Development work can be tricky. Though none of us are willing to admit this to ourselves, we come to the developing world with a sort of arrogance. We are “the educated”, the “non-poor”, the “lucky” ones who have come to change the lives of those who find themselves less fortunate than us. But even in our arrogance, there is the thought in the back of our minds that we can’t save the world, or that maybe we can’t even make a difference. Amongst other expats, we speak of “sustainability” and “progress”, but all the while, wondering if anything we are doing is having a lasting effect, and if we aren’t really hindering those we came to help. Such is the case for me (Faith) here in Liberia. Although I do not work for an NGO, because of my husband’s position of Country Director for MTI, I still find myself in the throngs of expats who have come here with the same intentions- to help this war-stricken country rebuild itself to a well-functioning society. But because I am not working for an NGO, my role in this whole goal is a little less defined. I have to find my own niche. Many days I wonder, “What can I do to impact the world I find myself in? I am a complete stranger, a foreigner, one who can barely speak the same language. I have no job, no program. I am just here.”
I was talking to my husband the other day about these things, and one of the things I asked was, “Is God really concerned with the big picture? Is He asking us to work towards this utopia of a world that is free from poverty and suffering? Do we need to be about the business of fixing all that is wrong in the world with economics, politics, and culture?” And Andrew, who is wise beyond his years, said, “No, God is about people. And we sometimes forget that at the heart of all this is people. Economics is just people, people trading goods with one another. Politics is just people, how they problem solve and live with one another in peace. Culture is just the way people live and their traditions. And God is in the business of redeeming people.”
In light of that, I find it an easy thing to discover my niche. People are all around me. I have neighbors, and I pass people on the street. I go to church with people. I buy things from people. I work with people. And, I too am just a person. The thing that I can offer them is myself. And I can do that by loving them. That always has lasting effects. In development terms, it is “sustainable.”
Let me give a very simple example. The other day I went to the grocery store. And since I only had American dollars, I needed to exchange some for Liberian dollars, which many young men on the street make a business of that. So it is easy to spot men waving money in the air to draw in customers. I saw one such man, and I nodded to him that I was headed his way. I pulled the car in to the parking lot, but before he could get to my car, another young man with a handful of money rushed to my window asking if I wanted to do an exchange. The first gentlemen quickly stepped in and said, “I am already serving this lady.” An argument broke out between them about who had the right to me as a customer. I exchanged my money with the first man, leaving the second man angry and on a rampage. He stirred up all the money-changers, who then proceeded to yell at the first young man, calling him names and shaming him. I started to walk in to the grocery store, ignoring the commotion, but half way through the parking lot, I stopped. I thought I should go help that guy out of this mess. So, I went back to the angry crowd, stepped in and announced, “Stop giving this man a hard time. He is telling the truth. I saw him from the road and told him I was coming.” They all became quiet and left the man alone. He thanked me, and I continued on with my shopping.
As I came out of the grocery store, a young teenage boy with downs syndrome came to me and asked to carry my bags as a means to make a small tip. I have had this young man carry my bags several times before, so again I agreed. But this time, I decided to give him a little more than I usually do. When I handed him the bill, he did a little jump of excitement and gave me a huge hug (which actually he does if I don't give him anything at all).
When I pulled out of the parking lot into the heavy traffic, I noticed a lady was about to hit me at the side of my car. Paying attention to her and trying to get out of her way, I nearly hit a taxi behind me. The crowd of people starting shouting at me and telling me what a dumb driver I am. The cars are all honking at me because by this time, I am in the middle of the road and can’t go anywhere. And all I keep saying is, “Sorry!” as I try and maneuver my way out. But I look behind me and I see two men, standing in the middle of the cars, holding out their arms in order to stop the traffic. One of them was the money- changer. The other was the young man with downs.
And an odd sense of joy came over me at that moment. There we were, three people who had touched each other’s lives in very small ways, but it meant something to each of us. And, I thought, “Yep, this is my niche.”