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Building a What?

I have been volunteering in rural villages in Cambodia teaching English. A fellow volunteer was so disturbed by the conditions in the school where we were teaching, that he decided to raise a LOT of money and build a proper school for them. However, before doing this, he didn’t bother to investigate if that is what the villagers wanted or needed. So, the funds were gathered and the one room schoolhouse was built.

When he returned to the village, to check on the progress of the school, he expected a crowd on hand to thank him. But he was surprised to find the school half-built with cow shit covering the floors. He learned that the villagers were so upset by the building that they harassed the construction workers and brought in their cows to poop on the floors as an act of rebellion. They didn’t see the school as an opportunity for their children to be educated. They viewed it as a threat to having their children help them in the fields. In the end, the money was wasted. However, the villagers gained a new storage shed.

Author: Marisa Turner

Crazy Quilt

I am a Board member and co-founder of an NGO in Uganda and have visited there many times. Over and over again the native people have helped me understand how much less I know than I thought I did.

The most amazing of many good stories comes from a large American agency’s partnership with us on a women’s empowerment project. I wondered about their idea to send a shipping container full of multicolored, re-useable cotton sanitary pads. But they were women and had more experience than we did so I stayed mum.

On my next visit the village women greeted me with much excitement showing beautiful quilts they’d made. They wanted me to take them back to America and sell them so they would have the money to pay school fees for their children. As I looked at each one carefully I discovered a label, “Gifts from your friends in Arica.” Suddenly I realized these colorful, beautifully embroidered quilts were made of the multicolored sanitary napkins.

How could one do anything but admire the entrepreneurism of these village women, their drive and their talent! The well-meaning gift was put to even better use than the original intended one. And I was reminded once again of how much I (and we) don’t know and how differently people in another culture may see what we do.

Author: Eden Williams

Found Objects

While volunteering at a Catholic Church in Guatemala, I decided to use my free time to create a sculpture. I wanted to put together found objects that would reflect my understanding of the socio-economic context where I was living. As an artist in the U.S., I was used to collecting from a large variety of discarded items and converting them into artworks. However, the only discarded objects I could find on the streets of San Lucas were broken plastic shoes and squashed juice cans. I began collecting them on my walks to and from the clinic where the priest-in-charge had assigned me to paint stripes on the building.

After weeks of collecting squashed cans and broken shoes, I began to arrange them on a shelf outside my volunteer dorm room. One afternoon another volunteer ran up to me with a single shoe in her hand. “Look what I found for your shoe collection!” “Isn’t it cute!” I didn’t want to seem unappreciative so I accepted the shoe and placed it with the others.

Minutes later a woman approached me out of breath and visibly disturbed. She pointed to the new addition to my collection and pleaded with me for the shoe, which had fallen off of her sleeping child’s foot in the marketplace. When I handed her the shoe, she couldn’t get away fast enough. I could tell she didn’t see me as the selfless volunteer, but as the thief of baby shoes.

Author: Rebecca Cutter