The Paradox of Help

I’ve met Senegalese people who are these incredibly intelligent and savvy leaders, criss-crossing the district and even the country, participating in endless training and projects, leading the change they want to see in their world. Yet, they turn to me and say things like, “But I’m just a poor farmer, I have nothing. Thank YOU for being here and helping develop US.” It’s an incredibly awkward power dynamic and never ceases to frustrate me. We both know it’s not true and yet it’s (part of) the platform of change volunteers like myself come here on and how this community has accepted me. I’ve tried to challenge this. “Wait, hold on. Why do YOU need ME?”

The answer usually has something to do with power, money, and education. These are things I have and thus qualifies me as all-knowing for what’s best for their community. I am their ticket to getting all things shiny, whole and sustainable that will improve their quality of life, not them. “Ok, if that’s what you believe I have. But what do YOU have?”

The answer is almost always in the negative. Poor this, bad that, too little, never available etc. “Ok, if that’s what you believe YOU have. But what GOOD do YOU have? Something that is a part of your development as a community that I couldn’t ever give you?”

This either goes nowhere, because my inverted grammar is confusing or my audience will not respond with an answer that satisfies my curiosity. On a few occasions, it has been an interesting conversation; hearing about how a community member values the things they have, the people they have, the work they have, the blessings they have – completely devoid of a foreign relation. Above all they have peace – which is a lot more than no peace, and if you have peace you have everything.

Yet, from the (limited, I know) people I’ve encountered, I have this strange feeling that peace isn’t enough. Are rural communities being conditioned to undervalue the work and progress and ability of their own people – that even with peace, it will never be enough? Are we foreigners, packed with academic rhetoric, donor funding and well intentions, encouraging the sentiment? Or is this all just a game both sides, the helper and the sufferer, play.

This is not to say that the concept of unconsciously making one more powerful and the other weaker in the name of help is limited to the West vs. The Rest of the World. I personally struggle with navigating through this complicated and deeply flawed paradigm as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but also as a product of immigrants and the foster care system, as an Asian-American woman, and as an engaged community member. I have felt both sides of the spectrum and found myself falling into both traps. The way I talk about giving and doing for others, it seems so natural to want to paint the compelling story that I often end up making my role in the social cause to be much more than it really is or should be. Conversely, the way others have helped me succeed in life, I don’t often consciously value what I did or am doing. As if my personal effort in this journey is completely null and void in relation to what was bestowed upon me at critical moments in my life.

Being grateful and thankful is a slippery slope to overvaluing what was given to you. Our value is not measured in the amount of help that was given to us, but what we’ve done to better ourselves because of it.