Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In Defense of Missionaries

We moved to Kenya for reasons equal part idealism and adventure.  We got jobs working for an NGO that does research on anti-poverty programs to assess which strategies (microloans, fertilizer subsidies, free bed nets...) were actually helping the people they intend to.  Not every program you give your money to actually works well and there are often unintended consequences.  The mission of this organization is to find out what works best and advocate to scale it up.  We believed in it. We still do.

But working in the environment of research and policy development is like addressing community problems - problems that were right under our noses - with a sanitized 10 foot kiboko.  We wanted to help in a more visceral way.  We wanted to dirty our hands, but instead we were straining our eyes, looking at data and financial systems.

Still, living in this part of the world it's hard not to feel the heavy weight of your relative privilege and be pushed to do something more directly in your community.

So, we did little things.  We raised money for an orphanage, sponsored some kids to go to school, gave a number of gifts and no interest loans.  We were loose with almost all harambe requests. Now, that I'm only working very part time, I'm volunteering at a nutrition clinic.

But the real paid work feels too removed, too technocratic.  The direct help we do give feels like a drop in the bucket.  I've resigned myself to this unease.  The shine has worn off my idealism and the pretense that we can move here and make some kind of a difference.  I'm not sure how anyone sustains their idealism or feels they are making a tangible difference.

Most expats I've met here would share my sentiments and conflicts.  Most, but not all.  Probably not missionaries.

You know like most politically liberal spiritual agnostics, I was prepared to disdain missionaries. This idea that anyone would go to another part of the planet and tell people that what they have believed for millenia is wrong, even that they would burn in hell unless they changed their world view, is anathema to me.  That any help missionaries could provide would be contingent upon a religious conversion seemed unjust and harmful.  The whole thing smacked of paternalism.

But, let me tell you something: Sub Saharan Africa is already largely Christian.  It's fully woven in the fabric of life.  For better or worse, there are few left to convert.  So, today missionaries come here largely to help.  Sometimes it's to help churches, but often it's to help people - street children, orphans - the most vulnerable.  Christians yes, but also Muslims and others.  Sure, there's still a lot of God talk, and missionary sponsored self-help groups often start off with an opening prayers, but so do NGO staff meetings. Like I said, country is already very Christian.

And the missionary families I've met have been able to harness that elusive idealism and embed themselves into the community in ways not found among other expat families.  It makes sense.  It's easier, personally, to endure the distance from grandparents and Cheez-its if you believe in your calling to be somewhere.  It's easier to be the odd-person out in a community of culturally different people and to commit to staying long term when you believe that you can make a difference.  It's easier to push away the creeping cynicism of development work when you are taking the long, even eternal, view.

So, they are the expats who know Kiswahili, know the community and build actual tangible things that help people in the community.  There's a part of me, an admittedly non-religious person, that longs for that.

But maybe that's weirdly selfish.  NGO expats work on programs that help people, but often from a fancy office. Kenyans do the implementing because they know the community, the language the cultural barriers. Maybe that's how it should be?  But it means that the expats, who are often in positions of power, don't know the community as well. We could probably use some missionary-style community integration.  

Still, I've come to unexpectedly admire these missionary families and what they are able to achieve personally and in the community. I'm sure the criticism of paternalism might still be apt in some cases, and I'm not saying the whole model is without problems.  Listen, I'm Jewish, for crying out loud, so all the Jesus talk often feels exclusionary. But we're all here to try and make a positive difference, and I think there's something to admire about the model of striving for solidarity with the people you are here to help, and anchoring your idealism in something larger than your self.    


14 comments:

  1. Once again, another fabulous post that I can totally relate to. Having spent a couple formative adult years in Vanuatu (as a Peace Corps Volunteer), I get the whole missionary/ expat/wanting to do something meaningful conundrum. At the time I wasn't mature enough to fully appreciate the missionaries and disdained their influence in their culture..it was totally pervasive.(I still do disdain the historical piece) However, it was the missionaries (not me) actively working to preserve their rapidly vanishing language, and therefore maybe not on purpose, culture. If I could do it over, I might make more of an effort to connect with the missionaries, and maybe do a little more of what they did in that regard. I'd also learn the village language rather than just the national pijin-english language. Love your posts!

