The Rwandan women we serve are former prostitutes. They’ve been beaten, raped and oppressed to a point where the only viable method for supporting themselves and their babies was to sell their bodies. Society regularly humiliated them to the point that they believed they were worthless.*
It would be easy for us to tell that story all over the world, knowing it would pull on heart strings and likely compel people to donate or buy products. This methodology would certainly be in line with typical aid agency tactics for support.
One day I was talking with one of the pioneers of this initiative named Virginia. I asked her what she wanted me to tell the people about her experience with KEZA. She said “I am no longer known as a prostitute, I am known as a successful business woman”. I literally broke down in tears.
That prompted me to ask all of the women how they wanted to be represented to the world. It’s astonishing how seldom this question is asked of aid recipients. Every woman stepped forward and said something along the lines of “we don’t want to be known for our past, we want to be known for who we are now”.
If you constantly treat someone as a charity case, they are likely to limit themselves accordingly. If we branded Africa as a bastion of beauty and excellence, we might see more of it coming out of her. People may begin to believe in themselves. She’s experienced decades of aid agencies telling her she’s unworthy, inept and incapable of excellence; that she needs their help in order to survive. How would that make you feel?
We need to flip the switch, start believing in Africa and brand her accordingly. It might just become a self fulfilling proclamation.
*You will never hear these stories in KEZA promotional materials. We committed to only telling the stories the women wanted us to tell; the ones of beauty and excellence. We would never use their past to garner funds. They deserve better than that.