By Anna Taft, founder of The Tandana Foundation
The Tandana Foundation’s Theory of Change is unusual because of our focus on how we interact and on the intercultural relationships that are both the foundation of our work and an end in themselves. Many organizations use Theories of Change to map out the series of steps and interventions that lead to their long-term goals and desired social changes. Typically, a Theory of Change is based on causal linkages and informed by instrumental logic. It is often associated with the attempt to control human affairs as though we were making something. The temptation to bring the mode of fabrication to human affairs is perennial, because of frustration with the unpredictability, irreversibility, and anonymity of action; however, if instrumental logic controls what we do, we are obliged to accept any means to given ends, the justification of violence, the loss of meaningfulness, and inevitable failure, because the actual course of events is bound to be full of the unexpected. At The Tandana Foundation, we endeavor to bring the mode of action, which is how we relate to each other in freedom, when we do not seek to dominate another but rather to reveal ourselves, thicken webs of human relationships, and bring to life principles, together with the mode of fabrication to guide our work. Action is unpredictable, irreversible, and anonymous, but it also allows opportunities, such as promise-keeping and forgiveness, for mending mistakes and offering accountability. Because we rely on action, our work does not fit neatly into linear models of cause and effect. Nevertheless, we know that what we do has important results. Our Theory of Change is based on experience, sharing what we have seen to emerge from our work. It is also open to a variety of positive outcomes that show up in different ways for different people. Despite the failures of traditional development work, The Tandana Foundation’s example shows that community work undertaken from a personal orientation can bring about positive changes.
With its caring, respectful, responsible intercultural relationships and funds that it raises from a variety of donors, Tandana supports community initiatives. Small contributions come from many individual donors, while a few larger donations come from particular individuals. Organizations, such as family foundations and churches, often contribute for particular projects, and granting organizations sometimes fund certain initiatives. The initiatives are as varied as the priorities of the communities that collaborate with Tandana. Wells, grain banks, gardens, Savings for Change micro-credit groups, literacy classes, leadership workshops, support for women’s association enterprises, and support for an environmental association that is protecting forests, reducing the demand for firewood, preventing erosion, and reforesting are examples of some initiatives Tandana has worked with communities in Mali to realize. Scholarships, health care, community centers, school buildings, gardens, water systems, and sports fields are some of the programs and projects that Tandana has partnered with Ecuadorean communities to make possible.
With its caring, respectful, responsible intercultural relationships and volunteers, Tandana creates intercultural volunteer programs. More than 2,000 volunteers, ranging in age from eight to eighty-three, have participated in Tandana volunteer programs. The vast majority of them come from the United States or Canada, but a few from other countries, including Ecuador, the United Kingdom, and Uganda have also participated. From 2009-2012, we coordinated five highly impactful volunteer programs in Mali until insecurity for foreigners required us to put these programs on hold until there is again greater safety for visitors in the region. In Ecuador, each year we coordinate about fifteen volunteer programs. Typically, about four of these are open-enrollment programs that individuals register for and are focused on health care or gardening. The remaining programs we organize specifically for existing groups from schools, universities, Master Gardener programs, etc. The volunteers, or the organizations or institutions that organize the programs with us, pay fees to participate. We use the fees to purchase materials or other needs for the projects the groups work on and also to cover the food, lodging, transportation, and activity costs of the volunteers and to contribute to overhead costs that make the volunteer programs possible. Volunteers work alongside community members on projects the communities have proposed and also have opportunities to participate in a variety of cultural activities and to get to know local residents informally. Local families host some volunteers in their homes, while other groups stay in community centers, hostels, or hotels. Tandana also offers internships and fellowships for those who want to volunteer for three months to a year or even longer. Interns and fellows from the United States, Mali, France, Australia, and Peru have volunteered in Ecuador.
The community initiatives and volunteer programs mutually enhance each other, as volunteers contribute to initiatives and the opportunity to do so enriches the volunteers’ experiences. Volunteers are also often inspired to donate after they participate, generating more funds that can be used to support community initiatives. As of June 2018, past participants in open-enrollment volunteer programs had donated an average of $1,304.43 per person. Thus, the volunteer programs and funding for community initiatives support each other.
Community Members Enhance and Experience Their Effectiveness
One result of supporting community initiatives in a respectful way is that community members both enhance and experience their own effectiveness in creating positive change. Segundo Moreta explained, “you have them put in their part, and that makes them feel important too and that what they are doing is their work. And when something is ours, we value it more. And the community, when they participate, they will take more care of it and value it more.” He continued:
You are always trying to have participation, collaboration, union in the communities. You are always valuing what the communities have. You don’t say we are going to bring it all from Otavalo; you are seeing what the community has and what they can contribute. So, these questions of valuing and participating, you are helping the communities to maintain these things.
Community leaders in Ecuador often emphasize the community’s initiative in undertaking projects, showing that they see themselves as effective agents. Humberto Burga, President of Muenala, Ecuador said, “We are always lacking something; we are never satisfied. But we are not just waiting for someone to give to us, we put in our part too. As you saw, the road is all muddy, so we have been thinking of working on the road.” Regarding the community center, he noted, “we put in some resources to start the building, and Tandana helped us finish it.” Maria Perugachi recounted:
The dream of all the community members was to expand the stadium. We all put in our grain of sand, the community, the foundation. All the young people and the parents wanted a modern soccer field. At first this was something very difficult, but thanks to Tandana’s support, it became a reality, and now we have it, and step by step we will continue improving it.
Maria Panamá reported, “On the tank, we worked a lot and we already put in the pipes and fittings, the faucets, and so we already have a lot invested in this project.” She emphasized, “those of us who live here, we know what we need, what projects we want to do. We are always trying to make the community better, to do good works.”
