On the 17th to the 19th of May 2016, I participated in Ikhala Trust’s Asset Based and Citizen-driven Development (ABCD) workshop as a volunteer at Tarka Development Group. The ABCD workshop has revealed truths I have been trying to avoid about my own responsibility to my fellow human. This includes my place in allowing others who have yet to find their way to realize themselves and their own capabilities without being forced into boxes that do not fit their experiences or goals.
I, like a lot of young people who have had the privilege of having the freedom of determining their own futures, due to being born to privilege or owing to the loss of our forefathers’ dreams, freedom and humanity, have been taught the importance of giving. My first day of university consisted of lessons on community engagement and Ubuntu in addition to being told to avoid the beggars that lie in wait of unknowing students like myself. I was taught to care for those who is unable to help themselves. However, with these well-meaning lessons, I grew to see myself as a full human being because of what I have or where I live. With this view in mind, I also began to see the poor as faulty beings who needed to be taught to be fully human, and essentially aspire to conduct themselves or lead lives that mirrored my own reality.
The ABCD workshop dealt with participants and communities as individuals who have assets (these do not have to be material but also include attributes and skill sets that individuals find valuable to development). These assets give individuals the power to determine their own futures in ways that reflect their dreams and aspirations. Although Ikhala Trust works with community workers and donors, ABCD functions from the basis that people are inherently born with the assets that they need to break through poverty and hopelessness. Individuals just need to be aware of what they can do where they are to get to where they want to be. Unlocking this awareness of their power of choice can allow individuals not to be held back by changeable material realities. In cases where one lever cannot move a rock, then efforts can be made to get a second and a third one to the benefit of all. This self-awareness is not promoting isolation or lack of Ubuntu, but is promoting confidence, self-reliance and opening up doors people did not even know were availbable to them.
In my previous community engagement work, I have sometimes dealt with poor people in condescending ways that have stripped them of their dignity and the right to their truths. I have sometimes neglected differences in experience and put myself in the position of speaking for the poor instead of magnifying their voices. I have found myself projecting my own life experiences to those of poor people telling myself that my limited view was a tool to inspire others. I have found myself in conversations talking about how my family made do on little to nothing, but still managed to function and achieve many things that were previously beyond our material means through hard work and perseverance. My comments would sometimes be followed by judgements of people who would rather beg or steal than sacrifice.
I have now come to realize that I have sometimes used this as a way of asserting my own humanity while neglecting the fact that I did not get to where I am on my own. Neglecting that many people had to work in mines or not go to school so one child can someday escape the township. Thus, my self-affirmation came at the expense of silencing the poor in the name of goodwill. It came with putting tape over the mouths of the poor and retelling their stories in a way that soothed my conscience. It came with telling them that they were lazy or numbing their pain with substances because they wanted easy lives. These generalisations came through overlooking the fact that a lot of marginalised people turn to alcohol or drugs because of generations of pain and systematic oppression and exclusion. Because of knowing that people see them as criminals-in-waiting when they go to town due to how they look or speak. Because people see them as eye-sores in their tiled businesses.
This is not guilt-talk, or excuses for people who are satisfied with not contributing positively to society. This is me being honest with how I have been comfortable with using a poor township school’s photo as a powerful image for negative news stories while not paying attention to the hardships facing township kids or their stories of triumph in my journalism.
I would like to thank Ikhala Trust’s director, Bernie Dolley, and her facilitator, Carla Collins, for their passion and honesty which has inspired me to question my own motives in why and how I do community engagement.
In life (just like in superhero movies), great power needs to be checked by great responsibility. Having economic means, through the suffering of those who came before, affords me great power over those who do not have what I have. I then need to be responsible for how I use this legacy of power which has been given to me. I need to use this power in a way that empowers those who have been captivated by suffering to realize their own power.