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The Stranger's Eyes1

by Joyce Carlson

Reprinted from Notes on Anthropology and Intercultural Community Work 20:34-38
© 1995 Summer Institute of Linguistics


An attempted community development project is outlined in this paper. It reveals how the villagers perceived the mill project differently from the expatriate who initiated the project and why the project was a failure. Following the case study, Hugh Tracy asks questions concerning the right approach to such a project.

Supyire proverb: "The stranger's eyes are wide open, but he does not see anything."

For various reasons (not always stated or perhaps even realized), humanitarian concerns in the West are often mixed with an unhealthy dose of unfocused, nonpersonalized guilt. Those who find themselves part of a so-called rich society feel guilty because people in other societies are not so rich. How to deal with this guilt? Paul Johnson in A history of the modern world2 suggests that perhaps a solution is sought through 'doing good works' in the direction of an impersonal third or fourth world. The rich of the world, in the embarrassment of having too much, think of ways to throw money at people they have decided are poor. This is not to say that those who have much should not care about those who have little. Rather, it must be said that some aid projects are conceived of and funded by people who are trying to cope with their own unresolved, nonspecific guilt. The focus of attention remains on themselves. I suggest that there is little real curiosity to know what the needs and aspirations of the recipients actually are. Furthermore, the donors include a Western agenda with their offerings. Therefore, the conditions for use that they put on their contributions tend to reflect their own values and concerns, not the concerns of the people to whom the money is sent. The end result is that the difference between the actual needs of the people and the needs as perceived by the donor is sometimes too great to ignore. Here follows an account of one such aid project which I witnessed in the village of Kafinare, Mali, during a twelve-month period from 1987–1988.

In May of 1987, an aid organization with religious backing (ORB) sent a young North American named Pierre to Mali to install mills for grinding grain in various villages. Pierre presented his project first to the Association des Eglises Evangeliques in Bamako, which channels money into Christian aid projects throughout Mali. They suggested that he try to place his mills in the Sikasso region, traditionally the territory of the Christian Missionary Alliance. The CMA already had their own Aid Projects Coordinator. However, ORB did not intend to work through existing missions, so Pierre made no attempt to contact the CMA or to research the needs of the Sikasso region.

It was, however, his intention to work through local churches and through the women for whom the mills were primarily designed as a way to relieve their truly crushing work load, and to give them a sense of value, purpose, hope, and so forth. The women in this society are decidedly overworked. Before daybreak and long after sundown they are

From the time of marriage or before, the ones who are not sterile are either pregnant or nursing all of the time. A woman not carrying a baby in one way or another is considered unfortunate. All of them are exhausted, and many are anemic. Therefore mills are a great idea, if they will make life for African women more wonderful.

Now the question is, was this generous offering of a better life brought in a way that made sense in this context and that met the actual needs of the people in Kafinare? From the outset the answer is no.

In the first place, Kafinare already has a mill, right beside the paved road next to the market. It has been in operation since 1985, through the private enterprise of Ali Sanogo and his brothers, who are all residents of the village. How is the existing mill doing? Ali says that just to stay in business, he is having to charge 25 CFA less per customer than the nearest mill in another market town (15 kilometers away). During the dry season, he says, women like to save their money for more interesting purchases than getting their grain ground. During the rainy season, business improves because women are working all day in the fields and welcome a chance to skip the daily pounding. But the hard fact is, the existing mill is barely breaking even.

Pierre came as a stranger to Kafinare, asking no questions. It was nearly a month before he realized that he was putting a mill directly across the road from the existing one. In true Kafinarian fashion, no one told him that we already had one because he had not asked. When the truth eventually dawned, he protested in some shock that he would never have dreamed of running the enterprising villagers out of business, but then he plunged ahead with the plans on ORB's drawing board. So much for felt needs.

Now as to the question of cultural sensitivity, was this mill offered in a way that made sense to the Kafinare? Again one would say no. ORB sent Pierre to Mali with certain conditions attached to their gifts—conditions that mystified the villagers and made ordinary life a great deal more complex. The first was that no men should be involved in the ownership of these mills. This was a project for women, born out of a Western, feminist agenda. I, as a Westerner, can pretty easily figure out what such a condition was meant to inspire in these women. Surely there would be a sense of pride in a project that was exclusively theirs. They would have independence and control over their own destinies. They would learn responsibility. All these results were very nice on paper and very much in line with the aims of the International Organization of Women. Secondly, Christian and non-Christian women were to collaborate in the administration of the mill and share in the profits. It was not to be an exclusive club for Christians. Thirdly, 10 percent of all profits from the mill would be given to the local church as a tithe.

To fulfill Condition 1, Pierre came to Kafinare, as he went to all the other villages that had been chosen to receive a mill, and called a general meeting of the Association Des Femmes (Women's Association). Problem: there was no Association Des Femmes. But, according to the agenda espoused by ORB, there must be, so an association needed to be created. The women of the three quartiers of Kafinare were invited to meet at the church, and Pierre, who had been in Mali all of two weeks and fluently spoke his own French language, communicated with a Bambara translator. So during the first meeting, the women were brought to realize that they must elect officers so that their association would have an acceptable structure and would represent the wishes of the majority, and so forth.

