After several long flights, a day in Kuwait, and a day at Bagram, I made it back to Kapisa. And after only a few days at Morales-Frasier, I was sent back to Kutschbach to switch out with the Major who was there. So, I arrived here at Kutschbach yesterday and have already been on several missions.
I recently finished a book that my brother loaned me, “When Helping Hurts”, which talks about how sometimes when we try to help poor people, it does them more harm than good. The author discussed treating poor people as equals and addressing the psychology of poverty or “the poverty of being” versus simply the lack of material things. Nick has a really good post about this issue at his blog (www.simplefollower.com) where I made this comment about an experience I had in Africa that demonstrated what NOT to do:
I remember once when I visited a village in Mali… the village elder had traveled 4 hours to summon us and we went with him back to his village. When we got there, it was just a few tents and shacks. We quickly did our assessment and wanted to head home before dark. They had prepared food for us, but our interpreter insisted that we wouldn’t like it and would get sick. While I was saying my goodbyes, I saw my 3 soldiers eating snacks and MREs in the vehicle. We left just as they were bringing out the cooked goat.
I’ve often thought what a horrible message that sent to the people – they had killed the fatted “calf” for us and invited us into their dirt huts. We sent the message that their food makes us sick and they were not worthy of our presence other than assessing how much material things they lacked. I saw that day that we had really done the people a large disservice…
I like to think that I’ve redeemed myself somewhat over the years with all of the food and tea I’ve consumed with locals on dirt floors, but my most recent experience was yesterday while these thoughts were still fresh in my mind. I went to a village and met with a local elder to discuss some recently completed projects. During our walk through the village, he showed me the water coming out of the local “Karez” which is like an underwater system of aqueducts. He told me with great pride that the masonry had been completed by his great grandfather with hand tools and has lasted for over 100 years. He also waxed eloquent on extolling the virtues of the allegedly pure water.
He was so enthusiastic about the bubbling elixir flowing from the underground system (that originated from some distant village) that he had a boy fill up a pitcher of water and bring it over to us to try out. Now, I don’t claim to be a medical specialist, but I do distinctly recall hearing throughout my lifetime the dangers of drinking unfiltered water in third-world countries. I’m also pretty sure that my mom taught me to not drink out of other people’s pitchers after their mouths have been on it. However, remembering the guilt I had just written about over my Mali story I thought to myself that this was my chance to really reverse all that bad Karma.
Figuring that I would probably get just as sick from a sip as a long drink, I tipped that pitcher back and heartily chugged away and you know what? It WAS deliciously cold water. And so far, I have not fallen over dead. That village elder was clearly delighted that I enjoyed it so much and he was proud of his village’s crystalline mountain water. Of course, maybe I will fall over dead in a few days and maybe he was just delighted that he had poisoned the naive American, but that would sure be a cynical way of looking at the world, wouldn’t it?
Anyway, as we later sat down for some tea with this guy and several villagers, they discussed some of the progress they had made and the problems of the local government. A fellow soldier started plying the men with questions such as “what else do you need? what should be our next project?” In my enlightened state after having read Nick’s blog and drinking from the village’s cool waters of the knowledge of good and evil, I steered the conversation back to what the villagers could do to help themselves, how far they had come through their own efforts, and how they could participate in the government to create a better future for themselves.
Of course, the book I mentioned earlier would posit that I should have focused the conversation instead on God’s redemptive work in creation, but I do have my limits as a soldier. Still, I felt pretty good about the mission afterward knowing that I had used some sound concepts and probably saved the American taxpayer the cost of a few unnecessary projects.
All my wholesome work of yesterday was no doubt undone today, though, when we went to a local clinic and gave away a bunch of free medical supplies, *sigh*. At least we gave it to the doctors and health care workers instead of distributing it wholesale to the populace. Still, it probably didn’t do a lot towards making the government any more self-sufficient or towards encouraging the locals to turn to their own government to meet their needs.
The business of Civil Affairs is indeed complex…