Exactly what is aid?

As I’ve taken ample time to reflect on the race and where to go from here, I have also thought long and hard about existing paradigms on foreign aid and how we might need to break them in order to develop effective models from the ground-up. I asked Jen to prepare an entry based on her experiences she had on her 2008 trip to Ethiopia with Mocha Club. After losing the first draft due to the fact that our computer died before she had a chance to save it, she was kind enough to write it…again. Enjoy!

I still have the tan canvas Keens that I wore on the muddy soccer field in Ambo, Ethiopia. In fact, the mud can still be found inside the shoes. The inside of the shoe is imprinted with the word “washable” but I have no intention of doing so since it has been there for over two years and serves as a reminder  of one of the most memorable experiences I had while I was in Ethiopia. The outside of the shoes, however, are quite clean and look almost as good as they did when they came out of the box. The shoes are clean because of a young group of street boys that live in Ambo, Ethiopia.

Before I go further, allow me to give you some relevant information about these boys:

–          My team spent a day with about 30 of them. They have been single-orphaned or double-orphaned and their extended families have either neglected them or they have no family.

–          They are rejected within their own community (like most societies…even our own)

–          They range in age from 7-17-years-old

–          They have odd jobs, but can usually be found shining shoes on the street corners in order to earn enough money to buy their next meal

We drove our bus to an area where Mocha Club was building a new school for the Kale Heywet Church and we were lucky enough to have a large field nearby so after lunch with these boys we made our way to the field and began to play soccer. This field was muddy. The type of mud that is mixed with clay so it is slick and it sticks to everything. I could barely run down the field without slipping every two feet. As I walked off the soccer field I recalled a conversation I had with the nurse who had administered my immunizations, “whatever you do, just stay away from mud and lettuce.” Uh-oh, oh well! I looked down and saw my pants covered in mud and I had about six inches of mud surrounding my shoes. If I attempted to scrape it off with my hands, then it would stick to my hands so I walked over to an area with a few rocks and began to scrape  my shoes. That is when one boy came over and knelt at my feet and motioned for me to give him my foot. I rested my muddy shoe in his hands and he began to scrape them with a stick. He was barefoot himself.

I looked up and in front of me stood one of my friends and a boy knelt at her side and began to clean her shoes in the same manner. My eyes swelled with tears and as I looked down at the boy they fell from my eyes. At that moment he looked up at me and grinned as if it brought him great joy to serve me with everything he had.  I had to ask myself if I had done the same?

Soon, the boys all began to say their goodbyes and quickly rushed off the field. We inquired one of the older boys where they were heading and that is when he informed us that since they had spent the day with us that they had lost out on a day’s worth of wages and they needed to hurry and head to town to clean shoes in order to have money for dinner.

My heart broke upon hearing this. Here we were, thinking that we had done good by playing soccer and talking with them and yet they were the ones who sacrificed their time to be with us. We looked down at our muddy shoes and decided that we could still do one more thing. We piled into the bus once more and made our way to the main street where we found the street boys. As we exited the bus they greeted us warmly and we sat in their make shift tents and two-by-two we had our shoes cleaned. When I sat down to have my shoes cleaned, I had my doubts that the boy would be able to get the mud (or clay) off my canvas shoes. Especially when I saw the muddy water he was going to use to clean them with, but, regardless, I lifted my foot and let it rest on the rock that also served as this boy’s chair and let him go to work. I watched in awe as he fiercely scrubbed my shoes and in about thirty seconds my shoes were cleaner than when I had stepped onto the field.

Afterwards, I stood off to the side and marveled at how quickly the boys worked, the fact that they used rocks as their chairs, and that one of the greatest acts of kindness and service is to wash another’s feet and the ones to do this for me were the street boys of Ambo, Ethiopia. I overheard a conversation that our group leader, Geoffrey, was having with one of the street boys. Geoffrey asked him what he thought of Ethiopia and the boy replied with a big grin and said, “Ah, yes. It is the life!”

It is this experience that I draw from when I think about the misconceptions of “foreign aid.” I have realized that before I left for Africa I thought I was going over there to “help” them. I knew I wasn’t going to change anything grand, but that I would (perhaps) impact someone’s life. But I was the one who had it “messed up.” They served me and taught me that aid and service is a two-way street; a give-and-take relationship. I would be doing Ethiopia an injustice to go over there and think that what works here in the U.S. is going to work in Ethiopia. First, they love their country and we must truly understand that. Second, the only way to serve and aid is to teach so they can, in turn, teach others, etc.

So the Chinese proverb stands correct,  “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.

Serving is truly a beautiful art. It takes practice, but what is so intriguing about it is that it is contagious. Like when I stood on the field “serving” the street boys thinking I had done them well, then one boy came and sat next to me and cleaned my shoes. He trumped me!  This is why my “washable” shoes will never be washed.

My experiences in Ethiopia were some of the happiest days of my life. To serve others and to have others serve you with everything they possibly have, it is, well, like the street boy said, “It is the life!”

1 Timothy 6:18-19
Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

2 responses

  1. Wow Jen, I have tears in my eyes, thank you for sharing such an awesome story. I wish I was with you in Ethiopia. What an amazing experience. Truly shows how great God’s love is to fill you and the boys up with such joy. Makes me think about where we live and how we live day to day without giving back. The little insignificant junk that goes on in Los Angeles like, not enough shoes to wear with the right outfits or the name brand this or that. You really put things into perspective.


  2. Jen, What an impressive summary. Teresa and my experiences in Ethiopia are much the same as you describe. We have made many acquaintances with “street boys” in Addis and out in little towns in the bush and, sad to say, the circumstances you describe are authentic indeed. Our mission with Project Ethiopia is exactly as you mention, “…Teach a man to fish”. Our Western civilization skews our notions of how we provide aid to 3rd world. I subscribe to your experience in that “short term missions” often cause unsatisfied results, doing more harm than good often-times. A great book “When Helping Hurts” ( http://www.amazon.com/dp/0802457053/?tag=googhydr-20&hvadid=3713033957&ref=pd_sl_468881l9tp_b ) is a must read for anyone heading to the “mission field”.

    God Bless you Jen and hope we can hook-up in Ethiopia. I hope to hear from you soon re. your plans on returning to Ethiopia.


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