Where we need hope-bearing stories

Editor’s note: this column is adapted from a submission to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s 2013 ‘Win A Trip’ essay competition, for which the author was named a runner-up.

“Most of us believe,” I was told one afternoon in East Africa, “that Kenyans or our own people cannot bring good things.” The young community-leader-turned-friend looked past me as he spoke without apparent emotion.

“So it is easier for Kenyans,” he continued, “to support something that has been brought by foreigners than their own sons.”

I was suddenly self-conscious — an American engineering student spending a summer in the rural Khwisero District as part of MSU’s Engineers Without Borders chapter. Equal parts well-intentioned and naive, working on a project to pipe drinking water to a local primary school — trying to bring a good thing into a poverty-stricken community with little hope for the future outside educating its children.

At a loss for fitting words, I offered only hollow silence in response. I couldn’t quite read my friend’s face as our conversation moved on.

It had been a rough month for both of us, as we found our effort stalled by squabbling within the project’s management committee and bureaucratic foot-dragging over grant support promised by a local politician. Instead of supervising construction, I had sat through hours upon hours of community meetings, drinking coca-cola out of glass bottles until long after the novelty had worn off. My team came within a breath of giving up.

I look back on the ordeal — that summer spent sweating away illusions about aid work’s glory — as the most difficult stretch of my young life by far. However, it horrifies me to realize how my frustration must have paled next to my friend’s, faced as he was with a floundering dream held in outsiders’ hands.

His words are posted on my bedroom wall, though they tend to keep me awake at night: ‘We don’t believe that our own people can bring good things.’ And their unasked question: ‘How can that change?’

I have benefited immensely from working in Africa. I have drawn, from my travels, life-defining passion, the wisdom to manage this newspaper and the chance to interview as a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship. While our water project ultimately inched forward, I am not at all sure I have given enough back to the village where I came of age. I embody, I fear, the paradox that aid work has far more success empowering young westerners like myself than communities in the developing world.

Do we believe that our peoples can bring good things? We must find a way to — all of us — for that essential hope holds our future regardless of the continent and community we call home.

I, blessed by opportunity, know that I could bring good things to a place that has a lot of them — but that is not enough. Nagged by that doubt, I have found my path shifting from engineering to journalism. Reading everything I can find about empowerment, I have come to understand that hope stems ultimately from the stories we tell each other — and that we need media systems able to foster it.

What are we taught by our stories? And by those told about us by others? Too often, those told about places like Khwisero and their American counterparts focus more on outsiders’ heroism than a community’s strength, channeling inspiration away from where it is needed most. Hope is a human right, in its own way as fundamental as water.

Like many who try to help, I’m guilty there. At times, I’ve certainly cast myself in hero roles that shine hope in the wrong direction. And am perhaps doing so once more here.

We owe the world better, as hard as ‘better’ is. We must seek out its hope-bearing stories, must draw out poverty’s oft-ignored wisdom. We must amplify those few wise voices — African, Montanan or otherwise — who do believe their communities can bring good things, helping their ideas play their rightful part in the shaping of our collective conscience.

While I don’t know what my future holds, I for one will walk that path as best I can. Perhaps, along the way, I might find the words I should have had to share that long ago afternoon.