You Think You Know, But You Don’t Know

This is my contribution to Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s “A Day Without Dignity” campaign.

Dave Bidini is a Canadian musician and writer. In 2007, he traveled to a refugee camp in Ghana, home to tens of thousands of mostly Liberian refugees, Buduburam. (That camp happens to be a place where I spent many months working between 2007 and 2008.) While there, he was moved by the struggle of a young singer/musician, Samuel. For years, he kept in touch with Samuel, as the young man tried to pursue a musical career, first in Ghana and then in Liberia. Bidini was in touch with Samuel and Samuel’s uncle Jake, and was speaking on the phone with his protege on a regular basis. Excerpt from his story (worth reading the whole thing, really):

Jake also fled the war, barely surviving on foot as he left Monrovia for peace in Ghana. Jake said that if Samuel was back in Monrovia, he’d probably be a big name. “Dave,” the young singer told me one early morning on the phone. “If only I could get home, I know I could do it. I know this for certain.”

Samuel sent me his record. A demo. Endless tracks of highlife electronica mixed with ebullient female backing singers and Samuel riffing, singing and shouting overtop.

“Dave, can you help me make this record?” he asked me one day. Samuel has been calling me every week for about three years. He used the number I’d given him on my last day at the camp. Uncle Jake also had my number, but he never called. Instead, we emailed back and forth, staying in touch about his organization — the Liberian Dance Troupe — which he hoped to continue despite relocating to Monrovia in 2009, which was when everyone in camp was supposed to return to Liberia, part of the Accra mayor’s initiative to close the settlement and declare it a success on his watch. Some left, but some didn’t. Some stayed, squatting on the grounds. Samuel was one of those who couldn’t go home, at least not yet.

“I have no family,” he told me. “No mother, no father. All of my family was killed in the war. When I left for Accra, the boat was crowded and there were people drowning in the water at my feet. When I return, I want to return with a CD. I want to have a purpose.”

After writing about Samuel and Jake a few years ago, I sent my work to Jake to make sure what I’d written was accurate. He said it was mostly fine, but that the parts about Samuel were wrong. The singer, he said, still had family back in Liberia, and had embellished his story for sympathetic purposes. Jake told me that some people, like Samuel, make themselves available whenever there are visitors to the camp, and try to make these connections with outsiders. It made me a little suspicious of Samuel, but I figured that if even a fraction of what he’d described to me was true, it was enough to help him out. Then the phone calls started. One after another, relentlessly. In the middle of the night. Before I knew it, I was making his CD for him.

Ah yes. The White in Shining Armor. Sweeping in to make the African boy’s dreams come true, to lift him out of his misery. Except, it’s not so easy. In spite of having visited the refugee camp for himself, in spite of having met and talked and exchanged with the people he was trying to help, it’s clear to me that Bidini didn’t quite understand what he was getting himself into. For starters, in the quote above, Bidini talks about the “mayor of Accra” wanting to shut down the camp. While I’m sure the mayor of Accra supported the idea of getting rid of the thousands of refugees at Buduburam, he never spearheaded the effort. What lead to a massive repatriation of Liberian refugees in 2008/9 was a crisis between the UNHCR, the Ghanain government (in particular, the Ministry of the Interior) and the Liberian community in Buduburam. Anyway, the point is that Bidini, for all his good intentions and kind-heartedness, and for all his musical talent and knowledge, was not prepared for how this would eventually play out. Another excerpt:

I sent out a message on Facebook, and through it, I met Chris Parsons, who designed the record. He created four or five beautiful images, which I sent to Samuel. But Samuel said they weren’t right. Instead, he wanted an image of himself singing on the cover.

“No one in Liberia will buy a record without a picture of the singer on it,” he told me. I was in no position to argue with him.

Mark Logan of Busted Flat Records in Kitchener, Ont., pressed the CD. Five-hundred of them, for free. When they were done, they looked and sounded beautiful. Samuel now had a record, and, each time he called, I told him, “We’re getting the package ready. You’re going to love it.” Samuel sent us one address, then another, then another. While all of this was going on, Jake told me about his troupe, how they couldn’t afford studio space, which would double as a classroom where kids would learn about art and history and music. He asked for nothing, but it wasn’t long before Facebook yielded another donor, an old friend, Steve Dengler. Steve sent Jake the money, and he wrote to say thanks. Then Jake got on with the business of keeping Liberian culture alive. No phone calls. No requests for more, and more still.

