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No matter where you travel around the planet, every community, culture and country has insider language. These are the cultural idioms that every traveller needs to learn if they want to sound like someone “who knows the score”
So as a traveller if you want to “hit it out of the park” then all you need to do is “buckle down” and “put your nose to the grindstone” for the task ahead. Are you the “one in a million” who can understand each one of these cultural idioms. “Don’t pass the buck” give it a shot and see if you can ace this test!
Here is a great list
check out all the various world idioms – see how many you can get from the list
Wherever there are human beings who talk to one another, we form poetic and short-form language. It is easier to say “we made it by the skin of our teeth” and not going into a long explanation about traffic backup. Our idioms sound normal to us, but to a visitor, they sound foreign and sometimes a little crazy … After all, what kind of teeth would have skin on them?
If you are working hard to be a polyglot, you need to excel at language. It sure helps if you listen to and learn the local idioms.
After Black Friday, Grey Cup Sunday, and Cyber Monday comes the latest and greatest day, Giving Tuesday is a way to rebel against commercialism and greed. It is also the time when charities ask you to help out. Unless you are under a rock, it probably means that someone has recently asked you for a donation. Are you asking yourself "Where should I donate?"
There are plenty of good options: Are you supporting socks for the homeless, christmas gifts for kids, or are you buying a goat for someone on the other side of the world?
How do you choose where to give?
There are thousands of charities, most of which you havent heard about. You can probably ignore those. Don't try and sift through too many options.
Simply focus on what is in front of you.
Where should I donate
Once you have narrowed it down from the thousands of charities you need to think about what you want to support, it helps to ask these 5 questions:
1. What difference are they trying to make?
Any charity should be able to answer this question in a single tweet.
If they don't know then don't feel obligated to help
2. How do they do it?
There are many ways to do something.
Do you like how they choose to work and are their activities all directed to the same goal?
3. How does the charity keep score?
What do they use to measure their success? Are they making a difference and how do they know?
4. Where are the stories?
Everything sounds great in planning, but what does it look like in reality.
Vague plans are not as helpful as real stories from real people.
5. How much do they spend on overhead?
Be careful here.
Too much is terrible, but too little might be worse! All great organizations hire great people, they can't work for free or their families starve. Rather than asking "how much overhead" ask "what is the impact". That helps you decide if the overhead is worth it.
So who will you support?
Around here we are interested in the work of New Hope Schools Society. The plan for smokeless stoves in Haiti is simple and will change the #1 killer for kids under 5.
I hear that J K Rowling is upset about orphan tourism. She started a tweet battle and let everyone know that we need to stop seeing orphans as a person you should go travel to hold. She has a point. There are terrible things that are done to orphans both in magical make believe worlds and more importantly in the real world we share
Rowling tweeted: “Globally, poverty is the no. 1 reason that children are institutionalised. Well-intentioned Westerners supporting orphanages…perpetuates this highly damaging system and encourages the creation of more institutions as money magnets,”
She is taking a stand – and it is a good one. She has a certain perspective – a good perspective … but her good intentions might hurt more than they help.
Here is the problem
Her opposition to an outsiders sweeping generalities because of good intentions for the care of children is (wait for it) sweeping generalities by JK Rowlings good intentions as an outsider.
(It could be ironic that I probably just stated a sweeping generalization about the good intentions of JK Rowling …)
Again – I think she is right. Institutionalization of children is a practice we have basically stopped in the developed world, why do we import this practice internationally?
Opposition doesn’t change much
The problem I have with her tweet is the focus on demonizing the very people who are most interested in solving the problem.
Complaining that well-intentioned westerners who support orphanages is the major source of the problem is wrong. It is too easy to pick on someone who at least is trying. A lot easier to play quarterback from the couch
Everyone loves to talk about how they would do it if they were in charge, but few take charge.
By blaming and focusing on well-intentioned westerners, she re-inforced the stereotype that nothing works and we should just get everyone out of the development business as quickly as possible.
Another conversation about orphan tourism is possible
What if we didn’t just focus on the good intentions of people involved in orphan tourism?
What about focusing on badly intentioned westerners who take resources from nations that need them desperately
Or more importantly
What about focusing attention on oblivious and uninterested westerners who have no idea that the very resources that power their cell phones are part of a globally unequal trade. That some places on the planet are unliveable for the people who were unfortunate enough to be born there.
Try this instead
Asking hard questions to the people who are trying and suggesting we should pause before we start a project to help.
If you blame people who are trying, and tell them how they are doing a terrible job long enough, eventually those people might just decide it’s not worth it. They give up.
I think JK’s tweet is a challenge to the idealistic who make mistakes (huge ones!). But to much of a challenge is discouraging. I would rather push hard to encourage better engagement.
Let’s joyously lead people who want to hug orphans and show them to engage in much more informed ways.
There are better ways – Even for Harry’s Mom.
What development 2.0 models should we celebrate more often?
When you think about it, we all want to be cool. Women wear painful high heels to look good, men wrap a noose (tie) around our neck to feel powerful. Fashion trumps comfort when we head out on the town. We upgrade our phone, not because it is broken but because it is a generation behind the latest and greatest. That is why your development goals also need to be super-cool.
We all know it is somewhat ridiculous, vain and self-centred … and totally human. This is a universal feeling for everyone on the planet. That everyone, also includes the materially poor.
That is why international aid programs that allow people to feel cool – work a lot better than those that just pay attention to a problem.
Why Cool Matters (a lot)
Programs are started every day in places where there is perpetual poverty. They might be started by well-meaning outsiders who see the horrible states of infection of malaria, or STIs and want to change the terrible stats of unemployment.
Even as outsiders, we KNOW these are the major issues that the community wants to face.
But, when we jump in gung-ho-style with our great solutions, we are shocked by the lack of interest.
Local people know that the problem exists, they might even agree with your solution, but it is frustrating to find out that people won’t just quickly change everything just because you told them to.
That’s when we can blame the people.
