As rich or white people we love to do two paradoxical things: on the one had criticize the poor and give justifications why it is their fault that they are poor, but then on the other hand, even the most narrow minded denialist blamer from time to time dabs in the field of helping or giving. We know that giving a hand-out is one of the most effective ways to keep someone at a distance or to get rid of the uncomfortable proximity of poverty; just think of the beggar at the traffic light.
This writing though id not much concerned with selfishness, blaming the victims or impersonal donations. I would rather reflect on my own usefulness and uselessness. Once out of the illusion that cash can give someone humanity, pride or self-worth, it becomes harder to be useful within the context of development. Sure running water, footballs, books, transport, Paracetamol, shoes, etc are very important building blocks for happily living the good life, but when a rich and poor person and in Africa, normally a rich white and poor black person meet, there is a lot more involved than the exchange of toys. Every time you look the ‘other’ in the eye, greet him or her a long history of slavery, colonialism, exclusion, exploitation and inequality is evoked. Giving a hand-out at that moment reinforces all the bad lies and assumptions of the past and kills the chance you had of writing a new story, defining a new history, creating a new narrative of respect and equality.
What I would suggest is to 90% of the time, resist the temptation to be a problem solver. Just be there; just be yourself- if you know your ‘self’. Paradoxically, we become useless when we try to be useful, and we become useful when we forget about usefulness! I help many people, from small things to elaborate plans and initiative, but the past week saw a few instances where I felt truly useful. Standing around on a football field, I was surrounded by a bunch of poor black kids and for about five minutes two of them just stood next to me: one holding my hand and one stroking the hair on my forearm. So perhaps its just a case that I’m a hairy freak, or more likely, these kids I met for the first time that day, are simply not used to come close to white people. I felt weird, and basically just tried to act natural having my forearm stroked! Then two other kids arrived and started to touch my legs! Again you might make a chirp about the shape of my calves, but for two kids to sit quietly and poke, touch, rub my calves, implied that this (me) was something new and foreign. Again I just stood there, allowing them to see that the white guy will not eat, hit or chase them! Soon I was surrounded by a whole bunch of kids… and we started playing football. The delight on their faces when I either tricked them or if they dribbled me were priceless.
Later on in the training Mhlongo (not sure about spelling) was kicked by a big boy. True to Freire’s prediction about the oppressed being more likely to show violence amongst themselves the two got in a fight. Mhlongo was raging with anger and the big boy, a bit more calm was protecting/fighting half heartedly. Eventually I walked over, picked Mhlongo up and carried him to the other side of the field. There I sat him down holding him so he could not escape. ‘its over relax’ I repeated about 30 times, ‘I’m your friend, stay here with me’ another 20 times, and eventually he stopped his attempts to run back and continue the fight. ‘you are a super star, the best player here, don’t waste your time fighting with such a fat boy who cant even play football’ I explained, ‘superstars like you come to the field, show their skills, go home, take a bath and relax until the next time to show their skills, not time to get in fights, they are above it’ was explained a few times. Eventually, with the help of a few bystanders, Mhlongo was agreeing that he was a superstar and that he had very little to gain, even if he wins a fight. Later the two of them said sorry and shook hands. The big boy put out his hand first and left it hanging for about a minute while Mhlongo made up his mind. Every second of the boy standing there with an outstretched arm, offering forgiveness and reconciliation felt like a minute, every second the contrast between his offering and Mhlongo’s refusal was electric. I was so happy and proud when Mhlongo eventually also offered his hand and accepted the apology. How often do we let our hand hang there for maybe two seconds, and if not grasped in humble gratitude, we withdraw and hold a grudge with the illusion that we have empirical historical evidence of someone else’s unreasonable stupidity and lack of maturity. We can be very stubborn. I was lucky to be taught a life-skill lesson by these two boys, and it only happened because I was near them. Proximity is the key to unlock magic intercultural/learning moments. The plan should be to get close, the outcome will normally be a surprise! Proximity + life’s surprise = life-skill lesson.
I am reminded about the 65 year-old women who sat next to me on the floor of her kitchen while we drank tea, saying: “this is the first time in my life that I drink tea with a white person”. To heal our country and continent we need to get closer to each other, closer to each ‘other’, closer to the ‘other’. The white and the wealthy are in just as much need as the poor, we need each other, as humans. I, Schalk, desperately need black people, poor people, different people, to help me be fully alive and fully human. To be part of their journey, a communal journey is the secret ingredient to my salvation. Not a salvation to go to heaven, but to see some heaven in me and in the world around me. I would rather hang out with poor kids than pay R1000 to listen to Steve Covey or Pastor Chris or whichever guru the media made. Each kid can be your guru, an unpretentious guru, free of charge.
When we start learning and being- our proximity leads to connectedness, and that is the most useful thing us useless people can offer.