Giving Good Gifts

by Kelley Nikondeha on March 27, 2014

Day One family

The Batwa people live on the edges of Burundian society, marginalized in their own country. Local humanitarian workers tell tales of these people who thwart good gifts and show little gratitude, making them notoriously difficult to work with.

One organization generously gave corrugated metal roofs for the thatch-constructed homes. But soon after the installation, the aid workers discovered the metal was sold.

Another religious-based agency gave these families window insets and doors for their unsecured homes. It didn’t take long for word to travel back to the team – all the items disappeared, probably sold for quick cash.

These organizations promptly labeled this Batwa community as ungrateful. They said the people were incompetent to care for the gifts or unable understand the value these gifts could add to their community well being. “They are troublemakers,” the workers said. We were warned to stay clear of them and help someone else or our energies would be wasted.

But my husband had learned to not take the solitary narrative of the NGO workers as gospel. Claude visited this community often and forged friendships with them. He listened to the stories told by the chief, the mamas trying to feed their children, the men looking for regular work. They painted a different picture about the good gifts.

The Batwa families lived in frail homes on the side of a barren hill. “Winds whip across the terrain plying the metal roofs off,” one man shared. The families would try to secure the metal sheets with heavy rocks on all four corners of the roof, but still the rambunctious winds would pop off the metal and the rocks. “Given the conditions, how feasible is it to do roof repair every time the wind blows?” he asked.

The window insets that shut tight and doors that locked were fine gifts, one mother said. “But I have eight children, no husband and no food. What would you do?” she asked. She decided, like all the other mothers, to sell the material for food that fed her family for weeks.

The chief told my husband about the many moves the families had made in the last set of years. These people had no deed for their land; they lived at the mercy and whim of the government officials. With no stability there was little interest in securing homes and bettering this place. Our Batwa friends knew better to build their homes on shifting sand.

When we listened to all the stories, we came up with a very different assessment of the situation. Our Batwa friends weren’t guilty of being ungrateful, incompetent or troublemakers. They had families to feed and no jobs, no fertile land, no stability. These facts radically altered their priorities and shaped what, in fact, were considered to be good gifts.

We began to frame the difficulty another way – the problem rested squarely on the shoulders of the givers, the ones giving gifts too soon to be useful, the ones giving gifts without enough relationship to know if what was on offer was necessary or timely. The trouble is that a roof over your head is little comfort when there is no food in your belly – and many organizations never take time to listen to that story. Instead, good people get labeled as ungrateful and miss out on strategic help from others.

Despite the advice of other organizational leaders, we began working alongside our Batwa friends two years ago. We planted trees to begin to break the gusts of wind that barreled up the hillside and threatened the homes. We worked hard to get identity cards for thousands of men and women so they would have legal rights – and eventually they got the deed to their land. Wells with access to clean water came in last year followed by a new school and a health clinic.

Day One child

In our community development efforts over the past six years we haven’t always done it right. We’ve learned there is more than one story in operation so we must lean in and listen well. We also discovered the importance of working out of relationship with our Batwa friends so that we better know their needs – and any mistake made can be untangled together over time.

During the intervening years other groups have come to give goats, shoes and more offers of metal roofing. But they weren’t the gifts the community needed then or now. Currently the community leaders have asked for help growing pineapples and learning some trades they can use in the marketplace. They are naming the gifts they need to move forward.

When our friends ask for locking doors or a roof over their head – we’ll be eager to give that good gift and they’ll be ready to receive it. Until then, we’ll keep working on the necessities we discern together. Maybe the best gift we can give one another is long-term friendship and the readiness to give partnered with the willingness to listen to the whole story.

*****

Was there a time you were tempted to offer the gift you wanted to give before asking the community members what they wanted or needed?

When has listening to the stories of your community members changed your praxis and opened up new possibilities?

Have you listened to the long history of your community, shared over multiple meals with different people, to learn what they’ve lived through before you arrived? How did that alter your perspective about them and your work?

