Monday, June 23, 2014

How do we help?

Rwanda, like the other countries my fellow WDI interns are working in this summer, is a place with great need, a place where daily life for many bears none of the ease we are used to in America. The signs of hardship here can be deeply graphic. People here tend to talk about the 1994 genocide in the vaguest of terms, and yet each day on my walk across the bus station, through the market, and up the stairs to my office, I’m confronted with beggars whose bodies bear heart-wrenching evidence of the atrocities: amputated legs, missing hands, swollen feet, scarred faces . They reach their hands up, calling out, “Sister, please” as I walk by. While walking downtown with a friend, we were surrounded by a group of young children, maybe five or six years old, who followed us down the street, saying “Madam, I am suffering. Give me money.” And one evening last week as I was walking home, a teenage boy began walking along side me, asking me if I knew of anywhere he could get a job and whether I could give him even 50 francs ($0.10) so he could buy food to eat that night.

Like most people here, they assume that since I’m a light-skinned foreigner, I am wealthy – and by the standards of living here, I am, despite the fact that back home I’m a student with no income and plenty of debt. So far, I’ve responded to these requests the same way I would at home – I keep walking, maybe averting my eyes or shaking my head and saying “sorry” as I continue on. At home, I rationalize these choices through my (intermittent) volunteer work and support of organizations that provide services to those in need. The logical side of me rationalizes that giving money to one individual isn’t going to solve the real problem and that established organizations have greater capacity to address the root causes. Somehow, here that distinction doesn’t sit with me quite as well. I could very well have spared the money the teenage boy asked for, or handed over the orange that sat in my bag. And yet I didn’t – why, I’m not exactly sure. It’s partially the lesson that’s been deeply engrained in me during my previous travels – if you help one person, you’ll be surrounded by others expecting you to help them as well. There is certainly an element of fear about putting myself in a situation that spirals out of control, but I think there’s something else at work as well.

There was a recent article in the New York Times about Honolulu’s response to a growing homeless population. Many of the policies focus on moving the homeless population out of the prime tourist area of Waikiki: a twisted version of the old saying “Out of sight, out of mind.” Like Honolulu, Rwanda is also struggling with how to address the needs of its people while creating an environment that appeals to tourists, one of the country’s target growth sectors; while I haven’t read much about the policies here, what I’ve heard suggests that they share some commonalities with those in Hawaii. As I read the NYT piece, I found myself agreeing deeply with a quote in the article from Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, who asks, “Have we gotten so out of touch with reality that our first reaction to people experiencing destitution that it spoils our view of the beach?” – how can it be that even in America, our response to homelessness is to simply move the homeless to some place less intrusive, as if it the situation is their fault alone? And yet I recognize the tension between my reaction to the article and my silent wishes that I could just walk to work without being asked for money by the destitute of Rwanda , that the need here didn’t confront me so directly, or even that I could truly believe that I don’t have the capacity to help , which would allow me to go back to the plausible deniability I’ve established at home.

That last one is a strange thought for me to have: I’ve always thought of myself as a compassionate person, thoughtful about how I choose to help, but certainly eager to help when I have the power to do so. There are two things that have defined my path in life for just about as long as I can remember: finding the right person to share my life and create a loving family with (I love you and miss you, Tyler) and working in a career that allows me to improve some corner of the world, to make life better for someone. That second goal is part of what drew me to a WDI internship in the first place: I wanted to have the opportunity to use the skills I've acquired in grad school improve lives, to make a difference. And my work here does do that: over the next month and a half, Nuru will provide clean, affordable lighting to 20,000 households and establish 130 village businesses in rural Rwanda that will provide a sustainable source of income to their communities – impressive numbers to be sure. Yet, given the depth of need that confronts me each day, it feels insufficient. 

I’m not sure how I’m going to deal with these situations going forward – I don’t think my heart can bear continuing to walk by without responding, and yet I’m conscious of the fact that simply throwing money at these situations also won’t really help. So I’m posing the question to my fellow interns and other readers of this blog: How do you handle these situations? How can we help in a responsible manner? And how do we manage the heartbreak of knowing we can never help everyone? 


  1. Fantastic post Therese. I have been struggling with how best to handle same daily issue in Uganda as well. So far, my prefered approach has been to employ the desparate individuals around me whenever possible, even for the most simple of tasks. If I am going somewhere, I will have them take me there. If I need help carrying something, I allow them to help. Or even if I just need another perspective on my day, I ask. As you can imagine, this doesn't always work - so most times I find myself handing over the fify cents. Far from selfless, a few dollars a day has helped me sleep at night.

    1. Bryce, I definitely like the approach of employing them when possible. It feels more likely to empower them, or more like a "hand up" than a "hand out", which I think is better for everyone involved in the long run. It has been a challenge to get over my independence and see that there is a lot of good that can come from hiring someone to do my laundry or letting a boy in the market carry my bag in exchange for a tip. They're not things I'd ever do at home, but in a country where employment levels are so low, it can be a powerful way to contribute to the economy and reward the entrepreneurial spirit. I've also tried to do my shopping in the little neighborhood stores rather than the big Kenyan grocery store, in the same spirit of keeping money in the community.