Friday, May 21, 2010

More on helping

Ajiri Tea won a prize for "Best Packaging" at the World Tea Expo and I'm still struggling with how I feel about that. Struggling because how much of that was a "Look at what the humble natives can do with our help" kind of a thing. And yet I would love to see Ajiri succeed, and the recognition from the World Tea Expo cannot but help.

Here's the info from Ajiri's website:

Ajiri Tea was started with the social mission of creating employment for the people of western Kenya and of educating the local orphans. Through the sale of Ajiri Tea, we hope to create a sustainable cycle of community employment and education. Ajiri means "to employ" in Swahili, the national language of Kenya.

We buy our tea from a tea factory in the Kisii district of Kenya and employ women in Kisii to handcraft the box labels, beads, and twine. All profits are sent back to the community through our donation to the Ajiri Foundation to educate orphans by paying their school fees and purchasing their books and uniforms. By supporting farmers, employing women to create the unique handmade labels on every tea box, and paying school fees for orphans, we hope to make a difference in Kenya today and in the future.
There's just something so...wincingly saccharin about this to me. And how can I be so callous? But there's something about the combination of "orphans" and "handcraft" and "women" and "farmers"--just the whole thing--that makes me squirm. If only they had been orphaned women farmers!

I'm glad these folks are doing this. I really am. It sounds to me like they are doing a lot of good and making some real impact. And yet I am disquieted. Perhaps by the "Let us come and help you" aspect (according to Sarah Vowell in The Wordy Shipmates, this is a long-held American trait). Perhaps it's the confluence of so many liberal buzz-words in one small space. Perhaps it's my own experience, seeing the production of "handcrafts" to play on the pity of folks in the west, all made to spec with supplied materials. I still may buy the tea, but something about this--this kind of helping--doesn't sit right with me.

You know what I think it is? It's the power thing--that I can help you, but you don't have anything that can help me. Even though that may not be what's really going on, that's what it feels like to me. And, of course, the people who founded Ajiri Tea are themselves earning a living this way. Nothing wrong with that. But I think those of us in the helping professions are kidding ourselves when we forget that we owe our livelihood to the people we're trying to help.


it's margaret said...

ahhhh hell. I'm not in the helping profession. neither are you dear Laura. You are an effing priest m'dear!!!! No help to anyone but God!!!!

Blessings on ya!
see. that didn't help either!!!

helping profession. feh!!!!

Charles said...

Look at the Ajiri Project as giving the folks in Kenya a leg up to start helping themselves. That cloying density of words you speak about is in fact a reflection of some 3rd world economic and social realities, regardless of whether "poverty" and "pandemic" are hackneyed topics of conversation at fabulous tea parties in 2010. Furthermore, everyone needs a foot in the door and a helping hand when starting out, especially, I would submit, the Kenyans in a post-colonial era. I'd also submit that it's unfair to say "earning a living" from this project. As a retailer of their product, I can assure you the folks at Ajiri haven't managed that yet. They're doing it because they believe they're doing a good thing.