Friday, June 19, 2009

The Relevance of my Irrelevance

Every day I have moments when I have to step out of myself and decide if I’m doing it right.

Is this project sustainable?
Am I capacity building?
Does this contribute to the stop of HIV?
Are they acquiring skills?
Am I too involved?
Will this make a difference?

Every project gets analyzed a million times. Every intention dissected.

International public health work forces you to struggle with your humanity. Maybe all acts of charity do but here it is so palpable. And persistent.

My human (and American) flaws make me proud. They make me success-driven and results-oriented and in need of praise, recognition and control.

At the same time I’ve got this engrained ethical code that compels me to Empower: to inspire my colleagues, to strengthen my students, to raise role models. To build the capacity of this village. To teach risk reduction they can practice and develop knowledge they can use to examine behavioral patterns and societal norms. To transfer skills that can enhance their professional lives and arouse compassion to provide more care for their families and community.

To leave something.


Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I find myself knee-deep in the latest child-rights-drama-performance and wondering…

Why am I leading this alone?
How is this making any difference in HIV prevention?

The social worker had invited us to the “Day of the African Child” Celebration in Mmankgodi. All I had to do was get the 30 kids to put on a drama about protecting children’s rights.

Piece of cake. We started planned. We held practices. We made costumes.

Somewhere in the middle of all those preparations I realized that I didn’t have the slightest bit of drama experience, nor could I understand the bulk of the Setswana script. I also didn’t know any songs or even the history of “Day of the African Child.”

What the hell was I doing?

This was A Mistake. No doubt about it. I was committing the carnal crime of international development work:

I was leading a project alone—without local leadership. And without proper skills.

Bad bad bad volunteer.

But sometimes the universe throws you a bone.

My big break was a workshop that took me out of the village for a full week.

At first I was frantic and narcissistic…

How will they practice without me? Who will lead? What if they have questions?

I wrote detailed notes.
I assigned a director.
I scheduled practices.

The kids nodded and smiled and assured me that everything would be ready when I returned from the workshop on Monday. I bit my thumbnail nervously. The drama was meant to be performed on Tuesday. In front of 600 people. Mmankgodi was providing transport and food… what if it didn’t work out? I’d be held responsible (pride)… I’d look like a failure (success-driven)… I’d be criticized (need for praise, recognition, etc.)

I shuffled off to my workshop and, for a week, resisted the urge to call into school and see how things were going.

At last the workshop ended and it was Monday. I showed up early to school. The kids said they’d missed me and there had been some fighting and one practice had gone badly and they weren’t sure if they were ready. I squeezed their shoulders and reassured them and quelled the anxiety rising in my voice. Our last practice was scheduled after classes, from 3:00 – 5:00. We were leaving at 7:00 the following morning.

By 4:00 they had finally all gathered in the music room and I was checking my watch in an obsessive compulsive rhythm. But in the middle of all that nervous tension I started to notice changes…

For one, the drama had been totally revised. My idea had been replaced for a plot more closely aligned with the day’s theme.

The script had also been re-written… by one of the students.

The student teacher—Mma Tuwe was standing in the corner. She had been supervising all the practices since I left. No one had invited her—she just saw a need and started coming.

And there were other colleagues in the room too. There was Pegosotso, a volunteer from a local NGO. She had been holding a special lifeskills session with our guidance classes when she heard about the drama. She started coming to practices and in the past week had taken on the much needed role of their leader and director.

Matching t-shirts had been donated from the drama department.

A black curtain was on lend from the science lab.

The drama instructor made an appearance to guide them through the songs and choreograph their last dance.

The guidance teacher watched from the door—encouraging the younger students with smiles and cheers.

Surprise was not the word.

I was elated.

All these professionals were working together. The students were fully invested in a project that they’d created and developed. The school departments were offering support with props and supervision. I’d never seen this type of cooperation and community at my school. Or anywhere in my village, for that matter.

I sat on a desk in the back of the music room and watched the play unfold and the facilitators respond. I smiled when the kids looked back at me and applauded when the curtain fell. I surrendered all of those human, American, Bostonian tendencies and just


Humility is often painful and occasionally rewarding.

I knew that the only reason these people had worked together so completely and so passionately was because my absence had left the need. I was grateful for this. And embarrassed.

We’ve turned the corner on our service. Just eleven months left.

What will remain after I go?
What will I have inspired?
What will I have left?
What will grow in my absence?

I loosen the grip ever so slightly and—to my surprise—things balance perfectly without me.

Maybe part of my impact on them will be felt in the process of fading.
Maybe part of their impact on me will be recognized in this blaze of their strength.

I have a long list of goals for this final year.
Perhaps the most valuable will be, simply, my disappearance...

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