Posted tagged ‘travelling’

Good intentions

September 8, 2010

“Couldn’t we get involved with those people you visit in the compound on the edge of town – the people with HIV?”

That was my question to Paul, the Zambian man we stayed with for four months. After all, we had come as volunteers to help and to experience. Wouldn’t that be a good use of time, an experience more ‘on the edge’? Among the many tasks Paul did, he visited and organised practical help for some of the many folks living with and dying of AIDS in the compounds, the very poorest communities on the fringes of Kitwe, the northern Zambian city he lived in. No, we were to teach some English in the local school and maybe help with some first-aid. And we were take our time and listen, and see where we might fit in. Sometimes we were good at that, sometimes we weren’t.

There are many notions tangled up in my question, few of which I could recognise myself at the time. What were my thoughts about other people’s poverty, and maybe about my own? Did I think I could do better, or just as well at least, as a local person? What role does international volunteering have in addressing complex issues? Who really benefits in the end?

It was 12 years ago and half a world away, our time as volunteers in Zambia, but some reading I did the other night reminded me of my conversations with Paul. I got stuck into reading a number of blogs about international aid and development – a couple of them I regularly read, but as happens with online  reading, a link to a link to a link takes me all sorts of places I never expected. Very often it’s worth it though. It’s worth examining why orphanages are a bad idea most of the time, or the way grinding poverty gets mistaken for authenticity. It’s worth asking questions about well-intended schemes to free people from human slavery or send a million shirts to ‘Africa’, or even about the way we characterise communities that are only ever seen as poor, and never anything else. All these bear further thinking about – so often good intentions are gravely misguided, and the errors gets hidden away beneath the goodwill, seldom exposed for their ignorance.

None of this is new – debate about the best ways to address pressing issues is ongoing. There is a natural counterpoint to this too. We could get paralysed with fear that we might do something wrong. Surely good intentions should be applauded? Surely passion for alleviating poverty and harnessing the vast resources of those who have them is a key part of working for justice and compassion. With too much complexity and too much criticism, won’t we kill the passion and creativity? Creativity and passion are powerful forces – for good and evil, but they are never enough.

In this vein, the importance of self-examination and critical thinking cannot be under-estimated, especially on actions that affect others so much. As one writer argued, we don’t let anyone do brain surgery on our relatives just because they’re keen and they have a creative idea. In our thinking about contributing to overseas aid and development, often we are not as thorough. The feel-good factor of offering help in times of need can often cancel out the important task of thinking about further ramifications of our actions.

There are so many others can write with clarity about these matters with much more maturity and expertise than me, but in a sense it helps me crystalise my own thoughts, and to encourage others to go on a similar journey. I would recommend a read of some of the material on Blood and Milk, Good intentions are not enough, Aid watchers and many of the writers they link to. And I think  Staying for tea writes a beaut post about competence and passion and humility, that makes good sense of some of the competing ideas. It’s a bit like a chain that never ends.

And I make these comments here with trepidation, because who am I, having rarely travelled beyond my own comfort zone compared to so many others? However, in a world that always seems to be in strife, where a million causes and ideas to face them stare out at us, our own seeming good intentions and the intentions of others need serious consideration. Ignorance can so often be laziness.

The road to hell is paved.


Rothwell and landscape

August 23, 2010

So often our primary thoughts are that it is us, the humans, who dominate the landscape and control and change it. Whether our attempts are to conserve or to exploit, or to record and interpret, our thoughts circle around the ideas and the changes and actions that eminate from us.

There is another attitude, possibility less easy to take – that instead the landscape might take hold of us, shape us and speak to us, in ways we cannot yet imagine or even describe.

These words below are not my own, they are the work of journalist Nicholas Rothwell, in his latest book “Journeys to the Interior”. But still, they help me find a way into those indescribable ideas about the natural world and the work it does on me.

Can today’s Australians inhabit such a landscape? Can we feel at home there? When you find yourself in a pale dunefield at sunset, with the sky blush pink and deepest indigo, or when you look out from the crest of an inland mesa at the clouds in their indifferent race across the sky, such questions tend to dissolve, and patterns and thought-chains separate from man’s deliberate kingdom take hold.

I have always felt, at such moments, on the verge of dissolution – close to death as much as on the threshold of new revelations in the march of life – and rather than imposing my will on country, or on landscape, and prolonging the dictatorship of control and consciousness, I am overwhelmed – I am a creature of new rhythm, and the desert, and the inland, are writing me.

From “Journey’s to the Interior” by Nicholas Rothwell (2010, p53)

Heading for the desert

July 27, 2010


A few weeks ago we packed up our Hiace van with a tent and food and our kids. We headed east from Perth, first to Kalgoorlie and then further east and north through the Western desert, and on to the Northern Territory and Alice Springs. It was a wonderful journey, not without it’s challenges, but very worthwhile. It is too much to try and write it down all in one shot, so perhaps over time I’ll record some bits and pieces. They are not in any order or around any particular themes, just thoughts and ideas and memories I had along they way. Sometimes I wrote them down, or just filed them away in my mind for later.

Part of the reason for the journey was to revisit Tjukurla, a remote community in the Ngaanyatjarra lands, where we lived over a decade ago. The Ngaanyatjarra lands are in the central eastern part of Western Australia, include parts of the Gibson, Great Sandy and Victoria deserts and cover over 250 000 square kilometres (about 3% of mainland Australia). The lands include the communities of Tjukurla, Warakurna, Mirlirrtjarra (Warburton Ranges), and many others. It is striking country – dirt tracks stretching to wide horizons, ranges and desert oaks and rock-holes, stark blues and reds and golds.

The kids at the school where we taught are all grown now, and many of them have children of their own. One of the golden moments of our journey was coming across a group of ladies on the road east of Warakurna. They had car trouble and were doing some hunting while they waited. It turned out that these were Tjukurla folks, and we had a beaut time there by the side of the road, talking and meeting each other’s children, hearing stories of who lived where now, and even joining in the hunt for tirnka (goanna). It was worth the trip just for that.

We did lots of ‘preparation’ for our journey, a great deal of it geared around things like spare tyres, food, where we would stay, and making sure the van could go the distance. I did wonder though, whether we were prepared enough in other ways. Among the demands to fit out the van, to tidy up and pack, and find a home for the dog and the chooks, it seemed less urgent to prepare in ways not so tangible.

Even though we lived for a time in Ngaanyatjarra country, there is a lifetime’s worth of learning to be done about history and culture and change, and the extended time since we’ve been there means that some of the knowledge and memories have significantly faded. There is a language to learn that makes relating to local folks much more meaningful and respectful. And how might we tune ourselves and our children to the new rhythms of a remote place and people who were part of our past but to whom we’ve been stangers in recent times? None of this works well done in a hurry, and there is no course to do or single text book to read. Perhaps the journey itself is the only preparation.

To be truthful, we tried a bit. With the aid of old photos and stories and some language books, we at least made an attempt. But the proportion of time spent preparing ourselves in those ways was far outweighed by the practicalities.

It is a note I make to myself for the future – wherever I go are go, close by or far away, the balance and nature of my preparations are worth further attention.