The dilemma of donations

A dilemma that comes at the end of many projects in developing countries is what to do with the materials you have been using, or that have been donated, once your project ends. It’s a dilemma about realities and likely scenarios, about ownership and power, access and equity.

Years ago, when I worked with War Child in Bosnia-Hercegovina, all the kindergartens in East Mostar had just been refurbished. A donor gave every kindergarten a collection of instruments, the idea being that when the War Child musicians came in to lead workshops, each kindergarten would have instruments for the children to play. But when the workshops started some weeks later, almost all the instruments had gone. Where, no-one seemed able to say. Stolen? Perhaps… but when people are poor, and suffering, and have so little, it is also likely that donations like this can end up in people’s houses, available only to their children and no-one else. Perhaps this is under the guise of safe-keeping. Another common occurrence with donations in developing countries can be how quickly things get broken or damaged. Perhaps this is because equipment of the kind we are used to in wealthy privileged Western countries is completely unfamiliar to the people receiving these donations, and they don’t know how to use them with care or awareness of their potential fragility. Perhaps it’s because there is no suitable place to store things when they are not in use, so they get shunted and knocked about. It might also be that the quality of the donated goods was not robust enough for the local environment. Many things can happen, some of which are within people’s control, and some that are not. Bear in mind too, that the energy required to take on responsibility for something new, can be enormous, especially when you are functioning on just one meagre bowl of rice a day.

So therefore, it is tempting to leave them in the care of an organisation or institution that has the capacity to store them and protect them. I’ve seen this before too. It can mean instruments that were designed for children to play with, explore and experience get kept locked in a cupboard, with no-one considered special or important enough to use them. It can mean that the custodians see them as a money-making opportunity, charging exorbitant fees to those who wish to use them, whether for educational purposes or otherwise. (I had direct experience of this kind of entrepreneurism in Baucau).

Basically, I think there are no great solutions about who to leave your things with, and certainly no hard-and-fast rules you can use to find your ideal solution. Ideal solutions would be – a safe place where instruments can be stored, where other people can access them freely, but where someone is assuming a custodial role, ensuring expectations for care and responsibility are met by those borrowing the instruments. In that way, donated things become a local resource, and can be used by the people they were intended for.

In this project, we had made a number of instruments from recycled materials (bells from bottles and drums from buckets), from local materials (the kakalos, using Maun M’s design and guidance), and from donations (the chime bars). We weren’t planning to take any of these with us, and the question of where to leave things was one that generated much discussion between Tony, Kim and I.

Tony was the person who had made the kakalos, and he pointed out that they were in fact easy to make. Surely the most significant thing here was that we knew the maker! If the instruments got broken or lost (or burned for firewood, or any other such event), they were easy enough to make again, as they only required bamboo (locally available), a saw (easily borrowed or purchased) and a machete (the number one can-do item in most Timorese households). We could just distribute the ones we have out into the community, he suggested.

But, I countered, there is value in having a set. It creates the possibility of an ensemble. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, as a result of our time here, some of the local boys decided to continue playing, and created an ensemble? That would be much harder to do if the instruments got disbursed widely. Also, we know that new things in any household get shared by everyone, and the youngest children in the household are rarely in any position to lay claim to them, because of the way the family hierarchies work.

The kindergarten we had visited at Esperanca Lorosa’e had impressed all of us. The staff were clearly well-trained, motivated and incredibly professional. They wore uniforms to work, and led the classes as a team, all participating and encouraging. Their response to our music workshop had been one of excitement, tinged with disappointment that there wasn’t more opportunity to work with us again. They’d told Kim they were interested in using some of the instruments we’d demonstrated in that workshop in their classes – they hadn’t seen anything like my music workshops before and were excited. They’d loved the thunder-makers and the bottles in particular.

Therefore, we decided to give all the bottles, buckets and the four smallest kakalos to the kindergarten. I also gave them the sets of pastels I’d bought in Dili and some of my left-over drawing paper.