We can focus on the people who are not doing what we say they should do. We grow mad at how they are not contributing to the success of our program. Unchecked, this can lead to a racist sense of superiority. “My development goals would have totally worked if they had just listened to me!”
It is easy to forget that the problem may be more complex than our simple solution. An example might be a lot closer (and uncomfortable) than you think.
In fact, we deal with the exact same issue at home.
A human-sized problem
At home we also have serious problems. To name a few, obesity, depression, heart disease and diabetes are all fine examples.
We also have unlimited information to cure those problems.
Fashion magazines and Hollywood celebrities promise miracle cures
Your doctor will always advise you to try and lose that 20 lbs …
Entire forests have been harvested to write up peer-reviewed studies about better nutrition.
There is no lack of information about the problem and what we need to do.
The Solution is not the Solution
In the end, everyone knows we should “eat less and exercise more” and many (not all) of our health problems would disappear overnight.
But knowing the solution and doing the solution are different things
Shame and guilt doesn’t work to get people to change, it is hard to keep motivated to eat less and exercise more
So where does it work?
If you convince people to get together in a cool new gym. When you make it a club, a place to meet friends and listen to good music. When you gather people together in community … something interesting happens.
The side-effect is that by making it fun to gather together, you can watch a bunch of those health problems start to disappear.
People say they want to lose weight and be healthy, but they are much more interested in being part of movement and a community.
To be in the ‘in-group’.
If you want your development goals to work … don’t forget to be cool.
Is racism killing black people in the US? I hope not, and as a Canadian, it is easy to pat myself on the back about our lack of racism when we watch our American neighbours implode every weekend with news about cops shooting another black kid. It made me wonder how racism in Canada affects me?
I was visiting family in Newfoundland when I began chatting with my father’s uncle, Bruce. That’s when I found out I was an Indian. It was a surprise.
When I travel, I only carry travel-on luggage. I never lose my bag. It saves me a tonne of time when I get to skip the luggage carousel. And now that most airlines charge you to check a bag, it also saves me money. If you want to know how to save time and money, this is all you need to know for what to pack in a carry-on.
1. Size Matters:
Get the largest size carry-on luggage (that still fits in the sizing device!) Soft-sided with an expandable zipper is best so you can always cram another sweater in.
In 1984 Bob Geldof decided to tell people about one of the greatest disasters of his time. The famine in Ethiopia was staggering and countless people were dying. Bob raised an amazing amount of money for a problem that the world was trying hard to ignore. I have to heartily applaud him.
The problem is that he is trying to do it again.
Why is this a problem? There is still a need. Poverty and disease are still problems. The West/North/Developed world still has no clue about Africa and needs to be made aware (my recent experiment proved that point)
Bob you asked if Africans know it is Christmas?
Coptic Christians in Egypt (an African nation) recall that Jesus spent his first two birthdays in Africa. There are 2.5 times more Christians in Nigeria alone than the entire population of Canada. In fact, the majority religion of many African nations is Christianity. I dare say that they all know about Christmas. Bob, the song sure sounds condescending.
“where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow, do they know it’s Christmas at all?”
Bob I know you didn’t start BandAid to educate Africans about December 25 on the calendar. You sang the song to collect money for a country of starving people and you succeeded. Shouldn’t I just thank you and move on? So much good came out of it!
The irony is that donors give a lot of money because of those kind of pictures. Aid agencies know this and take more of those kinds of pictures. This ultimately means they make money from the exploitation of children and women.
It is really easy is to criticize others. I find it a lot easier to find fault with someone else than to create something better. Bob, I don’t want to be your critic because it is the boring way to avoid the adventure of getting involved. I don’t ever want to stand by and take shots, or worse, make snide comments about you in a poorly read blog.
I also don’t have your ability to call even one artist, let alone pull an international cadre of superstars together. I don’t have anyone’s phone numbers. But Bob, I do think you still could do something that might make a real difference. Here is my unsolicited advice.
How to Stop Pimping the Poor
Bob Geldof if this ever reaches you, I think your motive is probably right but you need to reconsider your method. Think about your own life. At your personal poorest would you have wanted to be described as a “victim of poverty” or would you rather be seen as an “aspiring talented musician”? The same goes for everyone. Don’t describe people by what they don’t have or don’t know, rather describe them by what they hope to be.
If you wouldn’t want it said about yourself and your kids don’t say it about African mothers and fathers and their kids.
Pull off the BandAid fast (it hurts less) and use the old song but co-opt it. Be subversive. Reverse the storyline.
Show Africans in positions of power and have them sing as ridiculous a song to all of your celebrities.
Have fun with the fact that the 30-year-old song is maudlin tripe.
Let everyone know you are in on the joke.
… and yes, please raise a tonne of money, we need you to use the drawing power of your A-list celebrity friends. I will be first in line to donate.
In short. Please Exploit the song. Not the Africans.
Thanks for listening Bob.
If you could talk to Bob Geldof, what creative advice would you give him?
Last week I started up a war. I wrote a controversial post about the country of Africa and said that due to bad press because of the Ebola media hoopla, I was going to share some “lesser known facts” so people could understand the ‘real Africa’. I wrote a blog post. A lot of people complained when I said Africa is a country. It struck a nerve.
So why did I say that Africa is a country when I knew it was not true? It was all a joke of course. I know that Africa is an ancient city-state stretched along an enormous archipelago of 15 large and hundreds of smaller islands just off the western coast of India. For reference purposes, I have included a quick sketch of that fabled land (not to scale):
Why did I write the post? I had some noble reasons: I wanted to break stereotypes, stop the ‘poor African’ storyline, and to share a conversation with a wide audience, the same conversation I have shared with plenty of Africans over the years.
I also wrote the article to have a little fun and I figured more people might read it.
There was a method to the madness, but if I am honest, it wasn’t until I saw the comments on Facebook or Twitter that I really understood what I had written. In the middle of the backlash one small niggling fact really stuck out for me. I learned a lot from it.
