Today Dr Aidan Donaldson, who has recently returned from a Project Zambia immersion journey, shares some of his reflections on the experience. His thoughts on the contrast between Mapepe in Zambia, and Dubai — where he stopped on his trip home — should give all of us pause for thought.
Donaldson is Assistant Head of Religious Education and Chaplain at St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar School in Belfast and author of Encountering God in the Margins: Reflections of a Justice Volunteer (Veritas, 2010), which I have reviewed on this blog.
Project Zambia Immersion Journey: Mapepe and Dubai
I am returning home from a very successful and moving journey into the margins and trying to reflect on where the past number of weeks have brought the people who went to become immersed in Zambia and the host communities themselves. I could list a host of concrete projects in which considerable progress has been made with buildings and bore holes and so on. Yet it would be doing the journey we undertook over the past 6 or 7 weeks. It seems an age ago indeed since the first group from St Mary’s and St Dominic’s left Belfast on June 22nd. Now the second group of Project Zambia volunteers has just arrived in Dubai from Lusaka and will spend a day there before returning to their homes tomorrow. And much has happened between those from Ireland and their brothers and sisters in Zambia.
It was a meeting between the community leaders of the impoverished village of Mapepe and our own representatives on Wednesday that brought it home to me just how much a difference has been made in all of us. Dealing with ‘village mentality’ is very difficult and delicate and completely different to dealing with the mentality of the slums in Lusaka. In Misisi township, for example, there is a desire and drive to move forward. In Mapepe there is (was) almost a fear of change. Much of this I would put down to a deep-seated belief that life could never change in the village. Let downs in the past (either by false promises of authorities or those who previously visited and left never to be seen again) had produced a sense of hopelessness or quiet desperation. Why dare to dream if your dreams will only be shattered?
Yet at the meeting I was struck by two things:
First of all there is now a very palpable desire for change and to ‘walk on their own feet’. The leaders reiterated time and time again that the mentality of the community is changing now that Mapepe has received official recognition from the authorities. Electricity begins to arrive and block-making is due to commence in the coming weeks. People will start to wish to rebuild their mud brick homes with concrete structures. Mapepe will be a transformed community next year when we return.
The second (and more striking) point that has become obvious is that Project Zambia is not seen as some ‘visiting donors’. At meetings now we are able to propose and contribute to community debate as equals. We are seen very much as partners – even part of the community of Mapepe. Mr Tembo (Mapepe community headman) stated that ‘you are not bazungu [‘white people’] – not even kind bazungu. You are part of this community and share our hopes and dreams. You are muntu [a term which literally means ‘essence of human being’ and used by African to refer to each other]. You are of Mapepe’. The distinction between you and me – us and them – is abolished. We are one.
Are we rich because they are poor? Are they poor because we are rich?
Spending the day in Dubai after some time in Misisi and Mapepe makes me recall this question which challenges all of us – especially we who have the good fortune to have been born in the affluent world. A seven hour flight separates Mapepe and Dubai. Yet they are two entirely different worlds. The Emirates flight takes us from the poverty of the villages and slums to the opulence and fabulous – even obscene – wealth of Dubai. Here money has transformed everything. Dubai, in the middle of the desert, has the biggest shopping malls in the world, the highest building, biggest indoor ski slope, and largest aquarium. Air conditioning makes every building and structure seem very pleasant as the temperature hits the mid to high 40s. Even the bus shelters on the street are air conditioned. Dubai has golf courses and artificial lakes resplendent with flamencos and other exotic wildlife. It looks like – and is – a celebration of the power of money, the ever-presence of wealth and the appearance of triumph of global capitalism over humanity and the human spirit and need as everything, it seems, is turned into its opposite.
Yet greed can never be transformed into love, individualism into community or ‘me’ into ‘we’. The wealth of Dubai is powerful indeed but it never will match the wealth of spirit of those in the margins who care for those even more in need than themselves.
The care of grandparents for their orphaned grandchildren or for the peasants of Kabweza for the blind people abandoned in the bush stands in marked contrast to and outside of the understanding of the values of the affluent world. It is only in places like Mapepe, Misisi and the countless millions of other communities in the margins that you can become muntu.
Perhaps affluent society has indeed gained the whole world at the price of its soul. Perhaps the salvation of the affluent world lies in embracing and being embraced by those in the margins – like those in Mapepe.
(Image of community meeting in Mapepe from Aidan Donaldson)