issue 228 - February 1992
Meditation on a
bucket of lugworms
Are relief workers puppets? An incident on an African
beach triggers some troubling thoughts for Tony Vaux.
I like the dawn - when the mind wanders freely between sleep and the creativity of action. I walked along the narrow line of sand between the lead-grey ocean and the towering white apartments of Maputo, capital of Mozambique.
It is a narrow path. A hard stone embankment juts out against the chaotic shore, where old shells lie scattered among the rubbish from ships, struggling sea-birds and wormcasts. On the other side, the asphalt road aprons the tower blocks as they crowd into the only really safe place in this huge country, huddled together like refugees from the unbearable terror of Renamo and its cruel ritualistic killing.
At that time of day I do not like to speak or be spoken to. I sorted out and reconciled the experience of yesterday, the plans for today. It was the third time I had visited Mozambique since Oxfam launched massive relief programmes in 1986. Up to that time international attention had been diverted elsewhere - mainly Ethiopia - and this ex-Portuguese strip of the Africa coastline had been abandoned to the sphere of Soviet influence.
But Renamo 'bandits', backed by South Africa, and fired by an incomprehensible blend of spiritual, ethnic and political grievances, had ravaged most of the country, and even threatened Maputo itself.
Oxfam lobbied governments and the UN to provide relief to the villagers displaced by the brutal killing. We urged support for the Mozambican Government's Disaster Department, and ourselves airlifted seeds, tools and clothes to remote districts that had seen nothing at all before.
It was a great success. International aid poured in. The UN included Mozambique in its appeals on a par with Ethiopia and Sudan. Only in retrospect did I see the wider political focus - above all the connection between Western relief and shifting Mozambique's Government away from Communism and Soviet support. That massive aid in 1986 perhaps showed that the West wanted to win over Mozambique, which it had previously ignored. Then, an influential American report in 1987 finally labelled the Renamo 'guerillas' as psychopathic killers, and placed them beyond the possibility of direct support from the US Government. Up to that time the US had apparently toyed with the idea of backing the killers, if their enemy was communism.
Perhaps no-one had predicted the speed of collapse of Soviet influence, but I wondered then, kicking the wet stones on the beach, if all that lobbying, campaigning and hard work had all been part of somebody else's wider plan? Did that make the achievement any less?
While in the middle of this thoughtful daze I suddenly realized that a little tragedy was being enacted in front of me. A street boy in tattered clothes and a cocky blue baseball hat had come to collect lugworms from the shore and had filled a bucket full of them. As he was walking back up to the road a youth came down, gave him a hard shove and seized the bucket. The younger boy reeled back in fear from the sudden attack but soon controlled his emotions. He stood still, a few steps from me, looking down at the sand. After a few more seconds he walked on along the way he had come - almost as if nothing had happened.
JENNY MATHEWS / OXFAM
I did not feel sorry for him at all. I just admired his stoic resignation. But I began to wonder who was watching this little scene from the great white skyscrapers - and what they thought of me - standing by in my grand city clothes, doing nothing. The buildings seemed to loom up over me like child-comic ghosts, threatening me for my meanness. I stepped forward, and dropped some money into the boy's hand. He looked at me, amazed.
Confused now, my peace broken, I walked on quickly, head down, up the steps. At the top I collided with that same youth, coming down the other way, carrying the empty bucket. He thrust it into the boy's hands, who accepted it with the same dull resignation.
As soon as the youth had gone, he adjusted the blue cap and wandered down to the sea-edge, where he amused himself for a few minutes, throwing stones at the passing seabirds Why had the youth given back the bucket?
Time had passed. I was late. I stamped along the street, angry at my endless Oxfam role - a sort of Paymaster of the Western World. Some other force seemed to drive on everything I did. It had been decided somewhere that scenes of abject suffering in Third World countries were not tolerable in the drawing room. Bob Geldof had made the issue really serious. Votes were at stake.
In Western countries, such scenes had been abolished (supposedly) by the welfare state, the social safety net. Now the system had to be expanded to the rest of the world. The difference being that instead of State Benefit offices run by the Government, the job had been given out to the voluntary (or, if you like, private) sector.
