Postcard from Hanoi
I am free falling, no escape. My head in my hands, panic somewhere just below where my heart should be. I tell myself I have been to this place before and so far it has always ended alright but right now I am finding this hard to believe.
I have come to Hanoi to deliver some training to our local staff to share insights and approaches that will help them to make market systems work better for farmers who are poor. Last week was a busy one in the office, mind numbing and endless bureaucracy and meetings and I didn’t, I couldn’t immerse myself, go deeply into the material and now I am trying to and I realize don’t know what anything is. I am sure I have nothing to teach that will matter to anyone, no wisdom that will transform anything, nothing I can think to say that is worth more than a glass of water and a look up the road. I wonder about faking it but don’t think I can do this over two solid days of training. I don’t know if I am authentic or not but I know I don’t have the energy to intentionally fake anything these days.
I am bringing myself only; for some time I have seen how to do my work like one of those clever optical pictures, now you see a witch and now you see the beautiful woman. At this moment all I can see is the witch. Like the spectrum where there is a line with realism one side and optimism on the other, and just a little to the left of realism is pessimism and just a little to the right of optimism is bullsh*t and I don’t know what the middle is called, nor does it seem that there is any rest for me there. I feel called to the emergence of spirit and don’t how that fits into systems and donors and organisational structures.
I have four PowerPoint presentations open on my computer, great work, dozens perhaps hundreds of hours in the making, well thought through, well constructed. The total number of slides is three hundred and three. That is an average of one slide every 6 minutes for 5 days. I have two days. So I do the only logical thing, I think which slides are not absolutely necessary to give a thorough two day competency course on ‘markets development’? And that brought me to the place that I am at this minute with my head in my hands. I reduced the slides from three hundred and three slides to zero; I couldn’t find anything that I thought was absolutely essential in the slides to doing the work in the field. So here I am in Hanoi, it took me about 16 hours to get here and I don’t have anything that seems useful to tell anyone about.
I went for a walk this morning, this whole place is buzzing, everyone seems intent on something and every square metre of real-estate, footpath and roadway is crackling like a hot wok. What do I possibly have to tell anyone here about anything to do with business? Someone’s quote ‘the wisdom of the community always exceeds that of the experts’, sounds right to me. Maybe I can help them see things that will make a difference. Yeh right.
Four days have passed, three very of them in the countryside north of Hanoi being shown activities of farmers by enthusiastic staff watched over by government minders and sometimes snake eyed, vacant faced secret police and me watching the interactions of our staff, who I know will be attending the workshop on Thursday.
Its Thursday and I am in the conference room of a two star hotel, the room smells of stale tobacco and soy sauce, twenty expectant faces waiting for me to impart knowledge and wisdom that will change their lives and the communities they work in. The data projector at my table is humming and I turn it off. There are worried looks, I sense here that training with no PowerPoint’s will be like a meal with no rice. So I say, don’t worry I have over 300 PowerPoint slides and you will all get them before I finish. There is relief and smiles.
Once upon a time there was a village where the people were starving and no one knows what to do. The chief of the village summons the strongest young man and says “Go over the mountains, find the wise Oracle and bring her to us, she will tell us what we need to do”. So the young man sets off and after much hardship and many weeks he finds the Oracle and brings her back to the village.
The Oracle asks, so i am here, what is the problem? And the villagers reply, “Great Oracle we are starving!” and the Oracle asks them “So what is the answer to your problem?” and the villages stare at each other in confusion and one brave villager replies “We are starving and don’t know the answer to the problems in our village, that is why we sent for you so that you can tell us the answers.” And the Oracle replied, “If you don’t know the answer I won’t be able to help you”. And slowly she stood up, picked up her walking staff without another word began the trek back over the mountains to her home. Some months went by and the chief consulted with the elders and they agreed, they would send for the Oracle again to seek her wisdom and this time when she asked if they knew the answer to their problems, half the village would say they knew the answer and the other half would say they didn’t and in this way they would elicit the answer from the Oracle to what they should do to save themselves.
So again the brave young man was sent to beg the Oracle to visit again and she consented and together they slowly made the journey back to the village of hungry people. And again she asked if they knew the answer to their problems. And as they had agreed, half the village said that they knew the answer and half the village said they did not know and they asked the Oracle what they should do. The Oracle thought for a moment and then said “Those who know the answer tell those who don’t know.” And then she took her walking staff and without another word left the village.
That night that the chief had a dream and then next day he called everyone together. And he said, “The Oracle did in fact give us the answer, but we didn’t have the ears to hear it. The answer is that the solution to our problem lies within us, because we can only respond to things we already know to be true. If they were beyond our comprehension we could not respond, so anything we can do is within our comprehension so the answers to our problems are already within us.”
And so I told this story. And then I said, market development is easy, first you find out what buyers are buying, then you find out what people are producing, after that you try to figure out how the market might work better for producers so that can get more for their products. And this is generally by assisting producers to buy inputs better or to supply more of what the market is demanding or increase their bargaining power by selling collectively. Then you work together innovate what seems to be working so that you can maximise whatever successes have emerged and you watch and talk and then try communicate what everyone has been doing and learning to as many producers as possible. As more producers become involved you offer your support and share experiences about what has been effective within the value chains they are part of. And at various times you take a step back to see what the impact has been and what can be learned for the future.
