Saturday, March 5, 2011

Development Choking Points

Let me first clarify the initial post “Living Their Life” and preface subsequent posts. In reference to the villagers, by saying I was “living their life”, I was being quite presumptuous – certainly for journalistic reasons and not to mislead. A dominating characteristic of their experience, one which I would NEVER be able to comprehend regardless of the time spent immersed, is a feeling of perpetuity. For most villagers, things will never change; there is no escape in sight. For me, I know in X number of weeks I escape to a better place. This is one reason why I’ve come to accept that I will never fully understand poverty – I can only get close. Having said that, in two weeks in a village, you can pick up a lot, and that’s what I hope to share with you.

So getting on with it.

I want to continue where I left off, with what happened next with Togbah. The next morning circa 7:00 am, after a night of powerful rain that shook the house, we went to the farm to tap the palm wine. The wine was extracted from the base of the overturned palm and handed to me in a never-washed cup complete with dirt, bark, and all manner of insects floating in it (pics 1 and 2). I went back for seconds, but not because I liked it. From there we went to a bar in the next village for “7 cent gin” (the name I gave it), and then purchased a bottle of fiery home brew moonshine to split back at the farm. When I went for my lunch, which was just oranges, he questioned why I wasn’t soaking it in alcohol. So my lunch was a gin-soaked orange, and by around 11 am I was a bit tipsy.

It didn’t take long to confirm that yes, I had somehow been paired up with the village drunk, for lack of a better descriptor. Many people claimed there was something wrong with his head – a claim I initially thought to be an exaggeration or slight, but became increasingly convinced that that might actually be the case.

This alcohol problem, combined with his personal mindset, did two things. First, he killed any opportunity for himself in terms of work and impressing me, someone who could probably really help him. He spent more time drinking and talking than working which, at least to me, doesn't seem like the best course of action when it’s harvest time and you have free labor on hand. Second, he killed opportunity for his family and those around him. Which leads me to Esther.

Esther is 18 years old. She’s in 5th grade and has three classmates. This isn’t unusual for Liberians, especially rural Liberians, who have had schools disrupted for years. She’s the daughter of Gamay, but not of Togbah, so he tells me often (“she not born to me”, he says). As such, he really doesn’t care at all for her.

Still, she’s studious and hardworking. To fund her education, every Saturday she heads to market to sell cassava leaf. I noticed that she was always carrying around this tattered World Book – the “T” section from sometime during the Clinton administration. Since it was the only book she had, and I understood there was another she wanted, I offered to buy her the new one once she could find out the price.

This was a problem with Togbah. He warned me, “And you don’t give her money [for the book]. Don’t ever try. Don’t ever try, I tell you…Whatever I tell you to do, do; whatever I tell you don’t do, don’t do.” Admittedly, I should have checked with him first. Yet, this was a consistent pattern throughout my stay: any money I wanted to spend had to go through him, and he always had to benefit first. He essentially wanted to use me as his personal pocketbook. Needless to say, this created an interesting dynamic throughout my stay.

The problem with this is not primarily that he is difficult to help get out of poverty, but that he serves as a choking point for impacting others – his entire family. In thinking about how to impact a community, people like Togbah create very difficult situations. In Bangladesh, I met many female entrepreneurs whose husbands had been supportive of their home business. Would Gamay ever be able to start a business? Would I ever be able to mail something like books to Esther? It’s not impossible, but when need is great and resources are scarce, you go for the low-hanging fruit.

(I did, by the way, buy her the book before I left, and proposed to Gamay that if she made it to college I would fund it. To my knowledge, Togbah still doesn’t know.)

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