“…anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

Anything. Or anyone. That does not bring you alive.

Is too.

Small.

For you.

I’d once heard poetry described as language against which we have no defenses. It is a language whose words at times bring with them truths we didn’t want to hear, didn’t feel ready to hear. They render us unable to deny or hide from some reality we felt hesitant to confront, because confronting new truths usually means confronting our own vulnerabilities and the uncertainties we all possess as humans.

These brief, poignant words from one of David Whyte’s poems had seared themselves into my consciousness since I’d first heard them. Some words are too significant, too evident, too loud to be ignored.

Equally so, some experiences are too loud to be ignored.

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A few weekends ago, I had a chance to briefly visit Johannesburg, the city I had called home for two years before moving to Zimbabwe some months ago. The moment I had stepped off the plane and into the airport, it was as if I had breathed in new life. As I rode the train into the city, the outlines of familiar shapes blurring past my sight amidst the evening lights reflecting off the large glass windows, I continued to inhale the strangely satisfying air. It was as if my lungs were just now able to fully take in the air necessary to expand to their full capacity, whereas for the past months they had only taken in what they could to sustain life, unsatiated yet laboring on in their capacity.

This fullness literally felt in my lungs continued to define the rest of the two days spent in that city. One day felt like a week – from driving through the city centre and taking in all the beautiful grittiness I had always loved about it, even amidst the very real danger and need to remain alert in turning each corner; to revisiting the familiar artsy spaces carved out throughout the town, in the hipster cafes and markets and in the fashionable and unavoidably cool youthful city residents who occupied them; to catching up with familiar faces and friends whose vibrancy, intelligence, and beauty I had the privilege of appreciating anew, the way periods of absence always seem to re-introduce us to the things we come to take for granted in others by way of familiarity.

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Our experience of time is so deeply intertwined with our experience of people and place; of the emotions and diversity of experiences we allow ourselves in each moment of each day. This could not have been more evident than in that one Saturday in Joburg. One day can easily assume months or even years of meaning and depth, depending on how we fill it and what we let in. It is both frightening and liberating to realize the extent to which we control or relationship with time – the way in which one day can seem to pass by in a second, accumulating to months or even years of fleeting empty moments, but equally so, how one day can be filled with so much life that the concept of time in itself seems to become irrelevant and meaningless.

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Relatedly, it is both a deeply beautiful and yet in some ways painful phenomenon to be reminded of the manifold ways our existences depend on our connections with other people. Such reminders may come in the inevitable moments where we find ourselves kept afloat and able to keep at this business of living simply by the grace of those in our lives, but they may also come in those moments where we think we are fine, living, moving, but then jolted suddenly more alive by the influence of another.

I am all for learning to love oneself, or at least learning to be at peace within one’s own self – to recognize the wholeness that is already there, and find a sense of grounding in that alone. It is no doubt dangerous and unhealthy to expect that anyone else can complete us or to rely on someone else to build up those things we must ultimately build up in ourselves. But I’ve also found the beauty and mystery in the power of another person to sometimes expand our sense of completeness. It is not that this other comes in and fills some hole we thought needed to be filled in our lives, but rather, that he or she literally stretches the space that once represented the totality of our identity and human experience. Inevitably, this may end up leaving a sense of loss or incompleteness once that individual is no longer in our lives, but not because we had relied on him or her to fill a certain absence. Still, in stretching the canvas of self we started with, that person ends up leaving some sense of emptiness in the stretched out space they had made for us, but a space whose emptiness is only an illusion – one that, with time, we find a way to fill with our own color, adding ever more shades of beauty to our existence.

It is this sense of expansion I had the privilege of experiencing on multiple occasions throughout the course of that Saturday in Joburg – in the unexpectedly diverse and profound conversations had with both old friends and new. While naturally not all conversations in life must serve to elevate or inspire, I find that for me personally, I rely on such conversations for sustenance. Lately, I’ve come to realize that maybe bringing up my confusion over the nature of reality with random colleagues on a coffee break or delving into the meaning of life with drunken strangers at a party or discussing colonialism and racism on a first date may not be typical contexts associated with certain types of conversations, but I’ve also realized, why not. More often than not, regardless of the context or ‘norms’ for discussion topics in certain settings, simply allowing people the space for expression on those things that matter most creates an instant connection and opportunity for something meaningful to emerge.

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In many ways, these moments transform mere conversation into a form of art: a molding of two or more experiences into some new idea or expression, something never before revealed into the world in that precise way. Simply by nature of the uniqueness of the elements – of the perceptions and experiences and personality of each person – brought together to produce the interplay of thoughts and meaning making in that specific instance, the conversation unleashes something that ripples out in tiny invisible ways into the ocean of meaning that shapes the world.

While the following quote from Rilke was written in the context of marriage, I think it also applies to the beauty of connection, facilitated through the types of conversations had between people in any context: “Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

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When reminded of the immensity of depth and wholeness embodied by each and every individual in our midst, it is that much more incredible to imagine what is possible by the interactions between them. As Rilke articulates, the point is not a merging together, for such a task is impossible in light of the infinite distances between any two people, but rather, an appreciation of the distance in itself. Conversation is one means of delving into the depths of another person’s immense sky and in the process, finding the horizon of your own sky shifted into ever-farther expanses.

