Just say no' to progress?
One of our challenges to progress, ironically eno-ugh, may be our cultural inability to say ‘no’ to others. An American friend of mine, who is sadly leaving the country to go back home now, has spent the last three years running an NGO focused on community projects.
I think these little community projects, which can only be run with the willing participation of the people they are meant to affect, are the best way to help those in need and empower our people. Often you will find that our communities are bursting with people who have time on their hands, good ideas and the commitment to build a better place to live in but lack the knowledge of how to tap into the financial or organisational support they need to accomplish it.
This is where the NGOs come in; by providing people with organisational skills who know how to interact with the wider world to coordinate the coming together of plans, labour and resources that is necessary to accomplish the community’s goals. What first impressed me about my American friend was that after she had chosen the community she was going to work in, she went to them and introduced herself and began by asking them to please tell her what they, as a community, wanted to focus on, which resulted, among other things, in the community setting up a preschool with her help.
But I digress. As I mentioned, she is leaving the country soon and it is unclear at this point whether she will be able to come back (she hasn’t earned a salary in three years but has existed on the charity of the organisation she works for). At a small farewell get-together, I asked her if she thought the projects would survive her leaving and she grinned and told me that of course they would because they were being run by the community now. Just last week, she said, a woman from the community had approached her and asked her if it was all right for the women to take over the running and financing of some of the programmes at the preschool they had helped set up together.
Being the sort of person who sees a dark lining in every silver cloud, I asked her what her biggest challenge had been over the last few years and after a thoughtful pause, she said the biggest challenge to coordinating the community projects was the fact that the community members could never say ‘no’ to her. Specifically, if she asked them whether they could meet on a certain day and at a certain time, they would always agree but she would often discover after she had driven out to their area that the people she was going to meet were off somewhere else. "I don’t mind if they tell me they can’t meet me, I can always reschedule," she said, and then sighed, "but there are so many other things I could do with my time if I had known I hadn’t had to drive out there." At this point, a new acquaintance leaned forward and gently chided her, saying she should be honoured that the community respected her so much that they would not say ‘no’ to her. "If I respect a person and they make a request that I can’t comply with, I am going to find every way to talk around it but I would never say ‘no’," he said.
"I know," said my American friend with a smile, "but it just takes much longer to get things done".
I made a rude comment about how in Swaziland respect was more important than results, to the point where we could say ‘no’ to our development by not being able to say ‘no’ to other people.
"Ha!" retorted the fourth member of the party, "I’m a Swazi and I can say ‘no’. Just not to my family, of course."
But the conversation did make me think. Of course, we all had a point. There cannot be any forward progress or development if it is not based on mutual respect, and maintaining mutual respect can be tricky when very different cultures interact.
Even if you share a language, the same words may not mean the same things to both sides (I found this out the hard way in New York City when I discovered that there really is a significant divergence between the languages spoken in Britain and America. The words may be the same but the meanings differ in subtle ways that can cause an amazing level of confusion. Let’s just say I had a lot of unsuccessful dates). So the forms of respect are crucial.
But then again, so is seeing results. My friend literally cannot afford to stay here anymore to continue running her NGO. She was able to stretch it to three years but she has to find something to live on and, hey, kute imali lapha. But I sometimes wonder how much more she could have accomplished if the people in the community had occasionally been ‘rude’ enough to tell her that they wouldn’t be available to meet her.
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