 

 ~ Kelley Nikondeha, community development practitioner in Burundi, living in transit between  Bujumbura & Phoenix

blog:   www.kelleynikondeha.com |  twitter: @knikondeha | organization: www.communitiesofhope.tv

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  • Dalaina May

    This is awesome, Kelley! In the spirit of When Helping Hurts, I applaud both your efforts and your defense of their decisions as a people. Thanks for being an advocate for them in many ways.

    • Something great happens when we meet people as friends and hear their stories – we affirm our shared humanity, recognize their agency and become more discerning advocates for our friends. We have a long road ahead, but doing it together allows us all to be transformed in the meanwhile!

      • Marilyn Gardner

        I love this comment almost as much as I loved the post! Beautifully articulated! So glad you are at ALOS.

  • John Donaghy

    Establishing relationships is very important in recognizing what people need and letting them have a voice in deciding their needs and their hopes for their communities.
    Keeley’s narrative about the Batwa people is, all too often, what we see. People from without – without personal realtionships with the community – decide what the people need and “give” it to them. Non-profits are, all too often, guilty of this if they do not have a process whereby the people can actually decide what they need and are capable of doing, and whereby the people are the protagonists in the process, not the NGOs.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    So good Kelley. I love the actual examples of things you have done differently – like planting the trees. Practical and useful.

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  • Welcome, Kelley! This post buzzed with idea starters beneficial to the receivers and the givers alike. Well done! This was my favorite line: They are naming the gifts they need to move forward.

    • Thanks for the warm welcome! And yes, love to see the agency of the Batwa people emerge once the rubble of the bad narrative is removed and they feel heard and empowered to speak out their needs.

  • Fantastic post, Kelley- THANK YOU for being here! I too have seen this– missionaries coming in and giving gifts that are great ideas for themselves, but totally miss the mark in reality. I knew a guy that would go into villages and spend months creating leadership and building relationships and talking through the village setting goals for themselves and listing their top needs . . . then they would work TOGETHER (foreigners and villagers together) to meet that need/goal. It was a MUCH LONGER process, but a much more effective one.

    Thanks, again, for being here!

  • Richelle Wright

    Welcome, Kelly – truly appreciated these thoughts. I found this statement most challenging (and hopeful!): “In our community development efforts over the past six years we haven’t always done it right. We’ve learned there is more than one story in operation so we must lean in and listen well. We also discovered the importance of working out of relationship with our Batwa friends so that we better know their needs – and any mistake made can be untangled together over time.”

    One thing I’ve noted is that it is important for us to model this very sort of behavior you’ve described because I’ve seen the women and others I’ve worked with act more like westerners in their ministry habits because they mimic what the missionaries do – than like people of their own culture, if that makes sense.

    Our pastor’s wife (in W Africa) asked me to teach the ladies’ Bible study at church once a month, after we’d moved into that church about 6 months earlier – and before I started, we had a long meeting in which she outlined topics and ideas that she believed the ladies needed to examine. And we continued that for a couple of years and there was a good group of women consistently attending although I noticed a clear divide between the younger, the older and the women who worked as vendors in the market – and then I left for a year of home assignment.

    When I returned a year later, the group had dwindled and she just couldn’t figure out why because she’d continued holding meetings/teaching… I asked her if she’d asked the ladies of the church what they wanted and needed from a ladies’ group/ministry and she was adamant: “that just wasn’t the way it was done.” The missionaries who’d trained the folks who’d planted the church years before this pastor and his wife had stepped into leadership had taught that only elders of the church set the schedule and the agenda. It was disheartening – and it was also clear that the women had no time for a group that didn’t address their felt needs.

  • Great post. I’ve seen similar dynamics in many communities – especially post “sexy”-disaster when organizations and groups have more money than they know what to do with and not much time to offload it.

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    awesome word, Kelley — couldn’t agree more. loved this.

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