In my post I tried to give plenty of cues that I was writing satire. I kept repeating that Africa is a country, and then wrote something else equally silly. Most caught the hints. If you were just skim-reading you may have missed what I was trying to say. Here are the clues I tried to leave:
I gave my article a sensational over-the-top title like the headlines that flood my Facebook stream.
I made sure that every single sentence I wrote was ridiculous or wrong, or both.
I made up absurd facts. Some were so crazy I thought that I had gone too far.
I used the most condescending language I could think of
I made up senseless quotes from imaginary people.
Each of my links in the post actually told the exact opposite story.
I kept the ruse going. I played an arrogant jerk or a clueless idiot in my Facebook responses when people reacted.
Africa is a Country: The reaction
I got a lot of confusing “WTF!?!” type responses. A number of people tried to correct my uninformed facts. But I must say that I was personally surprised by one little thing. Most people would only scold me about the error of my title. Again and again I was told:
“Africa is a continent, not a country!”
I was surprised that with all the dumb things I said about Africa, people were mostly concerned about my geography. They ignored the bigger picture. No one questioned my condescending tone about the needy people in Africa waiting for a brave hero from the west. People were fine with the thought that volunteers should go to Africa to hold babies and give away stuff. Or that an African’s favourite sport was war. No one challenged those statements.
One of my favourite recent videos comes from a group of students in Norway. SAIH has made some hilarious videos about this way of thinking. Do yourself a favour and please watch this genius clip! Maybe Africa is a country you can visit to save a child?
Other videos from SAIH are here on their Radi-Aid page. They are so brilliant that the only fault I can find is that I jealously wish I could have made them.
Know any other great videos like this? Share the link-love and post them in the comments below!
The country of Africa is receiving a lot of bad press during this time of CRISIS OUTBREAK of EBOLA (the deadliest disease in recorded history). While these fears should probably be increased, I wonder if it is time to also share lesser known African facts.
I have travelled throughout the country of Africa, and while I am not an expert, I do have some experiences worth noting. Here are my views! CAUTION: although Africa is one of the world’s greatest destinations, during this deadly EBOLA outbreak, I would not recommend ANYONE to visit ANYWHERE in the country of Africa.
A little knowledge is a powerful thing – very little knowledge is the most powerful thing of all. – Nelson Malala
1. Africa is not only a big country it is a HUGE country.
Sustainability is one of those buzz-words. It is right up there with gender-balance and environment. That’s the problem.It means that everyone uses the word on every single proposal. Some projects should never be intended to be sustainable at all (like all disaster relief projects). Still, sustainable language is rammed into proposals.
The alternative is donor-funding suicide.
How do you know if something will actually last longer than your attention on this post? I like to use the crisis test.
Simply put, “If I get hit by a flaming meteor (or bus), does the project die with me?”
I was in the middle of a boring class and unfortunately I was the teacher.
My nightmare is to have too many people nod in agreement while I am speaking. If everyone already agrees with you, it feels comfortable like a warm hug on a sunny summer day. A great recipe if you are trying to have everyone enjoy a luxurious long nap.
Bloody terrible for a memorable teaching moment.
How do you think about the poor?
The people in front of me were preparing to get involved in poverty reduction. They figured that they knew more about poverty and travel than 90% of their friends and family and they were used to being the experts. They were not yet practitioners, but they knew the language, they understood the stats, they had made some visits. Everyone in the room identified with the poor. They felt their pain.
The problem was everyone in the room thought they already ‘got’ what I was teaching.
I was talking about how many people think about the poor. How we see their needs more than we see them as people. The students were nodding in agreement with me. It was terrible.
This is one of the toughest groups to train. People who quickly agree with you have invariably mentally checked out. I could read the thoughts coming from some of their heads, “I hope so-and-so is listening to this, THEY really need to understand!”
My friend Paul once taught me a technique I still use. Great teachers will occasionally create some tension and disagreements in the classroom. Everyone pays attention to an argument. The problem was that I couldn’t find someone to disagree with me. Everyone was being too agreeable – thus boring class. Here is a hint, if you ever find yourself falling asleep in class, vehemently disagree with the prof. It will make the time go by a lot faster!
I felt like I was becoming the kind of teacher I hated – a fool blathering about things everyone already knows.
As I tried to push people to think a little different about the poor, suddenly I caught a little break. A great student began to speak, she said “I understand the poor, I was recently spending time with some poor people and they began to complain about their poverty. So that’s when I told them “In many ways you are better off than me.’ …”
It was a perfect moment for a disagreement and I did. I responded. “Really!? If you really think that the poor are better off than you, go ahead and trade places”
How would you respond?
Would you trade places?
If you wouldn’t trade, then the poor people you are talking about are probably not really better off than you. Sure you may admire or even want some parts of their life or their community, but that is not the same as saying you are actually better off than me. That rings hollow.
The solution is not to try to think of the poor through the exact opposite lens. If you do, you will hit the #2 worst way to think about the poor. “The poor are magically noble.” People who have worked with the poor for a short time will say things like:
The kindest person I ever met is homeless
The poor are so noble and super inspiring
The people in [insert poor country here] are the friendliest people you will ever meet!
On the street, they really know how to give
Is it true that the poor are inspiring?
Sure, sometimes, just like any group. But I am suspicious of any sweeping generalization. Places with extreme poverty also have people who want to manipulate and rip you off. Platitudes about the poor that ring hollow don’t help. The poor are not some second-coming of Gandhi, Buddha, Robin Hood and Jesus.
Stereotypes rip people off from real friendships
Don’t get me wrong. I understand why people want to embiggen the poor. It comes out of a healthy wish to right the wrongs. To reverse the terrible tragedy of seeing the poor as hopeless and incompetent. But sharing any simple opinion about a huge community is not helpful even if it is tries to paint them in a noble light.
“Tastes like chicken” – thats what people say when they try something new. In my travel I have eaten plenty of unusual stuff – much of which certainly does not taste like chicken!
One of the best and worst things about travel is eating all kinds of strange and wonderful new things. Once you get off of the plane and away from the abomination that is airplane “food”. I try to eat local.
