Damage Control

When I received the news that I had been accepted onto Balloon Kenya, after my initial glee, my first thought was “Oh no, what if I can’t do this?” This wasn’t, you understand, due to low self-esteem or any ordinary self-doubt. Rather, I knew that the program would entail me actually teaching a business course to experienced, adult entrepreneurs. Teaching them in a strange country which they knew far better than I did. How was I, a young British woman, a recent university graduate, supposed to be able to impart any useful knowledge to people who were already doing something I had never previously attempted?


I kept thinking to myself: What if I have some idea and it’s just completely wrong? But they follow it anyway out of politeness or worse some kind of misguided respect? I’ve worked in East Africa before and have a fair interest in development and aid. And the one thing I know best about aid is that often it does far more harm than it does good. I chose this project precisely because it wasn’t aid. Aid can create dependency, the old mantra about “teaching a man to fish” rings soundly true here and I’ve read more than enough literature to know that colonial efforts to “develop” Africa frequently had devastating results. Even so, what right do I have to go into someone else’s country and start teaching people? So I wondered: How on Earth were Balloon Kenya going to make this program work?

Imagine my relief when we began the first session and on the very first page in our workbooks was this (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/nov/14/orphans-cambodia-aids-holidays-madonna) article. Obviously this fear was not purely my own! In fact, from the very start there has been a huge emphasis on how we can learn from our groups. Doug and Josh have clearly spent a lot of time working out exactly how Balloon Kenya can maximise benefits whilst minimising damage. Throughout the training course there has been a huge emphasis placed on respect for local culture. The global fellows are known as “facilitators” and not “teachers” for our groups and Doug and Josh have put together an incredible curriculum for us to follow which mostly relies on the local entrepreneurs’ own initiatives. For me the big take-away message was that nobody is going to perform to their optimum if they aren’t doing something that they truly desire themselves. And that means imparting the curriculum, encouraging creativity and minimising our personal influences. We all have so much to learn from each other.

Today and yesterday I met both of my groups for the first time. They are all incredible people with fascinating stories, amazing intelligence and big ideas. I am honoured to be able to work with them as equals as they are so accomplished in many ways. Thanks to the insight and sensitivity of Balloon Kenya, my fears have been well and truly assuaged.