I’m not sure why exactly the conversations in Joburg stood out so much as compared to the ones I’ve been having in Harare. It’s not that I haven’t come across moving people or interesting things worth reflecting on here, but maybe it is also that my excessive focus on work has left me more closed off to the influence of these conversations. And then, there is also the fact that some people just have a deeper effect on us than others, who make us feel more alive for whatever reason. As with most things, this reality becomes more evident in the absence of it. In this case, my experience of leaving those individuals who had been a part of my life in Joburg made their uniqueness and inspiring qualities that much more worthy of appreciation in having the opportunity to once again feel a unique kind of alive in their presence.

These moments of heightened aliveness in the past few months however have by no means been confined to my weekend in Joburg. They’ve appeared in countless and usually unexpected ways throughout my time in Harare, yet often in short fleeting bursts rather than in a sustained and embedded way.

One day, in returning from a work trip to the field, I had been driving back to Harare from Mwenezi, a dry, dusty rural district in the southern region of Zimbabwe, at dawn: the sky was painted with a deep red along the horizon, as the rays of the luminous waking sun pierced through the dust, casting shadows of hazy pink brightness in every direction. The vibrant red horizon softened into lighter shades of pink, mingling with strokes of blues and wispy forms of white, eventually settling on a bluish grey expanse as the eyes journeyed upwards. The reddish pink horizon rested along the outlines of ridged mountains in the distance, appearing in layers of various depths and darkness, broken only by the rounded outlines of trees in their midst. Something about the way the dust from the rocky dirt road we traveled along filled the air around us, lit up by the warm hues of the morning sun, seemed to encompass our vehicle with an inexplicable warmth. This combined with the thick morning soundscape of nature’s silence – rooster calls, cattle bells, and singing birds – felt almost like a warm embrace by the earth itself. Breaking my attention from my concerns of the work awaiting me in Harare, of the millions of things I thought mattered here or there, the embrace brought me into my surroundings, reminding me that all that mattered was what was there, then in that moment.

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Why do I bring any of this up in the first place – this concept of feeling alive, and of allowing oneself to be drawn to those things and people which bring us to feel this way?

Preparing for grad school and working through all the confusing and necessary life lessons and growth that comes with the early career experience, I’ve spent much time reflecting on decisions over the past few months, thinking such reflection necessary in setting a fruitful path for whatever is to come next. But really, I don’t know what the future holds, whether it be 10 years from now or even 10 seconds from now. It is a futile and vain human imagining to think we have any control over our futures – that the decisions we make now will determine exactly where or what we will be doing later in life. I do not know what decisions now will put me in the best position to achieve what I want to achieve in the future. I don’t even know what it is I want to achieve in concrete terms. Or whether I should care about ‘achievement’ in the first place.

What I do know is when I feel alive, and when I don’t. I know what beauty feels like and what the absence of it feels like. I know that beauty – in the world, in other people, and in contributing something meaningful to both – makes me feel alive. I know that I do not want to live a life devoid of actually feeling alive.

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This may all sound extremely basic and simple, and in fact, it is. But how often do we abstract ourselves from those evident truths that are so deeply obvious and glaring in our lives that we forget how important they are to begin with? Amidst so much uncertainty in life and the paradoxical necessity to continue making big decisions anyway, it seems that a useful guiding force (which could be what some already define as ‘intuition’) should simply be whatever makes us feel alive. In making a decision affecting our life context or path, the question to self should always be “does this bring me alive?” and take it from there. This is the accumulation of what the past few months have taught me, and, for the moment, is probably the only basis upon which I feel I can stand firmly with any choice I make affecting how I live my life.

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You Go Ahead

“You go ahead,” I breathlessly exclaimed, no longer confident in my feet’s ability to maintain their balance as we inched higher up the rocky slope. 

“I’ll be right here when you come back down,” I assured my two friends, sensing their hesitation.  As they finally acquiesced, I watched as they continued up the mountain, shadowed by the crowd of children who hadn’t left our side since we first got off our bodas, and trailing behind our unofficial tour guide.

“The top is just a little further,” he urged them, “I know the way.”

He must have been no older than 10. “I will take you to Kibuye,” were his first words when we met along the trail – not so much an offer as a declaration. His floppy rubber sandals and skinny frame were strangely fitting with the nonchalant air of confidence he exuded. Our thick hiking boots, nalgene water bottles, and backpacks full of produce for the trek felt like neon signs of our musanze-ness as we were led up the mountain by a group of mostly barefoot children.

Allowing my body to collapse on a soft grassy patch along the steep hillside, I looked up to find that two of the boys had stayed back. Their hands frantically gestured towards the path from which the voices of my friends and their hiking companions were now fading. “No no, you go ahead. I’m staying here,” I said, forging my own awkward hand motions in an attempt to convey the message where words were of no use.

