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South Africa: a reciprocity that comes alive
21 August 2014

Many times the conversation would begin with the simple statement, "we are suffering…" and end with "only God can help us now." ~ David Holdcroft SJ
We, listener and speaker, seemed to be seeking connections across our collective human experience, at once so different but...with many common points as well.
Johannesburg, 21 August 2014 – We are told that accompaniment lies at the heart of JRS work. But what is it exactly? For me the word conjures up an image of walking alongside the people we work for and with. It entails trying to engender a relationship different to that of service provider-to-beneficiary, clinician-to-patient. In so doing we often venture across the barriers of religion, culture, language and economic status. It is recognised as one of the three core planks upon which the JRS identity and praxis is built. Yet, at the same time, it seems to be a value that somehow lies outside the core of typically conceived project work.
How does this 'extra' dimension relate to the 'core' work of service provision? This question is especially pertinent in these times when expectations of professionalism and competition for funding are increasing, with their attendant emphasis on measurable outcomes.

About four years ago, I spent some months working in a refugee camp at Dzaleka, in Malawi. While my time was spent mainly in administrative work, I had the opportunity to be in the camp two days a week, time spent mainly listening to people, talking with them and trying to offer solutions to some of the issues they presented.

Most of the conversations seemed to begin with the invisible question that was perceived to be on my lips: "How can I help you?" I was universally told about the often unspeakable horrors of refugee life in Africa including continued sufferings within the camp setting.

Many times the conversation would begin with the simple statement, "we are suffering…" and end with "only God can help us now."

The conversation inevitably devolved into a series of requests made to me. These requests were usually unrealistic, sometimes outlandish and most – if not all – involved matters I was completely powerless to in?uence, even if I had wanted to. To name just a few of the more common pleas, nearly everyone asked me to secure them resettlement to a western country, to help in a health matter or to intervene in an intra-family conflict. Resettlement, in fact, was only a reality for around 80 people a year in a camp that then had a population of 14,000. UNHCR and the participating countries were responsible for the selection of refugees for resettlement. Although I had never worked for UNHCR, many saw me as having an inside ticket to influence and even expedite the process. No amount of dissuasion could alter some people's unwavering belief in my abilities.

I soon became aware of the boredom of camp life and the manipulation involved in some of the stories I heard – after all I was a new face. Perhaps, more cynically, people thought my relative inexperience and naivety could be easily taken advantage of. I was under few illusions as to my own role and status in the camp order.

Most of the time I found myself exhausted by the seemingly endless human suffering that was regularly presented to me, and by my inability to do anything meaningful about it, to somehow either restore the past or reconstruct the present. I mostly returned from the camp utterly spent.

Slowly, however, I began to see another pattern emerging in at least some of my conversations. I was aware, firstly, of being thanked. This gratitude seemed genuine enough even if I had not done anything except try to be present to the conversation and story. I then slowly began to realise that at least some of the refugees actually knew I would be unable to respond positively or practically to the vast majority of their requests. And it didn't seem to matter. I was once asked for an exercise bike. This was surely the last thing I thought would be needed in a refugee camp. Nevertheless the question was serious – the man before me had problems of circulation in one leg that eventually led to its amputation. When I eventually said I could not help, the person was grateful I had tried. No rancour – I think he fully expected the answer I gave him.

Gradually I learnt that the requests for help were not the purpose of the vast majority of the conversations. This realisation came as a liberation to me. I was listening to people tell of their experiences of life in a camp and as a refugee. We, listener and speaker, seemed to be seeking connections across our collective human experience, at once so different but, as I increasingly discovered, with many common points as well.

There was a reciprocity that came alive as I saw how the refugees, whose languages and cultures I hardly knew, were inviting me into their world just as I was connecting them with the outside world from which I came. Conversation had become a kind of hospitality and, somehow, a small expression of hope for both parties.

In all this, there were few outcomes that could be measured. Yet many of the conversations remain with me as if they happened yesterday. Connections made then have stayed with me, as well as the many moments of absurdity and humour. For me such genuine points of meeting were like tiny electric currents: there was a spark in my interactions with refugees that gave me life.

I also felt that my conversations gave me a very good idea of the needs within the camp population, which I could bring to bear on any process of planning. NGOs such as JRS all want and need to be as effective as possible in providing services to address the real needs of those they seek to help. To ensure this happens we are all told – correctly enough – that the 'target population' must be involved at all stages of the project cycle, that needs assessments at the beginning of a project, evaluations at the end and much of what goes in between must all be participatory. In other words, the people served must be part of the process of designing and carrying out the project.

This is good development practice. But let's not forget that in providing services we NGO people come from a position of power relative to the people we wish to help. This will always be, as long as there is a service provider-beneficiary relationship, and it is perhaps even necessary in order to make services effective.

To be sure, having refugees' participation as a benchmark of the effectiveness of NGO interventions would seem to disrupt the possible negative aspect of the power relationship. But we are simply deluding ourselves if we think such efforts will resolve the power differential completely. Merely calling for participation in decision-making will never fully address the deeper human need to search for and elicit meaning from one's experiences, particularly when great suffering is involved.

But suffering speaks also to something universal in human experience. It is here that the community of the church – expressed through the presence of faith-based organisations such as JRS – has a role to play. Our very presence in the lives of the refugees speaks to the existence of this universal dimension. Practically, the effort to listen and attempt to understand, flawed as it may be, speaks of human solidarity and the people of God as one community.

Neither is it one sided: while I may never experience the tragic histories related to me by refugees, in some small way, I can begin to find lights that help me to understand better aspects of my own life experience, my own moments of suffering.

But this discovery demands that I increasingly reflect on my own acknowledged and unacknowledged motives for doing this work, and the way I rely on and sometimes draw (false) identity from NGO and other power structures.

In Dzaleka camp I was the one coming from a position of power. But it was more often my powerlessness and inability to help – much as I would have liked to – that established my real link with the refugees. I was no longer in control of the interaction. Often I was forced to sit there and silently ask forgiveness of the person I was purporting to help. It has to be said that it was and is an uncomfortable place to be in for any length of time, so accustomed am I to helping and being in a position of power and control through my helping.

Accompaniment, in one understanding, can never be the sole focus of our work: we are there to help people answer a need in their lives and to bring resources to this end. But it has to be there, at once on the edge of service, to challenge the power structure of the 'provider-beneficiary relationship', and at the same time at its centre to create the spiritual and psychological space for humanity to reassert itself. It is only through real accompaniment that JRS – and other NGOs – can learn the true meaning of service and thus capture the heart of its mission.

David Holdcroft SJ
JRS Southern Africa