14 January 2014

You Just Don't Know

Helping other people makes us happy.  There's a biological connection, even a specific nerve, that connects empathy and kindness with personal happiness and health.  Maybe that's why Congo isn't even mentioned on this infographic:

An infographic mapping the happiest African nations. Data from the UN World Happiness Report 2013.
Afrographique is easily the best thing that happened to me today.
I couldn't stop looking at each and every one of these creations.  So incredible.
Even better, Ivan, the guy behind the Tumblr site, lets people use his graphics for nonprofit purposes. OMG.

It's hard to help people around here.  

Don't get me wrong.  This statement has nothing to do with Kinois kindness or empathetic ability. It has everything to do with logistics.

Case Study #1:

A well-educated woman who would be considered the Congolese equivalent of "middle class" lives in the neighborhood of her birth.  Since that time (a few decades, give or take), her neighborhood has gone from middle-class to very poor.  She has stayed put, feeling strongly that it is important for her to remain a part of this community.  She notices that many of the young girls around her dropped out of school at around age 10 or 11.  They hang around, doing all of the seemingly nonproductive things marginalized kids seem to gravitate towards: pregnancy, truancy, eye rolling.  

She is aware that the main barrier between these girls and school is not uniforms, sanitary napkins, dozens of miles down a dirt path, or even money. It's motivation.  They don't want to go to school. Playing house, hanging out with friends, and sitting around are more appealing. So, in the few "free" hours of her week (she commutes 2 hours each way to work, arriving at 7:45am and leaving at 4:30pm), this woman develops a plan with a few like-minded unofficial community leaders and they proceed to work on motivating teens in the community to want to go to school or learn a trade.  She feels like it's working.  

This little impromptu project management team is accidentally using all sorts of research-proven strategies like needs assessments, positive deviance, and purposeful conversation. They would probably be eligible for loads of grants and funding if they turned themselves into an NGO. This initiative has all the hallmarks of a winning international development project.  But, they never will formalize their efforts. On purpose.  They will continue working out of their homes, secretly practicing almost unimaginable levels of kindness.  

They learned their lesson a few years ago when someone wanted to teach computer skills to people in the neighborhood.  They even managed to get several computers donated.  Almost as soon as it arrived, the equipment was looted.  Gone.  In addition, local authorities demanded thousands of dollars in taxes and fines for this "unauthorized" activity.

So, the work with the teen girls continues, but without materials, large gatherings, notoriety, or anything else that might threaten their small steps of progress.

Case Study #2:

A woman is crossing the street after buying some bread for dinner.  It's around 6pm and growing dark.  She's returning to the place on the sidewalk where she sells packets of chickwangue, neatly rolled in banana leaves.  She is struck by a bus and is gravely injured.  A small crowd gathers and looks.  No one touches her.  She lies still on the sidewalk. There is no ambulance to call.  An observer remarks to her American friend, "It is very disorganized, but eventually, someone will stop and use their own transport money for the day to pay for a taxi to take her to the hospital.  No worries."

Case Study #3:

A man and his wife work hard in Kinshasa.  He holds a steady job for little pay. She watches the children, cooks the food, and sells some beans on the side.  They can afford shelter, basic clothing, and borrow money from his employer for the children's school fees each year, but always pay it back in full. They are very poor, but holding steady. Three teenage girls recently arrived from the East to live with distant relatives in the couple's neighborhood.  Two of the girls are pregnant. The man and his wife know well that they don't eat dinner most days.  So, without even discussing it, they began preparing a little extra pondu each night.  Taking a little less for themselves and giving portions to the girls, who drift by at the right time. The know that cassava leaves are rich in protein and iron, which are good for pregnant women.  The man fears the money that will be demanded of him from neighborhood police if they find out that he is "rich enough" to give away food.  

In order to publish these stories (the result of two interviews and one personal experience), I had to promise no pictures, no names, and no identifying characteristics.  Being nice is dangerous and expensive business in these parts, if not downright impossible at times.  

Kindness does not appear until somewhere in the middle/top (depending on how you look at it) of Maslow's pyramid. It's basic human instinct to take care of all of our other needs first.  It's about  survival and for the majority of people in Kinshasa, luxuries like self-actualization, or even friendship, are difficult to achieve.  

Yet, I guess my point in writing down these stories is to remind myself that, thankfully, Maslow didn't explain everything about human motivation.  Just because a person lives in some of the toughest conditions around doesn't mean that they can't be nice. And just because a person doesn't look or act nice to you doesn't mean they aren't kind. (Are you following?) 

In Kinshasa, I look at the photos that I have taken on the street and, inevitably, the first thing I notice are the glares.  Visitors to Congo often remark that the streets lack the friendly vibe stereotypical of many other African nations.  Sometimes it feels like people don't have time or energy to dole out niceness to strangers on the street - especially foreign ones with cameras.

When I was little, and I complained about how mean a friend or teacher acted, my parents would say, "There is so much about that person that you just don't know.  Maybe there are hard things going on in their life right now to make them act that way."  It always pissed me off at first. But, it was humbling - and a little entertaining - to imagine what incredible horribleness might secretly be occurring behind closed doors.

But, I wonder if it is equally necessary to imagine what incredible kindness is occurring behind closed doors.  

It is this question that allows a guest in this city to stop theorizing about the deep psychological effects of incessant stress, applying ineffective research-proved improvement strategies, or simply feeling bitter.  That jerk at the cable company, the customs official who held your passport hostage, your coworker who never seems to "open up", the cop who hit your car because you only gave him a 200FC tip.  You just don't know what they might be doing - against all odds - in their own communities to make life a little easier, a little happier, or a little better for someone else.  Imagining kindness doesn't fix bad behavior, corruption, or a broken government, but it does offer a degree of relief and tolerance.

You just don't know.  


  1. This was easily one of the most unique, thought-provoking things I've read in a long time. Thanks for challenging us to think a little differently, and more kindly, towards others.

  2. Such a great post! As an American living in South Africa, there are certain aspects of South African life/culture that I find frustrating or want to get angry at, sometimes. But life is different and the same, everywhere. This was such a good reminder to imagine and see the good, and not just want is different, unfamiliar, or unfair.

  3. Wow! What an incredibly humanistic take on life in difficult conditions. And the potential for improving one's little corner of the world.

  4. I wish I would have read this earlier. I saw a friend today for the first time since I returned from Kinshasa and was trying to explain this exact dynamic to her. I'm not sure I fully grasped it myself until I read this. Thank you!

  5. I love this post. Being kind is one of the most important things to be. It will help you in unimaginable ways in all circumstances. The Buddhists talk about living life with "loving kindness" and I really believe there is peace and fulfillment in living that way.

  6. One of the finest posts I've read anywhere in a long time. Thank you for making me feel a little kinder today.


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