Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Patronizing Relationships

My new part-time househelper, Neema, lost her primary job this week.  I was having an inner debate about the implications of this (Can she live just on the little I pay her? Should I offer her a fulltime position watching Evelyn? Can I justify the expense?), so I was relieved to find out that she had someone else watching her back.  He called me up yesterday to make sure that I was aware of what happened and asked if I'd be interested in giving her extra hours while she searches for more work. He introduced himself on the phone as her father, which surprised me, since I knew that her parents were back in rural Ethiopia raising her son, and that she was financially supporting them.

Who was this confident man who spoke English so well? "Mon patron," she replied. I was intrigued, so I probed a bit more. It turns out that she and her older sister share a bedroom in the large house of her patron (and will stay there even though he plans to be out of the country for most of the summer). Her patron often gives her lifts home from work so that she doesn't have to deal with the bus.  He doesn't work anymore, since he now lives off the rental income from the homes he built in the nice part of town.  So do you work for him? "No. He's our patron."  Digging a bit deeper, I established that he is somehow related to her on her father's side of the family, but that's about all she volunteered.

The nerd in me geeked out. I had just been reflecting on the rules of patronage systems and contemplating how by understanding them we can better grasp the underlying dynamics of both biblical stories and modern community development issues. Here, in my own house, is a client so fully aware that she has a patron that she refers to him as such.

Ok, so I should explain a bit about patronage, because most 'westerners' don't really get it. Randolph Richards and Brandon O'Brien provide a solid 101 explanation in their recent book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes.  They suggest thinking about how the characters in the film The Godfather are operating in a patronage system. In a social structure where the only way an average Joe or Jane can get ahead is through being in the good graces of someone more powerful, getting a patron is critical.  Your patron helps you get your foot in the door, finds you investors and markets for your products. Your patron helps you out when you get in trouble. Folks know that to mess with you is to mess with your patron. In exchange, your patron gets your loyalty and praise.  The patron can call on you at anytime for a service, but mostly what the patron gets out of the relationship is the satisfaction of being the King or Queen of the mountain.

Richards and O'Brien offer several examples of how understanding this helps us better understand stories and discussions found in the Bible--including the descriptions of God as our true patron. I especially appreciated their observations how on one hand Paul went to great lengths to avoid getting entangled in patronage relationships with the church communities he visited (refusing financial support, for example) while on the other hand he created patronage relationships between the communities in order to strengthen their ties.  

In a draft of his yet-unpublished memoir on his adventures in DR Congo, the Rev. Dr. Robert Walters addresses how missionaries have a history of being unaware of their role in the patronage system.  Bob writes:
Missionaries were the priests of a patronage system that rescued the community from its poverty while, at the same time, they unintentionally insured that the community would never become self sufficient. Brave and compassionate, they came to save souls and make life better.  They came into a system they could not control and did not understand. They were co-participants in a system that could not deliver what it promised... 
The missionary thinks that he or she is proclaiming a simple and straight forward Gospel message aimed at converting..., fully unaware that those to who they are preaching live in a world more like the world of Jesus than the missionary can know, and they, the 'heathen' being preached to, bring the missionary into their world to play the role of the patron in an economic system that the preachee intuitively understands better than the preacher. Unwittingly, the missionary reinforces the very problem that the Gospel is meant to remedy.  
Bob goes on to talk about his personal struggles with how to avoid the traps of the patronage system, the compromises he's made with it, and ways he sees it can be leveraged for the good of the community.

If I had understood the rules of patronage back when I first starting working in Africa, I would have saved myself so much trouble and heartache (What can you do but get irked when your stupid patron fails to hold up her end of the implicit agreement?!).

Anyway, I've just scratched the surface on what I wanted to say, but in a few minutes the clock will strike 5pm, and Neema will hand my energetic toddler back to me.  So, I guess all I'll say for now is that I'm very relieved that, at least here in Djibouti, no one is asking me to engage in patronizing behavior.