Over the last four years, because of my work in Buduburam and my involvement with the community there, I have received countless emails from people trying to verify someone’s identity in the camp, trying to get a better sense of whether the person they met on a brief tour of the camp, or via an online chat room, was trustworthy. The only thing I’ve ever been able to do when I get these emails is reply with (usually long-winded) honest answers about the reality of life there. For many Liberians in the Buduburam camp, foreigners are seen as an opportunity for a better life. I’ve heard countless stories like Bidini’s (“I sent my work to Jake to make sure what I’d written was accurate. He said it was mostly fine, but that the parts about Samuel were wrong. The singer, he said, still had family back in Liberia, and had embellished his story for sympathetic purposes. Jake told me that some people, like Samuel, make themselves available whenever there are visitors to the camp, and try to make these connections with outsiders.”)

It just isn’t that easy to know who you’re helping, why you’re helping them, and if, in the end, you’re actually having a positive impact, or, on the contrary, contributing to perpetuating an insidious, counter-productive culture of dependency.

I made my share of mistakes at Buduburam, naively trusting the wrong people, so I can very much relate to Bidini’s story. In one particular instance, a teenage boy’s unemployed, depressed mother begged me to pay for her to attend a training program to learn baking. I relented, and agreed, and paid the (relatively) hefty fee for her to attend the program. I met with the director of the program, a fantastic lady named Agnes, a Liberian who had lived in the U.S. and come to Buduburam to be with her family members and help out. Agnes assured me that my friend would really benefit from the program, that this would be a huge boost for her, that I would be helping her become an independent woman. Music to my ears! Following months of training (and costs for me), my friend finished her training, got her diploma and immediately resumed sulking, sitting at home and being depressed about her situation. Years later, I know she has never made any use of her training. I wish so much I had thought this through at the time, and I wish someone could have told me that I was making a mistake.

At some point in my time at Buduburam, I also tried to help out a group of former child soldiers. This happened when the crisis between the Liberian community and the government was at its height, and many were worried (rightfully so) that they would be a target for deportation. These ex-combatants had organized themselves into a small organization, trying to learn skills and generate income to support their rehabilitation. By then, I was already more weary and careful, and I knew there really wasn’t much I could do. I could talk to them, and help them figure out logistics – how could they get a passport, or other form of travel document, putting them in touch with contacts in Togo (nearest border to Accra), etc. I remember sitting in my house at night with these guys, worrying so much that I was doing more harm than good, worrying that I’d make some kind of mistake that would get them in trouble, or worst. They didn’t *really* need me anyway – these guys were some of the most resourceful, cunning people I’ve ever encountered (I guess these are some of the qualities one needs in order to survive a brutal war.)

Back to Dave Bidini and Samuel’s story:

We sent Samuel the records. The phone calls stopped for awhile. After about a month, he called to say that he hadn’t received the records. I asked him why he’d waited so long to tell me, but he had no answer. I told him I’d check the post office, but there was no tracing the delivery. I became angry with Samuel. My wife told me that I was being a jerk for feeling mistreated through all of it. Then Samuel called to say, “Don’t worry about the records, Dave, I have to get back to Liberia. I need $200 for a plane ticket.”

I didn’t know what to think. Was Samuel fabricating a story to get more money out of me? Was a few hundred dollars too much to help a musician who lived in poverty, regardless of the details of his hardship?

I sent Samuel the money. The phone stopped ringing, but then it started again. At 4 a.m. Then 6 a.m. Samuel hadn’t received the money. Someone else, he said, had claimed it. I got angry again, then sad, and now, I’m just tired. Today, Samuel has neither his money nor his CDs. He asked me to send the money again, but I said that I could not. I didn’t have the cash to spare, and I no longer had the will. The phone stopped ringing. Then it started again. It was Samuel. At 4 a.m. Police had stormed Buduburum, he said, and they were running roughshod over the squatters. Samuel asked if could I hear them shouting in the background. It was early. I was exhausted. But yes, I told him, I thought I could.

I really liked Bidini’s column. I welcome his honesty and his willingness to admit failure, which are rare among would-be do-gooders. As an outsider, it’s very hard to know how best to help people. Going into an unknown community, unaware of the social and economic dynamics, one needs to bring along  a good dose of humility, curiosity, understanding and, I’d argue, skepticism. A place like Buduburam is complex. Yes, it’s a refugee camp. But it’s also a refugee camp in Ghana, a particularly dynamic country. Yes, Buduburam is home to thousands of refugees. But many of them were never officially registered with the UNHCR, for a variety of reasons, and cannot avail themselves of the rights in the refugee Conventions. Yes, people are struggling. But it’s also a place of incredible resourcefulness, dynamism and life.

The point I’m trying to make is that even at the individual level, it can be very difficult to know what’s good and what works to help someone lift themselves out of poverty. Even though it may seem obvious, giving a pair of shoes to a shoeless person may not be the best way to help them.

H/T Glenna Gordon, for bringing Bidini’s story to my attention.

Photo credit: Chris Leombruno, Brown Lion Photos

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