Trees vs. Shade


One generation plants the trees; another gets the shade.

-Chinese proverb

When I came across this proverb I realized it is the perfect description of how Peace Corps works. Our goal as volunteers is to help our community members to help themselves while embracing the ideals of sustainable change instead of free handouts.One volunteer is not intended to both plant the trees and enjoy the shade- it is a slow process. But here is the dirty truth- sometimes I really just want to give people things because it makes them happy and it makes me happy. When there is a crying child on the road, wearing tattered clothes and covered in dirt and flies, I really want to give them a piece of candy from my purse. Would this candy change this child’s life? No- but I think it would certainly change his day. Unfortunately, I cannot promote sustainable and community-initiated change by handing out candy in the streets (although that would certainly be fun). Since I will be here two years I cannot afford to set standards that I will always be here to give them material things. I can wipe this child’s tears and offer him a hug, but the reality is that he is probably wondering why this white lady doesn’t just open up her bag give him some candy already!

We have all heard the proverb about the difference between giving a man a fish vs. teaching him to fish and I think we can all agree that teaching someone a skill is a valuable gift and far more beneficial to that person you want to help. Truthfully though, it is sometimes tempting to just give the fish because instant gratification makes everyone happy. You feel good for making someone happy and they are grateful to receive a gift. When thinking about my service in Rwanda in terms of trees vs. shade I have slowly started to realize that my impact here will most likely be planting trees, the shade will come many years from now when I am long gone. I am the first volunteer in my community and 27 months just isn’t long enough to really see the changes you would like to see. You can implement positive changes, start projects and teach classes, but creating sustainable change is a painfully slow process.

This doesn’t mean I don’t support the work Peace Corps is doing in Rwanda. I believe with all my heart that Rwanda is capable of great things but they have achieved a certain level of dependency on other countries that, in my opinion, hinders their development. The people here are intelligent and hardworking but have developed a mentality that their reliance on handouts is due to their inability to do those services or tasks themselves. The truth is that they are more than competent enough to learn these skills and hopefully they will continue to learn and grow so that they can depend more on local resources (both human and material resources).

On a very selfish level I have always enjoyed the type of volunteering when you get to see the result right away. I am still adjusting to the fact that my involvement in this project is just one step towards a goal that is still very far away.  Planting the trees can be a slow and arduous task but I am hoping that when I return in the future those trees will be providing ample shade that will last for many years to come!

Here are some photos from Umuganda yesterday. We are continuing to clear the field for a future basketball court but I spent most of the day cleaning classrooms since I apparently handle a hoe like a crazy person (according to my charming students).

Sending everyone back home lots of love and gratitude for your support!!




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