4.16.2012

A Day Without Dignity 2012: Elizabeth's Story, a #LocalChampion

*Gasp* Africans have shoes to wear?!
I bet that 70% of my fellow college friends who read this have at least one pair of TOMS, am I right? Most people my age do. I'll admit, I own three pairs. The first pair I bought last year because I genuinely believed I was doing something good for the world (oh jeeze). The second pair I received as a gift for Christmas - and thank goodness because I got off the plane from Sierra Leone in Chicago and the only pair of shoes I had were flip-flops for the snow...so I guess you can say I was on the receiving end of the TOMS exchange for that pair. The third pair I bought with a gift card. And it's not to say I don't wear them now that I don't support the cause - even though I no longer believe in TOMS' mission, I wear the shoes because, well, I have them so I might as well.

But so many people my age still believe that by buying a pair of TOMS they are 'saving the world'. If this is coming as a shock to anyone, I am sorry - but you are not saving the world. I would also like to ask you a question: If TOMS didn't look so 'cool', 'trendy', 'hipster', or whatever you want to call them, would you still wear them? What if you were paying $50 to buy a colored plastic bag with padding to wear on your feet? Would you then? No, probably not. 

There are many critiques of TOMS shoes which I will not list here. But the main critique is that by donating a pair of shoes to say, Malawi, you are destroying the locally-owned businesses that make shoes within Malawi. This has the potential to destroy that business and cause people to loose their jobs which then leads to a slew of other problems. Without a job, a person can't provide for their family, purchase food, buy medicines and pay for school tuition. It perpetuates the dependency theory problem. That's not development. If you really want to 'save Africa/Asia/the World' you need to focus on supporting local entrepreneurs. 

And anyways, Africa isn't short on shoes! Sierra Leone's got plenty of U.S.-hand-me-downs. Most Sierra Leoneans I know have more shoes than I do!
My good friends over at Good Intentions have marked today, April 16, as A Day Without Dignity. This campaign seeks to counter the TOMS (and other organizations') narrative, which often focuses on white Westerners 'saving' those they are trying to help at the expense of their dignity. So in essence, A Day Without Dignity shines light on locals who are often overshadowed by people like Jason Russell by "whites in shining armor". Today people are telling their stories of locally-developed projects addressing local needs - and I would like to join in and tell a story of someone that I know: Elizabeth English.

Elizabeth's Story
I met Elizabeth in November while I was in Bo, Sierra Leone. I was staying in the same guesthouse as her for a week. At first she was shy and largely kept to herself. Our only interactions in the first couple days were simply saying hello or perhaps sharing a laugh with each other over breakfast. It never went further than that. I always watched her glide past me through the house wearing gorgeous lappa fabric dresses and I wondered what her story was. One night I found out. This is an excerpt from the journal I kept:
I finally got to speak with Elizabeth tonight - the women I had admired from afar for the past couple days. I always thought she had no interest in speaking with me seeing as she mostly kept to herself in her room, but I was wrong. 
I saw Elizabeth sitting alone on the front steps of the house tonight. I decided to join her for some fresh air. We sat in silence for a while simply listening to the incoming storm and watching the bouncing okada lights go up and down the hill. When I decided to break the silence and ask Elizabeth what she did for a living, I discovered that she was anything but shy. 
Elizabeth works as a midwife in a hospital in Freetown. Both of her parents died when she was younger. Besides her, she has three siblings: One sister lives in England, an older brother works in the U.S., and a younger brother who lives with her. When she was in college, Elizabeth needed an additional $150 dollars to pay for her tuition. When she asked her brother who is a doctor in the U.S., he told her to sell herself on the street for the extra cash. How nice. 
Since both of her parents were dead, Elizabeth was taking care of her younger brother (and still is). In order to ensure that her brother was able to stay in high school, Elizabeth dropped out of college and opened an African clothing business alongside her brother so that he could pay his school fees. She believed that his education was the most important thing for the both of them. She said she used to say to him: "We might go to bed hungry, but at least we will be filled with the satisfaction of our education". 
Elizabeth eventually came in contact with a girl from Germany on facebook. After exchanging messages back and forth for months on end, the German girl decided to visit Sierra Leone and make a documentary on Sierra Leone life. The German girl served as a "mentor" for Elizabeth by constantly encouraging her to keep up her business and never loose sight of re-attending college - but she never took Elizabeth on as a charity case. Unfortunately, the girl in Germany died from cancer in her late 20s (about a year ago), leaving Elizabeth distraught over loosing a close friend. 
After saving up enough money from her clothing business, Elizabeth restarted her studies and completed them with good grades. Her sister has asked her to move to England, but Elizabeth refused and said she wants to be a midwife in Sierra Leone so that she can contribute to the development of her country. As she said, "I've been through a lot, but it all feels good now because through my struggle, I made myself who I am today. My hard work paid off. I'm doing what I love and helping my country and its women."
Elizabeth is just one of the many many stories of #LocalChampions who I could share, but her story just goes to show that she made something of herself and will do something for her country - and she did so without anyone's handouts.  

Be sure to follow #LocalChampions on twitter and be sure to check out the storify below.

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