Wracked with doubt but armed with a sense of duty

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December 16th 2011
Published: December 15th 2011
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Wracked with doubt, I find myself contemplating the point of all this work I am doing and the feed-back I am getting from others makes me question my motives. Should I or shouldn’t I? What’s the point? Is there a point? Am I doing more damage than good? Will I alter the fragile existence of lives with bullish western tactics and dreams not ready to be inflicted upon my poor victims?Is this all fed by narcissistic motivations? Am I really that egotistical? Do I have such shallow ulterior motives?

I have sat every day in Joma cafe chomping on my usual sundried tomato bagel with egg and bacon and some other tasty filling which has led to my addiction along with multiple cups of ‘English Breakfast tea’ consumed with the task of setting up the Mao-Sue foundation charity. Don’t get me wrong I have found it fulfilling, enriching and enjoyed creating websites, posters and researching for endless hours, it has given me purpose. I feel strongly and passionately about what I am doing and the positive changes I hope to bring to the tribes people of Sapa. Even if we only manage to change the prospects of two women and their families, at least we tried, right? If it goes well and the charity develops as I hope it will then isn’t this a good thing? Isn’t this something to be proud of? So why does this dark misty cloud of doubt absorb me?

I know I am a dreamer, an idealist; I’m fully aware of how I rush in to things and then think later. I make impulsive decisions based on how I am feeling rather than take each step logically. Upon reflection, this instinct has served me well, but of course it’s not infallible, I have left my share of blips in the road that has already been paved behind me and I cannot change those mistakes, I can only hope to learn from them. I am anxious to get this right, I have the lives of these people in my hand and it makes me nervous; and for a moment I feel how a God might feel when making decisions about what to do next with the lives of his people. Do I intervene and go back to help or do I continue with my travels? We cannot please everyone, but the utilitarian way of inflicting the least amount of pain or upset is paramount to my own intentions. Every action, every decision, every choice should bring about the most pleasure and happiness. But the same old come-back whistles in my ears, just as it did seven years ago in my Philosophy seminars at university: but how do I know which action will be the most positive? I am not a God, I am human and we all know humans make mistakes but in this scenario, mistakes I cannot afford to make. I can’t afford to bring change which I think is positive only to find it leaves a trail of damage. I certainly have no God complex; there is no room for superiority or self-righteousness here.

Maybe these tribes are OK living in a hovel; maybe they don’t need saving; maybe they are just fine in their dirt filled rooms with just a mattress for the entire family to sleep on; maybe they don’t really need proper mosquito nets; maybe they don’t need insulation or clothes or blankets. When we look at pictures of places like Africa we see how thin and gaunt the women are and the swollen bellied children crying in pain from hunger. Surely these people deserve my time, my energy. The tribes in Sapa are OK aren’t they? They have food, they have shelter, and they have each other? They have got by alright so far haven’t they? So what if they are not educated, they are just a number along with the other 1.5 billion illiterate people in the world.

Maybe someone else will come and rescue them from their dark poverty. Maybe they’ll do it themselves? Maybe?

A week ago when I wrote my last blog I had the confidence of a thousand men. With realism seeping in through the cracks along with rejection responses from high street companies I have been forced to question my intentions. They are truthful and honest and desire to make a contribution to the welfare of the tribes in Sapa. Still, it is probably a good thing that I am taking the time to debate the ins and outs, as they say, only fools rush in. The same can not be said for these companies. It's a shame.

Thousands of tourists trample their way through Sapa without so much a thought of how these people really live. Been there, done that, I too am guilty of such actions. They shoo away the ornately dressed tribes’ women like they are vermin and speak to them and about them with such disdain. But what these tourists don’t realise is if they don’t sell their wares, they don’t eat. The majority of them have no other means of income.

I am currently reading a book called Shantaram, many of you may have read it also. There are currently five other girls in my dorm who’s shelves are adorned with this particular novel. It’s powerful and moving and whilst this is no book review it has impacted me and led me to question my objectives and possible consequences which are of course vital when contemplating future actions in the life of The Mao-Sue Foundation. The main character, Lin, seems to do good things such as open a free clinic in the slums of India, or educates young children in English, by his Indian friend a taxi and a license so he can make his own money, however, many of these good deeds turn out to have horrific consequences and when reflecting upon the what if’s and the why’s, tragic endings could easily have been avoided if Lin had never done these “good deeds” in the first place. We humans connect in such fragility; we are hugely impacted by the decisions of another with or without their awareness. Charities which have set up water well projects in remote African villages have drilled their wells, found water and left the Africans to deal with the sudden lack of water weeks or months down the line. Many a time, this has happened and these villagers are left with hundreds of deep holes in the ground where the drillers have tried to find a good source of water but the water they managed to find has been drained away from another well further up stream. I have this sense of dread, this fear conjures up in the pit of my stomach with one question strangling the optimism out of me; what if this charity produces nothing but disastrous outcomes, what if what we are doing is actually the wrong thing, the wrong thing for all the right reasons?

