January 21, 2009

Words worth remembering

I just finished Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda. If you’re interested in a slice of Xhosa culture, I highly recommend it. The story is good, too.

The point made in this passage below is an obvious one but one I realize it is very easy to forget. Dalton is a white man who has lived his entire life in a Xhosa village; Camagu is a Xhosa man who has spent most of his life in the U.S.

John Dalton is preoccupied with water affairs. It is weeks now since his water committee closed all the communal taps. The villagers are refusing to pay. When the chief calls a public meeting to discuss the matter, the few who come say, “You, son of Dalton, you got money from your business friends and from the government to start this water project. Why don’t you ask those people who gave you the money to maintain those taps? How do they think they will be maintained if they do not come to maintain them?”...

[Camagu says] “You went about this whole thing the wrong way, John. The water project is failing because it was imposed on the people. No one bothered to find out their needs.”

“That is nonsense,” says Dalton. “Everyone needs clean water.”

“So we think… in our infinite wisdom. Perhaps the first step would have been to discuss the matter with the villagers, to find out what their priorities are. They should be part of the whole process. They should be active participants in the conception of the project, in raising funds for it, in constructing it. Then it becomes their project. Then they will look after it.”

Camagu is of the view that, as things stand now, the villagers see this as Dalton’s project. He thought he was doing them a favour when he single-handedly raised funds for it and invited government experts to help in its construction. It was only later that the community was involved. Dalton hand-picked a committee of people he thought were enlightened enough to look after the project. The villagers were given a ready-made water scheme. It is falling apart because they don’t feel they are part of it.

“That is the danger of doing things for the people instead of doing things with the people,” adds Camagu. “It is happening throughout the country. The government talks of delivery and of upliftment. Now people expect things to be delivered to them without any effort on their part. They expect somebody to come from Pretoria and uplift them. The notions of delivery and upliftment have turned our people into passive recipients of programmes conceived by so-called experts who know nothing about the lives of rural communities. People are denied the right to shape their own destiny. Things are done for them. The world owes them a living. A dependency mentality is reinforced in their minds…. That is the main problem with you, John. You know that you are ‘right’ and you want to impose those ‘correct’ ideas on the populace from above. I am suggesting that you try involving the people in decision-making rather than making decisions for them.”
It is very, very easy to assume one’s own good intentions and ideas are broadly shared.