© 2014 Specialized Bicycle Components. All rights reserved.
USA / ENGLISH CHANGE REGION |
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
By Simon Dunne, Social Good Manager, Specialized
In ancient Ireland, patronymic naming was a handy tool, the “Mc” at the beginning of your name revealed that you were, indeed, the son of somebody. You represent your father, boy, so don’t muck it up.
In Zambia, the opposite is true. When a child is born, the father adopts an epithet that binds him to his duties. With 72 tribes and dialects, that epithet can take many forms, but it’s often something like “Sya”, father of. Here, a father represents his son.
A subtle distinction, but one that prioritizes the next generation. While Ireland reveres history, Zambia imagines the future.
The future of Zambia danced and sang for us at Nanswinsa Public School near the town of Chibombo. This was a celebration, bigger even than the usual elaborate Zambian welcome - we had brought 100 bicycles with us, to be given to the most deserving students of the 700 at this school. Every teacher, all six of them, now tried to corral kids and quiet them down for the long list of speakers. Among them, F.K. Day, founder of World Bicycle Relief, urged the kids to keep the bolts on their bicycles tightened: “If your pants or chitenge come loose, do you let them fall to the ground, or do you stop and tighten them?” The kids giggled. The teachers hooted. The mood was jubilant.
Then more singing, led by a freakishly energetic music teacher who jumped, writhed and bellowed at the top of his lungs, leading the kids in a melodic and spirited chorus of thanks:
“We thank you, we THANK YOU, we thank you for the bicycles you have brought!!”
Three times through, the drums thumping louder each time, followed by an endless repeat of the next verse:
“What a wonderful thing…you have done for us! What a wonderful thing…you have done for us! ”
If it wasn’t so damn catchy and rhythmic, its excessiveness would have been embarrassing.
When one of the teachers closed with, “Thank you for helping us, the poor and vulnerable people,” I cringed. Seven hundred youngsters, their lives ahead of them, heard him say it.
It struck me as a foolish thing to call the children, even if it was the truth. It bothered me that the kids might self-identify with the negative label. In social psychology it could be called a “stereotype threat,” which argues that the actions and performance of the kids will continue to reinforce that description of them.
Of course there’s much more to this issue than what a teacher says to a handful of foreigners, but to me this was a symptom of what Western charity has done in Africa – we called them poor and vulnerable first, and now a generation of people view themselves that way.
Suddenly I felt guilty. It was no longer the guilt of my abundance, which I had been feeling since my first day here, it was the guilt of my meddling. Guilt for being there. Guilt for bringing my nice camera with me, and my bottle of water - not because I had it and they didn’t, but because I was reminding them how I live, how much of the world lives. Was my presence here just showing the kids what they were missing? Was I providing a reference point that made them feel poor and vulnerable by comparison? And was giving them bicycles just reinforcing that position?
Many have argued (including psychologist Barry Schwartz) that happiness is relative, that we constantly compare ourselves to others. If we look better off than those around us, we feel satisfied, happy. If not, it stresses us out, makes us jealous and hostile. Perhaps my very presence here was stealing happiness from people with very little else.
But I felt vindicated as I thought about how small the world is these days – how everyone here has a cell phone, and there’s always a TV nearby for a soccer match. If there was a comparison happening, it was probably happening long before I came around.
From my front row seat, I looked up at smiling kids as they belted out the last lines of their song. As they finished, I was called up to hand over the first bicycle to a child. Emily stood next to me with her mother, beaming, as cameras flashed. I passed the bicycle to her, and Emily took off, riding circles of pure joy. Her mother thanked me profusely.
Later I would ride to her house, the nine kilometers on dirt trails that she used to walk daily, a four-hour return trip. She would wake at dawn to complete her chores, and return home at dark. The evening would continue by a diesel lamp in a modest two-room mud home, where Emily would tackle her homework. When given a tour of the home, my head began to thud from the diesel fumes.
Now with a bicycle, she’d be home in time to study in daylight, with energy left for it. On weekends, Emily’s mother could use the bicycle to bring vegetables to market and make enough money to pay for Emily’s school fees.
The gift of a bicycle is buying Emily an education, and it takes education to feel empowered instead of poor and vulnerable. While it’s still a gift, and possibly reinforcing the attitude of dependence, World Bicycle Relief is having the children sign contracts, committing them to attendance and performance at school.
I wonder about the strength of such a contract, but it’s a start. The priority is education. Educated people understand the risk of AIDS, they fight for their rights, and they don’t tolerate corruption in governance. Education is crucial for development.
As I was leaving Emily’s house, a young boy, one of her brother’s, ran up alongside me. His buddies watched from a safe distance:
“In America, do you eat nshima?” he asked me about their local corn meal, the staple food. I assumed he had heard a rumor that perhaps we didn’t, but found it hard to believe.
“No, actually we don’t,” I replied carefully, not sure how much I should say.
He sounded quite surprised and pushed further, “Well, if you don’t eat nshima, what do you eat?”
Sparing him the diversity of our diet, I told him we ate potato, rice, corn and wheat as our “staples.”
“Does that give you enough energy for football?” he pressed, meaning soccer.
As an Irishman by blood, an American by circumstance, but a proud Canadian by birth, I took my opportunity to explain the concept of hockey. I didn’t get past ice.
As I struggled to communicate sub-zero temperatures, the world seemed pretty damn big again. Maybe my presence was indeed influential.
As we boarded the bus to head back to Lusaka, I was handed a chocolate chip cookie and a sandwich - pesto chicken with all the fixings. The villagers gathered as we rolled out, and the young boy smiled at me and waved. Instinctively, I hid my lunch from his view.