Nothing gives your tastebuds a workout quite like local cuisine. My favourite is the roadside stall. Since I do this a lot, I have a quick internal checklist I follow to make sure I find the best place the first time. Usually a flavour-filled portion of something exotic and tasty! Read through for my hints on how to eat well!
In the meantime, here are 5 things I have eaten while travelling that definitely do not taste like chicken:
This was on the menu at Carnivores Restaurant in Kenya, a great restaurant if you are ever nearby. Crocodile comes roasted on a sword-like skewer, you fill your plate with as much as you like, as well as Zebra, Impala and a few other local animals. A lot of people say that crocodile tastes like chicken – I disagree. I think croc tastes like something half-way between a fish and chicken, with a rubbery texture like squid. Not sure if that sounds appetizing or not, but I would eat it again.
4. emu biltong
Biltong is basically South African beef jerky. An emu, like a chicken, is also a flightless bird but thats where the comparison ends. An Emu is huge like an ostrich and is a red meat. It tastes a lot wilder. Like venison. Perfect for those long hikes through the African bush when you are tracking game
3. pigs ears
I ate them in China at a special Szechuan restaurant. Fish heads, green spicy peppers that numb the mouth, heaps of dry red chilies, and pigs ears. I am not sure why this fancy restaurant was serving pigs ears but I dug in with my chopsticks, took a bite, then surprised my hosts when I went back for more. i would compare the taste of Pigs ears to the tendon in a big delicious bowl of Vietnamese Pho. If you haven’t tried Pho you are missing out on one of the best meals on the planet.
I had heard that Zambians ate caterpillars and I was curious. I was staying overnight at a Zambians home and asked what they were like. Luckily they had some in the cupboard! The next thing I know is that the frying pan was out and caterpillars were popping in the hot grease. The verdict? Delicious! Seriously you should try them if you ever have the opportunity. They tasted like a mixture of popcorn and peanuts. I can see them taking over the menu at hockey games.
I was in South Africa and the cook came out with some beautiful pieces of fried chicken. It looked great crispy, big pieces, juicy and hot. I took a bite and there was a sudden strange disconnection. I looked a little more closely, I thought this was chicken, but it sure tasted like fish. But what fish has a drumstick? It was only later that I found out that this chicken was raised on fish meal. A very strange combination and I must admit not one I wish to try again. The chicken tasted exactly like crocodile.
How to eat well when traveling to non-tourist destinations:
So if you stuck around through my 5 meals that don’t taste like chicken, here is my quick guide to getting great eats:
Find the place that looks the busiest by locals.
Ignore the place with the English sign in places that does not normally speak English
Sit down elbow to elbow with a crowd on a rusty bench
Look around you at the good looking things that other people are eating.
Order one of those
You will eat well, you won’t pay much money.
Even if you don’t like it (rare) you won’t pay much money, so try something else!
You may not want to ask for a translation of what you just ate
Share the exotic meal you ate that definitely didn’t taste like chicken?
We stand like cattle, shuffling forward, penned in by keepers in blue blazers, turn and turn again, awaiting the next stop.
As I walked towards the departures gate I saw a long line and a short line. The short line had the Global Entry logo and I knew my Nexus card would get me through. My moment of happiness turned bitter as the security guard pointed to the TSA pre clearance logo.
Confused? So was I.
Anyways the guard at the line certainly wasn’t letting me through.
I returned to my line-up and my novel. Everyone needs a book when they travel. The line shuffled a step forward. After twenty long minutes of snaking back and forth I heard an urgent voice over my shoulder.
“Excuse me. I’m late. Do you mind if I cut in front?”
He looked frantic. I let him pass. No big deal. Everyone else in line agreed with a few quiet grumbles “why didn’t he get here early like the rest of us?” He reached the head of the line. At that moment the gate agent, who told me off a moment before, began to strut his authority. Something he clearly enjoyed.
“Sir.” He shouted for all to hear. “There is a line for a reason. Come with me.”
He beckoned, and marched the man back to the beginning of the line. The man protested. Explained he had an international flight in 20 minutes. Explained how he had asked each of us for permission.
I get it
The reality is that I have been in the latecomers shoes before. Sometimes I have been late due to my own forgetfulness – it happens. More often I have been late because my connecting flight was delayed, my bag was the last off of the carousel, or I was stopped at the police roadblock. Interruptions are as normal to travel as sushi in Vancouver and traffic in Toronto
The agent stood firm in his polyester jacket and laminated badge of authority. By then the crowd in the line had heard enough. Initial grumbles turned to shouts of support for the latecomer. A few in the line mumbled comments about the moral character of the gate agents mother. Sensing an uprising the agent relented and the man walked to the front of the line once more.
I hope he made his flight, but he probably hit another line up at his gate.
1. Get a Nexus Card. If you live in North American you might want to give a foreign government all of your information (Canada shares with American and vice versa) in order to get the card. You will feel like a travel princess as you are escorted to the front of the line in border crossings across North America.
2. Pack Carry-on Only. People who don’t have to wait for luggage get to the next line-up earlier. I can pack enough in carry-on for just about any trip. If you have clothes for 10 days or so, you should be fine, people in other countries do laundry too. Get yours done.
3. Pick the right line. If you have a choice, choose the lineup filled with businessmen and businesswomen. They have been there before and will often move more quickly than a shorter line (especially if the shorter line has children or people wearing flip-flops and shorts).
4. Wear light shoes. They are more comfortable on the plane, probably don’t have metal in them so you can wear them through the x-ray machine, and if you have to take them off it won’t take long to put them back on.
5. Get to know your clothes. Jackets and sweaters always must be taken off so don’t wear them if you don’t have to. Some belt buckles set off the detector and others don’t – if the line up is not long, keep your belt on and see if it will pass. It will save you time in the future if it does. Don’t wear a shirt with metal buttons.
6. Keep your fluids on the outside. You know that zippered compartment at the top of your carry-on bag? That is where you should put your 100 ml containers in their clear plastic baggie. A quick zip and you have them in the tray. No need to open anything.
