One of my favorite stories of all time appeared in the April, 2014 issue of Oprah magazine. In the feature, Gloria Steinem recalls a trip to Zambia to visit friends. When she arrived, the residents of a small local town were mourning the disappearance of two women who had gone to a neighboring village to prostitute themselves.
The entire region along the Zambezi River is dotted with multiple big-game preserves. Most of the men work in local lodges taking care of tourists on safari. While males work at the resorts, women are in charge of farming. Part of the proceeds from their harvest goes to pay for their children’s schooling. Unfortunately, herds of roaming elephants kept returning to this particular village to eat the corn the women had planted. With no other options available, the women would walk to the neighboring villages to earn money the only way they knew how.
I can just visualize a well meaning, non -profit group descending on this town to fix their problems. I have no doubt that before long, they’d have a dozen programs ready to address all of the issues. They would probably include sex education, letters to the Safari camps demanding they open more jobs up to women, a fundraiser for the schools, job training seminars, maybe even a voter registration drive…
Gloria recalls quietly joining the circle of women on the dusty ground as they cried over the loss of their two friends. She was overcome with the magnitude of their grief, and felt a dreadful sense of hopelessness. “What can I do to help?” she asked, to which she got a surprisingly simple answer..”We need an electric fence.”
Once back in the US, Gloria was able to gather the money needed to build a specialized fence, and in no time it was installed. The very next year yielded a bumper crop of maize that the women were able to sell at the markets. The prostitution activities ceased. Ms. Steinem concludes this way, “If you had asked me how to stop sex trafficking in this village, I never would have said “find a way to keep elephants out of the gardens.”
The moral of the story according to Ms. Steinem is that “big problems often have small solutions. Helping begins with listening, and context is everything.”