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Walk a Mile in My Shoes

There once was a girl with worn out shoes
It gave some volunteers the blues
They wanted for her more
They went to the store
And gave a new pair to their muse

She wiggled and screamed in glee
Never dreaming of what was to be
They didn’t expect
Their “good” deed’s effect
The girl’s momma was not so happy

When the girl came home with her gift
Her mom was really quite miffed
“They must have been taken”
Though she was mistaken
Mom hit girl hard and swift

Once per week, I go over to spend time visiting our English classes in the Guardería, our early childhood center. This past week, I visited several of the classes with the site coordinator and our English teacher there. They pointed out to me that one of the girls, Madelin, in the 4-year-old class had badly worn out shoes. It was true. She was wearing a pair of mary jane style jelly shoes (bringing me far back to my own childhood – I had a red pair that doubled nicely as Red Ruby Slippers). The buckles, it seemed, had long since fallen off and the soles were almost worn clean through. They couldn’t possibly be providing her feet much protection. So, following true to our giving natures (hey, we ARE volunteers, after all), we decided to go find her a new pair.

Upon getting the girl’s shoe size from the teacher, we set out to the bodega, our on-site materials warehouse. The bodega also houses all of our received donations, a large part of which is clothing. There had to be something in there!

We snooped around, and came up with a very nice pair of Merrill brand water shoes in various pink tones. They were only slightly worn. I honestly wondered if they might be the newest pair of shoes ever given to Madelin. They looked big even though they were the size we’d been advised to get. We decided to give them a shot. A wave of delight swept across her face as we slipped them on her feet. I pressed down on the toe, using the thumb test my mom always used on me. I simultaneously realized I didn’t know exactly how to administer this test. Luckily, the results were clear. As we’d suspected, her feet were “swimming” in the water shoes.

The guys told Madelin the shoes weren’t going to work. She gave us her fiercest, “No, they’re MINE!” look and ran to seek protection on a nearby bench. I told the guys to take her old shoes to match the size and let me talk to her. I sat down by Madelin’s side and asked her if the shoes were comfortable. She murmured a protest. I asked, in more of a statement, “It’s not very easy to walk in them, is it?” A reluctant headshake was the response. I asked her if she’d feel more comfortable in a pair that fit better so she could run around and play with her friends. Her hopeful eyes told me I was getting somewhere. I explained that the guys were going to come back with an even BETTER pair just for her.

The guys didn’t let us down. They returned with a bright purple pair of canvas tennis shoes, their white laces and soles gleaming in the sun. This was the pair for Madelin! Not only did they fit like a dream, they were also brand new. Madelin’s beaming smile told us we’d done well. A happy ending!

But, that wasn’t the end of the story. Before Madelin went home that day, she took off her new shoes, hid them in her backpack and put the old pair back on. The next day, she returned in her jellies, without sending the guys the smile she’d bestowed on them the day before. In fact, she all but refused to talk to them. What was going on?

As it turns out, the teacher had a premonition. She talked to Madelin’s mother before she left that day. The teacher explained to Madelin’s mom what had happened with the shoes and told her she expected Madelin to be wearing them when she returned to the project the next day.

Madelin also knew something very important that we didn’t. She anticipated her mom’s reaction. She knew as soon as her mom saw the shoes, she would be mad. She knew her mom would take the shoes away. She knew her mom would sell the shoes. And, she knew her mom would hit her. How could they both have predicted this?

As it turns out, this wasn’t the first time that something like this happened with Madelin, and the reality is it probably won’t be the last. Unfortunately, in this community, the opportunity to make money is often the largest motivator. From what I gather, it seems this thought can overtake the mind and greatly influence behavior. Most people from circumstances like mine would never dream of selling an item given to you, especially if it was a necessity. Then again, most people in circumstances like mine would never rely on being given necessities. Something changes in you when faced with scarcity. When you don’t know where your next meal or next pair of shoes is coming from, the instinct is to hoard and protect. The term “squirrel away” certainly came from somewhere.

I have holes in my shoes. In fact, every single pair of tennis shoes that I’ve ever owned wears in the same spot, on the bone on the inside of my foot, which sticks out like a knob. People make fun of me for the holes in my shoes. “Why don’t you just get new ones?” they ask. But the shoes serve me just fine, even if at the end of the day my socks might look like someone did a bad paint job on a Dalmatian.  But that’s a choice I make. If I wanted to, I could just as easily make the choice to go get new shoes every few months when the holes inevitably appear. The families I work with don’t have that choice. Even their “new” shoes are often what someone else has already decided aren’t fit to wear anymore.

We (and by “we” I mean foreigners who do development work in developing countries) have good intentions. We want to make a difference in people’s lives. There is a deep sense of “wanting to make a change” in developed countries. Though we have the best intentions, we don’t often take the time to investigate the consequences of our actions. We often don’t understand what the ripple effects are. There can often be many unintended negative consequences of seemingly good actions. Giving out mosquito nets in Tanzania devalues the product, so that even when stocks run out people aren’t willing to pay for nets when they were available for free. Malaria rates increase as a result. Building a health clinic in Bali may result in an empty building, as the community may not have the resources to upkeep the building or pay the health workers’ salaries, they may not believe in Western medicine or it may be prohibited for women to go visit a male doctor. And giving new shoes to a girl whose own pair have fallen apart may result in that girl being abused.

If we really want to do good, the way to do it is by having real conversations with the communities we intend to help. Find out what the real needs are. Find out what the social, political and economic forces are at play. Plan a way to work within the existing system. Even if the end goal is a complete overhaul of the system, radical changes aren’t accomplished overnight. They take careful planning and execution. They take buy-in. They take resources. And, most of all, they take patience. We (again, I’m referring to foreign development workers) all want to make big changes quickly. But, the more we get to know the communities in which we’re working, the more effective we will be. We’ll better understand what the needs are, we’ll have forged stronger relationships and partnerships and the community will trust us enough to give us the critical feedback that we need. I realize that I’m writing this in language that has a heavy “us” vs. “them” slant, but that is the exact opposite of what I think the intention should be. I think we’re so mired in the foreign victors mentality, that we lack the language of partnership. If we can take the time to really put ourselves in the place of the communities we’re working with, we can bridge those gaps enough to forge ahead as a unified “we.” Most importantly, we’ll understand not just the intended outcomes of our work, but the unintended effects as well.

This week, I saw peace in the necessity of conversations.