What's Wrong with a Box of Toys?

It’s December 10th and Tom, Saskia and I have come to the half-completed Karin Children’s Clinic to watch a local women’s group hold a weekly meeting to discuss administrative matters. They manage projects from beadmaking to raising livestock on a pay-it-forward scheme amongst various families in the group. A man from the Heifer Foundation is busy reporting on the status of the cow breeding program. Nobody seems particularly impressed. I feel hot, having decided to stand outside to take pictures of the proceedings. We have arrived in time for what appears to be the last item on the day’s agenda. The opening of a large cardboard box with a Samaritan’s Purse logo on the side. I sigh.

The last memory I have of Samaritan’s Purse was seeing a manicured lawn and suburban house with SP signage square in the middle of an Ethiopian village that appeared wholly undeveloped. I still use that sight as a metaphor for badly-intended aid. Aid spent on the expats, not the community. What little I know of them, they seem to be a faith-based organisation of some kind. With, I suspect, much of the naive worldview that it entails. They are also somehow responsible for the arrival of The Box. The lady leading the meeting reads out a letter that came with The Box. I roll my eyes. 

Everyone applauds. The Box is opened. Pens and pencils are first apportioned out to the various parents in the group, so that they can hand them on to their kids for their school work. Then the remaining toys are handed out to the parents and to some additional children who have taken to looking at the proceedings with wide eyes. There was a huge collection of toys, many of which I would have considered trading my brother for in my youth. 

There was a slinky, and a stuffed green amphibian of some sort, as well as plasticine, koki pens, stickers, bubbles and all manner of other fun things. The toys were warmly received by children and parents alike. The kids who were in attendance went outside immediately to play with their allocated toys. One who had received a toy parachutist would throw it up in the air and catch it again in delight as it floated back down with an open parachute. Then throw it again immediately, over and over. Another who had stickers (but nothing on which to immediately stick them) promptly covered himself and his nearest friend. The point here, is that everyone loved the toys.

I had stopped my ‘holier-than-thou eye rolling at this point, having replaced it with a sort of philosophical confusion that I have still not managed to reconcile. On the one hand, I think that glee boxes full of toys like this are little more than a guilty West trying to salve its conscience with a dollop of God-inspired charity. The structural features in the relationship between the US and places like Uganda that brought about this inequality and sustain it (in the larger sense) remain as strong as they ever were. So you have some toys. Whoop. It would be even nicer if the people in the world with the money and the guns had made sure you had a better life from the beginning. If they had used them more responsibly, more humanely.

And yet.

There is no denying that this lone box, for all my bitching and angst against international politics, really did bring a good deal of joy. That the community of the Fairview Baptist Church probably meant well when they sent it. This box of toys was never intended to make the US get firmer about catching LRA leaders, or stop its corporations buying the minerals from the neighbouring  DRC. The ones which pay for continued bloodletting. Nope. The single, carefully-packed purpose of this box was to reach some children who had no toys, and give them the joy of the parachuting man. The stickers you can stick on your friends. A green frog toy.

So can I judge them wrong for sending it? Would I prefer that the box had never been posted, and that the Fairview Baptist Church had instead gone to picket Congress?

In my heart, honestly, I would have to pick The Box.

And then there are the pictures. I deeply dislike the stereotype that the kids in raggedy-looking clothing looking at the box of toys represents. They are pictures that I would refuse to allow published because they say all the wrong things to people who weren’t there to see them as live, happy, rich individuals. But what other pictures do you take to tell the story of kids waiting on a box of brand new toys? And if those are the pictures you end up with, should you never show them at all?

The pictures lie. Partly because they aren’t everything, and partly because we are so conditioned to respond to photographs like these with pity. Which can be powerfully dehumanizing and completely the wrong response. But rather than nothing at all, take the images as a poor facsimile of reality.

They won’t tell the story, just as that box won’t fix poverty. But they are an innocent effort by people who mean well. And wish to do better.


Richard Stupart is a freelance photojournalist with an interest in postconfilct recovery and representations of Africa. He writes regularly at www.wheretheroadgoes.com

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