We crossed the ocean with them. We flew over the Mediterranean and the Maghreb with them. We took them in a bus to a boat and now up a dusty dirt road, into a women’s organization in a rural area that was lucky enough to produce a Mama Benz. Benze as in Mercedes, meaning that this badass woman Mire is constantly on television, and is really rather running the show in Benin’s two major cities.
We cram into an area too small for 25 yovos and about 60 partially-inflated soccer balls, nevermind the twenty or so Beninoise women who were recieving us. As we pump the soccer balls and hear the excited screams of children too poor to go to school but clever enough to know we have soccer balls, a welcoming speech is made. I almost spit my warm water when I hear this:
Thank you so much for coming, and for bringing all of these wonderful soccer balls. But the river is quite big, and perhaps next time you could bring a boat?”
I am too stunned to translate it immediately. But I do, and good lord are we all alarmed.
The list continued. Money, food, medecine, everything. But the image of 25 kids splitting a boat into pieces so we could fit it into our checked luggage and then reassemble it in West Africa really showed how much we were misunderstood.
Lori handled the rather imperious requests in a polite but assertive way, explaining that we were not an aid organization or in any way charged with the duty of dispersing funds (not true, but for their purposes it was, and you best believe they found out we gave other groups grants.)
Whenever someone tells me they have been perfectly clear about their intentions in the developing world, I always pcture myself lugging a massive wooden canoe, haggling with the gate agent about how much it costs to check it.
No matter how clear you are, there will be expectations. This is because every white person before us had shown up with money. This is because in a small country, it doesn’t take long for everyone to find out we have money to spend on certain projects. This is because our wealth is incomprehensible to many others, in the same way their poverty is incomprehensible to us. If we have ipods, how can we not have the $60,000 they need to buy a machine? Don’t we have enough money to not only live in America but to leave it at will, to go to school enough to speak in foreign tongues?
In this respect, I think our Capstone did some irreversible damage to the reputation of gringoes. We are hardly alone in that, but the precedent is set. Worse, I think we were all collectively far too naive about the expectations we were walking into. Just because we were perfectly clear doesn’t mean it came across as we intended it. If every group is perfectly clear that they are not giving away food or money, but then proceed to do one or both of those things, it is natural for people to assume that, “we’re not giving you food or money,” is gringo for, “just wait a few days and Santa Claus will be here.”
To think that our actions and words are the only ones that contribute to what is expected of us is a rookie mistake. It is one of those mistakes that I can’t help but feel is the difference between the business mindset and social sciences mindset, for better or for worse.