In Mali, training sessions for management committees are a part of most projects, while others, such as the women’s literacy program and leadership workshops are focused directly on learning. This learning increases community members’ abilities and sense of what they can accomplish. Housseyni Pamateck, Tandana’s Local Supervisor, said, “when you are in the committee, there is training, how to fill out the sheets, how to talk in front of everyone, how to use words. It goes into everyone’s hearts. And everyone realizes, this work is for me.” Furthermore, “When we train a management committee, we invite everyone, and everyone learns how to speak in front of others and to let everyone speak, and not to be afraid” (Pamateck, Housseyni). Kessia Kouriba explained some of the results of experience with these trainings:
The women who came here, they have been through training with Savings for Change, literacy, leadership. They have had many trainings, and in their villages, they are the ones who train other women on leadership. They do it all, and they are used to it. But a woman who has not done Savings For Change or literacy, if we ask her questions, she won’t speak. . . . They won’t speak in front of a group. It is SFC and literacy, and the leadership workshops that make it easier for them to speak in front of others.
Moussa Tembiné corroborated:
In my village today, when there is a meeting, everyone knows the importance of the meeting, and everyone says what they think. Especially women. Before Tandana came, they didn’t have a group, and women didn’t speak in the meetings. Now, thanks to the animation and training of groups, women each week have a meeting, and, when there is a village assembly, they say their point of view.
Kadidia Kassogué confirmed, “women speak too. We all speak. We all try to understand each other.” Ousmane Tembiné highlighted the importance of what he has learned as Secretary of the Olouguelemo Environmental Association: “Before the association, we never had a training from the chief of forestry. We learned a lot, and that is thanks to the foundation. Even if I were to leave the association, I would still have the knowledge that I have gained.” Experience managing projects prepares community members for taking on projects with other partners as well. Housseyni Pamateck explained:
If a foreigner is going to come, before they arrive the committee is already together and ready to talk to any partner. Before, if an NGO came, they wouldn’t mobilize until the last minute. When they saw the partner, they would start working. . . . Even if other NGOs come, they know how to form a committee and have a meeting and take things seriously.
Participation in the management of community initiatives increases both community members’ effectiveness at creating positive changes and their awareness of that effectiveness.
Communities Improve on Their Own Terms
Since community members work together, through their own processes, such as village assemblies, community council meetings, and committee meetings to define their priorities and plan the initiatives they want to undertake, the realization of these initiatives usually brings about changes that they describe as positive. Manuel Perugachi explained, “What I have liked is that since we got to know Tandana, the community has made great strides forward. Do you remember how the entrance to the community center was? We have gone on advancing more and more and changing.” Maria Perugachi noted, “Thanks to you and the Foundation, the community has advanced economically with our projects. . . . thanks to this foundation we had opportunities to do small projects that benefited our residents.” Carmen Morán said, “everything has changed with the help of Tandana. Before we didn’t even have a community center like this. Tandana helped with this and other projects too. Everything is changed. The trees have now become a forest. We planted those with Tandana.” Humberto Burga confirmed, “the community has changed positively; for example, the infrastructure. Our community center would have been unpainted, unfinished.” Ada Kanambaye reported that women have made great progress through activities with Tandana: “women’s situation is changing a lot. With the foundation, the women are less tired. We are cleaner. Now we have our own loans through Savings for Change. We have the cotton bank. There is a lot of progress.” Anouh Tembiné explained, “A lot has changed in our village thanks to Tandana. Lots of women learned how to read and write. There have also been a lot of benefits through the different activities. Now a lot of needs are filled.” Mamoudou Pamateck recounts that problems have been solved: “There were lots of problems before. Cooks had to buy wood because it was too hard to find firewood. Also, for construction, there was no wood to build with. But now when you prune your trees, you can keep pruning and getting firewood. Also, there weren’t animals around, but now they are coming back.” Hawa Pamateck also reported problems being solved: “Since we made friends with Yalema [Anna], our village has completely changed. We had problems with wells and needed a grain bank. Now we don’t have problems” (The Tandana Foundation, “What People Say”).
Volunteers’ Awareness Expands
When intercultural volunteer programs are created respectfully and responsibly, they expand volunteers’ awareness both of themselves and of others. Peter Graves described how his children, who participated in Tandana volunteer programs while in their teens and twenties, grew in awareness: “their attitudes, their work ethics, their sense of overall goodness toward humanity, and also being non-judgmental. A lot of that comes out of the experience down here and carries them forward to other experiences in life and also as leaders in their communities.” Zach Graves, one of Peter’s sons, confirmed:
I’ve been exposed to a community I hadn’t been before, and that has opened up my eyes to a really different look and view on the world. . . . I’ve never really truly been exposed to poverty, or different ways of living, different cultures. So, I feel like what Tandana and my experiences in Ecuador really opened my eyes to is that there are people who are very different from us but also similar in a lot of ways.
Bob Herring, who brought a group of students to Ecuador for a Tandana volunteer program explained that he got, “an affirmation of some of my core beliefs that we’re all brothers and sisters in this together and we’ve got to figure out a way to make it work,” and also, “I’ve learned that at my age–I don’t want to say advanced age–I can still climb a mountain, and I can still dig a ditch, and I can still haul rocks, and that in some respects maybe the best years are ahead of me.” Carrie Starcher, a gardening volunteer, noted, “Working with The Tandana Foundation provided an unparalleled experience into the traditions of Ecuadorian culture and the daily life of its people” (The Tandana Foundation, “What People Say”). J.P. Nelson, who brought his family to volunteer, said, “For people looking to greatly expand their understanding of the common bonds of humanity while learning about the Otavaleño people and their traditions and current conditions, I highly recommend Tandana” (ibid.). Julie Lundquist, who participated in a health care program, responded, “Thank you for the many multiple interactions and opportunities you provided to help us gain more insight into the culture and living conditions of the Otavalan people. I greatly appreciated the many opportunities to glimpse so many different perspectives–male/female, shaman, student, nurse, wife, etc.” (ibid.). Katy Cloutier, a teenage volunteer, reflected, “Living in the communities of Otavalo showed me that there are so many ways to live. I realized that the small things that are so important to me in my life are so small compared to everything else out there in the world.” Volunteers’ awareness of themselves and of others, with other ways of living, thinking, and being expands.
