A Staying for Tea Story: India 2006


As the depth of my hypocrisy sunk in, I struggled to contain my emotions. “Tell her ‘yes, and I’ll be right back,’” I instructed my translator, as shame deepened the red of my sun-baked ears. Turning to my small entourage of colleagues, I asked them to follow me off the woman’s property back toward the two vehicles still running to keep the air-conditioned interior cool against the stifling heat. “Go back,” I told them, “there’s no reason for us all to be doing this. I only need the translator and one community development facilitator who knows this community and is known by it’s people. The rest of you can go back to the office or wherever else you need to be.”

It was early 2006. I had been sent to conduct a results review of a large humanitarian organization’s response to the Indian Ocean tsunami. It was a sort of audit of the accuracy of the organization’s reports of what it had achieved in the first year of it’s multi-year response. On this day, I was somewhere along the southern coast of India, checking on a random sample of wells that had been reported as rehabilitated after being flooded with contaminated sea water. My schedule was tight as I still had a number of other reports to validate that day, including the provision of several thousand hygiene kits and mosquito nets, dozens of fishing boats, and scores of bicycles for fish mongers.

A group of fishmongers providing evidence. "Yes, we got the bikes. Thanks!"

I can’t actually recall how I came to be such a caricature of the professional humanitarian aid worker that day, but there I was arriving at people’s homes in a cloud of dust, stepping down from a white Toyota Land Cruiser with a clipboard in hand, decked in ExOfficio, dark sunglasses, and an American baseball cap, surrounded by an entourage of local colleagues taking advantage of the “learning opportunity”. I allowed myself to be led onto people’s private property without so much as a hollered warning or knock on the gate, where we proceeded to huddle around their wells and conduct our tests. What a tool.

At this particular home, a frail woman emerged from the shack near the well we were examining to inquire what we were doing. She seemed gracious as one of the district office leaders engaged her in conversation. When it seemed to me that he was laughing and saying “no” about something, I asked the translator what was going on.

“She has invited you into her home to share a cup of tea.”

“What did you tell her,” I asked.

“Suresh* told her that you are an important visiter from America and that you are very busy working on the tsunami relief project. It is impossible for you to accept.”

Temporary shelters and playground

And that’s when I wanted to punch myself in the side of the head. Not a year had passed since I’d published “Staying for Tea: Five Principles for the Community Service Volunteer,” in which I explained that the first principle of good work in a community is staying for tea. I figured that if you couldn’t or wouldn’t accept an invitation from a community member to share tea with them (or whatever the local cultural equivalent would be), then something was either wrong with you personally or with your organization.

After shedding the local retinue, I returned with my translator and the local worker. I apologized and asked if I could humbly accept her offer. We entered her home. As she prepared the tea, we began talking about the tsunami. I explained what I was doing and what my organization had been doing. She began to tell me about her experience. As we sipped tea, she produced two photographs. One was obviously of her husband. It was framed and had been hanging on the wall. She explained that he had been working that day and was never found. The second photo she pulled folded from some hidden pocket. It was of a beautiful young woman, perhaps in her teens. As tears began to stream down her face, she told me how they had been together when the tsunami came and how their grip on each other had failed. I took the photo in hand and began weeping with her.

For a brief time, we shed our superficial roles defined by my work and became just two people, sharing grief over a tragedy, equal in our humanity, sharing together with generosity and grace.

From then on, my work got a lot slower. We spent more time walking from home to home. We knocked and explained what we were doing before marching onto people’s land to look at “our” projects. I accepted multiple invitations for tea. I began carrying around photos of my family as well as my late wife to reciprocate the sharing of personal stories. Work days went from 10-12 hours to 14-16, but I felt like a human again, and not so much like an hypocritical ass.

I still make mistakes and have to check myself from time to time, but I’m getting better at avoiding the worst abuses of my own principles. I don’t tell this story as a confession nor from feigned humility – it’s just that these things happen and we have to learn from them. It’s a good story for me to remember and retell.

*not his real name … I think. I actually don’t remember.
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Categories: Development Principals, Service Ethics, Travel and Culture

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8 Comments on “A Staying for Tea Story: India 2006”

  1. Lovely story, Aaron. Thank you for sharing. You continue to be an inspiration to Andrew and I.

    • July 18, 2011 at 1:03 pm #

      Thanks Kimmelin, I like your new blog work. Wow, keeping two blogs – you must have them in your head non-stop. Be well.

  2. Nathan Ritzau
    July 18, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

    Thank you Aaron for being real and honest and for sharing the tension you, and I suspect many others, feel about the ability to walk alongside people and treat them as people which takes more time vs. driving here and there and checking our to-do lists and thus potentially dehumanizing others in the process (but it’s quicker!). It seems your solution to this challenge was to extend your work days. Is there a way of doing this without sacrificing time with our own families and work/life rhythms?

    • July 28, 2011 at 11:34 am #

      Well, in this case I was away from family already, so the longer work days didn’t effect me, although there were probably some local staff members for whom this change disrupted whatever delicate work-life rhythms they were able to keep during the disaster response. You raise a good point Nathan, because it can’t ultimately be the answer – just work longer days so we can spend more time with people. However, I do think that a lot of the organizational maintenance that we do could be cut or done more simply. Many development and aid organizations are so heavy on the administrative tasks, that we are forced to sacrifice either time with our own families or time with the communities in which we work. This becomes increasingly true as the organizations become larger and more “professional.” Organizational systems are generally developed by people who are not in the field and who are asking “what could we do better?” instead of “what could we stop doing without sacrificing outcomes that matter most?” And so systems and standards and procedures tend to grow over time as they get perfected and we collect more information and use more forms and upgrade more systems, most of which have zero added value to the communities but take more time from us to maintain and so represent and net loss to the communities. Some of my research has confirmed that the time we use as a cushion – that is planned time that we draw on when unexpected demands come up – is time that we had planned to be in the community. It is easier in terms of dealing with the consequences to cut out this planned time than time we had set aside for some organizational maintenance task like report writing, budget planning, team meetings, staff capacity-building workshops, donor visits, etc. So, all this to say, you are right, just sacrificing our personal time so that we can treat community members with the dignity they deserve isn’t really a sustainable answer – it worked in this story, but it’s not a solution to the larger problem the story points to. However, there are other tasks that could be sacrificed or streamlined that seem to the take up an increasingly absurd amount of humanitarian and community development workers’ time.

  3. Shelly Shupe
    July 27, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    Thanks so much for sharing, Aaron. Such a great reminder.

  4. August 25, 2011 at 10:17 am #

    Wonderful! Let me join Shelly and the others in thanking you for posting.

    • August 30, 2011 at 3:44 pm #

      Your welcome and thanks for the encouragment Erin.

  5. October 15, 2011 at 8:19 am #

    That is such a wonderful post! Thanks for sharing this.

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