No one remembers the name of the Irish nun who tried to save the Turkana women from their own “indecency.” But the road back to Ireland was indeed paved with good intentions.
The lessons from this 90s-era story are timeless. Generosity works best when it actually meets the needs of the recipients. To do this, to make philanthropy most effective, and do the least harm, partner with the community you are trying to serve. Ask their most informed leaders what is actually needed. Collaborate to navigate the options and find the best solutions. Do nothing unilaterally.
“The intentions were really noble,” Samuel Muhunyo remembers. He is the director of Network for Ecofarming in Africa. He smiles and chuckles.
“She was really concerned.”
Kenyan women in Turkana had not traditionally worn bras or tops. This was not a problem and it did not need fixing.
But when the nun returned to Ireland and shared her experience of all these topless women the donations poured in. She amassed enough bras to fill a container and have it shipped to Kenya, to the facility where she had volunteered. Women from all over Turkana were each given a few bras, despite the fact that they found them funny.
It is unlikely that anyone asked for these specific donations, that there was even a need for them. But the initially amusing donation of hundreds of bras unexpectedly started to cause some very unfortunate, very avoidable consequences.
As the weather got hotter babies of many breastfeeding mothers started falling ill. A medical team had to come in to figure out why. And when they realized it was this unnecessary garment that wasn’t being washed they advised the mothers against wearing them at all. So the women started discarding them and soon they were covering thorny bushes all over Turkana, new colors blooming in the sun.
“It was like another type of flower,” Muhunyo remembers, laughing.
Had this nun asked any of the community leaders a.) whether or not bras were wanted or needed and b.) if any potential complications might arise they perhaps could’ve avoided making breastfeeding babies sick. They could’ve redirected her good intentions, her desire to help.
“Generosity needs to be coupled with realistic thinking and understanding of the needs of the beneficiaries,” Muhunyo says.
Volunteers, especially volunteers working in a culture that is not their own are welcome to give what they can. But if your true intention is to be helpful remember that what is needed is more important than what feels good to give. They won’t always be the same thing.
Generosity is a beautiful thing. And it is most effective when it is informed.