A lot of people move to Africa on a mission. Some of them classic religious missionaries and others compassionate humanists who feel called to serve, to care, to give.
I came here under that banner, thinking I was going to help to pull people out of the mire of poverty. I came here with dreams of Africa on its feet, of people with dignity and strength. I thought I was here to give something, something that wasn’t here already.
I fell in love early in my journey on this continent. I was drawn in and I didn’t really know why. I just knew I wanted to be here, wanted to be part of this.
I have lived here in Tanzania for over 3 years now and for close to a decade travelled the countries of East and Southern Africa. Until very recently, I still thought I was here to help.
I read this quote recently and something in me stirred, like a light switching on in my soul…
Lilla Watson is an indigenous Australian and she said this,
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
There are times when you read things and it feels as if they punch you in the gut. You breath in a sharp in breath and utter some kind of profanity in your mind. This was one of those moments. I had missed it, missed the point entirely. Missed the connection between my liberation and that of the people I am here to work with. I came to help them, I came knowing that I was broken myself but not seeing anything that they had to offer me. I was a fool.
I realise now that my liberation is tied up deeply with theirs. I use words like dignity, freedom and self-reliance to define what I see as the goal of development work and more specifically of the work I do. It is, at its base, about reducing poverty, but I don’t really see that as the bottom line. I want to see people able to stand on their own two feet, to take care of their own, to have the freedom to explore opportunity, creativity, leisure, family and community.
Ask me what I need most in the world? Ask me what I most crave? To stand on my own two feet, to have the strength to take care of my own, to have the freedom to explore opportunity, creativity, leisure, family and community.
I have been looking in the mirror and failing to see my own reflection. I thought that it was them I saw when I looked, that it was them I needed to help, that it was they who needed saving.
It’s been me all along.
It is so painfully cliché to admit this; the words are coming out of me with a deeply uncomfortable cringe. “I went there to help, but it was me who was helped” is a phrase used so often it has become tired and more than mildly annoying.
But it is common because there is truth in it. I remember the very first time I set foot on African soil in Uganda in 2007. I was naïve and uninformed, but I found things I didn’t see much of at home.
I found freedom. I found joy. I found immense gratitude, hope, optimism and faith. I found determination despite struggle, I found compassion and service.
I met women who radiated warmth and hospitality. Who moved with confidence in bodies that would be condemned in other parts of the world. I sat with them and I made the painfully foolish mistake to see only their struggle and not their victory.
In 2010, I did a research project on women’s empowerment and tried to understand what women themselves saw as empowering. Many women told me that what gave them power was the connection to other women like themselves, other women who inspired them. They told me that they had found dignity, to stand with their heads held high and without shame in their communities, something entirely unavailable to them before. I applauded them and was happy for them, and once again, entirely missed the importance of this lesson in my own life.
Now I work beside women who carry themselves with a confidence I can’t understand. Who are unfazed by what the Western world thinks they should look like, what they should wear, what defines success or intelligence. They are sure of themselves, of their contribution and they walk beside each other in a way that baffles me.
Living here, in Tanzania and travelling to different parts of this great continent, has offered me olive branches all along the way, tried to teach me what I most needed to learn. Looking back I see the same lessons over and over again and I see myself missing them each time.
Until now. Until I have realized that my liberation is entirely tied up in theirs. As I see more and more people, especially women, standing on their own two feet and forging a new path for themselves, I am given the courage to do the same. I am equipped by their bravery to step into my own story, to find my own capacity and power to stand in my own truth. I am given the opportunity to find my own dignity again as I let go of the pressure to please others and the loss of myself in the process.
I came here to help, to try to serve. But I have been called to shut up and listen, to pay attention, to recognize the incredible privilege of being allowed into the stories that I hear and for God’s sake, to start learning from some of those stories.
We all walk among those we perceive as weak, as in need of help. Sometimes people genuinely do need help and sometimes we are asked to be that support. Other times, we have just focused on the wrong things. We have missed the strength, the courage, the ways in which they have overcome and we have failed to notice how much we have to learn.
People think Africa is full of poor people who are helpless and broken. The truth is the world is full of broken people, each in our own way. Some of our cultures and countries portray an illusion of progress, some portray an illusion of helplessness. Neither of these portrayals are really true. The truth is somewhere in the middle, in the space in between victory and defeat, where most of us walk, where we encounter each other’s stories.
May we all find the freedom to live in our own dignity, to explore our creativity, to enjoy our leisure and to love our families, our communities, our own and may we all listen to those who are teaching, even if they are not who we expected to learn from.