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Sunday, July 03, 2005

Well meaning, blind arrogance

Yesterday I got to spend some time with my in-laws for a visit. Many years ago, they lived in the north African country of Mali, and even now I find myself hearing new stories of their time there. Their experiences there are high on my list of reasons why I have little faith in well meaning events such as the recent Live 8 concerts. I will also never donate money to any of the big charities.

Now I have yet another example of the pretensiousness and arrogance so many of us in developed nations have aquired. How easy it is to make assumptions! Many people, organizations and goverments offer their aid to African countries, believing that what they're doing is actually helping, yet they never even bothered to find out exactly what *kind* of help people actually needed! Yesterday's story was a prime example.

Mali is a French speaking country and my MIL speaks both French and English fluently. As a result, she was often called upon to act as an interpretor. One day, she was asked to interpret for a woman from England who's pet project seems to have been Meals On Wheels. She had come to Africa to share this wonderful project with the locals, and my MIL had the dubious pleasure of interpreting her speech. On and on she went about Meals on Wheels, how great it would be if they implemented this programme in their homeland, and how great it would be for their elderly to have meals delivered to them.

After the speech was over, my MIL approached the woman and pointed out to her that these people would have *no* idea what she was talking about. At first, the woman was rather insulted, so my MIL explained. Unlike us in our so-called developed nations, the people of Mali were not in the practise of hiding their elderly away into boxes, out of sight and out of mind. There were no Senior Centers. No "old folks homes." These people lived in extended families, and the idea that they would need some strangers to come around delivering meals to them was ludicrous. They had family to feed them, after all. Why would they need someone else to do it?

Can you imagine the confusion these local people must have felt while listening to this woman talk? Would they have been insulted that this foreign woman thought they didn't care for their own elders? Or what might their thoughts be of our own culture, to learn that elders would need such a programme to keep them from going hungry?

In our afluence, it's so easy to assume that what we have is what everyone else wants and needs. Maybe, every once in a while, we need to realize that we're the ones who could use the "help."

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