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Friday
Sep052008

Baby Elephants?

The title of this post might suggest that we saw a lot of elephants.  We did not.  Rather, the title is a reference to a metaphor we discussed at one point while performing our medical relief services in Mali: the metaphor of an elephant that never grows to know it's own power because its spirit was cobbled as a child.

Kathleen Brehony recounts the story eloquently in her book Living a Connected Life, so I'll share her rendition with you:

Trainers teach baby elephants to stay by tying one of their legs to a short rope and attaching it to a stake in the ground.  At first the baby elephant pulls and pulls against his restraint, but to no avail.  No matter what he does, he can't get away.  When the elephant is grown, all a trainer needs to do is tie a small rope -- attached to nothing -- around the elephant's leg and he is now held to the spot, not by a stake but by his own beliefs.

As I traveled and met more and more people, and saw the conditions in which they lived, I couldn't get this metaphor out of my head.  It was a shared experience.  During one conversation, a colleague extemporaneously offered, "Africa seems like the continent of restricted dreams."  From an American, drenched from birth is the ideology of boundless dreams, that's a powerful observation.

Perhaps reporting such sentiment here is bit too raw; my intent is certainly not to indict an entire country or culture.  It's more a feeling than a set of statistics.  All I am trying to point out is that anyone intent on making a contribution to the country -- not just touring and taking photographs -- should contemplate this observation and make sure that their choice of contributions does not inadvertently perpetuate any sense of overwhelming limitation that may be festering just below the surface.

No CadeauBy way of simple example, let me take up the issue of child begging -- something any traveler in the region will encounter.  During the three weeks I traveled in Mali, I must have gotten a hundred requests for a "cadeau", which is the French word for "gift".  On the one hand, encountering a beggar's request knowing that you have so much and the request is so minuscule makes giving a cadeau seem trivial. 

But on the other hand, is it really? 

If you begin to explore the situation more deeply, you might ask yourself if you're not actually doing harm.  I did.  In light of the above observation, I couldn't escape the feeling that by fulfilling the request for a cadeau I was tying another small rope -- becoming an active participant in the limitation of dreams.

Incidentally, I found it no coincidence that the national word for hand out is a French term given the country's colonial heritage.  Yes, the country became independent (again) in 1960, but in the grand scheme of things, that's only 48 years -- less than a generation of liberty to rekindle a sense of boundlessness, a sense of true opportunity.

Like with most problems I observed on the trip, I have no specific answers.  Not yet anyway.  But, at least now I'm thinking about them.  Perhaps you are too.  As every recovery program points out, the first step in solving a problem is recognizing you have one.

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February 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSilvia20WILLIS

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