As I sat down with my journal one evening, I realized something new. I wrote, “In this year I will need to shift my focus from doing to being… I need to realize that perhaps the greatest gift I can give right now is that of a loving and supportive presence. I won’t be able to quantify the results of my work. I am not at peace with this.” The Western, results-oriented culture was a deeply written part of my identity. But I had reached a place where I was no longer as able as I am in my own culture. Though I could acknowledge to my journal that who I could be in Itipini was more important that what I could do, it took many months before I could even begin to be a little comfortable with the idea. (p. 33)
The trouble is that effective education and true empowerment take enormous amounts of time, and often there are preexisting- and incorrect- assumptions that need to be broken down and overcome. HIV, [tuberculosis], and burns killed much faster than we could educate, leaving us in an uncomfortable position. Either we mandated behavior to people whose guests we were, with the likely result that the mandate would be ignored, or we let people make their own decision and watched the predictable results unfold, powerless to stop them. We had done our best to muddle through. The end result of that muddling was that we stood by ineffectually as preventable deaths unfolded before our eyes.
The aphorism “Give me a fish, feed me for a day; teach me to fish, feed me for a lifetime” is well known. But it has nothing to say about how long it takes to teach someone to fish or about what can be done in the interim period until they have made that knowledge their own. “Live and learn” is often used to exculpate ourselves from situations where we’ve tried to teach someone but made no progress. Thinking about the deaths of Thandeka, Lindumzi, and NoFirst, I was left asking, “But what happens if they don’t live?” (72)
I moved to South Africa full of good intentions and the desire to serve and even save people, to put their needs ahead of my own and figure out the ways in which I could help. It wasn’t until I failed Nolizwi so dramatically that I realized the trouble with this way of thinking: it puts the onus of action- and responsibility- squarely on my shoulders. And the results of my actions, no matter how good my intentions, are beyond my control. That’s doubly true when my actions were mediated through a series of culture and language barriers I couldn’t ever fully understand. I tried, and tried hard. And I failed.” (155)