Wednesday, November 26, 2008

This Is Really, Really Hard

So, thanks to everyone who has posted notes of encouragement on the blog and on Facebook. I can't tell you how much I've appreciated it lately. I've felt like a bit of a fraud getting your votes of confidence though, since I've been struggling quite a bit during the last week.

I'm not going to lie, the site visit to Asiri was disappointing in some aspects, although I'm still hashing out which will be the real problems and which will be surmountable. First of all, I should say that Asiri is beautiful. The Habitat for Humanity community has planted cashew trees everywhere, mixed with stands of teak. Even as we approach the dry season (late November to early February) when there will be little rain, it's a green place...

...except for my house, which is actually a spare room (albeit a very nice room) in the local HFH office/building supply storage structure. In doing some kind of site work they cut down all the trees around it, which means it is hot as fuck with no natural shade during the day. For some reason they've also burned the ground around the place so it's situated in the middle of a sort of blackened wasteland with stumps of trees scattered around. HFH people show up pretty frequently to use the office or take things in and out of the storeroom, and the community definitely treats the building, very reasonably, as public space.

I'm also becoming increasingly worried about the role I'm expected to play in Asiri. I don't want to go into the details of how Habitat for Humanity works, but essentially these people need money to help pay for low cost/low interest mortgages. They don't need someone to show up and organize a reforestation project, a community nursery, or another community venture. What they need are realistic opportunities to make money, either in small income generating ventures or as employees of a larger concern. It's hard to overstate how ambiguous the effects of "development aid" are here. Facilities are built, function for a short time, and then are literally abandoned when funding stops or priorities change. I'll say it again in a different way: these people need access to markets (local, national, and in some instances international) and various kinds of training to establish viable businesses, not just charitable institutions. What I'm trying, badly, to say is that Peace Corps does a pretty good job of teaching environment volunteers how to organize community projects, but I don't think Asiri needs community projects, I think they need private enterprise. I don't intend for this to be the last word on the subject, just to say that it's not simple, and I'm not really sure how to proceed yet.

In a more general sense, I spent a lot of time over the last couple days just thinking "Can I do this for two years? Do I want to?" I don't have answers for either of those questions right now, and I don't think I'll find single answers either. I should make it clear that these are not problems with Asiri the community, whose people have been unfailingly generous and welcoming. It's a mix of concerns over whether I'll be able to support genuinely helpful projects here and about my own personal resiliency.

I'm not giving up yet, but a lot of the issues I'm dealing with here (from food to privacy to language to my job) are starting to pile up, and right now I don't have a good sense of how to start dealing with them.

So, it's hard. No one ever told me it would be easy, and I made the choice to come here. We'll see how this plays out.


Anonymous said...

Now I have a better sense of what you were alluding to over the phone, Sam. But you've got some entrepreneurial grit in you! I remember how you had some success in helping a DR coffee co-op, although your efforts were cut short by your return home.

I don't at all mean to underplay the challenge. Trying to create markets on a shoestring won't be easy.


Anonymous said...

Hi Sam,
Yes I can imagine the devastation at your home quarters, and the shock of reality setting in. . . I encourage you to remember the growing force of African soil and plants, and that the blackened soil will bring forth life. And while you see what this community really needs, know that you are a small force, doing what you can, in every moment, and that will amount to surprising differences over time.
Having said that, I know you will also need to tend to your own growth and make decisions from that place as well.
A friend of mine, who had helped Kenyans in various ways told me he was wisely warned on his first trip to Africa, that Africa will break your heart, but it will open your heart in ways your never imagined too.
My best to you Sam, one step at a time you are living a connection to the reality of one small planet and its people.
Aimee Nassoiy from the USM DR trip January 2008