In 2005, I didn't know that by accepting the typed invitation to this choir sing-off I had nonverbally promised to be a patron of the arts in their community. #patronfail


Monday, April 29, 2013

Bait and Switching Do-Gooder

In my first year of undergrad I took a class titled Honors English: Subversive Thinking.  Our professor told us to call him ‘Coach.’ I hated that class, and I loathed calling that man Coach.

It wasn’t the classroom time or even the assigned readings I disliked; that part was fun. We’d dissect political speeches and magazine articles looking for logical fallacies and meaningless phrases. We read The New Doublespeak and books that discussed the disconnect between public opinion and government policies. All of this I devoured.

The painful part was the writing. Coach said we’d all gotten into his class because as teens we’d excelled in the art of generating long papers that didn’t say much of anything. This time, we had to say something thoughtful, and filler words would not be tolerated.

Coach was ruthless with my papers, calling some unfit to grade. My sense of identity and self-esteem was that of being a straight-A student. How could he suggest that my work was rubbish?!  I oscillated between anger and grief. 

Last week I blogged about my frustration with the way do-gooder fundraising campaigns are usually pitched in the USA. I talked about how they manipulate emotions by playing to our vanity and (often subliminally racist) savior complexes. I wanted all my readers to be cognizant of the game so they could make wiser decisions in how to use their money and energies.  The target of my attack wasn’t do-gooder organizations; it was the dysfunctional game that they are trapped in. If we could raise awareness of how sick the game is, then do-gooder groups would be freed from the pressures of duplicity.  No more debating whether the ends justify the means! No more treating donors like children who we have to trick into eating their vegetables! (and no, not all do-gooder groups are aware of the conspiracy—just the healthier ones) Without the pressure to bait and switch the public, we could pull back the curtain on the messy realities of do-gooder work and start healthy public explorations of what methods are fruitful.

Speaking of ‘bait & switch,’ an old friend e-mailed me after my last post and suggested that this was too harsh of a term. Couldn’t I find a softer way of saying it? She shared her personal experience of how ‘incredibly unpleasant’ it had been when I had shared with her my critiques of child sponsorship programs, since she has made considerable contributions to one. While the logical pragmatic part of her brain could clearly recognize that what I wrote made sense, it was still painful to process—even coming from a friend.  Perhaps if I used gentler words more people would be receptive to what I have to say, she suggested.  I responded that I saw the process like ripping off a bandaid, and after over a decade (arguably two decades) of me trying to coax people to reflect on their mission models, I just want to RIP THE DARN THING OFF.

This, in case you’ve been wondering, is how I got to thinking about Coach. He took the rip-the-bandaid approach, and at the time I hated him for it. It hurt to realize that my writing wasn’t wonderful (looking back, it really was rubbish). It was agony to see all those red marks on the page. And yet, now I’m grateful that I went through the experience--that he saw my potential and pushed me to go further. While I’ll probably never be an award-winning writer, barely a day goes by that I don’t apply what I learned in that class.

So, if you want to say I’m full of it and don’t have the right to presume to be your coach in the world of do-gooding, I get it. You’ve probably been do-gooding since childhood.  Who am I to question your methods or motives?

Nevertheless, I do request that you stick with my team at Friendly Planet Missiology and join the conversation as we wrestle with these issues.  Who knows?  Perhaps someday you will be begrudgingly glad that you did. 



Friday, April 26, 2013

Mary, Martha and Malaria

Some years back my ballroom dance coaches invited me to work at their studio. I helped them mostly in office admin and hospitality tasks, but then started teaching some beginner private lessons. I wasn't a popular teacher at first. I thought the underlying problem was that I was still just a student myself, but my coaches recognized it was that I lacked awareness of what the clients really wanted when they handed over their credit cards. They thought they were purchasing fantasy, praise and a sense of accomplishment. What they got from me was 50 minutes of pointing out all the mistakes they were making. The tragedy of it was that even though I too yearned for what they wanted, I was driving people away from the very activity I loved.

