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Africa 3 – Motorcycles and American “Can-Do” Presumption

March 13, 2007


Another reminder that we weren’t in Kansas anymore was when we decided corporately to buy motorcyles for the Mapoteng ADP field office. As the staff there explained their work and we learned of the challenges that they face, we were all privately moved to help. 

It’s hard to keep staff since the work is so demanding and stressful. We learned that each staff member is responsible for approximately 400 sponsored children. They visit them, make sure they are cared for, and deliver letters from sponsors and collect letters from the children to send to their sponsors. It gave me a new appreciation for the letters we receive! Most of them traverse hundreds of miles of bush and mountains by foot to get to these children. There is one motorcycle that they share. They work long and hard to make sure that our sponsorship dollars are being put to proper use, and they are all pretty much overworked.

So this desire began to stir in all of us independently, and as we began to talk afterwards it was clear that we were all feeling the same thing .. we wanted to buy them some motorcycles.

We pooled our resources and talked it over with our team leader and it looked like we would have enough to purchase two motor bikes. However, our plan hit a snag when we presented the idea to the Mapoteng director and we got a good lesson in American “can-do” presumption.

It was explained to us that they would rather have a gift that would help children directly, and we argued that the bikes would help staff get to the children. We then learned that our gift would be an embarrassment to the project leader, making it look like she had begged us for help while we were there, and in fact she was already in some hot water because of our plan. 

Beyond that, we learned that one of the struggles they face in the field is that villagers become distrusting of World Vision staff members if they appear too affluent. They had trouble seeing the World Vision vehicles that transported us around, thinking that World Vision may only be in this to fill their own pockets and they become envious and distrustful. For staff members to show up with a new motorcycle in villages where people are struggling to have enough food would greatly complicate their work there.

It reminded me of St. Francis who became poor so he could bring hope and walk freely among the poorest of the poor.

We were disappointed, and I myself will admit that I was frustrated. It seemed like God had moved among all of us and given us a singular idea, and it was difficult for me to let go of that and give a gift without strings attached .. to trust World Vision Lesotho to put our gift of money to it’s best possible use. In fact, at first, I felt like I didn’t want to give unless it went toward a motor bike, and I don’t think I was the only one.

This is, of course, a symptom of my American worldview. We are rugged individualists who get the job done. We see a need, we’re going to fix it – on our terms. And this attitude has characterized many of our efforts to aid Africa. Jars of Clay has a great song about this called “Light Gives Heat” on their “Good Monsters” record that says “heroes from the West / we don’t know you but we know best / but this is not a test..”

One of things that I’ve always loved about World Vision is that they equip nationals to help their own people. World Vision offices aren’t staffed by Americans, but by people native to the land, acutely aware of the problems, and sensitive to the best ways to meet the need.

I would like to think that I’m not one of the “ugly Americans” who arrogantly swagger through the rest of the world, but this instance helped me see some of my own blind spots and was gently humbling. 

We gave our gift, with no strings attached, and I trust that God will give them wisdom for how to use it to best build His Kingdom.

Read next: Africa.4 – Grilled Cheese In Zimbabwe 

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