Communities Strengthen Their Cultures
When volunteer programs are created with respect for local cultures, communities continue to strengthen their cultures, sometimes revitalizing aspects that are being lost. When foreign visitors show interest in and appreciation for local cultures, especially those that have been marginalized in their national context, community members are encouraged to keep valuing and revitalizing them. In Ecuador, Kichwa Otavalo indigenous people make up the majorities, and sometimes the entireties, of the communities that partner with Tandana. As indigenous people, they have experienced a great deal of racism and disdain for their language, traditions, lifestyles, and identity from the mestizo majority. Many efforts are underway to strengthen and maintain Kichwa Otavalo customs and there is a resurgence of pride in indigenous identity, shown especially in dress and hairstyles that identify the wearers as Kichwa Otavalos, yet many people express concern over a perceived decline of interest in maintaining their culture and language. This concern is expressed by many Kichwa Otavalo people that I interviewed. Maria Perugachi explained:
My culture, with the passing years, is ending. Now there are young people who don’t like to use indigenous clothes; they want to use mestizo clothing. They say it’s easier to get dressed and also easier to access, since our indigenous clothes are expensive. . . . There are big changes: the boys cut their hair, they don’t keep their braid, they don’t keep their dress. There are customs being lost. There are moments when we want to return to live these traditions, but there are some people who don’t want to live in this culture anymore. 50% want to conserve and 50% want to change, saying this is the present and we need to change. But we need to keep living this, day after day.
Mónica Lopez concurred:
I think that being part of the indigenous Otavalo culture is something very important, and, sadly, today it is being lost. People are led by influences from outside and are leaving the culture. The Otavalo culture has always been important because it is a native culture that shouldn’t be lost. Its language, its dress, all of that should be strengthened, because that characterizes us, and I consider that important.
Manuel Perugachi said his culture “is being lost, and now people are trying to recuperate it. I hope we can recuperate it, how we were before.” Maria Esther Manrrique suggested, “Among young people, they talk about, the style is this way. I think they let themselves be convinced, but later they regret it and return to what is ours.” Segundo Moreta, who is a bilingual, intercultural educator and author, recalled learning about the indigenous political movements as a young man: “I understood that the indigenous people were gaining space and that we should start to overcome and demand our rights. Then, in the university, my ideas changed a lot, with cultural anthropology and cosmovision. They told us about the indigenous struggles.”
Interest in and appreciation for Kichwa Otavalo culture from foreign visitors supports those who are trying to valorize it and encourages them in that pursuit. It is essential, of course, that local community members define their culture for themselves and choose which aspects of it they want to promote. When visitors follow residents’ lead and respond to their invitations, they can help to counterbalance the devaluation that community members experience in their national context. Josefina Torres noted, “I feel good that you take us into account. The foreigners value us more than mestizos, I think.” Segundo Moreta explained:
Personally, I think that sometimes people from other countries are more interested than we are to know and study what we are. In the communities, we are devaluing our own culture, and as an educator I realize that a lot of parents are trying to leave their culture, but I don’t know where they are trying to go. There are young men who think that cutting their hair is going to the other side. But when they have an important event, like a wedding, they go with their hat and their poncho and white pants, even with short hair. So sometimes I say they just change on the outside, but inside they still are what they are. So, when there are foreigners living with us, sometimes we tell them ‘you should wear this clothing, because this is a special event, and you are part of our family.’ They have never said no. They have always been very ready and happy to use our clothing. Sometimes they also want to learn our language.
Kurikamak Moreta observed, “I feel very good [when foreign visitors show interest in my culture], because there are many young people here who don’t appreciate the indigenous culture, and it’s strange to see that foreigners are more concerned about our culture than people who live here.” Maria Esther Manrrique explained how she feels when the visitors who have stayed with her have valued her culture:
They learn from me our culture. When they come here, I dress them in our dress. The women are happy about that. And that is great for me, because I feel that I and my culture are important for them. . . . I feel that I shouldn’t change, that I shouldn’t leave behind my dress. I want to be forever how I am now, and if people from elsewhere like my clothing, I who am from here, why shouldn’t I like it? I will always be indigenous.
Because they often bring greater discursive power as North Americans, visitors can counterbalance the devaluation dominant within Ecuador by showing appreciation for indigenous cultures.
In Mali, the communities that work with Tandana are almost entirely Dogon. While they do not experience the kind of oppression that Kichwa Otavalo people do in Ecuador, they speak languages that are native to relatively small groups of people. Tommo So, the language of the majority of villages that work with Tandana, has about 40,000-60,000 speakers (McPherson 2-3), as compared to about 4 million native speakers of Bambara, the most common language in Mali (Ethnologue). Their languages are thus marginalized simply due to practical and resource limitations. Furthermore, some aspects of Dogon culture, including particular dances and ceremonial objects, are being forgotten, according to some of the people I interviewed, who sometimes attribute this loss to the rise of Islam or of both Islam and Christianity. Fewer people express concern about this loss than in Otavalo, but when they see these customs and objects reappearing, many community members are impressed and feel a renewed interest in reviving them.
