Nahla Gedeon Achi ’15 contemplates the reciprocal nature of service — and what it means for her future:
It is dinnertime; I am sitting on the steps just outside the dining hall. The plate in front of me is filled with beans and rice and I am about to begin eating with my spoon. Esther saunters over and props herself down next to me. After some Swahili-English practice with the words “beans” and “rice” and “spoon,” Esther turns her attention to the contents of my plate. According to her judgment, my bean to rice ratio is completely off. After seeming troubled for a couple seconds, she comes up with a solution; she forms small balls of rice with her hands and transfers them from her plate to mine. To ensure that I eat them, she pries the spoon away from me and urges me to eat with my hands. When I slow down my eating pace, she compensates by actually bringing the food up to my mouth. In that moment, the roles seemed reversed.
I can’t define exactly what these roles are; a close approximation would be “the person helping” and “the person being helped”. Before leaving for this trip, we talked a lot about the way in which service should be delivered. In the context of NGO-colonialism, people argue that service should be aimed at providing individuals or communities with the tools to help themselves rather than directly helping them—with donations of money or food or medicine. As a group, we agreed that for service to be beneficial, the person providing it should understand the different factors that play into the problem they are trying to address. Service should be reciprocal, with both sides gaining something from it.
This trip to Tanzania exposes us, thirteen Deerfield students, to the realities of extreme rural poverty and to the difficulties people face in developing countries. We came to JBFC to do “service”; we teach classes and cook food and plant trees and dig canals. We brighten a girl’s day by making a friendship bracelet or by reading a book or by learning Swahili. But, in the grand scheme of things, our impact in alleviating rural poverty is minimal. What is more important is the perspective we gain on this trip, because, maybe, in the future, this perspective will empower one or two or three of us to really dedicate him/herself to addressing an issue prevalent in third-world countries. I realize this is a broad statement. Basically, I am trying to say that the service we do here is reciprocal in the sense that we gain the knowledge and understanding to do something “big” by ourselves in the future.
I’d like to delve more into the elusive “perspective we gain on this trip.” Before circling back to the moment I described earlier, here is a snapshot of Esther’s past: as a four-year-old, Esther arrived at JBFC weighing sixteen pounds. She was extremely malnourished. Yet tonight, she was the one feeding me—ironic, yes, but she was doing me a service. We all know the saying “money doesn’t buy happiness” and we all realize that people can be happy with very little. Until tonight, however, my everyday mindset hadn’t really soaked this reality in. I am grateful to Esther for the part she played in ensuring that, in the future, I will never forget this reality.
In Kitongo, if kids miss lunch at school (six did yesterday), they can’t just dig into their backpack for a granola bar or go back home and grab a cookie from the shelf. Yet regardless of how little they have, these kids persevere in their enthusiasm and the eagerness with which they tackle everyday activities. Every boy and girl at this school will respond to your greeting with a smile. As long as they have the basic necessities for survival, they are happy. So, the next time I shop online for a new sweater or order a meal at a restaurant, I will pause and remember their smiles and Esther. I will think of that dinnertime moment before using things I don’t necessarily need. I have this bizarre belief that if we, people living in developed countries, all slightly altered our perspective on spending in this way, global issues (poverty—water and sanitation, malnutrition, lack of education etc.) would slowly be improved. Realistically, there are too many factors—foreign investment in exploitative industries, the history of regions—that play into creating these issues for them to be solved through service only. This is why altering my everyday mindset seems more important to me than donating money to NGOs. (I am not saying, however, that donating money to NGOs is pointless—I could never say that after my experience here). If the people here can live with so little, surely I can restrict myself, and, by restricting myself, I may break the vicious cycle that drives these people into poverty in the first place.
I hope the point I was making above made at least a little bit of sense. Before ending this blog post, I wanted to turn back to one more aspect of this moment with Esther. The reason why my ratio of bean to rice seemed off to her was because it did not adhere to local standards. As Chris, the founder of JBFC, explained to us, starch is a major part of people’s diet in Tanzania. The way in which people abide to tradition is reflected in other aspects of Tanzanian life. During village night, for instance, we were exposed to the typical Tanzanian household, in which three or four generations live together. This adherence to tradition made me wonder about the extent of the impact the Joseph and Mary School (the school at JBFC) is actually having on students. Students are gaining the knowledge they need to pursue a career in a higher field of work, but will they actually leave the Kitongo region? And if they stay, will they have access, in their village, to the necessary resources for a future professional career?
I posed these questions to Chris and, before giving me his answer, he explained the reality of the situation to me: there is a movement of youth to urban areas in Tanzania. However, a lack of opportunity is working against this movement. Last year, there were 25,000 university graduates, but only 3,000 openings in jobs suited to their level of education. Nonetheless, Chris believes, the primary and secondary education at the J&M School provides boys and girls with thinking-power and an understanding of their own situation necessary for just getting by and advancing in life. Not all the students will become prosperous businessmen, but they will have enough knowledge to exceed in traditional job positions. Just like us, the skills they learn may not necessarily be tangible, but they will shape what they do in the future.