7. Empty pockets early. Coins, phone, wallet, earphones, and everything in your pockets can go into your carry-on while you are waiting in the line-up. Don’t put it in the bin to be spilled as trays and passengers pile up.
8. Walk through the detector and keep moving. If you did not hear a beep you don’t need to wait for the security guard with the wand. Immediately walk over to get your stuff from the x-ray machine.
9. When security picks you! Don’t worry it is probably some metal thing you have in your bag that looks a bit unusual. Tell them: 1. “Yes, this is my bag” and 2. “Yes, you have my permission to take a look inside” and 3. if you know what the thing probably is “Can I show you what I think it is?” Spend the time they are searching putting back on your belt, and putting stuff back in your pockets. (If they are being power-hungry you can ask them to put your bag back together as well)
Granted none of these suggestions will save you a lot of time on their own, but all together they add up. Also, when you do these things, security will recognize that you have been here before and they might even treat you like a real human being!
What secrets can you share for getting through security as fast as possible?
Have you ever tried to corral a group of friends and come up with a plan. What do we want for lunch? What movie do you want to see? Should we go camping for the long weekend? It could be anything but when you get 5 or 6 friends together it gets tough to make a decision on something simple. Imagine something hard:
“Hey friends, want to start a successful business together? “
Getting all your friends on the same page is not easy, add something as complicated as a new business and finding a way to agree just got a whole lot worse! That is why I think it is naïve and maybe even unhelpful when I hear people ask ‘why aren’t these poor people collecting together and collaborating to make their lives better’
“It’s naïve to say poor people should just collect together to make their lives better”
Liz is a woman I trained who is volunteering in Zambia. Energetic and adventurous only begins to describe this retired Dutch-direct woman. She started her work with a child program for a year and went back for a second year to continue with a group of 5-6 widows and single mothers. Her agenda was simple – Connections and support for the women. They would cook together and chat over a meal, sharing laughter and tears at the table.
As Liz walked deeper into the stories of her friends she saw the everyday hard decisions of poverty. She wanted to step in and lend a hand. She talked to the group and suggested that maybe they should start a business together. Liz had her retirement income and she thought she could swing a small loan.
“Want to REALLY help? Give up on the romance that the #poor are waiting to hear your great idea.”
The idea is out there that no one in the village has thought of working together before and they need a visitor to arrive with plans for them to happily share a business together. This way of thinking romanticizes people. The local culture may certainly be a lot more collaborative than yours, but it sure doesn’t mean that they are all going into business together. Do you have the free time to find a group of five friends and start a new business? Think of how tough that would be.
What business do we start?
What do we need to buy?
Who is in charge?
Who does what?
How much do we chip in?
When can you work?
Who bankrolls this?
Where will the profits go?
And another 1000 practical questions
Getting into business with friends is a recipe for complication.
I wanted to warn Liz about these questions, but since I was travelling all I had time for was to send her a strong email, written directly to her, asking her to hold on! I gave her some rushed quick points and asked if we could meet soon.
Liz told me that she read my email and suddenly saw the trouble she was getting into. She certainly didn’t want this project to end up totally dependent on the outsider. She wanted to change her plans but felt bad that she had already promised money. As a woman of strong faith she prayed and decided to lay her cards on the table.
She did something awful.
Liz opened up my email to her and read it to the group. When she told me this I felt terrible. I hadn’t known she was going to read my email out loud. I certainly would have written it differently if I knew I was directly communicating with her friends.
When Liz and I later talked, Liz laughed. She told me that my fears were unfounded. The meeting went really well. The women even told Liz that they had wanted to talk to her about the same questions that I had raised but they didn’t want to offend her. They liked her too much.
In the end Liz read my suggestion that the women start a savings group together. The women discussed and agreed. Each of them decided to pitch in a little each week, and at the end of the month one woman would get the cash, enough to fund a personal project.
Then Liz did something great!
Liz asked them to consider how much they could save each week and did something really helpful. She didn’t suggest an amount. The next time they met Liz discovered the women were saving double what she had assumed they could. They drew names and at the end of a month, Brendah received the group savings of $200. She immediately put it into buying more handbags to sell at her stall in the local market. No committee meetings. No profit-sharing. Just a hard-working woman who is building her business.
Every month, another woman receives her group savings cash and expands her own business. Some women are fixing their homes and shops, others are buying more stock to sell, others pay school fees and build up their sewing businesses. Community collaboration is vital for development. Unless it is the wrong kind (lead by an outsider)
Our solutions are easy – we think about them every day. Sustainability is hard. To be successful we must restrain ourselves. Maybe as outsiders we need “to not be the change we want to see in the community”
Did this post influence you? If so, tell me why in the comments below.
PS. This is the email I wrote to Liz, unedited.
thanks for the further detail … I love the heart you have to engage and appreciate the wealth of experience you have with the women in the room.
I want to give you some principles of a good project as this is a critical phase to begin well. There are many people who start these kinds of projects and the high majority of them fail. I want you to succeed, so here are some principles to keep in mind.
i would encourage you NOT to be the one who holds the money and gives the loan. Instead, I would do the training and ask if they would like to do a program like this. the unspoken thought if you hold the money is that a foreigner needs to be involved to really make this work. Good, sustainable development puts this back in the hands of the local people each and every time.
secondly, I would suggest it is very important that the project is owned by an individual, not the group. If a group owns it, the group will commonly consider the project somewhat outside of themselves. failure and success are not as important to a group as blame for the failure can be put on something outside of oneself. the worst possible outcome would for the project to be seen as your project. This is what we see with projects all over Africa … “That is Unicefs well..”, “That is ERDOs chicken farm…” for a project to be successful, it must be owned locally.
Do not start them out. Let the group build up savings together in order to build trust and anticipation – and most importantly long range project planning where there is a real risk for failure and lost money. Even a failed project that is owned localy is good for a person, as they tend to be a lot more cautious with how they plan for the next opportunity. If failure is not a very real option, in such a way that it will affect the people personally, the project probably does not have local ownership.