Community members, both women and men, express appreciation for the fact that Tandana’s literacy program is conducted in Tommo So, since other literacy programs, even in the same area, have not used their native language. Boureima Yalcouyé, a founding member of the linguistic association Alpha Formation Traduction et Conception Documentaire au Pays Dogon, which partners with Tandana on the literacy program, expressed his concern about the Tommo So language being lost: “with the migration, as long as the language is not written, there is fear of losing it. That is why we think it is so important to write it ourselves. That way, the writing will remain, and people will keep using the language.” Abdoué Pamateck, a male elder of Sal-Dimi, described his appreciation for the use of Tommo So in the literacy program:
Thanks to The Tandana Foundation for this great initiative of literacy in our own language, Tommo So. In this same room, men were once taught in Toro So, which is not even our language, but today our women were lucky to have these classes in Tommo So, our own language. I am 75 years old, and this is my first time to see a booklet in Tommo So. (The Tandana Foundation, “Spacing pregnancies”)
Ada Kanambaye, who began as a literacy student and then became an instructor, contrasted Tandana’s program with a different literacy program, recalling, “with APH, it was Toro So, but with Tandana, it is Tommo So, our language. Tandana asked what language we wanted to learn in, and we said Tommo So.” Marie Tembiné, a literacy student, recalled surprise at the opportunity to learn in her native tongue: “We didn’t expect to have classes in our own language.” Housseyni Pamateck expressed the importance of this valuation of the language: “In our language, there was nothing written. Now there is, and our language is valued, and that is a great success.” This valuation of the Tommo So language is, of course, a result of the literacy program rather than the volunteer programs, but it is also supported by volunteers’ interest in both the literacy classes and in learning some of the language themselves. Housseyni Pamateck recalled of the volunteers, “Even if they couldn’t speak our language, they tried to learn.”
Kessia Kouriba remembered how the volunteers who visited tried to speak Tommo So, even if it was just the greetings, which are an important part of local culture; “when they meet someone, they greet. . . . They talk.” Both Tandana’s willingness to support literacy in Tommo So and the volunteers’ efforts to learn words in the language support valuation of the local language.
A number of Dogon traditions are being lost, according to many of the people I interviewed, but when volunteer groups visit, they tend to be revitalized. Anouh Tembiné explained that since the last visit of a volunteer group to his village, “there haven’t been any dances or performances. Even on wedding days, there isn’t a village dance. When you come, you are partners for the whole village, so we all want to show you our culture.” Housseyni Pamateck suggested:
If the volunteers come to my village, they will put everything in action to show their culture and their values. There were some old cultures that they had left, and all of that they will take up again to show. . . . Culture also forms part of the visit. What is being lost is that some of the people who did these things are no longer here. And with the religions, people are dropping some of these customs. It is an opportunity to take advantage and take up these customs again. . . . Other than the visit of the volunteers, I had never seen the bendiés [a particular ceremonial dance]. They said in a meeting that there were these things we used to do. I said, why don’t you show that to the volunteers? . . . The children who hadn’t seen those things, now they will know about them.
Kessisa Kouriba, similarly, noted, “there were traditional things that people in the village had never seen, but they were brought out and others saw them. It’s not just the foreigners who hadn’t seen them; we, too, hadn’t seen them.” Yagouno Tembiné also mentioned, “when the Americans come, many of our traditions, which are starting to be lost, come back, and we do them.” Moussa Tembiné explained:
My community, the people of Wadouba, the people of Kansongho and Sal-Dimi, had lost their culture, their traditional dances, their old musical instruments. Personally, there are instruments that I had never seen, but when the Tandana volunteer groups arrived, I discovered these instruments. It’s a renaissance of the traditional culture of our community. (The Tandana Foundation, “What People Say”)
The visits of foreign volunteers provide opportunities to bring back to life certain traditions that are beginning to be lost, and, once they see them, community members appreciate them.
Greater Self-Confidence and Self-Awareness
As community members experience their effectiveness and volunteers become more aware, and as communities continue to strengthen their cultures, people have more self-confidence and self-awareness. Segundo Moreta suggested, “Through these activities, I think they have more self-esteem and they value themselves and they see what they know how to do. . . . It’s important that through these activities, they value what they are and what they can do for their community.” Martha Lanchimba expressed the confidence she felt as President of her community:
When I was president, I went calmly to Tandana to talk with Vicente. Here in the assembly we talked about whatever we needed, and what we could contribute. Sometimes, we can’t do it just with the community, and all the people mentioned that Tandana can put in a grain of sand, and that it is more secure with Tandana, and I took the request and the result came in a week.