They finally stopped, looked at each other, glanced back at me, then sat down several feet away, keeping their eyes pinned to me all the while. I made myself comfortable in the tall, cool grass, grateful for the chance to fully process my surroundings:  endless layers of lush green hills spotted with dirt fields, clusters of trees and houses – all of which faded into soft grey outlines in the background. Mesmerized by its grandeur and vastness, I became transfixed in the beauty and stillness of it all. I allowed my body to sink deeper in the grass as my thoughts sunk further into my surroundings – getting lost in the contours of the mountains and taking with them all concept of time.

My awe began to wane as minutes started to feel like hours. I wondered how far my friends had gotten. I shifted my focus to the little boy in the distance whose tiny figure grew closer, whipping at some goats while repeatedly pulling his oversized shirt back onto his shoulder with his free hand. I watched intently as he hopped with ease up the rocks, his tiny bare feet seeming to mock the arduous battle I had faced earlier ascending the same path.

I soon became keenly aware of how alone I was. “I am somewhere deep in the mountains of Rwanda with no phone, no idea where my friends are, and no one in sight who speaks French or English,” I thought. I glanced over at the two boys still sitting a few feet away, now casually playing a game of cards in the grass. The glanced back at me.

As if on cue, the sky suddenly let out a monstrous boom, prompting the boys to duck to the ground. The clouds had turned a threatening shade of grey. For the first time in hours, one of the boys approached me and began to speak in a slow, enunciated manner, but again to no avail. He pointed at the sky and down the hill. “I can’t leave this spot, my friends won’t find me if I do.” But he was insistent.

As it began to drizzle, I followed the kids down the slippery mud path, the two of them running up to grab my elbows each time I stumbled, until we finally approached a mud hut. I crouched behind them through the open doorway and found a tiny room with several people gathered along two narrow wooden benches, all seeking shelter from the impending storm in a neighbor’s house.

The boys motioned for me to sit. I offered a smile to the strangers around me, whose dark figures were illumined only by the light which poured in through the small door, now half covered by a large wooden plank. I could hardly make out their countenances as I strained my eyes to find theirs, hoping that my shy awkward smile relayed to them what words couldn’t. The rain continued to beat down on the roof, quickening its pace and intensity, conveying a sense of desperation and force in its efforts to make itself known to every inch of the room. It was all at once dominant and subtle as it became the constant backdrop to the soft murmur of voices.

I looked around at the dim discernible shapes in the room – the corn stalks hanging from the ceiling, the large metal pot in the corner, the wide-eyed toddler on the bench across from me, his gaze as strong and constant as the rain on the roof. Unable to do much else, I finally stared out the crack in the door, watching each raindrop make its mark in the dirt as I soaked in the unexpected warmth of the small crowded room.

Travel Adventures Part 2 – Rwanda’s Haunting Beauty

I was recently struck by a comment I read on Humans of New York: “One day you lose something, and you say: ‘Oh my God. I was happy. And I didn’t even know it.'” It prompted me to ask myself, does this apply to me? In searching for the answer, the first thing that came to mind was an image – surprisingly crisp in its detail and still fresh with the feelings associated with it:

Me on the back of a boda (motorcycle taxi), my head starting to throb from the slightly-too-tight helmet around it, my eyes straining to stay open against the strong wind gusts that press against them as I hold up the helmet’s plastic visor in order to gain an unobstructed view of my surroundings: pure vastness. Green hills that extend far into the distance in such a way that even in viewing it in person, my eyes somehow struggle to comprehend that it is not a painting or a photograph – something about the way the mountains in the distance fade into perfect bluish-grey outlines, emphasizing the full depth of the landscape and standing in contrast to the bright green sculpted hills in my more immediate view and the long swaying grasses along the sides of the road. Passing so quickly before my eyes, it all begins to blend into one beautiful blur of greens and greys and browns and yellows…. a mud house, some goats and cows, children waving, people staring, my friends zipping past us on the backs of their bodas, and the varying contours of the mountains as we head ever higher up the hill. The ride is fairly long – at least a good 45 minutes. Even with the entrancing scene before me, my eyes slowly tire of trying to maintain their focus on any single object. With the strong wind gusts still wrapped around my body, its constant pressure beginning to feel like some sort of strange, cool blanket against my skin, my mind finally begins to drift away from its current surroundings and into a state of introspection. “This is beautiful. The world is beautiful. People are beautiful. I am happy.” The words begin to repeat themselves slowly and clearly in my mind. Once they’ve materialized, they remain stamped in the back of my head, softly continuing on in the background of my thoughts, eventually becoming blurred and intertwined with the scene itself…