So what’s this have to do with malaria? I care a lot about malaria. I have many loved ones who have suffered from malaria and good friends who have lost children to it. I know what the forehead of a toddler with malaria feels like. I live in a malaria zone and fret over every mosquito bite my own daughter gets. I know first hand that even treated bed nets and bug spray are no match for some of those stubborn devils. I care, and I want the whole world to care.

Therefore, I’m hesitant to say anything that would discourage any efforts that address malaria. Goodness forbid that I whisper a word of critique about Nothing But Nets, Imagine No Malaria, or other campaigns. It would be better to put a millstone around my neck and throw me into the sea! And yet… I do have critiques. The folks running those initiatives haven't asked for my feedback, so should I still offer it? (Ballroom etiquette is to not give coaching unless it is requested; otherwise you just look like a jerk)

I suppose I could blog about what I might say if they did ask me, but that’s not actually what has been eating at me today. This week I saw advertisements for a new HBO movie called Mary and Martha. United Methodists were encouraged to host parties to watch the film, which was publicized as something that would raise awareness of malaria. I clicked on the website and watched the trailers. Ugh. My stomach felt sick. Please don't be another Great White Savior film. I clicked to read the reviews, since I don’t have access to the movie here. Sigh. “The malaria story, it seems to say, is filmable only if the central figures are white and it is larded up with the kind of button-pushing that television dramas thrive on. The Africans in this film are largely props for Ms. Swank to hold; we learn little about them beyond the happy choruses of welcome songs they shower on white visitors.” (New York Times)

If the movie critics at the New York Times can instantly see what is fundamentally racist about this movie, why can't the folks leading Imagine No Malaria?  Perhaps they do, but they think such an approach is the only way to open the pocketbooks of middle America (I'd rather believe this than think they are completely blind)Many years ago I took a class in grad school called NGOs and Development led by a former higher-up at World Vision. He talked about the tension that exists in the big development organizations between the fundraising department and the folks working out in the field. Experience has taught them that there is a huge chasm between what development approaches are effective (supporting local agency, for example) and what generates donations (campaigns that play to the savior fantasy).

I want you to understand that you, the "First World" public, are being played. I'm not hating; I'm just saying.

Thus far, most of what I've seen in terms of anti-malaria campaigns play to our fantasies.  Just like financially successful ballroom dance studios understand what their clients really want, these campaigns understand that the more we can visualize ourselves as praise-worthy saviors of the less fortunate, the more we will contribute.  Some argue that this approach is only truly problematic when the organization isn't consciously pulling a bait and switch.  Even our team at Friendly Planet Missiology has gone round and round on whether using what we know to be "more effective fundraising approaches" would be an ethical compromise.

I am beginning to think, however, that it is time for us all to stop being amateur do-gooders.

Let's jump back to my example of what my days at the ballroom studio taught me; I left out something very important. When I made the switch from being a regular student to being on staff, the nature of the coaching I received switched too.  They went from fluffy feel-good to hard work with expectations that I put in real effort and start mastering the material. This didn't mean that lessons were no longer enjoyable (although some felt miserable at the time); the joy came from an accelerated rate of advancement in my dancing--the thrill of viscerally experiencing a figure done well. The difference between an amateur dancer and a dance teacher, my coach insisted, was not about skill level but a matter of mindset. A teacher does not pay his/her coach for coddling but assistance in refining the craft.  A professional values correction over compliment.  

So I am issuing a challenge to all who are interested.  Consider making the switch from amateur to professional do-gooder.  The world's problems are too big and the opportunities for growth too many for us to continue to be content with false praise and slow progress.  Want to explore what would really make a difference in this world? Are you willing to grow thicker skin and be ready to critique every method you've ever tried?  Then let's get started. 

Because, quite frankly, if you want me to smile and say "Great job! You're my hero!" then you'll have to start paying me.     


The Playdate Panic

A couple days ago I shared about my fatigue with friend-dating, so it seems appropriate that I also address another activity that I find scary: The Playdate. Don't let its name fool you; playdates can be just as nerve-racking as other forms of dating---especially when one goes on blind playdates.