Finally – realize that your suggestions are not suggestions. As the richest person in the room, they are heard with Biblical weight. IF Donald Trump ‘suggested‘ a business opportunity to you, you would probably pay very close attention and ignore your other plans, because you know that he is very financially successful. You are the Donald Trump to these women!
These concepts are not from me, but are the results of hundreds of thousands of others who are attempting this work around the world. The principles I am suggesting are proven and I encourage you to slow the process to do the research on how to faciliate an implementation with the ladies you are partnering with.
1. you cannot be in charge of anything (suggesting a project to do, or even holding the money at your home)
2. have the individuals come up with individual plans (they can collect money together), and let the project fail or succeed
3. Dont suggest options – let people make up their own mind on what to do entirely. fight the urge to suggest.
I am gone to Japan and Philippines for a few weeks, perhaps we can find a moment to chat after?
Did this post influence you? If so, tell me why in the comments below.
I was once called by a survey company. I began to busily give my opinion about whatever it was that interested them. As we neared the end, the interviewer needed to know some demographic information and he asked me “Where are you from?”
“Canada” I replied.
“But what is your background, where are you from?”
“I am Canadian.” I asserted.
He then asked where I was originally from.
I replied that I was an 8th generation Canadian (at the time, I didn’t know I was also Status Native). He was really stumped…
I was training a group in Toronto. All of them were on their way overseas to go work in countries where poverty is the norm. They all want to help the poor. The question is what helps?
That’s when I surprised them with a strange social experiment.
I asked the group to do a crazy social experiment where they were to give away a toonie at a time to three unique people. They were not allowed to explain why, they simply had to give $2 to three separate people. To make it interesting they had to:
Give $2 to a person who is obviously economically poorer than you
Give $2 to a person who looks like they are at about the same economic level as you
Give $2 to a person who is obviously economically wealthier than you
Laughing a bit nervously, they fanned out across the city and bravely attempted. Later when we debriefed the experience I asked them how it went, I thought the responses were surprising!
Everyone said that it was easy to give money to people who looked poorer than them. People simply gave to pan-handlers who were already asking for money. When they gave the $2, the people who received looked them in the eye and said thank-you or God Bless.
It was a pretty natural exchange. The gift felt good and kind.
The story changed when people tried to give money to people at the same economic level. People who were offered the money were guarded and surprised. The donors raised a few eyebrows. They were asked ”What is this for?” and “Why are you giving me this?”.
The general response was perplexed wonder and confusion. Recipients laughed and gave the givers a double-take, shaking their heads at the craziness of the situation. The gift felt odd.
It was when people tried to give money to the rich that things got really interesting. Flashes of irritation crossed people’s faces. Responses were quick and snappy, “No thanks” and “I don’t want this”. People walked away in a hurry, trying to avoid the giver.
In most cases it was almost impossible to give $2 to a rich person. The gift was an insult.
What does it mean to help the poor?
Giving money is an exceptionally powerful act. When we give money to help the poor we are setting up a powerful relationship. Money is power. And the act of giving money conveys power to the giver. This relationship with money affects us in deep ways:
the giver is benevolent, the receiver should be grateful.
the giver is kind, the receiver is needy
the giver is good, the receiver should learn from them
Giving $2 to a homeless person reminds us that we are noble. We are re-affirmed and thanked. When we disrupt this story (by giving money to the non-poor) we create tension. It breaks down this story. This is a good thing.
Poverty needs you in power.
If we continue to find immediate gratification by giving to an person who can thank us. We will continue to reinforce the power structure that poverty requires. Don’t believe me? Do one of two things:
Just go and try to give some money away to a rich person yourself.
Or sit on the corner and beg for money for 30 minutes
So what should you do with that $2 in your pocket the next time you want to help the poor? You may just try giving it to a person in a BMW. This kind of giving will change your perception of how money affects you as a giver just as much as it does the receiver.
Until we change how we give, we won’t be able to understand how others need to receive.
My brother was working in Pakistan, in an area where terrorist attacks have become commonplace. He was there to aid the local people rebuild after some devastating mudslides had torn up their homes, communities and lives. While he was helping, militants were actively looking for ways to kill people who look like my brother. It was and still is a dangerous place. Thankfully he made it back home safely and I recently asked him what he considered the secret to his safety.
I too have felt the results of war a few times – In the Palestinian territories as I talked to the soldier in Bethlehem square, blocks of concrete whistled past my head at a guard post. The soldier clicked his gun off safety and ran towards the youth. Later that same trip as I walked up a hill to find a moment to myself, my persistent guide began to shout for my attention. I ignored his cries until I heard him say “They are shooting up there!” I decided to turn around.
Driving the shooting gallery
I have worked in a war zone in DRCongo, the longest running war in the world with a death toll of over a 1,000,000 people in the last 20 years. I most remember the striking image of the rocket launcher slung across the shoulder of the militant. She was there to protect me I was told. I missed a border crossing and had to run the hazardous trail from Bukavu to Burundi in the afternoon – the time when the local militias got trigger happy. My friend, Raha, kept calling and checking in every moment he could reach us by cell phone, frightened for my safety.
In the grand scheme of risk, my stories do not share the same drama that others have faced. Much more horrible things happen to international workers. I got a call from a volunteer within hours of the moment when he held a man as he bled to death. A construction accident on a job site building a children’s home.
The equipment burst in his hands, sending a shard into his heart.
There is real danger in travel.
Most development takes place in places where there are greater dangers than home. Disease. The Environment. and Armed Men With Guns all play a part.
Back to my brother in Pakistan. He was surrounded by razor wire, and high fences. The guards on the compound carried guns. There were protocols and procedures. Safe areas and meeting points. Still that is never enough. He let me know his secret to personal safety, the same one I use.
He got to know the neighbours.
Like most of life, the secret is relationships
He dropped in often to the neighbour next door. He brought over food. Learned the names of the kids. He drank endless cups of tea. He asked questions about their lives. He shared his own experiences. In short he became a neighbour, not a foreigner.
