Tag Archives: fiction

Lessons for aid & development are everywhere – including on a TV comedy

I find lessons for aid and humanitarian work, including public health education, all around me, if I’m paying attention.

That includes watching the Andy Griffith Show, a 1960s television show that is still frequently shown in the USA. For my international readers: the show, mostly a comedy but sometimes dramatic, follows the adventures of a small town Southern sheriff and his family. It’s a highly sentimental, idealized show more about how people wish small town life was in the USA than it actually ever was. But I’m very fond of it because it shows the very real sweetness and eccentricities of small town anywhere, not just the USA, even if it’s highly romanticized and leaves out important facts of life in the Southern USA, like Jim Crow and the oppression of black Americans.

I recently saw one of the few episodes I don’t recall seeing when I was a kid. It’s called The County Nurse. The official summary: “Andy is forced to exert all his persuasiveness to get a farmer to take a tetanus shot.”

The premise is this: there is a county nurse – a government-funded health worker – that is visiting the town of Mayberry as a part of her job. The nurse has promised her bosses that she will have a 100% success rate in inoculations, but the person standing in her way on delivering on this promise is farmer Rafe Hollister, who has never had a tetanus shot. Rafe says he has never been sick and has never had to see a doctor and, therefore, doesn’t need this shot. In fact, he’s quite skeptical about vaccines in general. Sheriff Andy wants to help because he does believe in vaccines and because he is attracted to the new, and very pretty, county nurse and wants to help her out. At one point, Andy says to Rafe “go ahead and try the stethoscope. You can hear your heart beating!” And Rafe replies “I don’t need that to know if my hearts beating, I’m alive ain’t I? Then my hearts beating.” Rafe also says, “I ain’t never been to a doctor in my life. When I was born, I had my mama. When I die, I’ll have the undertaker. I don’t see no sense in clutterin’ up things in between.”

Andy offers the nurse advice at one point: “With a fellow like Rafe, you don’t just walk up and say ‘let me give you a tetanus shot.’ You hafta kinda make him trust ya first. Gain his confidence. Well ya sneak up on him is whatcha ya do.” And that’s just what they do: Andy finally uses his singing and storytelling ability to shock Rafe into taking his shot. Andy sings a sad song,”Dig my grave with a silver spade,” and talks about what Rafe’s funeral will be like if he dies from tetanus. Rafe relents at last.

It’s an episode where city sensibilities and country ways clash. The wariness of the country folk towards doctors and formal medicine is stressed – and not for the first time in this show. The only thing missing from this episode to make it more realistic would have been Rafe repeating crazy beliefs about vaccines.

You can find pirated versions of this episode online relatively easily. It’s less than 30 minutes long.

Sadly, I don’t think we have county nurses anymore…

Also see:

TV depictions of volunteerism

In addition to being highly amused at how television dramas portray international aid workers, I’m even more amused by certain comments made on various TV shows, mostly about comedy, about volunteerism.

I’ve been collecting quotes regarding volunteering and community service from various TV shows for a few years now: I hear one, usually on a re-run, and run scrambling to Google to find it if it was too long to write down. I know there are TONS of hilarious quotes from The Simpsons regarding volunteering and community service, but I can never find them online later… Here’s one that I was able to find soon after I heard it:

Homer: Community service? But that’s work! What about jail?
Judge: Community service!
Homer: No, I want to go to jail. Free food, tear drop tattoos, library books that come to you. I’ll serve anything but the community!

I didn’t hear this one, but found it online; it’s from from The Vampire Diaries:

Pageant contestant: Just because my DUI made my community service mandatory doesn’t mean I was any less committed.

Another I didn’t hear myself, but found online; it’s from Scrubs:

Dr. Kelso: Attention surgical residents still hoping to have a job next year. The annual blood drive is upon us, and I will be needing a volunteer to greet our donors as the hospital’s new mascot, the friendly hypodermic needle, Mr. Prick… We’ll probably change the name.

But by far, I’ve found the most quotes online regarding volunteering from The Office, a show I so adore. The first three are from the character Dwight:

Volunteerism is important. Every weekend I volunteer at the local animal shelter, they need a lot of help down there. Last Sunday I had to put down 150 pets by myself.

And I did not become a Lackawanna County volunteer sheriff’s deputy to make friends. And by the way, I haven’t.

One more from The Office – an exchange between two characters:

Ryan: Jim. I wanted to apologize… for how I treated you last year. I lost sight of myself and now that I’ve quit the rat race I’ve realized there’s so much more to life than being the youngest VP in the company’s history. I’ve even started volunteering. Giving back to the community.

Jim: Well that’s great. You’re talking about your court ordered community service?

Ryan: I don’t need a judge to tell me to keep my community clean.

Jim: But he did, right?

The most hilarious depiction of volunteerism I’ve ever seen? The entire episode of “The Old Man“, where Jerry and his friends volunteer to help senior citizens. It’s priceless. I wish nonprofit organizations had permission to use it in volunteer orientations and trainings.

All this came to mind because Susan Ellis is focusing her March hot topic on jokes regarding volunteerism. It’s even more great stuff to make you laugh on a Friday.

Aid workers in fiction – new ABC show in January

There’s nonfiction books and documentaries about humanitarian workers, but not many dramatizations. I suspect the lack of novels, movie dramas and TV show dramatizations about aid workers, both paid and volunteer, is not because audiences wouldn’t enjoy reading or seeing such; rather, it’s probably because of the difficultly of writing a story that isn’t stereotypical, formulaic, or patronizing: person from North America, Europe or Australia goes to a poor part of the world and helps poor people and experiences wacky cultural differences while learning from local people and growing personally as well. Roll credits. There’s also the big fear of insulting people in developing countries, showing them as needy, ignorant, ineffectual, childlike, etc. while the aid worker is always benevolent and knowledgeable.


Not that such fictionalizations aren’t tried, sometimes with success:

    • I think Northern Exposure did probably the best job of any work of fiction of showing an outsider coming into a ‘foreign” place to help: Dr. Fleischman wasn’t an international aid worker, but going from New York City to rural Alaska comes about as close as you can get, and the local people, including the indigenous people, were presented in a very respectful light, each character allowed to be quite individual, interesting and, yet, less-than-perfect (human!).


    • The Constant Gardener does a decent job showing just how powerless aid workers are amid the chaos of extreme poverty and the influence of much better funded entities and armed groups. I thought the episodes of ER in Season 9 and 10 when a few characters worked in the Congo did a similarly good job of showing such.



  • The Poisonwood Bible does a fantastic job of showing the very bad (and a bit of the good) by missionaries who are in a poor country to preach and do a little development work as well. While most aid workers are not missionaries, there’s some excellent do NOT do this moments in the book humanitarian workers can learn from.

I write all this in anticipation of Off the Map, which will premier in January on USA-based television network ABC and will probably get shown in other countries as well eventually. The series takes place in “la Ciudad de las Estrellas,” a village in the South American jungle. “Six doctors, all of whom are running away from some sort of emotional issues and personal demons back home, arrive at the clinic and soon realize their new path is much different than anything they’ve ever dealt with as they battle the elements in this challenging and dangerous environment.” Sounds like there’s great potential for it to be stereotypical, formulaic and/or patronizing. But I’ll give it a try. I already see a big story problem: a poor village wouldn’t get SIX doctors. They’d get ONE doctor, if they were lucky, and that doctor would be the only one in a 500 mile radius.

If any executives are looking for stories to adapt to fiction, look no further than Peace Corps Worldwide, “where returned volunteers share their expertise and experiences.”