It was one of those moments in life where I was keenly aware of my happiness. The kind of awareness that actually manifests itself into expression…in the moment. It took place during my trip to Rwanda, when my friends and I decided to take bodas up this road on the outskirts of Kigali – which our amazing friend who lives/works there suggested we do during our short stay in the city. The road led up to this giant regal tree, which is mythicized to have some link to the origins of the country itself…something about a king coming to this spot, throwing a seed, and declaring that wherever it landed would be Rwanda…or something. It was also super interesting because, despite its mythical status, well-known by locals, there was nothing physically there to identify the tree as anything out of the ordinary – no plaques or world heritage site or means of preservation. It was just there. Only to be discovered by word of mouth and some knowledgeable locals to show you the spot. As my friends brought up, it in a lot of ways reflected the general feeling we got from the country as a whole – a place full of incredible history and cultural significance, but a lot of which seemed hidden in relation to those countries where everything of cultural significance seems memorialized into a statue or museum or world heritage site. Although, Rwanda is a unique case of course…and still seems to be re-building and re-creating itself according to a very politicized and specific government agenda. (But also note that I was only in the country for less than a week and in reality, have no basis to make any valid commentary on most things there due to my lack of deep knowledge — but still, these were just some interesting things brought up while I was there).

Anyways, this was the tree:

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And the surrounding area:

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…and a cow:

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But back to the original question about happiness. The moment on the boda also made me aware of the fact that I’ve had a lot of these moments this year – mainly due to my extreme privilege to have had the opportunity to travel a good amount. But when confronted by sites that are new and foreign to your eyes and fueled by a heightened state of curiosity and alertness as a result of different surroundings and new people, it is no doubt much easier to instantly recognize your current happiness while you are feeling it. In those settings, you often feel a range of things along with the happiness – thrill, excitement, awe, wonderment – and a lot of the times it is those other feelings that prompt you to step outside yourself for a moment and acknowledge the fact that you are happy and that the world is beautiful.

But then there are those long, calm, extended periods of time when you are truly happy but not really experiencing any mind-blowing, life-changing experiences – times when, for many, you are less likely to spontaneously articulate your happiness (for the HONY lady who had spoken the quote, it had been her years of working in a local coffee shop and not realizing just how happy she was there until it one day closed). And I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, but just that, for me at least, the act of actually stopping and recognizing the happiness in regular day to day events and general life circumstances is something I think I’ve gotten better at and found to be really useful. And I think having at least some of those out-of-body, life-changing experiences every now and then (which for me, just happens to be through travel) also helps you to become more aware of all the things that bring you happiness during the more mundane moments in life. So I guess I am just grateful to Rwanda for granting me a little more insight into happiness and beauty in a way I hadn’t experienced it before (which is kind of how I feel about each new place I get to see).

As much as Rwanda’s sheer physical and natural beauty captivated me from the beginning, though, there was also something so haunting about all of it – about the sense of peacefulness in the city and villages, of the cleanliness and orderliness of Kigali, of all the things unspoken but clearly still present. From going past the large, simple flat gravestones at the genocide memorial centre in Kigali, literally walking above the bones that testified to the atrocities of only 20 years past, to walking around the beautiful, peaceful streets of Kigali just outside, it was all just so mind blowing. To realize just how many people were directly affected by the genocide, and to recognize the fact that most people I spoke to had actually been in the midst of it and had their lives changed forever because of it…it was simply incomprehensible. Beholding something which from the outside appeared so normal – a bustling city with people just going about their day to day lives – and reconciling that image with scene of chaos and brutality that took place only two decades earlier was something my mind simply could not arrive at.

The role of silence in the midst of some of these transitions was another factor that seemed to contribute to the chilling aura around all of it. Something I honestly didn’t know much about before going there, there is a government ban on “genocide ideology” – which, while clearly a restriction on freedom of speech and likely difficult to enforce in a just manner based on the vagueness of its definition and the overall complexity of trying to enforce any law on speech or thought – in theory, still made sense in the context. I didn’t have a chance to actually ask anyone what they thought about it or how it impacted discussions surrounding the past (nor would it probably have been appropriate to ask anyone about it), but I did have one rare and unexpected interaction that I will never forget…

While sitting at a bar in Musanze (apparently one of the biggest cities in Rwanda but with not a whole lot going on) with two of my friends, this rather drunk-looking guy finally comes up to our table. He attempted to buy my friend and I drinks and then seemed rather perplexed when I told him I didn’t drink, and continued to ask me why I wouldn’t drink. We all began to talk some more – your average, rando-at-the-bar kind of interaction – we asked him about Musanze and Rwanda, to which he openly talked on in a slightly slurred manner. After some time, he suddenly expressed how happy he was to have met us: white people, and how much he loved white people. Clearly intoxicated but still also clearly stating his thoughts in a serious and matter-of-fact kind of way, he continued on to say that he hated black people (he was black, just to be clear) and that black people were all killers.

Still in mid-smile from whatever light, casual topic we had just been on a moment ago, we all just paused for a second to assess what had just passed. Finally, half-smiles still plastered on our faces in an attempt to lessen the awkwardness of the conversational turn of events, we attempted to negate his high opinion of white people – entering into a discussion on how white people are not that great either, how there are plenty of white people who kill as well, and how there are good and bad people of any color. Our words were going nowhere. Instead, we attempted to delve into the logic behind his strong, black-and-white thought process on the matter.