Each experience of successful project leadership increases confidence for taking on new initiatives. Shannon Cantor, a Tandana Program Coordinator from the United States, described her observations of increasing self-confidence in the community of Agualongo. She recounted her view of the changes arising through the process of working to acquire the soccer stadium the community has long dreamed of:
I must admit: I doubted the relevance of a sports field, comparing all the other projects we could realize with REACH’s donation. However, this cancha [stadium] has proven a value that I never expected, a worth that is much greater than the field itself, or even the hundreds of memories that will no-doubt be formed on its surface. The whole community is working to realize this goal and is doing so because it stands important to the community as a whole. In fact, this cancha requires way more than monetary investment; it requires days-long physical labor, countless meetings and phone calls, and a learning curve that has broken every boxed-in doubt about the community’s leveraging power. The process is long, longer than any of us anticipated. But it has been successful; the community has a contract ready to sign and has submitted this proposal to multiple actors to complete the funding needed for total excavation. With this first contract, perhaps for the first time, Agualongo has believed in its ability to organize, to push, to advocate, and to demand bureaucratically hidden—but available—resources; perhaps for the first time, Agualongo is realizing that its voice can—and deserves to—be heard. These individuals are not invisible. They have the power to ensure otherwise. (emphases in original)
In Mali, literacy students express increased self-confidence because of their knowledge. Adama Kanambaye said, “I didn’t know numbers. Now, I can go to the market alone and buy what I want, read the numbers. It was shameful for the wife of a mayor not to read. Now I am very happy.” She also recounted a powerful anecdote:
I went to the market in Sangha to sell my dried onions. The trader weighed my onions in front of me and it was 29kg. He told me, “your onions only weigh 20kg.” Because he didn’t know I had completed the literacy classes, I smiled and asked him if the scale could lie. He responded, no. I said, “if that is so, the scale said it’s 29kg.” The trader was surprised and asked me how I read the number of kilos. I told him, “thanks to The Tandana Foundation, you can’t steal from me anymore.” I understood then that he had been stealing dozens of kilos from us at the market, right in front of us. As a Bambara adage says, “illiteracy is darkness.” I cried with joy in front of everyone in the market. Since that day, nobody is able to steal from me at the market, and I am very happy with myself. (The Tandana Foundation, “Long Live The Tandana Foundation.”)
Kadidia Kassogué described her confidence metaphorically: “I was in the shadow, but now I am in the light. . . . My husband was in Abidjan, and I didn’t know numbers. I had my telephone, but I didn’t know how to put credit in my phone or dial a number. Now, with the literacy program, I can use my phone. I was in prison, but now I am free.” Tembel Bamia also expressed newfound confidence:
Here is the number [shoe size] of my shoe; it is 41. I bought this at the market just the other day. When I bought this shoe, the vendor Ambakane wanted to fool me, but I told him, I am not a woman who knows nothing. . . . I thank God for giving me this training and especially to have helped me discover the secret of the world. This meaning, to read and write in my local language. The knowledge that I have is for me, and I will die with this wisdom. (The Tandana Foundation, “Teaching Literacy to Empower Women”)
Marietou Telly told of how she almost resigned from her role as president of the women of her village because she lacked confidence due to her illiteracy, but once she learned to read and write she no longer had problems:
I am the president of the women’s association in the village, and we do a lot of things in this village. I had never been to school. At one point I wanted to resign from my post because a president who does not know how to read and write is not good. When I heard about the literacy course in Tommo So, I was ready to pay the instructor to teach me. Thanks to the literacy program, I gave up thoughts of resigning from the president’s post and have had no more complications. (The Tandana Foundation, “Literacy Program Transforms Lives”)
The women’s leadership workshops also increase self-confidence. Oumou Kansaye said that she advised other women who might be interested in politics, “Women, too, can do things.” Ada Kanambaye took this message to heart and exclaimed, “I want to be mayor!” Yabiemo Tembiné, president of the women in her village, noted the difference after the workshops: “before, to get all the women together it was hard, but now it is no problem. Now I know how to organize work and groups. I have a broader vision.” Once women experience their effectiveness in the various classes, workshops, and committees, they continue to develop their capacities on their own. Marietou Yalcouyé, President of a women’s association, explained, “Every time we meet, we draw lessons about how to struggle to improve the place of women at the level of communal councils and for the overall progress of women” (The Tandana Foundation, “Six Women’s Associations”).
Positive experiences with others who are different also lead to increased self-confidence for Tandana volunteers who visit Ecuador and Mali, as well as for hosts in the communities. Volunteers report growth and increased confidence in certain areas. For example, on a post-trip evaluation survey given to volunteers, 98% of respondents say they feel the experience helped them grow in a positive way (The Tandana Foundation, “Volunteer Programs”). Several volunteers describe increased confidence in their ability to communicate or connect with people despite language and cultural barriers. Matthew Rothert reported, “We found ways to communicate despite the language barrier. I learned that a smile crosses all language and cultural barriers. So does a kind heart, and that’s what so many of the volunteers and indigenous people shared.” Joseph White, a student volunteer, recounted:
Understanding that these people were under no obligation to open themselves up to us in the way that they did, I was hit by an intense wave of appreciation. I remember wanting to express these strong emotions to one of the members of Pakarinka, but I felt as if my emotions wouldn’t carry over through translation. However, I took a chance. Although my words came through Shannon, one of Tandana’s coordinators, the weight behind them managed to come through me. As Shannon spoke to the man my words, I maintained an eye contact that I felt said what couldn’t be translated. Although things like this probably happen all the time, it was something that was truly special to me. My time with Tandana showed me that some feelings are capable of being expressed, even if you don’t share a common language with another person. (emphasis in original)
Zach Graves said, “what I have learned is that you can make a difference and develop meaningful relationships between people despite being completely different.” They also describe increased self-confidence in their abilities to live in different ways, work with others, and contribute to positive changes. Audrey Ling, an intern from Maryland, asserted, “I’ve learned that I can get through things that are difficult, and that things that I thought were hard or scary can become normal and be part of my everyday life.” Zach Graves mentioned growing in “confidence and believing in myself. . . . I learned that I have leadership traits. I have the ability to work with others.” Mo Penman, a health care volunteer, reported:
I’ve found in my personal life, that Tandana has been amazingly empowering. Society wants everybody to think that individuals are powerless to effect positive change and because of that, why try. Well, that’s not true. I’ve seen with Tandana a small group of committed individuals, and I can see what they are able to do. And I realize that what they have done might be diminished if I weren’t there. So, I know that my contribution has value, and that empowers me every day of my life. (The Tandana Foundation, “What People Say”)
Not only volunteers, but members of host communities also sometimes develop greater self-confidence through experiences with visitors from different cultures. Margarita Fuerez of Panecillo, Ecuador, explained, “I am timid, shy, but with the [volunteer] groups, when I participate, I have opened myself more, to speak without fear and relate to them.”
