So I was tired of the television choices available to me from Bell and decided to purchase, for $2.50 per month, the CBC documentary channel and so far I haven’t been disappointed. We’ve watched The Nature of Things, The Fifth Estate and other documentaries. In fact, just the other night, we were transported to Zambia where Canadian filmmaker Christopher Richardson was looking for his goats (Where’s My Goat?).
Something about him really riled my wife, Naomi. Actually, he irritated me as well.
The deal is, Plan Canada (formerly Foster Parents Plan) encourages Canadians to donate money which will help purchase goats for villagers living in the impoverished areas of Zambia. What Richardson wanted to find out was: did my money really go into buying goats?
Documentaries usually have a single tone to them: i.e. WARNING: CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL! Or their take is humorous. The thing about this documentary was that, despite the cheery demeanor of this Newfoundlander, real life had a nasty way of jumping in and changing the tenor of the film in a flash.
First of all, I can understand Naomi’s irritation. Richardson seemed rather obsessed with himself and his quest: “I’ve come here to find my goats.” I guess we both felt that considering the dire circumstances of so many Africans, he could be a little less concerned with his little life.
The bottom line is that Where’s My Goat? is a feel-good documentary because, as it turns out, Richardson was able to locate the village where his goats ended up, with a little bit of detective work, and witnessed first-hand how beneficial their introduction into the lives of the villagers really was. In a poignant moment, he compares the lives of those who received goats with those who didn’t.
Basically, those families who did almost immediately became more prosperous and healthy and happy. Over time, these goats multiplied and became a source of revenue when sold, as well as a source of nourishment with their daily delivery of goat milk.
Yet, despite the smiles and cheery talk between these villagers and Richardson, the tone of the movie turned quite dark with the description of a widow, goat-less, trying to survive a relentlessly harsh life for herself and her three children in the same village.
There is a shot of her children trying to warm themselves in front of a small fire in their little hut with no breakfast in sight. Richardson says that they are cold and hungry every morning. The mother spends her day whitewashing the sides of her neighbours’ huts with an infant strapped to her back. Her whole existence is about survival, little else.
Having come from scenes of cheery interactions with Africans, this moment chills to the bone.
I can only think of how much I enjoy my breakfasts, and I eat three very wholesome meals a day. The sight of these kids trying to warm themselves with no breakfast at all broke my heart.
In another scene, harsh reality broke into the jolly space of Richardson when he visits a suburb only to be surrounded by hostile men who complain sorely about how the government and other agencies (one assumes Canadian charities) have not lived up to their promises. We get university degrees, someone says, but they don’t do any good. They seem quite menacing and it is only the consoling words of Richardson’s driver that gets him out of serious harm.
All along, Richardson sails along without a worry in the world, intent on finding his goats.
Ultimately, this documentary may lead to much good because the simple fact is, despite the scorn of many experts stating on-camera that this project doesn’t go anywhere close to solving the problems of poverty in Africa and don’t think much regarding how important a goat or two is to an impoverished villager, certain Canadian charities are helping poor Africans in a very concrete way for not very much money. If it makes the donor feel better, less guilty, there’s no harm in that. Whatever it takes, these Africans might say.
But the image of that widow and her three children still haunts me.
We turned off the show a few minutes before the end. All I can think of is: Did they find a goat or two for her?