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.
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