Sending the Right Message

I heard a story once – an American man visiting an African village was approached by a young boy who said, “Bob* was here and he told us he was going to help us.  Why hasn’t he been back to help? Can you tell him we need help now?”  Bob* is an international celebrity, known for his contribution to global issues, who made a terrible mistake.  He went to this village, surrounded by fanfare and declared to the people of the village that he was going to help them.  Seems innocent enough, right?  But what happened a year later when the village was still rife with poverty and disease?  Bob wasn’t there.  Bob hadn’t helped.  Bob has done a lot of things for Africa and Global Health, but his impact hasn’t yet reached that boy.

Years ago I was working with a malaria program and one day I decided to voice how silly it was that the mosquito nets we delivered were bright pink or neon blue.  Turns out the bright colors were intentional.  While white is the most neutral color you can think of here in the U.S., in some countries it is the color of mourning and bodies are wrapped in white fabric for funerals.  Imagine then, what would it mean to someone to lie down every night in a bed wrapped in white?  One simple unspoken message and a protective, life-saving object turns into a reminder of death and dying.

Now, do me a favor: Think about the words “help,” “save,” and “cure.”  Aren’t they are good words and messages?  Well, yes, they are.  They are filled with great intention, right? Of course!  But what happened when Bob used one of those words?  He made a promise he couldn’t keep.  I’d also love for you to think about what they mean to you.  I, for one, am a pretty stubborn person…just ask my family…I don’t need “help,” and don’t even THINK about trying to “save” me.  I’d argue that most people are like me in that way, even those with the greatest need.  Doesn’t it feel better to help yourself than to have to rely on others?  Now take a look around the Kilifi Kids site…notice some of the words, “change,” “innovate,” “empower,” and “sustain.”  It is great to “help” African children, but how much better is it to “empower” them?

It is impossible to think of all of our messages and to make sure that each one is perfectly crafted to prevent us from sticking our foot in our mouth, but thinking about change and need and community in a different way can make a tremendous impact.  One of the reasons I decided to get involved with Kilifi Kids is that I noticed this difference in messaging – but also in actions.  Think about the Community Health Care worker approach that Erik Michielsen described on this blog – how much more effective are messages of health when they come from a fellow community member?

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