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    1. Thanks so much! I'm glad this resonated with someone. I wasn't quite sure about it. There's such a cultural rift between religious and non-religious people now in the US and I think it does us all a huge disservice. I still don't relate to people when they say "God wanted me to x, y, z," or "We'll pray for an answer" etc... It's a completely different world view to my own. But I've learned that if I apply the same respect adn inquisitiveness to this culture that I do to Kenyan culture, there's a lot to learn.

      And, you're right, missionaries are doing a lot of the language preservation work, which does ironically do a lot to preserve culture - the opposite of what probably happened historically. Interesting point!

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  2. Very thoughtful and insightful stuff, Kim! I think your contributions go far beyond the visceral and the technocratic. In fact, sharing your stories enlighten those of us who wish we could do more. So much of what we do might be viewed as futile by others, like "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic", yet we continue because we find it rewards us - directly or indirectly, and sometimes the reward isn't realized for a very long time. I've come to dismiss the futility concept and embrace the notion that it would be far worse to do nothing at all. I'm glad you continue doing what you do - helping, thinking, communicating. Thank you!

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    1. Thanks Anna! I was thinking of you and Steve and Jon when I wrote this, so I'm glad you commented!! And I know you're right. It's rare that anyone feels like their making a real tangible difference. Hell, even the most powerful person on the planet probably feels this futility sometimes. I think the hard part is staying motivated amid all of this. And that's where those who do their work with a religious calling seem to have an edge. But, then again, I suppose a religious conviction probably erases a lot of doubt that us agnostics struggle with. ; )

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  3. Lovely post Kim. I have often made judgements about people and the work they do based on the organizations they work for and many of them have proven me wrong while others have reinforced the stereotype. I think at the end of the day it is all down to the individual and what they make of their situation. There are missionaries that learn the language and actively engage in their community while providing useful services to all, and there are missionaries that do not. There are aid and embassy workers that surround themselves with other expats and coworkers and never really get to know the community they are living in and there are others who make a point to learn the language, integrate and get their hands dirty. There are also many expats in Africa working in the non profit field for smaller organizations and without the community of a large organization or church they make their own way. Some do it well and others not so well. In my opinion we all have to decide how we are going to engage with our communities and take responsibility for our actions and the consequences of those actions. We also have to take responsibility for work we do and honestly assess if it is something that is wanted and needed by our communities. The only way to do that is to get out in the community and it sounds like that is what you are doing - even if your paid employment is behind a computer screen.

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    1. Jody, you're totally right. There are a lot of people who don't fit into the descriptions I'm laying out. I've met some missionaries who despite their time in the country and desire to help, harbor some pretty racist ideas, and I know some NGO workers who are very focused on solidarity with the people they are trying to help. I think I was just surprised by the admiration I ended up having for missionaries given my preconceptions of what they do. Thanks for your very thoughtful comment!

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  4. A lot of interesting insights here. Lots of food for thought.

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  5. Thanks, Kim. I totally share this perspective, which very much fits with my own experience. Like any other group of people (including development professionals), one meets more and less-impressive individual missionaries. But the best of them impress precisely because their service is driven by spiritual values. I often think of a Dutch missionary with whom I worked in rural Botswana on a previous project to combat child labor. She was a white outsider, yet she spoke more than one of the local San ("Bushman") dialects. And when a child went missing or got into trouble, local people turned first to Beppie help.

    As you know, like you I am not "Christian." But as a Baha'i, and even in this late stage of my career, I find myself thinking more about _why_ I do what I do professionally, as well as how I do it in terms of values and human interaction. I believe that the most important answers are spiritual, and transcend religious labels. Without such motivations, too many well-intentioned development workers veer too easily into cynicism or self-interest. There is a practical element here, too. So much of effective development depends on personal change: values, attitudes, habits. Historically religion at its best has been the most effective force for such good, (even though, at its worse, it has been used to justify terrible deeds.)

