I am suggesting a book where you should just stop reading this post, march down to your library, and check out Strength in What Remains by Tracey Kidder.
There is a story in this book I often retell. I recount the story when colleagues are unsure of what the community involvement should be in a project. I also tell it when communities have little faith in themselves and wait or depend on outside money or influence to solve all of their problems.
Here is the story. Deo, the subject of the book, is working in his home community in Brundi after getting his medical degree from Harvard.
The community is isolated and rural. They do not have a road that connects them to the bigger town nearby. They want a road so that they can participate more fully in the economy, get to the larger hospital, and all of the other reasons that any rural community wants a road.
They found a Belgian company that was willing to build their road. They found money to pay for it. The company of course was going to charge them an arm and a leg, $50,000 to be exact, just to make it passable, and they would take forever to get it done (when you are in a complicated labor and need to get to the hospital, any wait for a road will seem like forever).
A woman with a baby crying on her back said to [Deo], ‘You will not pay a penny for this road. We become so much sick because we are poor, but we are not poor because we are lazy. We will work on this road with our own hands.’
So, what did Deo do? He went to the women. He went to the women who were seen as leaders in the community. He asked them if they thought they could get everyone together to build the road. If they did it themselves they would save that arm and that leg and be able to use the extra money to get people to the hospital (the primary purpose of the road!).
The next day a hundred sixty-six people showed up with pickaxes, hoes, machetes and other tools. One of the volunteers was a woman who came to work with a sick child. I asked the mother why she came to work with a child that sick. And she said to me, ‘I’ve already lost three children, and I know this one is next, whether I stay at home or come to work here. So it’s better for me to join others and make my contribution, which hopefully will help to save someone else’s child, who will be sick but alive when you build your clinic.’
A six-kilometer road in rural Africa, built by every single person in a community.
So. This story has a simple lesson in it. Get your people together. Build the damn road.
And if you want extra inspiration–this short video highlights Village Health Works, Deo’s organization in Brundi!