As communities continue to strengthen and value their cultures, members also have more confidence in themselves. Segundo Remache expressed:
When I started to value my culture, I started to have confidence, to appreciate my own identity. If you don’t know your own identity, you don’t know what to be. When I arrived at the university, I didn’t want to cut my hair or say that I was from Quito. I never had the idea to lie or say I was rich to include myself in a certain social status. Having a clear identity gives you confidence, and you aren’t afraid of people who might put you down.
Feeling pride in his culture gives Segundo confidence in himself.
People Contribute More to Their Communities
As people enhance and experience their effectiveness, and as their confidence and awareness expands, they sometimes contribute more to their communities. Yagouno Tembiné, when she began working as a Savings for Change replicator, said, “Since the arrival of The Tandana Foundation, I’ve benefited from many advantages that have helped raise my standard of living. Now it’s my turn to share those benefits with other people through my work for the foundation” (The Tandana Foundation, “What People Say”). She also noted that, thanks to her literacy skills, “In Savings for Change, I can write down the money that comes in and goes out, and I can calculate the interest. In the cotton bank, I can also record and calculate the entries and exits.” Marie Tembiné reported that she uses her literacy skills to serves as birth registrar for her village. Sisa Panamá explained that her experiences exchanging with visiting students made her aware of other ways things can be and motivated her to change things: “I really like it because they tell me what their university is like and I tell them about mine. There are many differences and things that we would like to change. It gives me motivation. If I like something from their experience, it motivates me to improve things and to be able to do something.” She also recalled that before she applied to Tandana’s scholarship program, she was impressed that students already in the program were enthusiastic about doing community service: “when the doctors came to Padre Chupa, I realized that some of the scholarship students were there, and I saw that it wasn’t just an obligation. They also had the desire to help, to other communities as well as their own.” Thanks to the education she is pursuing with help from a Tandana scholarship, Mónica Lopez serves as Secretary of her neighborhood: “I have been Secretary, and I still am. . . . I have to be with the President and have the dates for any activity, type up the minutes from the meetings, do the papers for the neighborhood.” Segundo Remache is determined to use the multimedia production skills he is acquiring with Tandana support to make a positive difference not just for his community but for his culture. He explained:
my dream is to make short films that can motivate people in our culture, as our indigenous identity is being lost, and this is the richness we can offer to the world. So, one of the objectives I have is to do a short film where we can reflect that we lose our soul when we leave our culture and try to look like others, join the mass where everyone looks the same. The second part is that I am Christian, and I think that I can teach not from the Bible, but values, respect, mutually, can be conserved through cartoons and films, so children can think about what does it mean to be indigenous. And my other goal is to be a professional in my field and succeed, not to make myself well known, but to reach people with my messages, and I always think about the common good, not my own.
Volunteers also resolve to contribute more to their communities after their awareness and confidence has expanded through participation in Tandana programs. Don Gustafson returned from his Tandana program ready to volunteer more. He said, “As I write this blog, my retirement is a mere few weeks away. I have always intended to do volunteer work once I retire, and this experience has only solidified that desire. . . . I look forward to other opportunities to ‘give back’!” When Zach Graves first participated in a Tandana program, he had already co-founded with his siblings a non-profit organization called Tools With Impact, dedicated to helping schools in other countries with fewer resources than his suburban Ontario school system. Through working with Tandana, he learned about ways to do that work better: “What changed my life was learning that if you want to help someone you have to listen to them and help in the way they see is best fit. So, we changed Tools with Impact to change our mission, not to think what they need but to speak with communities and communicate with them and learn from themselves.” Bob Herring decided to be a stronger advocate:
We’ve always tried to be very conscious of not using more than we need, and even with that approach, compared to what I’ve experienced here, that needs to be rethought. Use of materials and resources, take a look at what that means in our community and as much as we can influence the local citywide level, state level, national level, be more of an advocate. A stronger advocate for responsible use of resources.
After volunteering with Tandana in both Ecuador and Mali, Kelly McCosh began to volunteer with refugees in her home community. She explained:
I feel my experiences with Tandana have carried over to my own community here in Maine–one which is a haven for refugees from Somalia, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others. I have volunteered with a population within the Somali community and more recently have provided friendship and aid to a Burundi refugee.
As people contribute more to their communities, the communities, in turn, continue to improve on their own terms.
Global Inequalities are Slightly Reduced
Global inequalities are vast, and personal actions are unlikely to have a large effect on them. However, each shift of resources from where they are more plentiful to where they are scarcer, and each strengthening of a culture that has been devalued historically can make a difference, ever so slight, in these vast inequalities. As communities improve on their own terms, they reduce the lacks they perceive in comparing their status to those of wealthier communities. For example, members of the community of Agualongo, Ecuador have dreamed for many years of having a soccer stadium “like the cities have” (Perugachi, Humberto); “all the young people and the parents wanted a modern soccer
field” (Perugachi, Maria). Humberto Perugachi explained, “We haven’t been able to have that because we haven’t had support from the province, the city, or the parish. But, year after year, we have been working with the foundation, which has helped us with 70% and the parish government with 10%, and our goal is to advance 100%. . . . maybe in one more year we will have the stadium we have dreamed of.” Having this stadium completed will eliminate one kind of inequality between the community and the cities; local residents will be able to play on a “modern” field and host tournaments with pride.