From the women's point of view, there were problems with this first condition. They did not like it that the men were not to be involved. There are, of course, a variety of situations in this village where men are most unwelcome and definitely not invited. This situation apparently, as the women saw it, was not one of them. Immediately the women were asking themselves, if the mill breaks down, who will fix it? Who will make sure that it has diesel to run? Who will really take care of the money? (Nobody in this village wants to be treasurer of anything, because they will become a target for thieves and automatically come under suspicion if anything goes wrong.)

So the women were already unhappy and anxious before the idea of the mill project was a day old. The men were insulted. It is traditionally their place to fiddle about with machines, such as plows and looms, so this prohibition gave the whole project an air of frivolity.

The second condition, that Christians and non-Christians were to collaborate, specified more precisely that Christian women were to be elected to the positions of president and treasurer in the newly formed association, and non-Christian women were to be elected as vice-president and secretary. Aside from the fact that surely this should not have been the business of ORB, far removed as they were, this condition took no account whatever of village norms. Even worse, it provided one more example (as if we needed more) of an aid organization imposing Western structures and values on a "less fortunate" society that already had workable social and economic structures in place.

It is fascinating and instructive to note how the women handled Condition 2 in terms of their own values. When the elections were held, Pierre was thrilled to discover that the women were unanimous in all of their choices. They elected the oldest (and heaviest) Christian woman as president. Actually, the very oldest woman in the village should have been president, but unfortunately she was not a Christian and, consequently, did not meet the criteria for president. But of course, she was elected vice-president. She has never come to a single meeting, but the position was hers by right of age. The position of secretary (also designated for a non-Christian) went to Pauline, a school teacher and the wife of the school director. She was a Catholic, which for the Protestant majority was as good as not being a Christian at all. Most importantly, she could write, which was an important consideration, so she swallowed her resentment at being classified as a non-Christian and agreed to take the post. The position of treasurer went to Nema, the wife of Dioume, who was the head nurse in Kafinare. Why? Not because she was so good at counting, but because Dioume was known to be incorruptible, so the money would be safest at his house.

To Pierre, the vote revealed a remarkable unanimity of purpose and vision. Perhaps it did, but the purpose and vision so revealed was singularly Supyire, and made reference to a culture and to values that he had made no effort to understand.

Let me make one further point on the question of unanimity. I suspect that Pierre's enthusiasm over the unanimous vote was born out of a belief in the North American church that the Holy Spirit moves in "unanimous" ways. He had not, I imagine, given much thought to the notion of consensus that tends to hold sway in African villages. In reaching a consensus, people will talk over all the angles of a problem, and eventually will come to a broad agreement that, if not doing away with opposing views, at least sweeps the leftover disagreements under the rug of mutual peace and goodwill.

This consensus, however, at least in the case of the Supyire, remains on the whole a surface phenomenon. Discord, jealousy, and hatred remain alive and well underneath the rug of peace and goodwill. In the case of the mill, the village was split along the lines of those who were related closely to the owners of the already existing mill and those who were not. The anger and jealousy became apparent to me in conversations with villagers the day after the vote. Pierre, however, had already left the village, and when I told him about it later, he refused to believe me.

At the first meeting, all the women present were asked to pay 500 CFA into a common fund. Oddly enough, this free mill was going to cost the local community (including the men) both time and money. (The men of course were going to donate their time by making bricks, carrying stone, and putting up the cement structure to house it.)

The mills were intended to be in place within three months of Pierre's arrival. Once again the Kafinare were left breathless with astonishment in the face of such youthful hopes and ambitions. In fact, it took a full year for the mills to actually begin operation. Pierre bravely weathered disappointment, illness, storm, and heat. He called the women together time after time and watched them force responsibility on the now reluctant men. With dismay, he saw money disappear like water into dry ground.

The Kafinare mill began operation two weeks before he was to leave Mali for what he hoped was forever. It was a great day of celebration. Everyone who came to the Grand Opening of the Mill would get one grinding free. (Lest I forget to mention it, some women who had paid 500 CFA a year before, were annoyed to discover that the initial sum would not entitle them to free grinds for the rest of their lives.) In all the time that the mill ran, it was rare to see the operators at the mill before 9:00 A.M., by which time Ali and Company had taken care of most of the business.

I went to Bamako the week that Pierre was leaving. At that point, three out of the four mills he had installed in the Sikasso region had broken. The grinding stones were meant to grind coffee, not grain. One week after he left, the Kafinare millstone broke. What was everyone to do now, since, of course, Pierre had gone, and ORB was, as far as we know, not planning to send anyone else? Pierre had prudently looked ahead to such a contingency, and had gotten the Compagnie Malienne de Textiles (CMDT) to promise to fix anything that ever went wrong with the mill. Unfortunately, he never got this agreement in writing, and the CMDT has, in fact, never lifted a finger to help repair the mill.

So Pierre has gone back home and is looking for more heartwarming projects to facilitate in other needy, underdeveloped countries. The Kafinare would say, "Kle u pi tege sele e (May God really help them)." Remember, "The stranger's eyes are wide open, but he does not see anything."

Questions concerning the right approach to such a project.


1This article is reprinted by permission from "The best of ethno-info."

21983. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Document date: 25 April 1999