Learning About the Importance of Solidarity for a Development Practitioner



By Sebastien Bergeron

I was a third of the way through a very good, thought-provoking book about development practice in Africa when the author made a comment on the informal social ties common in African societies. Immediately, what she said brought me back to a precise moment during one of my travels through rural Southwestern Uganda that I have always marvelled back on in curiosity. I was on a long distance bus back to the capital, Kampala, from a town near the border with the DRC when it stopped by the side of the road to let people on and off. Just like at every stop, the bus was swarmed with locals trying to sell snacks, water, and trinkets to the passengers remaining on the bus. From my window, I committed to buying a grilled banana on a stick from a woman carrying a handful of them, but upon opening my change purse realized that I was well short of the coins needed to pay for the snack. The African lady in the seat next to me pulled out the required change and handed it to me motioning for me to pay for the banana for myself. With only a slight nod to answer my immense gratification, that was the end of it. She got off the bus soon afterwards without us having said a word. This gesture has captured my imagination because in an area of the continent that has been struck by immense poverty, this kind woman offered her money to me so I could buy my snack. It was also refreshing to not be assumed as being wealthy simply because I was from abroad. Of course, poverty is not the only financial situation in Africa. In reality, it is a complex mix of rich and poor and this woman may very well have been financially secure. She was heading to Kampala, after all. Urban Africans are often better able to accumulate wealth than rural Africans. Regardless, my twenty year old self had always been taught a certain way about who should be helping who (that is, it is the intrinsic duty of developed countries to offer money and resources to developing ones) but all of that was, for a second, reversed.

What I read in the book mentioned previously offered a reason for her actions that I had not originally considered. The book, titled “The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa” by Dayo Olopade rejects the traditional view of development (aka a top-down approach) and offers insights and examples of the worth of Africa’s informal structures and community-based approaches for solving problems. African government is a Western imposition based in the colonial legacy and it is considered by many Africans, in its current form, to be an obstruction to positive change. Most of the successful grassroots solutions to social problems of all kinds comes from what the book calls solidarity among people in the community, especially kin (family) but also extended to strangers. Solidarity refers to unity, cohesion, having shared aims, and defining yourself in those around you. This characteristic is a direct result of untrustworthy government; people must stick together and solve problems on their own to survive. Simply from the fact of being in a culture that values and survives off this idea when I was trying to buy a grilled banana, I benefitted from the woman’s extra change because that’s just what you do, you help people because you know that a society that helps each other is better than one where you wait for people in power to help you.

Tapping into this informal relationship structure in Africa is the key to successful development planning and implementation. The example to highlight this, taken from the book, is the company Solar Sisters. The company trains local women as entrepreneurs on the various benefits of solar lanterns and gives them an inventory of lanterns which they can return to their communities with. It is with their determination for success that they sell these lanterns  to members of their community as they keep a portion of the profits for every lantern sold. The benefit of a local woman selling the lanterns rather than, say, a group of North Americans is that the local woman will better know how to deal with the reservations many people have about the product (e.g. misunderstandings of how it is used, its benefits, etc). Also, the pre-existing ties to the group of people being offered the product will increase feelings of trust and of what is being said, precisely because of the dynamic of solidarity. The community will be more likely to view the product favourably if one of their own is using it. They will trust that she will not be trying to bypass the shared connectedness that defines them for personal gain because indeed, she will believe in the intrinsic importance of solar lighting over kerosene or fire for her community.

There is an endless amount of learning needed when it comes to applying one’s desire of doing good in a disadvantaged area of the world. Often times due to cultural misunderstandings, the goal falls flat, but not because of a real desire to help. It is so important to fully understand the needs of the people you wish to help, but also the wider picture of the cultural practices that may shape those needs and any solutions you think may be appropriate. Solidarity of African peoples, its necessity, scope, and implications are the latest aspects of African culture and development practice I am being attuned to in this endless, multifaceted learning process.

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