Strengthening cultures and identities that have historically been marginalized also reduces, ever so slightly, inequalities at the level of discourse. Local efforts are underway to reduce racial and ethnic inequalities, and as community members strengthen their cultures, they have more resources and more confidence to pursue these struggles. Josefina Torres noted, “Before, mestizos used to scold us, but not anymore. Now we are almost equal.” Maria Perugachi explained:
In a group, there are a few people who look well at indigenous people and there are a few who do not. There is racism, where they say “You are an Indian. You dress like that.” There are people who look at you with great pride, and others who look down on you. . . . I have heard people say behind our backs, “You are Indians.” Yes, with pride we maintain ourselves. We are indigenous with pride, and that is what I have always said. Yes, we are indigenous. Our culture identifies us from other people and helps us be better people, we have said many times.
People Relate Better to Others Who Are Different
As volunteers’ awareness expands and as communities continue to strengthen their cultures, people can relate better to others who are different. Volunteer Laura Nichols asserted, “There has not been another organization or person in my life that has better helped me to understand and live alongside the Other. I wish everyone could have the same experience that I have had through Tandana because this ‘gathering together’ is what we need in our communities” (“Gathering Together”). Zach Graves explained that he intends to continue learning about and appreciating different ways of being: “Tandana has given me something that for the rest of my life I am going to seek out opportunities like that, seek out opportunities to meet new people, different cultures, different ways of living, and appreciate the differences that people have.” Matias Perugachi argued that knowing one’s own culture is important for relating to others: “We need to know our customs to work with those of other groups and nationalities. It’s important to know; if we don’t know, we can’t relate, we can’t exchange, we can’t work.” Segundo Moreta asserted, “I think that I don’t need to be different or look like others to be able to relate to them. I think other people should understand and value that if I try to stay how I am, they will say he isn’t ashamed, he never feels less than us, so they will value me more, rather than if I tried to be like them.” Segundo Remache explained that his confidence in his own indigenous identity helps him relate to others: “I need to feel secure and value myself first, that I have value and can get anywhere without having to look like someone else. . . . Even mestizos, I relate to them by saying a word in Kichwa, and they ask me, ‘what did you say?’ and they become curious.”
People’s Lives are More Meaningful
When people have more self-confidence and self-awareness and when they contribute more to their communities, their lives are more meaningful. Emily Esfahani Smith argues that knowing ourselves better leads to greater opportunities for meaningful action. Smith argues that, “Researchers at Texas A & M University have examined the tight relationship between identity and purpose, and they’ve found that knowing oneself is one of the most important predictors of meaning in life,” and that, “Being reminded of your authentic self, even subconsciously, makes life feel more meaningful” (85). Self-knowledge is important because, “Each of us has different strengths, talents, insights, and experiences that shape who we are. And so each of us will have a different purpose, one that fits with who we are and what we value — one that fits our identity” (ibid. 84). As we know ourselves better, through experiences of that which is different, we are more likely to be able to act in meaningful ways. Reflecting on my discomfort with being asked for money in Mali helped me to differentiate between situations when I felt it was appropriate to give money and situations when I felt it was not appropriate to do so. With better discernment, I was able to act more freely by giving when I felt called to give.
When people contribute more to their communities, they increase their opportunities for meaning in the senses of both belonging and purpose. A study by Roy Baumeister revealed that “Leading a meaningful life, by contrast [with happiness], corresponded with being a ‘giver,’ and its defining feature was connecting and contributing to something beyond the self” (Smith 15). Contributing more to one’s community can also enhance one’s sense of belonging. Smith asserts that:
Research has shown that among the benefits that come with being in a relationship or group, a sense of belonging clocks in as the most important driver of meaning. When people feel like they belong, according to psychologists, it’s because two conditions have been satisfied. First, they are in relationships with others based on mutual care: each person feels loved and valued by the other . . . . When other people think you matter and treat you like you matter, you believe you matter, too. Second, they have frequent pleasant interactions with other people. (49-50)
When one contributes more, one is likely to be appreciated and thus to have pleasant interactions with others and to feel valued by others. Smith argues that, “meaning largely lies in others. Only through focusing on others do we build the pillar of belonging for both ourselves and for them. If we want to find meaning in our own lives, we have to begin by reaching out” (72). In this sense, belonging is also connected to purpose as a pillar of meaning. Purpose “require[s] a critical step beyond self-knowledge: using that knowledge to figure out how [one can] best contribute to society” (Smith 90). When self-awareness combines with contributing to one’s community, it gives purpose. Zach Graves finds meaning in this combination. He said that “it is especially meaningful” to have “an opportunity to step into a role and try to make a difference in people’s lives,” and also that learning that he could connect with people who are both similar and different “is meaningful to me; I’m only 20, and thanks to these trips my eyes have really opened up.”
As inequalities are reduced, the world becomes ever so slightly more just. These changes are not on a grand scale but a personal one. Bilgrami describes an idea of equality that emerges when the goal of an unalienated life is made central. He argues that, “[w]hat we aspire to, when we seek a socially unalienated life with one another, is the realization of the ideal that nobody in society is well off if someone is badly off” (Secularism, Identity, Enchantment 165, emphasis in original). In this view, “the person who is well off in fact also suffers or experientially partakes of a kind of malaise, when others are not well off” (ibid. 166, emphasis in original). It is not clear exactly what he means by a society, or why a society is the salient unit of analysis. It would seem that the relevant group would tend to expand toward encompassing the entire world. Even if it is taken to be at the level of the nation-state, it seems that to try to act on this ideal we are forced to retreat to a level of abstraction in which actions taken to achieve the well-being of others “would be not immediate but conceived in abstract terms that would never come to fruition in actually fulfilling their needs” (ibid. 143). Nevertheless, at the level of a small community, this idea of equality can work. Humberto Perugachi described the malaise that residents of Agualongo felt when half the community had running water and the other half did not:
We had a problem with water. The people up here had water, but the people down below didn’t have water. This was a bad feeling for the whole community, we all felt bad, how could it be fair for one part of the community to have water and the other part not to have it? The foundation helped us with maintaining the tank and putting in pipes and we saw that it was a true solution, and thus the people were more motivated to work with Tandana. . . . We were bothered, the people from the top and the people form the bottom. We asked support from the water board, but they didn’t have resources to give us a solution. … It was a big bother for us, but the foundation helped us with two improvements, and thus our water system was 100% improved. Now, 13 years later, we all have water, and we don’t suffer.
