Aubrey Thomas is a friend of mine from school. We grew up together in Westville, South Africa. Earlier this year we caught up and part of our conversation touched on mission work and poverty. In our desire to help other people, sometimes we can mistakenly think we know the answer and position ourselves above people. The driving forces behind colonisation included, confusingly, liberal principles of spreading 'a better way'. Even if we believe strongly we have something to offer, any engagement worth its salt starts with listening. Any engagement should be a relationship of partners looking to see each other. Aubrey has spent time working in Lesotho and shares some of his experience of this type of relationship building.
by Aubrey Thomas
Being Poor doesn’t mean living in poverty.
Lesotho is one of last monarchies that is still governed and ruled by a king. It is also a country accredited as being the country with highest average altitude of any country in the world. The topography and weather of this small and land locked country create some unique challenges with regards to farming and industry however it is rich in Diamonds and due to summer rains and winter snow it also has good amount of water. Two heavily exploited aspects of this country by foreign exports.
I take regular mission trips to Lesotho, particularly the south eastern side, which is a lot like going back 150 years in time. These are the observations and things I have noted and discussed with my friends that I go visit up there. As such it is country close to my heart.
Subsistence farming, small isolated villages whose buildings are thatched stone single roomed “rondavels” or round huts with often zero contact to the “modern way of life” and where “wealth” is still measured by amount of live stock and the size of your arable land, often leads people to believe they are stuck in the poverty cycle when taken at face value because in general their clothing usually tattered and they mostly wear what appears to be a humble blanket at all times over old clothing. This is where western culture goes wrong when dealing with aid and the "ah shame but they have nothing" mentality by basing aid relief in monetary terms. New clothes are no good in the fields and that amazing blanket is warm in the wind and keeps the sun off skin. New clothes are kept for going to town or for special occasions. The Basotho people have a pride in themselves that is enviable by any culture but function comes before form and necessity before want. Mostly anyway.
The tribal systems and chieftains that govern the culture are rich in structure. What one village lacks or cannot grow or provide for themselves is available from another village in exchange for something the other village requires. Disputes are settled in ways we may not agree with or understand but they are fair in dealing with transgressions.
Sadly AIDS has taken its toll on the population and most of the middle aged (25 -50) population is either dead or dying of AIDS related illness. Life expectancy is not high and those men and women that are able to are working away from home. This leaves a massive hole in their society where one finds 12 year old heads of households and grannies bringing up large families of orphaned children. Once again the tenacity and culture has stepped in to find ways to deal with this. Food and clothing is shared in the villages amongst everyone, nothing is wasted. The village brings up kids as a village family. These kids are happy most of the time. The people of Lesotho are a warm inviting culture. Show respect for how things are done in the Lesotho way and doors open into a beautiful culture full of life. Begging is shunned by the adults and it is discouraged that tourist hand out sweets and things from vehicles to the kids and young people. It leads to a lazy culture of open handed youths unwilling to work for their survival…. Donations and gifts should always be given to the chief of the village and they will distribute it as seen fit. It is just how the culture works….and work it does.
Learning to deal with African problems in an African way and live in 3rd world Africa with a 1st world view is quite a strange concept, and one that I grapple with on a daily basis. Africa is a complex place that cannot be fixed with Western or Eastern cultural influences or ideals.