But is it not so easy to look the other way? After all, I am now back in Hanoi, eating my weight in bagels, burgers, noodles, and draining the reserves of tea. I am surrounded by wealth, warmth, proper beds; I even spent money on brand new clothes the other day to shield myself from them biting cold. I could continue with my travels, reflect upon the unfortunate circumstances in which people live and pity them, but hey, I’m OK, I still have my luxuries. I have an incredible family, kind and loving boyfriend, wonderful friends, good career, I’m healthy, I have money in the bank, I don’t ever have to go hungry and I know that if I was ever in trouble my mother and step-father would be my knights in shining armour to come to rescue me. I am safe. I am lucky. I am fortunate to have and to know these things when so many millions of people do not.

Do I not have a duty to help my fellow human beings? People suffer, sure they do. We see it resentfully shoved in our faces when we try to watch TV and are constantly made to feel guilty when eating dinner whilst swollen pot-bellied children stare hungrily back at us through the glass screen. We are gluttonous are we not? I am. I admit it. Granted I come from a different world to many billions of others and as a result standards and expectations are askew in comparison. But, this sense of duty oozes out of me and remains hanging like a millstone from my neck. I have seen the way these people live, I saw how little they had, how cold it was, how cold they were. It’s different when you have been there, seen it and experienced it. Different when you make a connection with the people. You feel more than pity, you feel sorrow and guilt and a sense of urgency to help them. Duty.

The Mao-Sue foundation will aim with the best of intentions to create a charity which helps tribes’ women and alleviate the poverty they have become so accustomed to. Everything we will put in place will be sustainable. The home-stay and houses won’t rely upon electricity, central heating, flushing western toilets or hot water for a nice warm shower. These are great things, sure, but unsustainable in the long run as they require long term commitment and money. Everything we do has to last with as little money required as possible. If we manage to create a home-stay for Sue and Mao which is sustainable, safe, and warm then we can start to encourage and help other families in similar or worse situations to see how they can make positive changes to their living standards and facilitate those changes. These are BIG ideas and as I mull over this model I don’t see how we can bring about detrimental impacts to their culture or traditions. Maybe this is very short sighted of me, but I don’t feel like we are changing them and they do not feel changed. We are not stripping them of traditions, cultural practices or beliefs. It appears we have the consent of the village so there is to be no hard feeling amongst the tribes against us foreigners helping Sue first. In time I hope that we can help everyone and everyone has the chance to benefit in some way or another.

I guess with everything in life, we cannot see the future; we only have the present and the past to guide us. Armed with good intentions, optimism yet a pinch of reality we will tread carefully with eyes open aware of our commitment and potential impacts on others in to the Mao-Sue foundation. Superficial egotistical aspects of our human nature are not welcome here.


Additional photos below
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15th December 2011

Soul searching
Jessica, you are asking yourself all the right questions. Do people really want or need to be rescued? If they find a way to make a better life for themselves it may mean more. What do you think? Men and women with good intentions have taken animals and or plants from one country to another and disaster has occurred. From these acts indigenous plants and animals have been wiped out.....unintended but none the less the changes have been devastating. As we've traveled around the world we have found some of the poorest people to be the happiest. They are content with what they have even though it does not seem to be enough by our standards. Finding the balance is the key and you have hit on the right questions. Only you can answer them for yourself. Loved the blog!
15th December 2011

Life is never simple is it? But all I can think is that if I was cold and hungry and my children left for days starving, I too would hope some Western angel would turn up and help me out. You are like a lottery win, and perhaps that is the problem....how do you help without making them dependant on you? I utterly agree education is the way forward and key to everything. It so easy isn't it sitting in my comfy house .... I want to help, so sign me up and count me in!!
15th December 2011

Hi, from Argentina
Dear traveller: your blogs are excellent, your pictures are great BUT your spirit is special... Thank you. Hugs from Argentina. Graciela.
16th December 2011

Very Sad
Some of those pictures simply bring a tear to my eye. It is hard to see the suffering that is going on, but you are right, some people may not want to be rescues. Just because some of us live surrounded by technology and noise does not make it right for everybody.
16th December 2011
Photo 24

That picture is cool
17th December 2011

but one person can help one or two and make a difference in their lives. You are helping much much more...at Sapa. What is called gut feeling must guide you from there. Loved the natural colours in your pics...they took me there.
22nd December 2011

Loving the Blog
Hi Jess - first off - amazing photography - I know you love your job back here in blighty but I really think you should try and make a career in photography - stunning portraiture x Lots of people have made the same points that I would make about whether or not the people you are helping "need" or "want" help, especially when viewed from our perspective of relative affluence. Wishing you a very happy christmas and a fantastic new year with hugs and kisses from a cold, damp Kent xxx Caroline and Dan xxx

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