    I believe that all of us - of every faith - can, must, learn from those for whom religion, in the words of the Baha'i Writings, reflects "fewness of words and abundance of deeds." I truly admire those who reflect that in their professional service. Surely that is the greatest mission to which we can aspire.

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  6. It's good to hear this. I probably need to hear it. That all missionaries are not fire and brimstone and that not all missionaries support the horrific laws in some countries in Africa that would make homosexuality punishable by death. I suppose I am jaded, but I am not a complete cynic.

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  7. It's an interesting point. I read an article a couple of years ago that when everyone left Darfur because it was too unsafe... there were a couple of groups of Christian missionaries that stayed on. I also heard another piece on NPR arguing that several AIDS clinics in sub-Saharan Africa were finding financial support coming from leaning left NGOs as well as right-wing churches. That piece was trying to suggest that both sides had completely different "reasons" per se of why they were interested in helping, yet the outcome was the same, and the flow of financial aid didn't specify which political side it came from. It's interesting how we put people into categories.. I am guilty of thinking I understand someone's motivations for something, and then being surprised when I'm wrong.

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  8. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Kim. One thing I am uncomfortable with is that you never corrected your assumption that missionaries give assistance on the conditionality of conversion. When we lived in Afghanistan, we knew a Finnish nun who had lived in central Afghanistan working as a midwife for 30 years (three days travel by land from the nearest healthcare facility). Faith in her case was not a matter of conditionality for assistance and aid did not represent a medium through which to convert people (unlike the U.S. Government "hearts and minds" campaigns might I add). Faith was the fundamental fabric of life which compelled her to devote her life to saving lives. She delivered thousands of babies who would have otherwise died (the region has the highest maternal and child mortality rate in the world), all because of the purpose given to her by faith. You and I may share that faith, or we may not, but I think we can join together in gratitude for her contribution either way.

    Perhaps she is the exception... but to me she represents one of the best examples of living out humanitarian principles I can think of, which is ironic when you think about how many secular aid workers I know...

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    1. That's such a wonderful example Anna, and exactly what I'm trying to explain here. To be clear, I don't believe that most missionaries make aid contingent upon conversion. That's what I think the common misconception is. Like I mentioned they give aid to the most vulnerable regardless of faith and reach people that traditional "aid workers" often miss. It's what I unexpectedly find myself admiring about them. They leave what's comfortable and are sustained by their faith - something I think us NGOs work struggle with (leaving comfort zones and sustaining our idealism). I'm so glad you commented. I was thinking of you and Steve a lot as I wrote this post. I actually thought the other Anna commmenter was you. : )

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  9. Kim, I discovered your blog today via your "bembeleza" posting, which I loved, and so did many of my facebook friends with whom shared it with!! I was raised in Kenya by missionary parents- we lived in Kaimosi. (Western Kenya, within an hour of Kisumu and an hour of Kapsabet) I saw so many times that my parents really did so much to better the lives of the people who they were working with. You are so right- we need that kind of person-centered hope-filled work. That is the kind of thing that is sustainable...planting seeds of growth and change in people and then being able to nurture and help those seeds grow to harvest and further propagate. So much of education is like that- we invest, and we hope that something will implant and spark further growth.
    I remind my dad, who is no longer on the mission field and misses it terribly in his retirement, that his work continues, as the seeds that he and my now-deceased mother planted continue to grow and bloom in the people that they invested in and taught and mentored over the years.
    I LOVE how open you are to your community. It sounds like you are developing some really interesting relationships with many of your Kenyan neighbors. I bet that they really enjoy you and your warm and open heart.

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    1. Hi Lisa, Thanks so much for stopping by and for sharing my post with your friends! Oh, I would so love to pick your brain about your experiences growing up here! And I'm sure you're right - the people who's lives you and your family touched continue to be affected. Education is the most powerful tool we have!
      And really, thanks so much for such a lovely comment. It really made my day!!!

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