Being a first-time mother, I'm not sure what toddler playdating is like back in the USA, so I'm not certain to what degree my readers have experienced what I'm going through. Does it usually involve meet-ups of strangers making small talk and comparing milestones while trying to coax their children to interact with their new playmates? Do you ever get set-up on playdates? Do you also have running inner monologues coaching yourself on how to determine the social norms of the group in order to pass the unwritten acceptance exam?  Back when I was preggers and visiting family in Indiana, I went to hear my cousin Cherie, The Queen of Free, speak at a MOPs (Mothers of Preschoolers) meet-up.  It was great to see my cousin in action, but I went into a bit of multi-layered culture shock during the event, so I suspect that I'd find playdating anxiety-producing no matter where I lived.  

Recently Evelyn and I were the lone Americans at a birthday party/playdate hosted by a well-established local family with high social status.  This was not the first time since arriving in Djibouti that we have been invited to the house of a complete stranger to celebrate the birthday of a child we have never met.  The invitations come based on recommendations and because we look good on paper (Evelyn passes the initial checklist with her age, gender, nationality, language, and diplomat parents).  As long as we are still liked after our in-person auditions, we can be assured to be on the party invite list of several elite families in town with female toddlers.

I don't mean to sound judgmental/cynical about this; I'm simply stating my observations of how this process works.  In a country that has the third highest tuberculosis rate in the world among other deadly contagious illnesses, I need to balance my bleeding heart with pragmatic protection of my child; When both the embassy medical unit and the USAID folks warn me to keep Evelyn's social life within 'the bubble,' I pay attention.  (And since Djibouti doesn't really have a middle class....) 

Over the years I've come across several articles discussing how elite families in the USA maintain their social status over generations by micromanaging their offsprings' social circles; I'm still wrapping my head around the idea that I've on some level joined that world. Come to think of it, I now wonder if me never getting invited to the much-hyped parties of the wealthy kids in my middle and high schools had more to do with my family's socio-economic status in the community than my lack of coolness [Insert giant forehead smack]. 

Not sure if I really have a point to this post other than to say that I'm sure glad I've got my favorite wing-gal at my side to remind me to Keep Calm and Carry On.

Chill out Mom; it's just a playdate.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Friendmaking Fatigue #Foreign Service Problems

I made a new friend on Facebook this afternoon.  I know, I know, big whoop.  Well, actually, it is to me.  I'll tell you why, but I'll need to pull a 'Taylor' and give you a long backstory. 

A few years back I read a news article that had gone viral about why it is challenging to form best-buds friendships once we enter the post-college adult world. I was thinking about it this morning and wanted to reread it, so I googled and realized that there are A LOT of published articles on that topic. Observers of human behavior (both licensed and armchair) seem to mostly say the variations on the same thing on the topic:  that time, shared interests and shared intense experiences are key ingredients to the forming of close friendships.  The older we get, the less likely we are to put ourselves out there for new experiences and thus our social circles shrink in size. Cotton-candy self-help articles advise the lonely to join a club or invite a new friend to do something adventuresome.  I find such articles as grating and unhelpful as the ones that offer advise on how to get my child to sleep through the night.

It's not that I don't know how to make a friend. It's that, as a nomad, sometimes I get friendmaking fatigue.  Always surrounded by folks you haven't known for very long and in the near future will leave and possibly never see again, the work of starting all over again can be exhausting for introverts like me.  I'm not the first global nomad to lament about this in a blog; in fact, it has become a bit cliche to do so. Our friendmaking problems are compounded due the frequency of relocation, cultural/language barriers, and that pesky voice in the back of one's head that wonders about the political/economic motivations behind every social invite we receive (Do they like me or the doors they think I could open for them?).

When you carry a diplomatic passport, these issues can be amplified. A party is never just a party; on some level, it is always a working event. If the social function is attended just by folks from the embassy, well then you've got the 'people who can influence my spouse's career mobility are in the room' tension. If the social function involves non-Americans, then whether officially or not, you are doing the work of promoting positive diplomatic relations. One could attempt making friends at church and trying to keep one's diplomatic status on the down-low for as long as possible, but if you are intending to play the role of a clergy person in that church then there is a whole other box of worms.

