Lessons from the Field: Appreciate the People and their Problems

by Sarah Luna

Last week, my colleague and I gave a presentation about our experiences working and living in developing countries. For those who haven’t been following along, we spent five weeks in Rwanda and four weeks in rural India consulting on two nutrition projects.  That brief time “in the field” introduced me to the unforgiving reality of the day-to-day life of the people I’m idealistically and naively trying to help.

I took the above picture while visiting a tea estate in rural Rwanda. We were trying to understand how life worked for the women who worked there. How much money did they make? How many hours did they work? How far away did they live? How often did they eat? How often did they eat meat? Did they have enough food for their children? Where did their husbands work?

As we spoke with this woman, I couldn’t help but notice how she emanated strength and beauty. She was one of the “good” workers–one who consistently picked the most leaves–and you could tell she was proud. She was responsible for feeding herself and her family from the meager wages. When asked how often she eats, she replied that she would eat one large meal at night and one small meal in the morning. We were later informed that she was politely lying: none of the women eat more than one meal per day we were told. She only eats meat on Christmas.

It is difficult to know how to help. One of the hard parts about being a humanitarian scientist (as opposed to simply a humanitarian) is having to prove that something works. I can’t just do something that I think is helpful. I don’t want to do something that makes things worse. What if I wanted to create a program to give these women lunch?  I couldn’t just do that; I’d have to prove that it makes their life better. That means I have to only feed half of the women, but how can I ethically not feed them all?  And if it works, how would I sustain it?  It would be unbelievably cruel to introduce a lunch program, prove that it improves the quality of women’s lives, and then abruptly stop it.

The woman in this picture is  real. I talked with her and took her picture and then took a picture with her. It is 7:30am for her, and she is probably walking to the tea estate right about now getting ready to start her day. She has two children. She almost certainly doesn’t have the food her family needs.

In honor of her and the countless other hardworking women in Rwanda and India, I lend money through Kiva–a non-profit organization with a mission to alleviate global poverty–to enterprising women around the world. Right now some of Kiva’s supporters are sponsoring free trials. If you are interested in helping women through microfinance, please consider signing up for a free trial.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make this Rwandan woman’s life better.  I have learned from listening to her story. I have a richer (though by no means a full) understanding of the hardships she lives with. The picture of her face galvanizes me whenever I lose motivation, and I remember to appreciate the people I hope to serve.