Do you think you know better? Think twice. Especially when you are into helping somebody.
Let me share with you two situations which happened to me recently, proving my ignorance.
First fact happened few weeks ago in Sri Lanka. Early morning, train station. 10 people around waiting for the first train to come. Suddenly a blind couple arrived and the man headed toward the ticket counter. There were two windows – one to the right, which was open, and one to the left, closed. The man stood in front of the closed one and tried to understand if there was anybody by asking, knocking, etc. I looked around – why nobody tells him this window is closed and help him to get to other one? Few minute of silence, the guy was getting impatient, nobody around even thought about getting near and help him. I was just about to approach him when the left window opened, within 2 seconds all the people around started to queue after the guy. He was first. After thinking through I understood that the left counter sells third class tickets while the right one offers only second class or higher. The blind man knew very well what he was doing.
The second situation happened yesterday. We got to know that the neighboring farm is on fire. We dropped everything right away, grabbed buckets and shovels and started to run. Once on the farm, we found the neighbors guarding the fire on the other side of their fence, having secured their land with a buffer corridor and saying nothing could be done for the rest of the hill. We wanted to jumped immediately into action not thinking too much why local people where not that enthusiastic about helping out. They joined us after a while and together we managed to stop this side of the fire, just to discover that they didn’t really want us to do it. The fire was set on purpose by somebody. In that moment they were able to control it from getting onto their property. There is a chance the person that set fire could come back to burn the rest of the field. If it happens in the middle of the night, the danger can be much bigger. Their plan, which we ruined, was to control the burn of the field around, so no new fire could get closer.
Both situation happened in different cultures, where we should be especially careful with interpretating and reacting, even if it seems the right thing to do. The same can happen, though, in our own countries. Each social group may have its own habits, believes and ways of doing things, each individual has his or her own needs and experiences. As changemakers, we often jump to help without understanding enough what kind of aid is actually needed. The first step should be always to listen and observe. Put aside our own experiences and knowledge, which although a good base, may also bias our ability to understand. Traveling helps a lot with opening perspectives, showing that some things that may seem obvious at first sight, like helping a blind person or stopping a fire, are just our conviction, far from the objective truth. There are many ways to act (or not act) and to choose the best we need to listen and we need to collaborate. Rather empower than help. Rather create circumstances in which a specific group of people can find solutions which work for them, than impose things which work in our own life. There is no universal solution. Every situation, every person is different. Let’s get rid of the White Man syndrome, we don't necessarily know better.