January 22, 2008

Live and Learn

Missionaries operate in a bit of a delicate role in their new environments. Traditionally speaking, missionaries have been better educated, better connected, and better off than the people they go to help. Together, these make missionaries more powerful than those being served. But the people they go to help have not traditionally invited the missionaries to come to their homes. Rather, missionaries have decided to take their power and put it in service to those without. (How “service” is defined is a whole other matter.)

During our mission training, we spent a lot of time on the idea that we can learn more from those we serve than we can ever give them. This helps us to come to terms with that massive power differential by reminding us the missionary is first and foremost a guest and the people we serve have gifts and talents – sources of power – that are frequently overlooked. It has the added virtue of being one hundred per cent correct. I knew coming into my time in Itipini that I should be prepared to do more learning than giving and I was looking forward to all that learning. As I hope you’ve been reading on this blog, what I am gaining from this experience is monumental compared to the microscopic things I am giving back.

So there are – at least – two compelling reasons to be a missionary. One is to serve those less powerful than you. The second is to learn from and respect those whom you serve. This allows missionaries to use their massive relative power in the most helpful way possible. But what happens when those two reasons are at odds with one another?

Here’s an example: last fall/spring (I still haven’t got my head around the southern hemisphere), a woman in Itipini suffered severe burns across much of her body and was taken to the hospital. After a few days there, she became so dissatisfied with the care, she checked herself out and came home. We dressed her wounds at the clinic but it was clear she needed more attention than we could give her. We begged and pleaded with her to return to the hospital for the attention she needed but she steadfastly refused. Eventually, she died.

We – the powerful, Western-educated volunteers at the clinic – wanted to serve this patient as best as possible by helping her get the best care possible. But we also did not want to disrespect her agency, her context, her decisions, even though it was obvious to me that she was making an irrational decision that – had she the education I had – she would not have made.

I can cite a whole host of examples of this: the HIV-positive patient who won’t use condoms; the patient who qualifies for anti-retroviral drugs but will not begin the process to get on them, for any number of reasons; the mother who will not take her obviously dying HIV-positive daughter to the hospital because she doesn’t want to wait in line (I wish I were making that one up).

The solution to this dilemma is to build up the power of those you serve so that they make decisions on the basis of the same knowledge as you have. This is why education is so important and why “empowerment” and “capacity building” are justifiably buzzwords. The trouble is that to do any of this effectively takes enormous amounts of time and HIV and burns kill much faster. This leaves the missionary in an uncomfortable position. Either he ends up mandating behaviour to people whose guest he is, with the likely result that the mandate will be ignored, or he lets the person make her own decision and has to watch the predictable results unfold, powerless to stop them.

Two common sayings spring to mind. First, “Give me a fish, feed me for a day; teach me to fish, feed me for a lifetime.” But the aphorism has nothing to say about how long it takes to teach someone to fish or about what can be done in the interim. Second, “Live and learn.” But what happens if they don’t live?


Andrew Hankinson said...

Teaching a man to fish is one thing. Teaching a whole society to fish is another thing altogether.

Anonymous said...

Jesse - You are the most powerful writer on the mission scene right now (and I say that as one of the folks whose job it is to communicate mission to the wider church). Your posts, photos, and newsletters blow me away every single time. The highs, the lows, the hilarious, and the tragic are captured on this blog. Please know that you and the people of Itipini are in my prayers. I'm proud to know you, Sir. - Mary Brennan