Are Humanitarians Allowed To Get Sick And Tired?

I’m still trying to get my feet under me from last week’s field work, and sleepless nights. We had a lot on our plate and then, to top it all off, during Monday’s site followups I was getting sicker and sicker with a good sinus infection coming on.

By the time I got back to town that night, I had to go looking for a pharmacy. I took some antibiotics, and was still able to do almost nothing on Tuesday. Wednesday morning I was dragging myself around, but had a village to meeting to go to, with another NGO we are helping out at the moment.

I observed several things today. Nothing deep or meaningful, but I will share the observations anyway.

When Malians see Western NGO’s they think big. I mean “REALLY FREAKING BIG”. That was confirmed to me in the village meeting yesterday. Whatever general message we are sending as NGO’s in the country, I’m convinced it is the wrong one. People automatically think we desire big expensive projects. That assumption really jazzes some Malians up. But it also scares others off from working with us too.

We sat with this village leader and talked to him about gardening. We asked him if he or anyone in his influence would be interested in learning how to drip irrigate a garden. He thought about it, and commented they do not have any land for a garden. No one in his group gardens either; they are all farmers.

His manner of talking assured me of two things:

1. He was not the person to be talking to,
2. He himself had no personal interest in gardening, nor ever learning how.

In the end, it was proved I was not mistaken on either point.

I was ready to call it quits with him after five minutes, because of his manner of talking. But the other NGO persisted, and I just tuned out.

A Malian friend who came with us, explained that this is not about irrigating a huge field, it is a family sized garden. The gentleman still did not say much. Finally he got up and took us out behind the house to his wife’s “little garden”.

He just told us they have no land for gardening and here his wife has a 3 meter by 10 meter plot behind the house, all fenced in with a beautifully resistant hand woven fence she made. She is hand watering a little corn and hot peppers in there right now. She has been gardening in this little plot for a few years now, her husband said.

We found our real partner: his wife. She was obviously proud of her little garden, and she had every right to be. Turns out that this man’s wife is the person we should have been talking to from the beginning. She shared how a few years ago she noticed vegetables considerably changed her family’s health, and energy. She especially loves lettuce. She gets it.

She is already doing the work, and has the vision for her family’s health. Now with a simple drip irrigation kit, we can increase her plot production, reduce weeding, reduce plant diseases, reduce her fertilizer cost and cut water volume by 80%. This family has to pay for water, so saving 80% on a garden she is already inclined to grow is an amazing help on its own.

We then surveyed another nearby patch, and I think we can fit five more women on the site. We are booked to begin that setup in the fall. Six drip irrigated garden plots in this new village.

This lady, not the “leader”, opened the door to real service to her community.

This was a lesson for me. How often have I been frustrated in life because I was talking to the wrong person? Trying to convince people that a certain path is good for them, serves a more noble vision or purpose, a vision, frankly, they chose not to follow, and never will.  Man, people who are not as excited as I am about something bother me. 🙂

How many times have we blamed ourselves, or questioned the validity of our goal, because of the group’s reaction, not realizing we might simply be speaking to the wrong people? What if dynamic leadership, and a clearly articulate vision is not lacking?

What if it boils down to the simple fact of life that we are talking to the wrong people? This person or group in front of us will not move because they don’t know how, are not ready, or have chosen to never to be ready to do these kinds of things? There are many projects I have no interest in investing in either.  Should I not grant the same freedom to others, without belittling them, or belittling my skills in the process?

For many years I was trapped in a structure that told us we need to keep sharing a vision with the same group of 100-200 people for 30 years, in the hopes that some day the whole group will catch the vision and get active. 80-90% never do, decade after decade, and I finally had to accept their unspoken answer – “I do not want to. I will not do this with you.”

Looking around at others like me, I see the end result about the same for most people, slogging for decades did not change the reality much, most do not want to. But this decades of slogging certainly changed something in those who did the slogging. For better or worse, I’ll withhold my opinion here.

For years we were told leadership was the problem. If others were not motivated, I was the problem. So I spent thousands of hours reading and “seminaring” trying to make me a better me. Nothing wrong with that, I need to be a better me.  But it’s only half the equation, and relationships tell us that we can only change ourselves, not the other person?

That was proven true again today in the village. We started by talking to a good man, a great man who has other ideas. Is it OK to release people to follow their own paths and ideas, even if it is not my direction?  

Once we accept this reality, we are much freer to find innovators, people desiring change, hope, a future and willing to walk with you, and you with them. It is simply the most fun I have ever had in my life. But it took the first half of life to get me here.

Some have asked me, “Is your new way of approaching things any more fruitful?” I really don’t know. But I know for certain that it is not in any way less fruitful, and for the first time in 20 years, I don’t have this life sucking, soul crushing dead weight on my shoulders while I serve. That alone gives me hope to continue.

Sometimes I’m simply talking to the wrong people. There’s nothing wrong with them, nothing wrong with me… Move on.

Take a sick day when you need it, “Invisible Humanitarian”. While you are at it, take a “sick and tired day” too… from talking to the wrong people, and move on to someone else.

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