After getting to know them, at one point he asked about the dangers of local militants, “What should I do if something bad happens?” His neighbour pointed out how the neighbourhood worked, the narrow streets that felt so confining also held an advantage. The houses were all close together for a reason. He told him, “if ever you are feeling in danger get on your roof – jump over the gap to our house – we will shelter you.”
When surrounded by danger, no amount of protective razor wire or fire-power is as powerful as the protection of a neighbourhood. The first step to safety is to become a fellow human begin and get to know the neighbours.
This might be the most offensive post I have ever written. So far…
Have you ever offended someone and you didn’t know until it was too late? When I was about 20 years old, I remember driving down the Deerfoot in Calgary with a few other friends. We happened to drive along a police car and noticed that the cop in the passenger seat was chatting with his partner, he was relaxed and had his finger casually hooked into the window frame. The funny thing was that it was his middle finger and so he looked like he was flipping us all off.
We did what we thought was right. All three of us in the car likewise returned the favour. We flipped him the bird. We gave him the Trudeau salute. We showed him the finger.
Brave or stupid, we were about to find out
He finally noticed us and he frowned. We quickly pointed at his own finger, smiled broadly, and began to sweat that this was probably not a great idea after all. Luckily the officer noticed what we were doing and had a great sense of humour. He split up laughing and pulled down the offending finger.
When I travel I also find myself in similar circumstances. I may think I am simply relaxing, calling a kid over, or saying “great job!” and be completely unaware of how much I am confusing or offending any number of people who pass by. Thankfully, most of the time they will also laugh along with (at) me as I obviously don’t know the local rules.
Curious how you would do? Here is a great fun way to find out!
(if the story already offended you, don’t check it out)
Wells have been installed all over the world by organizations that collected donation money from people just like you. A lot of pictures are sent back home of the big celebration, unveiling of the plaque and congratulatory speeches. This is usually the last we hear of the well.
Job Well Done!
Another Broken Well
The problem is that the pumps were broken by some local kid and haven’t worked in years.
The first time I saw this kind of thing (and it is not that uncommon) I thought, what is wrong with these people? They have to walk for kilometres for water, often to polluted streams, and this pump is just sitting there at their doorstep – Why don’t they fix it?
Don’t they care?
If someone gives you a gift shouldn’t you keep it up?
That is a fairly obvious isn’t it? Is this some sort of moral deficiency or “cultural” issue … I tried to come up with all kinds of explanations. Most of them were convoluted and sort of racist, but over time I think I am starting to understand why.
The answer is the people did not realize the pump was theirs
In too many cases, no one knew who actually owned the pump. Sure it was given to ‘the community‘ but it was never clarified who that actually was. It is like the road in front of your house, it is “yours” But you don’t fill the potholes.
When it is given to everyone, it is given to no one.
No one owns the well.
Everyone else assumed someone else owned it. When the outsiders came in with the water in the first case it is usually enormously appreciated, but because no one actually owned the pumps, and no one collected money for maintenance, it meant that no one was in charge.
The pump is most commonly seen as a broken promise and a failed responsibility of the donating agency
Whenever I saw a broken well, I started to ask a simple question, “Whose well is this?” I had hoped to hear people tell me that this is “my well”. Instead I heard over and over that “this is the well of [insert name of your favourite development agency here]”.
Why does the community think the well belongs to an outsider? Probably because an outsider brought it in and even though they most certainly told the local people it was theirs, words don’t mean as much as action.
And their actions clearly showed that this well was not theirs. At no point was the well actually given to anyone with an enforceable interest in maintaining the well.
Consider if you were suddenly told by a friend, colleague or pastor that the work that they have done for the past year is now yours. And – “oh yeah, by the way, the money run out in 6 months so you need to make sure that you find a way to keep it going …” How would you feel?
You may feel a lot like many recipients around the world feel when they receive one of our projects. Sure, I like this project, but I like it as a user, a recipient, not an owner. Why are you trying to pass this time-consuming and expensive responsibility on to me?
When wells are given to a community and not to an owner (person or team)- no one owns the well.
If you form vague requests for maintenance schedules but avoid the plans for a person to make an income from his work – no one owns the well.
When there is no clear system in place, everyone expects that the company who brought the water will manage their investment, collect fees and repair the breakdowns.
If you don’t want another broken well
For a project to last in a community, the community must own it at all times. From long before the planning phase, to long after you are gone. How do you make sure of real ownership? Simple.
Don’t do the kinds of things that owners do.
If you dream it, plan for it, pay for it, manage it and sell it to the community … guess who the owner is? You, of course. Do something different instead, find out the dreams, plans, resources, management and promotion of the community and join what they are doing.
Have you ever been frustrated by a big waste of money?
I have travelled to over 45 nations and I am frequently asked “where is your favourite place? Where would I go back?
There are so many great options that I find it tough to pick just one. That is why my usual answer to the question is:
“The next place I go”
Cop out? Still true. I love the new places I get to travel. Recently I was travelling into Cambodia and Thailand, I have been to both countries before and was excited to return, although I must admit, I wished I was able to see a new place. Then the layover in Korea happened.
I had just gotten off the red eye, and my next flight wasn’t for another 12 hours. I was not looking forward to spending it in an airport. As I walked through the terminal I spotted a sign in English.
Free city tour.
I checked in and soon found myself joined to a tour-group sponsored by the Korean government. A whirlwind day tour of a beautiful temple, the national palace, lunch and some free time in the shopping district followed. A day, I thought might be wasted in an airport, turned into a serendipitous opportunity to visit beautiful Seoul. I hope to go back for more someday!
I love the new places I get to travel, even for a day, but I also have a few fond memories of some other locations.
