Knowing the Difference

Even in the U.S. I was aware of how many aid organizations had irrelevant missions, or did more harm than good, so I went into this wanting to observe only and come back with enough research to make an actual difference in the way people see things back at home, you know, real things. Therefore, I am conflicted as these observations bring possible solutions for problems such as the excessive burning and burying of trash, import-only vegetables, and the lack of doctor-patient communication at the clinic I work at.

I have no experience, I have no credibility, I have no right, to think that I can or should do anything, for that isn’t the purpose at all. But simply because of where I’ve grown up, it’s difficult to deny that I don’t have things to offer.

Several weeks ago I started asking questions. Why is there so much trash by the clinic? What are those holes for? My advisor told me that it is popular to burn or bury trash when the piles become unmanageable. This of course led to other questions and finally he stopped and looked at me.

“What would you do?” I just told him what the system in the US for trash pickup was. Apparently they have the same idea, but with donkeys. The donkeys pull these slabs of wood and you are supposed to throw your trash on it as it comes by. Problem- it’s just a slab of wood. The trash falls off as much as it gets put on. Also, it comes really early in the morning and people just don’t want to get up for it! I chaotically searched for a pen and notebook in my overcrowded backpack and drew a picture.

My advisor smiled and waved his hands about, it was a great idea he told me, what else? I stumbled, careful of how to present the idea. I told him that in the US there was this thing called a Homeowners Association, where they keep track of how people’s homes function and look to their neighbors. I didn’t say anything else, hoping he would make the connection. His eyes widened and he told me what a great idea if would be if after we clean up the trash we could get some people to yell at each other for not picking up trash. Sounded great, I told him.

Next week we’re going to start making handouts and organizing the cleanup site-by-site, starting with the clinic. The Homeowners Association is a start at sustainability, but is that enough?

At the clinic one day, the head doctor asked me if phones were a part of the health care system in the US. I told him no, but that computers were a huge part of it. He shook his head and told me not everyone had a computer. I stopped him and said “Everyone has a phone.” He looked up and put his papers on his desk.

“Patients don’t show up for 2nd and 3rd vaccinations, you know. They forget.” He looked excited.

I reminded him that the reminder packets they give the patients are in French, and no one can read them.

“No, we would need more people.” He decided after a pause, but the doctor next to him said “Or maybe just her.”

He gazed at me with these sad eyes, so heavy I thought he would begin to look at the ground, engraining “but you will leave us” into my mind forever and walked away. He’s fifty years old, and I’m sure he’s fought and lost some battles with all the goings-on at the clinic. So now, I’ve been taking psycho-person style notes, trying to figure out how it could work, what we would need, who would accept it. I feel it could work, but it still feels wrong. I want someone to help me at the clinic, but everyone is already playing 10 different roles.

As of now, the only thing I truly feel confident about is the community garden that Amadou, my advisor, and I have been working on at the back of ASESCAW (the umbrella non-profit in Ross Bethio). I wrote a proposal to the organization, and we received two men and money for materials. They know what they’re doing more than I do, and now that it’s backed up by the organization, I feel good about the legitimacy.

It is important to me that these projects appear circumstantial to my readers and especially future fellows because it is impossible to generalize the needs of a society based on what one wants to do with it. If there is a need there must also be a want, and it must not be a projection of any pre-destined agenda. And as long as those things are true, it may matter. In this way, it is becoming apparent to me that I am not here to make a difference, but to know the difference.