Inky incident

The ink pens I'd given the village children ended up bringing school to a halt.

Andy Nelson/CSM/File
Lessons learned: Two schoolgirls work on an assignment together in Chipoka, Malawi.

Sometimes our actions, even though guided by the best intentions, can have a negative effect. Case in point: the time I brought small gifts for the local schoolchildren in a small village in northwest Africa.

My work takes me into developing countries, and quite often I am among remote tribes.

Experience has taught me that the more isolated people are, the more wary they are of outsiders who usually represent the government and whose presence typically means disruption of the status quo in their lives. As a result, I often carry small presents in the hope that people will more readily accept me.

Balloons have long been a favorite with the children and sometimes even among the adults, but by far the most popular item seems to be an ink pen, and in many isolated areas, having one can sometimes mean the difference between getting an education or not.

In many African countries, the children write their lessons on a small wooden tablet that resembles an oversize Ping-Pong paddle. They are usually hand carved from local wood and worn smooth from generations of use. I have found these being used in more than a dozen different countries.

Children write their lessons on them with a pen made from a reed or thin tree branch, and the ink is often a combination of charcoal mixed with local pigments.

I have collected a number of these tablets from my travels, and they are a valued reminder of places I have been.

On a recent trip, I decided to take a few dozen ink pens along, and when I arrived, there was quite a mob as I began to pass out these very popular items.

I went to bed that night feeling full of myself and thinking I had done a very good deed by introducing these icons of Western civilization. So I was quite surprised when the local schoolteacher awakened me the following morning, furious.

It seems the local ink used by this tribe, being totally organic, was also water soluble, so that when the children finish with their lessons, they simply take their tablets down to the river and rinse them clean to be used again the next day.

The ink from my no-run pens is permanent and could not be washed off at the end of the day, so I was responsible for the ruin of all the tablets the village had been using since before the teacher was born.

Fortunately, there was a tiny bit of sandpaper in the village, so school came to a screeching halt while the students and I spent the better part of an afternoon, under the scornful eye of the teacher, sanding down the tablets so they could be used again.

On this day, I was the one who got a lesson: Sometimes progress is not necessarily a good thing, and just because something works well in one culture, it does not necessarily translate well into another.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.