Here they are:
5. Sub-Saharan Africa. I know that Africa is not a country, and the continent is highly varied with a huge number of tribes and peoples, but I find it almost impossible to pick just one place. I have favourite memories of my visits to a local Zambian home. Playing floor hockey in Malawi. Visiting South Africa as apartheid was beginning to be dismantled. Meeting the statuesque Turkana people in northern Kenya. Gazing over the endless hills of Rwanda. And driving the mountain roads through the tea plantations in DR Congo. Each experience is unique, tremendously different from one another, and yet a common thread runs through. Once you are in the village, the language and staple food may change, but the beat of life follows the same African drum.
This is a life-giving rhythm.
4. The table-lands near Trout River, Newfoundland. Rock and Water: my favourite scenery is always some combination of the two. Maybe it is in the genes of every Newfoundlander? The wash of water over rock is visually stunning. The table lands are a geological anomaly in the area where my fathers family grew up. When he was a kid, there wasn’t a road in or out, you got around by boat. My grandfather knew this place as he carried the mail by dogsled through the gulch. That same gulch eased now by the highway into some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. Few travel there. It is easier and cheaper to go to Europe. But you will not find a friendlier people to visit.
This is home.
3. At a roadside stall. I love street food. I know it is deadly dangerous and all, but all the same, I love it. I remember BBQ oysters steamed with a healthy heap of garlic while sitting with friends in an alleyway in China, banana pancakes and mama noodle stirfry in Thailand, sitting on rusty benches in the market eating plates of shrimp and rice in Cambodia, deep fried mars bars in the winter chill of Scotland, grocery store bread and cheese while watching the pope at the Vatican, plate lunches of truly massive portions in Hawaii. Each meal, simple, local, cheap and most important deliciously memorable.
This is satisfaction.
2. Spain. Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral and the warrens of small cafés in Barcelona. Learning how to eat tapas and going back for another helping of boiled octopus. Desert landscape punctuated by ancient communities along the Camino de Santiago. Renting a car and finding our way to that small town where John and I got lost for hours but eventually wound up at a bullfight – still the most stunning and surreal thing I have seen in my life.
This is exuberance and joy.
1. Kananaskis, Alberta. Travel down highway 8 off of the trans-Canada just 25 minutes from Calgary and you enter into some if the most spectacular scenery in the world. High alpine lakes, stark mountains studded by ranks of lodge pole pine. The wind whistles through the canyons and you could hike for hours without seeing another person. Banff and Lake Louise are just down the road and they are amazing, but locals go to Kananaskis.
This is peace
So, next time you ask, I may have a new destination in mind, but what do you think of my five favourite places on the planet at the moment? More importantly, where should I go next?
A few years ago I was in India and I met a travel writer for Outdoor magazine. We chatted about life, travel, writing. I was a little jealous of his life and work. I had overheard him talking to an Indian guy about his wife and so I asked about his family. He told me that he wasn’t actually married, but in Indian culture it made sense to refer to his partner as wife.
I understood why he did so. I was also there with my wife Supriya, although at the time she was my girlfriend. We had gone for a walk in Pune one night, we held hands and, looking for a place to buy water, made our way into a roadside pub. Almost immediately Supriya’s cousin Biyah appeared to ask why we were there? It seems we had violated a number of unspoken cultural taboos. (more…)
When I think of living out in the country, farm-life, the picture that comes to mind is of “Anne of Green Gables” and “Little House on the Prarie”. Those were the shows I watched as a kid. Sod-busters. Barn-raising. Ice cream socials and square dancing.
So when I think of village life I think of rustic, hard-working strapping men and women who may be poor, but by using their few resources they pull themselves up by hard work and gumption.
If there are any problems, they were solved in about 22 minutes – or 44 if it was a two part episode.
The first time I walked into an African village my perspective of the quaint village shifted.
Some things are similar.
A village in Africa is also filled with hard working men and women.
They are real people with full lives. They wake up everyday and get the job done. But the village there is very different than the village I learned about on TV. In a developing country, living in a village usually means you are poor.
Nothing wrong with being poor of course, but most people don’t want to stay that way.
What picture comes to your mind when you think village?
Pictures stick with us, sometimes for decades. For me it was the first time I went to Ethiopia, I knew the famine was long over, but those images during the 80’s were in my head. Of course that wasn’t the reality anymore when I went and so my perspective had to change.
How many pictures of Africa do you think you have seen? How many pictures of aid work? We have all seen 10’s of thousands of images of international aid workers.
What story do they tell?
I searched the web for pictures of people doing aid work and put 89 of those images together into this short slide show. Individually, each of the pictures probably tell a version of a story that is strangely different when you take them all together.
a perspective that was probably not intended …
Here is my suggestion. Watch the video and ask yourself a question:
What is the story that is being told through this collection of pictures?
We left our guesthouse just after 7 am because our host had told us that the high mountain road was under construction. There was only one way in, and there would only be a couple moments when we could get through. We had to get there before 8 or we would have to wait until after noon.
We were cutting it close, but I felt good, we were going to make the deadline. We kept up the pace, until suddenly we rounded the corner to see a long line of parked vehicles in front of us. We stopped for what would turn out to be an unexpected lesson. (more…)
An entire village has been burned to ground due to war. You have been working in the region for a few years and have only found two trustworthy families. They work with you and help out whenever you are in the area.
The situation is desperate, but you have a big problem. You have some resources to help people out, but you only have enough to help 5 of the 50 village families, who do you choose to assist?
This is a normal decision I face whenever I am involved in a sustainable development project overseas. Who do you choose? My answer: (more…)
A number of years ago I met Foday. He was tall, lanky and busy. Always moving. His young sons would run to hang on him whenever he could find his father taking a break, which was not often. Foday knew how to smile. A kind man, he quietly lit up a room.
Foday wanted what every good father wants. The best opportunity for his sons to succeed in life. I don’t know if I really understood that as much as I do today – my two daughters have probably helped me understand this in a new way.
The problem was that we were in Sierra Leone. A country that had just come out of a savage and brutal time. Many people in the community shared the physical scars of the war.
Foday introduced me to a farmer with a missing arm.
Rebels had stopped this particular farmer and asked him a question”Do you want a short sleeve or a long sleeve shirt?” (more…)