I don't mean to complain (well, maybe just a little); overall I'm living a pretty darn cool life.  There are those days, though, (especially when hubby is working late) when I yearn to be able to call up an old friend and invite them over to hang out.   No anxiety about what I'm wearing or the state of the kitchen.  No pondering what to serve and what dishes to serve them with and what safe topics to discuss so as to not commit a faux pas that will send shock waves into the community (and possibly get my husband called up to the ambassador's office).   Sitting on the living room floor wearing no cosmetics eating a no-fuss meal we whipped up together (or pizza we ordered) and laughing about stupid stuff.  Maybe even crying about stupid stuff.  Maybe watching a horribly bad movie or playing a ridiculously immature game. No shame, No fear of judgement, No choosing one's words carefully for fear of being misunderstood.

So today I was feeling a bit blue, and I turned to Facebook to see if there was any news from my dear old pals.  A FB friend had posted a lament about a painful decision some of his friends had recently made.  It touched a nerve with me, so I shared about how I had been impacted by a similar issue. A woman I didn't know responded that my comment resonated with her because of a similar situation she found herself in. Soon after she and I were having a private FB chat and became friends. We seem to have a number of things in common.  She lives not that far away from me, relatively speaking, although it is entirely probable that our friendship will remain in the realm of appreciating each other's interesting status updates and article links.

The point is, I made a friend today. An actual connection with someone who appears to be a kindred spirit. And you never know, maybe we'll coordinate vacations and plan a meet-up in Abu Dhabi some weekend. In my neverending world of awkward friend-dating, it doesn't hurt to dream.

Anyway, that's all I wanted to say.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

In the Flesh and the Red Road

Last night I somehow got sucked into staying up late and watching the pilot of a new television drama. It is a BBC show called In the Flesh; it's in the post-zombie apocalypse genre.  It's not the sort of thing I normally enjoy (hate gory scenes), but the premise intrigued me and there was so much heart in the storytelling I kept on watching. 

So the basic set-up we get in the first episode is that our young PDS (Post-Death-Syndrome) suffering hero, Kieren Walker, is tormented by guilt (and graphic flashbacks) of the horrific acts he committed in his pretreated state (calling him a recovering zombie would be politically incorrect). He and countless others with his condition have received government sponsored medical and cosmetic assistance and are being reintegrated into society.  The communities they are returning to, however, aren't all convinced that this is a good thing--especially since if PDS sufferers go off their daily meds their brains quickly slip back into a 'rabid' state. Tensions are high and lynch mobs aren't uncommon. Families struggle with how to relate to and trust their returned loved ones. It is even revealed that there is an underground movement of PDS folks who are preparing for some sort of rebellion.

Science fiction shows that resonate with the masses generally do so because they address real-world social issues in a thinly veiled form (Paulo Freire would say the writers identified generative themes and created effective codes for them).  Now I'm not exactly sure what specific generative themes this show taps into for folks in Britain, but after watching I realized that it is a very good metaphor for issues of communities living along the infamous Red Road in DR Congo. My Congolese clergy colleagues have raised my awareness of the extreme challenges of demobilizing and reintegrating militias that have committed horrific acts against their own people.  With the level of drugs and psychological abuse used to turn many young people into mass murders, it is not that inaccurate to think of them as recovering zombies.   The social harmony problems faced in many towns and villages in Congo are strikingly similar to the problems that play out in this fictional village in the UK.     

Based on the community development model developed by Freire and those who came after him, we can use 'codes' such as the show In the Flesh to safely explore the dynamics of and possible responses to our real world social issues. Thus, despite looking away from the screen during parts of the show and having some disturbing dreams afterwards, I'm very much tempted to watch the next episode.

"The Shooter" She's the #2 in the camp of the War Lord Vende, and you don't get to be No. 2 by going through charm school, and you don't get the nickname, "The Shooter" at the county fair. The good news is that she is enrolling in our (Friendly Planet supported) nursing school in Mulongo this next semester