And everyone agreed that they knew this already and that it was helpful when it was spoken so simply. And so I said the answer is already with you. And the answer is in the communities you work in, and you must be the Oracle to them. Just as I must be the Oracle to you. And I am thinking about the belief in the power of the other, the respect and valuing and what kind of organisational structures might sustain this better.
And people nod and faces are expectant and still hungry so I remind everyone that I have 300 slides.
Once upon a time there was a traveler who walked several days without food and arrived at dusty village. Two rows of cylindrical, mud walled grass thatched huts each side of a dusty dirt track. It was hot in the early afternoon and the village smelled of charcoal fires and cow dung. The villagers sat in slithers of shade on split logs pressed hard against the walls of the huts or squatted in the pools of of shade under the few trees in the central common near the Well. The flies were thick and tried to find moisture in corners of the kid’s eyes and mouths. And into this village the hungry visitor came. And to the first person he said, I am hungry can you spare a few mouthfuls of food. But the villager said “We are too hungry uncle and no one here has any food to spare.” And at the second hut and the third the villagers said the same. The visitor rested a while under one of the trees and in the cooler part of afternoon he went to where Well was and spoke in a voice loud enough to be heard through the whole village. “I see everyone is hungry, and so am I make a big meal and feed everyone, please come and join in the feast, this evening we will all eat well.”
The visitor asked for the biggest pot in the village and someone brought it, he asked for some fire wood and the kids collected what they could. And the man filled the huge pot with water and put it on the fire. And when the water was boiling he took out a large polished stone from his bag and announced. “I will now make stone soup!”
After some time the visitor took out a spoon from his bag and took a mouthful of the steaming liquid. “Ah it is coming along well, I think it just needs a little salt, can anyone spare a little salt?” and someone brought some. And the pot bubbled and the villagers chatted amongst themselves and waited expectantly. And the visitor again tasted the liquid. “Oh wonderful” he said, “Its coming along well, all we need are one or two onions, can anyone help with two onions?” and these were supplied. And so the soup bubbled and every so often the visitor would taste the broth ask for one more ingredient, one time carrots, the next potatoes, and the next some chilli and the next some maize and finally a chicken. And when the soup was ready everyone had more than they could eat and there was plenty left over.
And so I asked the people in the workshop, what do you think this story about? And someone said, “It shows how when everyone works together there can be more than any one person working alone.” And everyone nodded. And I asked what else? And someone said “The traveler had to trust and believe that the villagers had it within them to respond, otherwise all they would have had was hot water with a rock in it and the visitor would have to run for his life. “
And that to me is the is the wonder of this story, that a visitor to a community would be prepared to risk himself or herself not based on a belief that their job was to be an expert or to own a success but to take a risk that other could be shown they have the answer. To have faith in the possibility that ignited belief in one person might be the beginning of fire and change a world. And this probably isn’t going happen through a log frame for soup or a professional Power Point presentation.
It will be one person after other taking personal risks, trusting what they can find in themselves is also in the other. And this is where I came to with the two day workshop; that it wasn’t about the material to present, as the participants in fact did know what to do. And that to show slides was likely to steal their own knowledge from them. That the whole purpose of the workshop was for me to find ways to show what they know already is really the essential part and for each one to ask would they take the risk to belive the change in themselves was what it would take, just as now I was showing how I had confidence in their knowledge and abilities. I can hear you asking, “But surely there is new knowledge to impart, new ways of doing things, technologies that they won’t be aware of?” And yes there are, they are everywhere like rough diamonds on the ground, but if you don’t have the right eyes you can’t see the potential wealth around you and you can stay poor with your hand out.
And I am reminded again of that quote by Thomas Merton:
“Do not depend on the hope of results. . . .You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself . . . ..You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people . . . . In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything
Before the workshop we were among some ethnic minorities north of Hanoi. And at one point the road became impassable and so we got out and began to walk, and after some time one of our staff on a motorcycle came back to get me as the village was still about 5 kilometres. The motorcycle had an engine the size of my blender at home and its tires were about as thick as my wrist. My driver is in his mid-twenties, small and cheerful. The road is slippery shiny red brick clay, in patches there are deep trenches filled with water where vehicles have recently become bogged. So we slip slide our way to the village at 30 or 40 km per hour and I feel sure that these tiny tires will slip from beneath us and there we will be bodies and mud and motorcycle twisted and broken 50 miles from anywhere. But I think he has probably been doing this all his life with a family on the back and all I need to do is become a 100kg sack of potatoes, hang on and believe he knows what he is doing.
And that night as a dozen of us sat around over dinner I publically thanked him for his riding expertise and carrying me so safely. And he shared how scared he was on that slippery road and that his body was rigid with tension that we would fall off. And if I had known that, I probably wouldn’t have taken the journey with him. So it goes.
 Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O. (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968) was an Anglo-American Catholic writer and mystic. A Trappist monk of theAbbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, he was a poet, social activist, and student of comparative religion
(Hanoi May 2013)