“But you’re black – do you think you are a bad person then?” my friend asked. This eventually led him to explain that it was not all black people he felt this way towards. He finally told us that he was a Tutsi, and that Hutus had killed almost his entire family – leaving only him, his brother, and his mother. They had killed his father and his nine siblings as well as his mother’s ten siblings. After that, we stopped trying to convince him to change his views on black vs. white, Hutu vs. Tutsi. We simply listened, and let him show us the pictures he had on his phone of him with his mother, and of him with his son. We discovered he was 23.

…23. My age. There’s just something about hearing another’s story and realizing that that person is the same age as you that makes their experiences that much more piercing. You inevitably start to compare your life to theirs, to try to imagine having gone through what they have – only to realize you have absolutely no basis to even begin to compare your experiences to theirs. It was also that realization that I think led us to halt our feeble attempts to change his views on people – when you have no point of comparison in something so completely traumatizing and life-altering, particularly when it happened during their childhood, how do you even begin to convince someone not to think a certain way?

After that interaction, I couldn’t help but look at the people around me and just wonder what they had gone through…how many people in their lives have been killed, how many people they have had to forgive. While I’m sure there are still many people with similar sentiments to the guy we spoke to in the bar – who’s feelings typically don’t emerge in day-to-day conversations given cultural and legal speech restrictions – there are also clearly so many who have forgiven. There is no way that any society could continue on in any kind of cohesive, functioning manner after such events if forgiveness was not somehow at its core.

I had spoken about forgiveness in a previous post – in the context of friendship and depression and misunderstandings. Arriving at forgiveness in that context was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But in having even a tiny glimpse into the aftermath of forgiveness in the context of what occurred in Rwanda, I am truly humbled by the strength of so many of the people there. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly suggest you check out this “Portraits of Reconciliation” photo series recently published in the NYT. Its photos and stories capture what I’m trying to express so much better than any of my words can, so I will just leave you with that for now.

 

March Travel Adventures. Part 1 – Uganda

This is one of those times where I force myself to blog against my will. Not because I have nothing to blog about but because there is just way too many things and I can’t even begin to decide which are the most worth mentioning. But, so I won’t hate myself for it later when I have no recollection of the things I’ve done this past month (since I’ve discovered that I don’t have that thing that most people have [a memory] and I only remember things that I write down..but like actually. it’s kind of a problem), I will attempt to record at least something – as haphazard and un-elegant as it may be (and it will be. so deal with it. it might also involve a lot of parentheses. you’ve been warned):

So March was an interesting month. It started with a 3-day, fully-paid-for (did I mention how much I love my fellowship programme) retreat to Jinja, Uganda which basically packed in like a year’s worth of deep conversations, good feels, and life reflections into the tiniest time-span possible. It was truly impressive. …like probably good enough to be ranked in my top 15 favorite moments in life.

And you know what, as one of my top 15 life moments (even though I completely just made up that number and I can’t actually think of 15 life moments just in general), I probably should at least mention some of the reasons. The first would of course be the other fellows. Each time I’m around any of them – which is not very often since we are all in different countries – I am just overcome with feelings of awe: Awe that there can be so many incredible yet humble people with so much passion for what they do. Awe that I can so easily relate to people who I barely know and constantly forget the fact that I barely know them. Awe that being around people who make me feel inferior can somehow simultaneously make me feel more confident in myself…like seriously, it is just so much awe that half the time I’ll be in the middle of talking to another fellow and realize I’m barely even listening to what they’re saying because I can’t stop thinking about how in awe I am (yeah, I should probably work on my listening skills).

The other reason I loved the retreat was in its ability to make the most-cheesy-seeming activities some of the most profound and memorable sources of insight. Take, for example, the skit. Probably the cheesiest form of lesson-conveying known to man. And yet, the skits we did on the ‘challenges of international development’ were some of the most scarily accurate representations of troublesome aspects of development that you could imagine. And since then, I’ve several times found myself in situations unable to control the laughter in my head as I realized how much my actual real-life situation resembled those skits. I guess it’s just helped me become more aware of the ridiculousness of a lot of things, some of which you can’t easily control or change, and maybe even come to find the humour in some of it (where appropriate of course)…if nothing else, so that you don’t go crazy from trying to work in a field where you will inevitably be faced with plenty of absurdities and frustrations as a result of the way most of the world still views things like aid and development.

Every conversation I had that weekend yielded some interesting new insight from the really diverse work and living experiences of the other fellows. Most were conversations that could have (and should have) gone on for many more hours…or days…but I am so grateful that our programme understood the value in that kind of meet-up and made it happen.

…and that they made it happen in this place:

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Then.

Kampala for a day.

