Wednesday, July 22, 2009
If it was easy, everyone would do it
This is a story about both the power and the limits of good intentions. I thought a lot about whether I should post it, but I’ve decided to do it anyway, with identifying information and real names omitted. I want to share because the questions it raises are complex and difficult, because it makes me try to puzzle through the hidden assumptions and partly submerged desires that animate the good intentions which brought me back to northwestern Vietnam this summer. Also, some of it's pretty funny.
I'm going with a small group of Americans affiliated with a US-based NGO to the village of Na Hoi, where they will teach a class to women on basic health and hygiene and work on a sand water filtration system they are installing. When we arrive in Na Hoi, a 10-minute drive from the hotel, the women take over the village meeting room and the men go off down the path to work on the filter. There’s the typical milling about and unpacking and setting up the laptop (oh, god, transnational, bilingual powerpoint hell?) before getting started at nine. We're early, and after a teacherly confab, it’s decided that we need to play a game to fill the extra 20 minutes. Ugh, my least favorite thing, but I’ll have to participate and be nice. The game goes like this, but takes several long minutes to explain and translation: we all stand in a circle with our legs apart and the person who is “it” pivots in the center and tries to throw a pink squiggly ball between someone’s legs; if it gets through, that person is "it." Grasping immediately the sexual innuendo of the game, the women are laughing and teasing each other. If N, K, and J get it, they betray not one wit of that, thus making the whole thing infinitely more hilarious, as the capri-panted women bounce up and down on the balls of their feet and wiggle their butts from side to side.
My hunch is that this game comes from a prepackaged development curriculum and that it’s supposed to be about sexually transmitted disease, but even then, the analogy breaks down, because once you fail to close your legs chastely, you become infected and then aggressively use force and deception to infect someone else -- for fun. Lesson, exactly? For the American women leading this exercise, it might as well be duck-duck-goose; they want to make sure everyone is included and has a turn at being “it.”
We all take our seats, all women now, the few curious men who were here before nine have gone, and the lesson begins. It will have three parts: hygiene, nutrition, and dental health. It is a five-paragraph theme. Part one is based on what I have to admit is an ingenious piece of curriculum, a richly illustrated, step-by-step overview of germ theory of contagion, graphically mapping the various vectors by which wee beasties travel from poop to mouth, with a little aside about sneezing (into your arm, not your hands! No one addressed the local snot-rocket epidemic.). Visual aids include a laminated drawing of a man taking a dump (cross-culturally hilarious), a plate of fake poop, and a giant plastic fly almost the size of the poop itself. N and K go at it with a verve of aggressiveness, to borrow the felicitous language the Sao Mai Hotel uses to describe its staff in its brochure. N is every inch the retired schoolteacher, urging, repeating, demanding response and participation. K is all Office of Human Resources, insisting that T translate the rules verbatim, stern, minatory. By the time we wrap up this topic by doing a group fist-pump cheer and chanting “No to germs,” (no translation -- English only), I’m worn out; it’s taken more than 30 minutes, and still two more paragraphs to go. If you gave me a quiz, I’d have to say the main take-away is about hand-washing. I’m all for it. In particular, however, it’s about the need to construct field hand-washing stations called Tippy-Taps, which hang on trees, of which there are few to none on the high slopes where they when tend their crops. It’s a great idea, to be sure, but it seems to me that any initiative that begins by asking these women to carry one more damn thing on their backs up the mountains is unlikely to gain much traction.
I can’t help thinking that the women in the audience must have thought it was a diverting and unusually theatrical discussion of poop.