I’m sitting here with nothing to do on my Thanksgiving break and I am bored as heck, so yes, I am writing my second blog in three days. Today I am going to tell you about my latest excursion away from my reality, to a different world.
Last weekend I took a trip up to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I spent Monday through Sunday fixing houses that were not insulated for the coming winter, and mudding the outside of an unfinished home that was to be lived in by a large family. I had the opportunity to see how to mix cement in another culture (making it a whopping TWO cultures which I now know how to mix cement in). In the Native American culture, they once lived completely in harmony with the earth, and this is how they wish to live today, but do not have the funding to do so. For the “cement” of this house, we mixed cow dung, sand, mud, and water in order to use only resources directly from the earth. After we plastered the whole house with the mud mixture (referred to as Poop plaster in my group), we put a layer of lime to keep the elements like snow and rain, from effecting the house.
Here’s a big whammy that Americans never think of when we go out into the world to volunteer- maybe the “needy” don’t actually want our help. I discovered this first when I spent my summer volunteering in the northern mountains of the Dominican Republic. When I arrived, I was advised to assume the role of observer, to soak in the culture, and to see what the people thought of my presence in their country. I spent the first week mostly quiet, listening to the stories the friendly people offered up and observing their responses to my presence. What I learned in this country was astounding. I learned that the United States had a huge role in the death and destruction that exists in the history of the Dominican Republic. I will save that story for another time, but my point here is that while the people of the Dominican Republic were happy to have a new friend from a different country to talk with, they were less than thrilled at the idea of a “white girl” coming to save them from poverty. Get where I’m going with this one? We can’t just go where ever we want and try to fix the things that would be problems in our society, because these things might not be seen as problems in their culture.
Example: A group from the US went into one of the communities in the DR called Caraballo to try to create some change. Looking at the community from a “white person’s” view, they saw that the community was missing a center that would bring the citizens together. Without looking at the whole picture, they built a beautiful community center in the center of the town, opened it to the citizens, and returned to the US. That was six years ago. The center has been unoccupied for five years. Without looking through the eyes of the people who lived in Caraballo, the Americans were unable to see the basic needs that were not met in the community. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a person cannot worry about a need such as community togetherness before their more basic needs, such as food and shelter are met.
So back to Pine Ridge. I found it very difficult to create a change on the Reservation because I did not know, or understand what aspects of life the people of Pine Ridge wanted to change. The man who took me up to the reservation named Craig, helped me with this struggle because he had been working at Pine Ridge for many years. He had the opportunity in those years to talk with the people and find the things that needed to be done, and the things that they could hold off on. This is how we discovered that plastering the outside of the home was necessary, and it was just as important to use resources that came directly from the earth to do so.
My lessons from these two excursions:
1. Open your eyes, your ears, your mind, and your heart when you travel to a new place to help. We all have the very best intentions when we volunteer, but we must also be aware of the pride and arrogance that we may emit when we enter a community that is less fortunate.
2. Be open to learning about the culture you are entering. It may seem as if they have less than us, but they are sure to be rich in another aspect of life. I learned to be truly happy with my life from the people of the Dominican Republic. I learned the value of culture and spirituality from the Lakota on Pine Ridge.
I will leave you with a quote, as I will with every post (most likely).
“When I was 5-years-old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me that I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” -John Lennon