I figured since I was already going to be in that part of the continent, I might as well take a few extra leave days and do some traveling. It was the kind of traveling where almost nothing was planned out beforehand (believe me, I tried to plan things. but there’s only so much that google can tell you about about where to stay and how to get around a lot of these places. unless you’re rich and fancy), so I took it as an opportunity to embrace my ‘adventurous’ side. Luckily, it was also one of those trips where everything just seemed to fall perfectly into place…so much so that even when things went wrong, they ended up being kind of perfect in their own way. For instance, in Kampala, one of the things at the top of my to-do list was to see the Baha’i House of Worship (there’s one on each continent and the one for Africa is in Kampala). Fortunately, two other fellows decided to join me. Which was awesome. Because it turns out that it’s extremely hard to find…despite being all the way on top of a hill and clearly visible from a distance. We decided to take moto taxis and, being only my second time to ever be on a moto, I was still in that phase of clutching and clenching everything as tightly as possible, not yet having realized that sitting like a normal person actually doesn’t cause you to fall off the bike. Of course, our bikes first took us to a mosque. Not exactly the Baha’i temple. On the second attempt, they decided to to go off the main route and drive through a neighbourhood with no real roads, using uphill as their only real directional indicator to get to the temple. Didn’t work so much.

With a sore butt from the long, bumpy [but albeit, kind of scenic and lovely] drive and some minor leg scratches (from our slow-motion fall backwards off the bike when our driver had a little too much confidence in his moto to make it up the steep slope near the top), we did finally make it to the temple. And it was so completely worth it. I’ve been a Baha’i all my life and I just happened to go to school right next to the temple for North America – which is in Wilmette, Illinois – and I’d seen pictures of this temple before, which made seeing it in person just such a wonderfully strange feeling. It felt so familiar and foreign all at the same time, which is kind of also one of my favorite feelings at the Baha’i Faith in general. As a religion which promotes the oneness of humanity, there is always this sense of familiarity with the new Baha’is I meet or activities I see, regardless of where I am in the world – that knowledge in talking to the other person that there is a strong bond of unity in your vision of the world but also so much uniqueness in your backgrounds and the ways you see the world. Or that sense of recognition in the common purpose and spirit behind any devotional gatherings, fireside, or children’s class you see in any part of the world but the very different cultural traditions incorporated into each activity depending on where you are and who you’re with, highlighting the beautiful diversity of the religion.

In any case, not as good in picture-form, but just to give a little taste (and you didn’t even have to struggle your way up a hill to see it. you’re welcome):

 

After Kampala, another fellow and I were off to Kigali – for the even less-planned-out part of our trip. This, again, was mainly because googling things to do in Rwanda yields the saddest, most boring results ever…unless you want to pay $750 to hang out with gorillas. And Rwanda is not a boring place (..it could also be that I’m just really bad at googling). So, I once again decided to embrace the spirit of ‘adventure’ in my Rwanda travels (really just a euphemism for I don’t have a f*** what I’m doing but whatever).

Either way, as we neared the end of our surprisingly fast 9-hour overnight journey to the land of a thousand hills, I knew from the moment I was jolted awake at the border and groggily stumbled off our absurd country-music-playing bus into the cool, misty morning air, my eyes greeted with the most refreshing backdrop of vibrant green hills (behind the not-so-scenic border control office), that I had made the right choice of vacation destination. It was love at first sight. Not even the fact that I hadn’t peed in 10 hours and couldn’t use the one available bathroom at the border because it cost a fee, or the fact that the baggage inspectors confiscated the majority of my beloved plastic bags (plastic bags are illegal in Rwanda…kind of really cool from an environmental perspective. but also kind of annoying if you were using plastic bags to organize the contents of your bags while traveling), could diminish the instant love I felt for this beautiful country.

To be continued….

(just decided to split this post into multiple parts. because I’m tired of writing. and because there’s a lot to say.)

More of this to come in the next post:

Are you black?

“Are you black?” he bluntly asked me from the front of the taxi; a casual question, likely prompted by the boredom of our long and motionless wait behind a never-ending sea of traffic following the New Years celebrations in Cape Town’s city centre. I told him my dad was from Ethiopia. A grin spread across his face. “Ah, then you are a child of Africa,” he replied, with a certain air of approval in his voice. I was instantly filled with happiness at his remark. I nonchalantly smiled back, trying to conceal how embarrassingly overjoyed I was on the inside as I thought to myself, ‘a stranger actually knew I was black.’

I knew that coming to South Africa, race would be something I would be confronted with at some point. Early on, I realized that race dynamics here weren’t necessarily worse than what you’d see in the U.S., but simply more overt. While racism is not something you actually encounter on a daily basis in Joburg (it also might depend on where you are… Cape Town, for instance, seemed somewhat worse in terms of racial divisions), something that does constantly stand out are the definitions. Simply the word “coloured” – something not so politically correct to still use in the U.S. – has survived here as a non-offensive matter-of-fact term to refer to basically anyone who is not white, black, or Indian (the three other political categories during the Apartheid era). Whereas in the U.S., people seem so cautious to use any term which might offend, so much so that the words black and white must sometimes be diluted with African American and Caucasian (words that aren’t necessarily any more accurate in their labeling), in South Africa, the remnants of old racial classifications don’t seem so hidden. 