In relief situations throughout the world Western governments now expect Oxfam, Save the Children and the like to make sure that no-one actually starves. I reminded myself again that there is nothing wrong with that. I have travelled to remote districts of Mozambique and seen broken families stumble out of the trees and collapse on the sand having reached 'safety' at last in some isolated village, guarded by a few fear-crazed soldiers. That is the best they can hope for, and the best that we can give is a set of clothes and a handful of food, to be shared in silence over the grey smoke of the fire.
They are twilight scenes, where consciousness is too painful and sleep elusive. That 'best' is at least something. We have to do what we can, but can never feel satisfied. The thought of great international machinations, of which we are often a part, is just salt in an existing wound.
JENNY MATHEWS / OXFAM
But also my mind is uneasy about a kind of aid that shows so little attention to the cause. Who is really trying to stop the war? Is the West trying to help Mozambique or just to bring it within our own political sphere of influence? I suppose it is a mixture - a confusion of different purposes and pressures, and relief workers are tossed about like corks on the sea.
That boy - I gave him money to replace the lugworms that were supposed to be his income. In that way I salved my conscience. But it was lucky that the robber returned his bucket. Otherwise, tomorrow, he would have been no better off. Now at least he would collect more worms and have something to live on tomorrow.
I felt ill-prepared for my first meeting of the day. The calm of the dawn had been broken by pulsations of conscience that seemed to lead nowhere. I entered the great white edifice of the American organization that handled our emergency trucking. With money raised by Band Aid we had given 30 trucks to Mozambique to carry relief food to the needy. I wanted to know whether to send more.
The trucks had been given to the Government and the US charity was acting as 'Logistic Support'. In effect, they ran the trucks, but they were also supposed to train and support government staff so that in future there would be a permanent, efficient trucking fleet.
We shook hands. We established a small list of common acquaintances. We discussed computers and looked at the latest charts and diagrams. We got quite friendly: our particular agencies were not in competition. Their market for fundraising was the US. Ours was Britain.
'And what about new trucks?' I asked.
'I'd say the best thing just now is to back the private truckers. That's our philosophy. Government fleets never work. They are inefficient and don't achieve anything in the long run. The only way forward is by boosting the private sector.'
'But aren't you supposed to be backing the Government?'
'I can say what I really think, can't I?'
Our friendship began to dissolve. The day before I had heard exactly the same line from the American Embassy - and it was USAID that was paying the American that I had now come to meet. My gut reaction to 'stooges of American foreign policy' is still too strong.
We both agreed that private truckers would never reach the most needy, dangerous areas. They would only operate where it was safe and profitable. Yet I came away without any request for more relief trucks for the Government. The difference in attitude between two 'aid workers' was etched in the starkest relief.
Today it is often said that with the collapse of Communism, the world has no further use for Africa. Its primary products are no longer important. Its military bases have been superseded by new technologies and the New World Order. It exists negatively as a source of humanitarian embarrassment, raked over by pop stars and the aid agencies - or, at best as a potential market of the future. US embassies throughout Africa make no secret of the fact that their main interest is to develop such markets through promoting 'free enterprise'.
Glum now, I walked back along the shoreline to my hotel. I felt surprised how blatant the American had been. But then aid agencies must inevitably reflect, consciously or unconsciously, the nature of the forces behind them. In the current climate aid agencies, especially in Africa, find themselves part of the sales literature of private enterprise.
Maybe private enterprise is a good form of development for those countries, but is it promoted for that reason or because it is a way to create exportable commercial wealth? The new system may leave many people just as poor as before, and could easily cause social division and conflict.
Politics continues its endless circle, revolving from individual freedom to state control as it must have done since the first wandering settlers discovered the Mozambican coast thousands of years ago and set up small communities on the shore. Society was always made up of those with power, those who are their victims, and a few people who tried to patch things up. It would be interesting to talk to the relief workers of earlier times...
Angry now at my own helplessness I watched the boy gathering lugworms on the beach. I admired his solid persistence.
His tormentor sat idly on the stone sea wall waiting for the bucket to be refilled.
Tony Vaux has worked in the Emergencies Unit of Oxfam UK since 1984.
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