have as unique objective just wanting to help the children, trusting in what has been accomplished over a span of 29 plus years. These sponsors are rarer in my experience.
From my point of view, one of the first things to do when I want to implement a project or an activity, is to get immersed in the culture and traditions of the site and the people where the project or activity is to take place. The impetus for action begins with a request from the local population and/or authorities. People or organizations coming from outside a community (wherever in the world that might be) analyze and assess an issue or a problem from their own perspective with their eyes, emotions, feelings and needs. However, in most cases, it does not really match with the vision of the future beneficiaries. Therefore, it is important for the people who wish to help, to get in touch with the culture and tradition by trying to get into the hearts, minds and cultures of people they wish to support. In order for this to work well and the project to be successful, it is also crucially important that we be in the state of “non-judgment.” Many times, I may not agree with a situation and how a culture deals with it, but I do understand it. Usually, there is a reason for everything. Patience and trust is needed until we can see and understand the foundation behind an act or a happening and the way it is treated and resolved. Often this requires a lot of time and compassion.
Let me give an example: the access to water. Many women in Mozambique walk hours to get 20 liters of water. And for most of the people, looking at that scenario is hurtful and we feel it is truly a hardship. This is because we interpret this way of getting water as difficult based on our experience of how we are used to getting our water…from the tap. However, if you observe these women, you will notice that it gives them a sense of freedom, companionship and yes, even leisure. They usually walk together with other women and sometimes, children. They can talk freely and easily about their happiness and sorrow. They laugh, joke, and cry. If they have the water in the middle of their yard, you can see what would be taken away. This culture and way of life, which comprises a large portion of the population, does not allow for the women to “hang around.”
When I started preparing for my project in Beira in 1990, war was still going on. I have witnessed this reality and it was the opposite from where I had come, Switzerland. I was asked to help. The need was everywhere. In Beira, we had a radius of 20 km of movement without being on the front, and beyond that radius, there were daily scenes of war.
Children were eating in the rubbish pile. Some of the children were getting a piece of bread from a nice, "gentleman" that insisted his sexual desires would need to be satisfied in exchange for that morsel of food.
Building up a project in Africa, especially in the rural area, requires a lot of patience and understanding of the local culture and history