We decided to keep the chime bars together as a set of three complete sets. They were the hardest to find a home for, as it was easy to imagine how quickly the sets could get dismantled – individual bars could get lost, mallets misplaced or broken, bars divided up among a family so that everyone got one coloured bar each as a way of being fair, but without realising they’d be destroying the potency of the set by separating them…

In the end it was decided to ask the local education authority to store them, with the understanding that they were to be accessible by schools and groups in the area (including, I hope, visiting malae working with local children). Tony and I felt sad that we hadn’t been able to find a more community-based home for them. Would the Motolori children ever see them again? They loved playing them so much! And had developed such strong skills on them. We also remembered the way some of the teenage boys from the Plan International band recording program had dropped by the house one afternoon, and after watching the local youngsters playing the chime bars, been eager to play them and utilise them in their own songs.

Tony decided to give the kakalos to Maun M and his family. After all, he had been the inspiration for making them, he seemed to be the most engaged, music-minded adult we had met locally (the recorders Tony and given them were played constantly in that house, usually well past midnight), and his large family had been part of our jams from the very beginning.

I had some misgivings. We’d gathered, even from before the event of the burglary, that people seemed to distrust this family. And at the certificate presentation, I felt unsettled by the cockiness some of those boys seemed to be displaying to the others. When the other regular boys heard of the plan to house the kakalos with that household, they looked distinctly dismayed, even horrified.  Does everyone know who came into our house? I wondered to myself. Do they think that it was someone from this family Are we being gullible fools?

But we’d never know the answer to this. And in the end Tony had the right response.

“Just let the community sort it out. If we’ve made the wrong choice, then the community will put it right. We’re in no position to ever make a decision with all the facts to hand, because we’ll never know all the facts! And we can’t control what happens after we leave anyway.”

So that was how we dispersed all the musical materials. And despite my concerns about the fate of the kakalo collection and the opportunities the local boys might have to play them – or any other instruments – from now on, I couldn’t help but nurse some small hopes. Wouldn’t it be great, I mused to Tony and Kim, if, when we or Many Hands come back, there is a kakalo ensemble here in Motolori? Maybe they will organise themselves and continue to play. Maybe someone will take notice of them, and they’ll get to perform. Maybe in a year or two, the Lospalos kakalo players will be invited to Ramelau Festival, or the Dili Independence Day Cultural Festival!

That would be a great outcome indeed. We also gave Maun M’s name to the kindergarten teacher. “This is the man who can make more of these instruments”, we told her. Another wonderful outcome, therefore, might be about a change in status for this family and for Maun M in particular, recognised as cultural contributors, as the go-to guy for all bamboo instruments and musical ideas. This too, would be a great thing.

Legacies are hard to attribute or predict! In any case, this residency was more about cultural exchange and learning, than about me leaving some kind of legacy in Lospalos. But during the time that we were there, some things did seem to change. From the time that we started to play our instruments on the verandah, other wind instruments began to appear in the street – bits of pipe, a recorder, even an ancient old buffalo horn. These were heard everyday, at all times of the day. People also sang a lot. They do this anyway, but lots of the songs that we heard them singing were songs we’d taught or sung in our verandah sessions.

Also, children played games together in our garden who at the beginning, didn’t play together at all (such as the landlord’s children, who at the beginning always went back to their house as soon as the dirty, noisy, rough boys from over the road turned up to play). Maun M came with us to play live on Community Radio, after having a recorder for just a day, and his skills as an instrument-maker attracted the attention of all the ANAM students as well as us. (This may have resulted in resentment towards him from others in the street, which may be why he was fingered as the culprit in our burglary – this was one theory that was posited).

Who knows, all of these things may have happened anyway. Or they might be part of the natural cycle of life and activities that is always unfolding in Lospalos. But there we were, living amongst that community for one small part of that life. We instigated some new activities, and I do hope that those experiences and interactions with us have created some new senses of possibility and change for those we met and engaged with. I hope that all the people we worked with have been changed by the experience as much as we have.


3 comments so far

  1. Ros on

    What a wonderful adventure WE reading your blogs have been through over the last few months – let alone the people of Timor Leste! Every blog had something for everyone here at home to think about – moving, funny, thoughtful, exemplary writing all round. Thanks for all of this, Gillian.

  2. timothyjonesiswriting on
    Gillian, I just posted an appreciation of your work on my blog. I have so much enjoyed reading your posts from Timor Leste. Timothy

    • musicwork on

      Dear Timothy,

      Thank you for all your reading and commenting! I’m very happy you found my blog. It’s become my main journal for recording all that happened in Timor so I’m aware there are a lot of words there. It takes dedication to read to the end of each post. Thank you for your appreciation – you have mine.

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