Africa inspires me to feel unlimited hope for life change. When I first met Rwandan orphans who had bright eyes, wide smiles showing perfect white teeth, and surprising plans for the future, I was jolted into a swirling dance of ideas, hope and action. I’ve lived this energizing journey for more than ten years now. It’s a thrilling but difficult place. Along my journey, I’ve come to discover an odd behavior in myself, and others like me. I call it the myth of the blank canvas.
We look at the African orphan (or widow, or poor person) as a blank canvas, ready for us to splash brilliantly colored paint that will fill out the emptiness of their life. By blank canvas, I mean we forget to imagine what or who came before us. We don’t realize the values, priorities and relationships that constitute the deeply ingrained identity of the person we want to help.
In 2007, I had the good luck of meeting a group of business entrepreneurs at Bourbon Coffee in Kigali. A friend connected me because he thought I would benefit from collaborating with ambitious American businessmen working in Rwanda. I sat within the circle of dreamers and thinkers, all of whom had become successful and wealthy in America. They talked of founding a high quality university in Kigali, with just the right educational programs that would fill the deficit of skills in Rwanda, as well as starting business enterprises to employ the students. The plan was enormous, and sounded perfect in every way. They expected their plan to be one of the most pivotal events in Rwanda’s development. Then, in the midst of the euphoria, one of the guys said, “It’s so exciting to be here in this moment today. I feel like I am eavesdropping, as the founding fathers discuss the plans that will establish the country.”
Founding fathers? Who do we think we are? At least one of these men saw Rwanda as a blank canvas, ready for their big splashes of paint, that would make everything beautiful. I have come to see this is really how many of us westerners think. Why do we disregard what is already? When we want to help someone, why do we not honor and learn about the other relationships in that person’s life? Is it because we see the past as being too broken to be significant?
I’ve helped many Rwandans over the years, and looking back I can see that in early days, I did not adequately regard the identities of those I helped. I viewed the youth of Rwanda as enormous opportunities for growth and life change, and thought they would be open to any idea I had for helping. In fact, I believed so strongly in the wisdom of my own ideas, I declined to follow advice from older Rwandans. Of course, pain resulted.
As time passed, I realized that my simplistic view was a myth, especially when I saw other Americans behaving as if nothing and no one had come before them.
My husband and I brought a group of Rwandan singers on music tours for three years in row. As we toured around the West Coast, we noticed that host families seemed very intent on imparting their knowledge and interests onto the guys. They treated the guys like molds ready to be imprinted. One person gave a violin and insisted that the Rwandan youth learn it. People gave them books, CDs, art, gadgets and hobby tools, and insisted that they adopt it all. The guys would hear all sorts of strong advice that was wholly impractical for their situations. This pattern was ridiculously common to the extent that my husband and I joked about it. But the jokes pricked me into awareness of my own self-absorbed perspective.
One of the most emotional moments of realizing the myth came a few years back when I asked my friend Angie if she would open her home to host Eric, one of the young musicians I had helped for many years, to be able to attend school in America. Angie had been to Rwanda and had started to think about adoption, so her heart was ready and open to welcome a Rwandan youth into her home. Several months after Eric joined her family, Angie wrote a wonderful, heartfelt blog about her adoption of Eric, and what it meant to her to have Eric like a son in her family. Angie is a great friend (and gave me permission to tell this story), but her blog struck me oddly and made me feel empty. The blog made me feel as if Angie wasn’t considering the long journey Eric had travelled to get to her home, or the other families, including my own, who had sacrificed to bring him that far.
When we don’t know what is already there, or who has come before, we are not learning the identity of the person we are trying to love. We are loving our ideas of how to change a person, more than loving the person.
There was certainly nothing negative about Angie’s high commitment to parent Eric, just as there is nothing negative about our desires to help the poor, orphaned and widowed. Angie and her family remain one of the most important, life giving relationships to Eric. But this kind of parenting is very different, because while Eric is an orphan, he came to her home with a huge world of relationships, experiences and identity; a beautiful and complex picture. The best outcome for Angie, me and others like us will come after a long time of patient listening and learning how to best fit into a complex story.
Many short-term mission and humanitarian projects fail. I believe failure is partly due to the speed at which the idea came together. We don’t take time to listen and learn how to best fit into what is already there. Jean Hatzfield, author of the “The Antelope Strategy,” translated the word Muzungu as “usurper.” I felt shocked to read such strongly negative translation of the word for white person. But as I reflect, I realize that it’s true that our ambitious world changing plans often usurp what was already in process, either in one person’s life or in a community. Wouldn’t it be better to weave our efforts to help into what already is in process, than to launch a whole new initiative?
Why do we try to make people into copies of ourselves, instead of first understanding the person we are trying to help? I don’t think it’s because we are bad people. I believe it’s because we all deeply yearn for significance. We want to imprint our identity on needy people, because we want to feel valuable, smart and capable of changing the world. But our desire for significance cannot be gratified by helping others. Our need for significance will only be filled when we live in eternity in the presence of God.
By Serena Morones
 A major thesis of the book, When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, is that poverty alleviation projects should build upon the existing assets in a community. Start with the strengths of a community and slowly build from there. Bringing in outside technology and resources doesn’t have long term impact.