The whole community felt the pain of the injustice. The solution, however, required resources from outside the community. Because Tandana entered into relationship with the community, the organization was able to alleviate the inequality within the community. This step was infinitesimally small in terms of reducing the inequality between the foundation’s donors and the community, but it did help them to see themselves as more connected and thus to want to reduce that inequality.
A group of North American and European retirees living in Ecuador have recently begun to take a similar view. They learned that the community of Gualapuro, not far from where they were living, had a major problem with water, and they resolved to donate and raise money to enable Tandana to work with the community to build an entirely new water system that would satisfy the residents’ needs. Several of these supporters alluded to the malaise they felt knowing that they had clean water while their neighbors did not. Linda Blizzard, a U.S. Citizen residing in Ecuador, said, “The thought of the community with babies and children . . . I turn on my faucet and I have clear water. I turn on the faucet to take a shower, and it’s clean water” (Clean Water for Gualapuro, “Linda Shares”). Dual citizen of Ecuador and the United States Beverly Fessenden, similarly, noted, “We here in Cotacachi enjoy fresh water from the mountain. Why are they not?” (Clean Water for Gualapuro, “Beverly Explains”). A U.S. citizen named Kathy pointed out, “I just can’t even understand how they can live this many years without clean water. And once we know that, you can’t not see it. You just can’t. You have to do something if it’s within your power. And call it for the common good, but once you walk away you can’t go home and take a clean shower or drink a clean glass of water without thinking of this place” (Clean Water for Gualapuro, “Kathy & Mike Talk”).
By engaging with others across inequalities, we can become connected enough to realize that none of us are well off when some are badly off. Perhaps if we then remove the boundaries between our personal and our collective frames, we will then see inconsistencies and change the ways we address larger collective
issues. At any rate, we must begin at the personal level. Mónica Lopez believes that personal changes can, in fact, contribute to a more just world. She suggests, “I think that when we start to change ourselves, we can also change the world. Many times we wait for the world to change, but we are actually our own world, and we need to learn to recognize what we are doing wrong, and this will help us change and that will help other people do things better, and we can create a more just world.”
The World Becomes More Peaceful
As people relate better to others who are different, and as the world becomes more just, the world also may become slightly more peaceful. Laura Nichols suggests, “every time someone better understands the person next door, across town, across the country, or across the world, we are one person closer to unity” (“Gathering Together”). Alberto Alta, the school director in Cutambi, Ecuador said after a group of volunteers worked with his students to create a garden, “I wish there were more programs like this, where people from different parts of the world come together to work on a project, like our garden. This is a way of building peace” (The Tandana Foundation, “What People Say”). Dick Duval, one of the volunteers who worked with Alberto and his students, concurred: “If more programs like this existed, there wouldn’t be wars” (ibid.). Ousmane Tembiné also sees Tandana’s work as a route to peace. He explained, “the Foundation integrates with the people and, hand in hand, we work together to overcome conflicts and to have peace.”
Reinhold Niebuhr suggests that justice is a prerequisite for true peace. He posits “the ideal of a just peace, from the perspective of which every contemporary peace means only an armistice within the existing disproportions of power. It stands for the elimination of the inequalities of power and privilege which are frozen into every contemporary peaceful situation” (235). For Neibuhr, true peace is an impossible dream, and yet it is an important one because holding it leads us toward an approximation of peace. He argues:
So difficult is it to avoid the Scylla of despotism and the Charybdis of anarchy that it is safe to hazard the prophecy that the dream of perpetual peace and brotherhood for human society is one which will never be fully realised. It is a vision prompted by the conscience and insight of individual man, but incapable of fulfillment by collective man. It is like all true religious visions, possible of approximation but not of realisation in actual history. (21-22)
Perhaps through small acts, and by relating better to each other one relationship at a time, we can move slowly in the direction of peace.
As we have seen through over a decade of experience, community work undertaken from a personal perspective can have salutary effects. It can help community members enhance and experience their own effectiveness and support communities in improving on their own terms. When others who are different engage with communities in ways that show respect for local cultures, communities may find more support for their efforts to strengthen their cultures. When an organization supports community initiatives in respectful ways, community members enhance and experience their effectiveness. As they experience their ability to create positive changes, and as visitors have positive experiences with others who are different, they gain self-confidence as well. As people acquire more self-confidence and awareness, they sometimes contribute more to their communities. Global inequalities are reduced, ever so slightly, and people can relate better to others who are different. People’s lives also become more meaningful. As global inequalities are reduced, the world becomes ever so slightly more just. When people relate better to others who are different and the world is more just, the world may also become more peaceful.
As Segundo Remache pointed out, each project also plants a seed for further changes. Action starts limitless processes, which we cannot predict or control. Sometimes the effects may be harmful, but often they are beneficial in unexpected ways.
Bilgrami, Akeel. Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.
Burga, Humberto. Personal interview. April 4, 2019.
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