And in this context, something I didn’t necessarily prepare myself for, was an inexplicable pull towards defining my own race. Constantly surrounded by these categories, and even the evident racial divisions linked to economic circumstances (again, not something unique to South Africa, but perhaps something that just stands out more when white people are actually the minority), I’ve just felt a strange need to somehow declare my own place. And in particular, a need to make known my African side. It is largely irrational, I know – a feeling I think arising from the history of racial divisions here and somehow not wanting to be associated with the side that only 20 years ago was the oppressor. And yet, while irrational, especially considering how much has in fact changed since then, there are still certain stereotypes, assumptions, and in some cases, unsettling power dynamics that do remain.

This fear of stereotypes and assumptions is all the more heightened within my particular field of work: humanitarian aid. While I am not the foreign white person barging into African communities, handing out food, and taking pictures with the hungry children I’ve “helped,” I am still the one helping to write reports and web stories that give visibility to other foreigners who do so. This is not to say that the work my organization does is not absolutely vital and life-saving for millions of people, but just that the kinds of images produced by humanitarian and development work as a whole still tend to lend themselves to divisive racial stereotypes (often by request of the donors themselves).

And by extension, partially because of stereotypes that have arisen through aid work, the matter of entering new communities as a foreigner, and trying to build meaningful relationships with people of different cultures becomes complicated by a range of assumptions. In my own case, at least, I can’t help but worry any time my actions seem to fulfill the expectations of the stereotypical white person going into an African community and trying to make a difference. My concerns of having to overcome these stereotypes, actually, are less about those in the community, and more about those of the outside world.

I’ve been going to one of the townships near my house each Saturday, for example, to help out another lady who’s been running a childrens class there. I’ve been facilitating a Baha’i junior youth group (basically meeting with a group of 12-14 year-olds to do a workbook and art projects that focus on spiritual/moral education). I am keenly aware of the fact that I do not live in the same community, and that my accent is sometimes difficult for them to understand, and that I cannot speak the language that many of them speak at home, and yet I also am aware of how well the kids respond to the group and the lessons and songs and quotes they learn each week. Sometimes I step back and think, from the outside, I probably just look like exactly what is described in billions of articles and blog posts about how harmful voluntourism is: a foreigner going into a community and trying to make a difference. But I know that this is not the same – I do in fact live here, and I do have the chance to invest time in building relationships with these kids, and more than anything, this is not something I would only do in Africa – this is something that I would aim to do anywhere I am in the world, and this just happens to be where I am now.

And yet, a part of me still worries that because of my skin color, my actions and intentions will become skewed somehow. And with these concerns, I’ve also become more aware of the uncertainty that surrounds how I actually define my own racial identity. I realize with the fears I’ve just written about, I’ve basically described myself as white, and also just previously mentioned how happy I was that someone saw that I was black. It’s honestly not something that I’ve felt the need to really decide which I identified more with until now – until questions surrounding racial stereotypes and assumptions of privilege have become a silent, underlying factor in my daily activities.

I still have no idea what my “racial identity” is, but in this context at least, I’ve found myself more and more self-conscious and even resistant of  my “whiteness” …of the fact that regardless of how many times I declare myself to be African-American, or “black” by some definitions, or at least, equally as black as Barack Obama…the truth of the matter is, that from straight outer appearances at least, I am still a light-skinned foreigner. And in this day and age, particularly with this topic of race and ignorance and stereotypes and white privilege seeming to pop up constantly all over the internet, I  worry that anything I say on the matter may be interpreted as a manifestation of my own white privilege….and yet, if I can be considered “black” by some in the U.S….or “coloured” here in South Africa, then can “white” privilege even technically apply to me? (also. don’t even get me started on all the “what not to say to a mixed person” articles I keep coming across and the endless confusion/guilt I feel for not getting offended by all the things that I am apparently supposed to be offended by as a mixed person….it’s not that I don’t get the reasoning behind why calling someone exotic or asking them “what are you?” has its issues, but at the same time, I just can’t personally get myself to feel offended by such comments. And sometimes I feel like there’s  just waaayy too many potentially offensive things in the world to keep track of these days. In fact, even just stating that opinion makes me feel like I’ve probably just offended someone.)

Either way, in the simple fact that for basically my entire childhood, I never remember even thinking about the fact that my parents were different colors, or what my own racial identity was, or wondering where I “belonged” as a kid (for instance, you always hear of people saying they never felt white enough for the white kids or black enough for the black kids)…in that, there was privilege. In the simple freedom to live my life without a thought towards what role race played in my daily interactions or the opportunities I would have later in life, there was immense privilege. Whether that can be labeled “white privilege” or not, I honestly still don’t know…but I think it is irrelevant. Privilege is privilege.

And, when society actually forces you to define yourself, you also begin to realize how completely ridiculous the whole concept of race is in the first place. The first time I ever even used the label “Black or African American” to describe myself was when I applied to colleges, and my parents suggested that I should tick that box. “If Obama is African American, then so are you.” And so it went. From then on, I was suddenly a “black” person by definition. The arbitrariness of race as a category never ceases to amaze me…and yet, as arbitrary as the definitions and labels themselves are, the social implications caused by their mere existence still remain. So for all those who like to argue that race is arbitrary and that by continuing to bring it up as a topic only serves to create tension, they are ignoring the ultimate fact that our imaginary categories of human differences still perpetuate very concrete social and economic divisions. Ignoring race as a whole becomes an excuse to ignore the deeply imbedded inequalities in our social systems.

