Friday, 2 March 2012

thorny topics

Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

There's a blog post which will land here at the start of next week which will return us to the conversation about the desire to write. I have to admit, that's a desire which is, in a way, being heavily slaked at the moment.

Like all folk who serve with the backing of others, we undertook to frequently report back throughout our year living and working in Niger. In addition, what with my role as communications coordinator, coupled with, you know, always banging on about writing stuff, it seemed like a good time to show up and deliver for once. So, we pledged to blog at least weekly, and also write something longer and prayer-orientated for our signed-up supporters on a monthly basis.

Now there's the usual pitfalls for sure. What seemed remarkable a month ago already has lost the air of noteworthiness; an element of the nothing-really-happened-this-week sits heavy on fatigued imaginations from time to time.

However, all of this week I have been attempting, and failing, to cross a pothole of a different breed. The things you want to write about, but can't. Or the things you would like to describe, but fail to.

I'll explain what I mean, but firstly let me flag that I'm not referring here to some massive conspiracy to cover up truth! I'll start from another angle.

As aliens in this environment, we see and come across things that we have literally never seen before. We do things that we have never done before at a frequency significantly higher than we would experience in our natural habitat. Like poking a chameleon, for example. Today I poked a chameleon, and picked a little at the dead skin on his back. (More on that over on DesertHueys later, I would imagine!) One does not see a lot of chameleons where I grew up in Mid Ulster.

There's a political metaphor there if you happen to be feeling a bit waggish, but we'll move on.

There's also shocking things, naturally. In one of the least developed countries in the world (I've lost track, is Niger back at second or third worst?) there's no shortage of upsetting sights and sounds. And describing them is the problem. In fact, it's a problem which has held up my writing of our e-mail update for this month all week.

In this case, it's traditional healers. That's what I want to write about. Traditional - i.e. local - medicine is encountered daily by the doctors working here. I want to write a respectful, understanding piece for our friends and family back home, describing some experiences around that. I perceive it to be a very sensitive topic. I could write in stark terms and short brushstrokes - there's a lot to tell.

But across all those cultural divides, how do you write about these things and complete avoid a blindly critical tone? How do you avoid saying something is plainly right or wrong?

Maybe you don't. Maybe that's the problem, and maybe that's what I'm afraid to say. But the mission we work for is bigger, older and more important than us. And if burying vitriol until a reasonable discourse can be produced instead is the key to preserving such things, that's the way it has to be.

These thorny topics produce difficulties for aid NGOs all the time. Our communications manuals are full of them. It's not political correctness per say; but the problem is that so much of our work is based around mutual respect, goodwill, and relational ministry. You can't do that if you're impersonally criticising left, right and centre. You don't bring cake to the dinner party, and then slag off the undersized main meal. The difficulty for us is to find a way to lovingly - and usually, painstakingly slowly - build a relationship to a point where friends can be honest with each other.

All to say, I probably owe an apology, available to anyone who may have strayed from DesertHueys over to here, as to why you didn't receive an e-mail update in February. One is coming very soon. The luxury we have is that our deadlines are flexible, and I'm working this one just a little longer.

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