In the intervening months, however, I had a negative experience making a short documentary about a Kenyan NGO, and my experience provoked a good deal of additional thought about engagement with disadvantaged and marginalized groups.
The root of the trouble arose from the fact that, after photographing, videotaping and interviewing people participating in and administering the NGO's programming, I took almost a year to finish editing the video.
My overriding reason for the delay was that I needed about a week of free time to focus on the video in order to finish it, and I didn't find the time until I was about to leave Kenya, almost a year after I began the project. For six months of the year in question, I had a full time job and was researching a book on my weekends; and for the other six months I was writing a book.
Multiple times, I told one or another people from the NGO that the delay was simply because of my work schedule, and that I'd finish the documentary as soon as I had the time. My expectation was that, since I was volunteering, I could complete the video at my convenience.
My expectation did not accord with those of the NGO's founder. In a series of increasingly unpleasant phone calls, he told me that, in the past, people (foreign whites) who had worked with the NGO had not delivered on their promises, and he made clear that he expected me similarly to fail the NGO.
He also claimed to be under pressure to deliver the video from the parents of the children who participate in the NGO's programming, and he said he was going to subject me to the "same same" pressure that he experienced. He also made some statements that I considered extreme: he suggested that I should be giving him money for the opportunity to do volunteer work with his NGO, and he told me that his mother's life would be jeopardized if I didn't finish the video immediately.
Each of these calls with the NGO's founder made me feel appalled and miserable, and they eroded my motivation to finish the documentary. Indeed, I regretted that I'd ever become involved with the NGO.
Then, ten months after I'd initially begun the project, the founder told me that he didn't want my documentary, and I felt extraordinary relief. A month later, I completed the documentary and delivered it to another of the NGO's administrators.
I finished the documentary first, and foremost, because I'd committed to do so, regardless of the intervening unpleasantness with the NGO's founder. Also, the NGO's end beneficiaries were children, who were receiving drawing and painting instruction from the NGO, and I felt obligated to finish the project for them. In addition, I felt that I bore a big part of the responsibility for the breakdown in relations with the NGO's founder, and I didn't believe that my mistakes in communicating with the founder were an excuse for not finishing the work I'd undertaken.
I probably shouldn't have started this project if I couldn't finish it quickly (although I didn't initially realize how difficult it would be for me to finish it rapidly), but once time began elapsing I badly miscalculated how the NGO's founder would view the situation. When (as has happened) someone tells me that work is eating up their time for a volunteer project on my behalf, I nod understandingly. I might try to cajole them into a schedule for completing the work, but I'm friendly about it; I try to support them; I take opportunities to express my gratitude; I don't doubt that they'll do the work. And, if I do eventually conclude that the work might never get finished, I may grumble, but eventually I shrug my shoulders: I don't feel entitled to free work, and I don't feel like I can force someone to do work for free.
But this NGO's founder didn't seem to share that perspective. He acted like, if the project wasn't completed quickly, I would never do it. I don't know if he's ever had a full time job (his work with this NGO is on a volunteer basis), but he didn't seem to relate to my objection that I had paying work to do in the time he wanted me to be editing the documentary.
Possibly, he was inclined to disbelieve me because I'm white, and he's black. Certainly, he acted like he expected me to follow his commands because I'm a woman, and that my failure to comply with his orders was a blow to his ego.
Moreover, my status as a middle-class white American volunteering my time in a Kenyan slum didn't seem to earn me any goodwill. My status didn't seem to cause the founder to assume that someone in my position would be acting with good intentions. On the contrary, he appeared to think that anyone with resources owed him a share.
I had not anticipated his sense of entitlement, nor his willingness to make my life unpleasant. Also, I discovered experientially what I'd known intellectually: that, while he may be a marginalized or disadvantaged person, he is not without power. Moreover, his code for exercising that power diverged widely from mine. I felt a responsibility to act in a morally justifiable way in respect of him and his NGO; but he used tactics of coercion and manipulation against me.
I did not expect gratitude or accolades from him, but I believe I deserved to be treated with the same basic respect and courtesy that colleagues and friends have a right to expect. (Possibly I received the same treatment he shows others in his orbit; maybe I couldn't have done anything that would have made the situation easier.) Nonetheless, I think I should have acted differently:
- I should have been more wary of volunteering as an individual without an association with an established NGO or other organization;
- I should have managed expectations better, perhaps by giving the NGO a timetable of my projected delivery date;
- I should have liaised with other members of the NGO when communication with the founder became difficult; and
- I should have put aside everything and finished the video immediately before the breakdown in relations became hostile.
On the positive side, this uncomfortable experience hasn't dulled my desire to work in this sector. Rather, it has sharpened my sense of both the perils and necessity of continuing to engage.
(Photo of children participating in a drawing class given by the NGO taken by Maya Alexandri)