Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Review: Wine to Water

I really loved Paul Theroux's overland adventure through Africa. One of the darker themes of his book, though, was how much damage he perceived Christian aid organizations were doing. Besides crowding out native traditions, they help keep the locals in poverty by not letting them solve their own problems. Aid organizations come in, provide impressive solutions that quickly fade and leave a worse off people.

With that outlook, you can imagine how skeptical I was of Wine to Water by Doc Hendley, the story of yet another American who was on a quest to save Africa.

I found myself pulled in to Hendley's story. Here was a lost soul bumping along, when he decides he's going to make a difference. It starts with the a clever phrase (Wine to Water, wonder what that could mean?), that turns into a curiosity (hmmm, I wonder if there's a water problem in the world?), that grows into a hobby (hey, I wonder if I can raise money to help get people clean water), that finally grows into a passion (I know, I'll go to Darfur!).

Before we know it, Hendley is in Darfur as part of a Christian aid agency trying to figure out just how to save the world. One of his first contributions: he takes a team to a camp where he helps resurrect a water pump which has been inoperable for 5 years. Imagine that, a location lacking fresh water for 5 years, and in an afternoon, he's restored it!

Aha! I got 'em, I thought. This is exactly what Theroux was talking about. Sure, he fixed the pump. But when he leaves, and it breaks, the locals will again be without water. 142 pages later, though, Hendley had this to say:

That got me thinking: if my greatest success resolves around the people, then the best way to really make a lasting difference in Darfur had nothing to do with fixing the most wells in the shortest period of time. It had to do with the people.

I realized that what I needed to do was to empower the locals, to give them the tools they needed to solve their own problems and become self-sufficient.

Even Theroux should be impressed, no? I realized that Hendley totally gets it.

It's exactly this sort of growth that makes Hendley's story so compelling. It's not a picture perfect adventure from bartender to world-saver. It's a store filled with stops and starts, ups and downs and lots of lessons learned. Hendley gets in over his head, but manages to come out on top. It's rare to get such an upfront seat to watching someone's world view change so dramatically, but Hendley is kind enough to take us along for the ride.

As an aside: his first person accounts of some of the horrors of Darfur really are powerful. They alone are probably worth the time to read the book. He manages to bring this massive humanitarian crisis down to a level that one's brain can actually process it.

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