I think this is the perfect place to end my rant on race. I realize this has been rather long and rambling, and essentially reached no real points or conclusions, but you know what, I think that quite nicely reflects how I feel about the topic as a whole – one big confusing mess of things that don’t really make sense, and yet still need to be said.

The end.

Sketchy Border Crossings, Good Company, and Mini Revelations

This weekend I ventured to Livingstone, Zambia (home of Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world) with a couple other Piaf fellows for a little Southern Africa regional meetup. Amusingly enough, the time it took to travel there was about the same as the time we actually spent there. Some of the fellows and I drove down to Gaborone, Botswana from Joburg, and from there joined the Gaborone fellows on a 13 hour bus ride the rest of the way to Livingstone. My favorite part of it all was arriving at the Zambian border. Our bus was originally supposed to take us all the way to Livingstone but informed us at the last minute that it wouldn’t be going into Zambia due to riots in Lusaka or something, so instead, we get dropped off at the border. After 13 hours of quality time spent basically on top of our seat-mates and woken up periodically throughout the night from the bus honking loudly to scare the goats, donkeys, or cows of the road, or swerving suddenly to avoid hitting a cow right in the middle of the road (pretty sure we almost died at the moment), we groggily stumbled off the bus at 10 am and headed towards the ill-marked little office to get our visas stamped out of Botswana.  With grey skies and light downpour outside to complement the setting, we continued down a road hoping to find the Zambian border control and another bus to take us the rest of the way (as our bus basically decided to abandon us with no further guidance), and eventually came to a dead end where the road was cut off by a river. Turns out you have to take a ferry across to get to the border. After warding off several men trying to convince us to exchange money to pay the fee of boarding the ferry (yeah, they were lying), we got onto the plank of floating steel next to the trucks that loaded before us and finally made it to the other side where we then had to pay a $50 fee for the Zambian visa. With pockets full of dollars, kwachas, pula, and rand, whose conversion rates all started to blend together in my mind by the time we made it to the border (which only accepted dollars and pounds for some reason), it took quite some time to sort out all of our payments without giving in to the shady money exchange dealers swarming around us outside the door trying to rip us off in our moment of desperation. …I guess there’s not really much point to this story other than the amusing sketchiness of it all…I’ve never come closer to feeling like I was engaging in some kind of illegal border-crossing activity without actually doing anything wrong.

Rather than share the details of what we actually did in Livingstone, though (basically, just the normal touristy things one does in Livingstone), I feel compelled to share some of the mini revelations I’ve had over the course of these past few days, mainly from the discussions I’ve had with the other fellows and their personal experiences in their respective organizations and countries. After having now left the others and continued on to Lusaka on my own for a 2 day work-trip at the country office we have here, I think I’ve had some time for their words to settle more. In particular, the other night we talked about unexpected challenges vs. expectations that we had in the 3 or 4 months we’ve been here now. Throughout everyone’s response was some link to race dynamics, expat behavior towards locals, and combatting stereotypes towards Africa. In my own time in Joburg, I also saw the presence of these issues, but typically interpreted them with a critical, interested eye rather than feeling them as personal challenges to face on a daily basis. Perhaps it’s that I’ve created somewhat of a sheltered life for myself in Joburg with the people I’ve befriended and the places I spend the majority of my time, such that I don’t necessarily encounter all the incidences of racism or stereotypes and skewed perspectives between different cultural groups that I know is so common. I jokingly expressed to the group that there must be something wrong with me for not getting more offended by things that I know should be offending me; I still don’t know if it’s linked to my belief in the eventual establishment of unity on earth that leads me to not internalize all of the issues around me to such a strong degree or if it’s that I’m really not as critical as I should be of things that are so evident and horrible.

From this weekend and I think mostly as a result of hearing the experiences of the other fellows on these matters, I feel like some feelings have finally come to the surface though and made me realize that I am actually troubled by a lot of what I’ve encountered and there are some pretty messed up things that should evoke some kind of emotional response. One thing I’ve realized throughout all of this is that wealth makes me uncomfortable. And particularly in the cities where poverty is literally right beside it. While huge economic disparities would obviously bother most people who are able to see it so drastically displayed and is not something I just now have reflected on, it’s more that I keep finding myself in positions that feel hypocritical in a way. For instance, I just entered Lusaka a few hours ago, where I was picked up by a hotel shuttle bus filled with several business-looking older white men, and was taken to a hotel that costs over $100 a night, which is more than I think I’ve ever paid for a hotel. Perhaps part of my discomfort is due to guilt and pressure at the fact that I am here for these 2 days to basically create some visibility material on some of our operations in Zambia and hopefully write some success stories for our reports, which donors will see. While my bosses have not placed much pressure on me for this mission, and have been encouraging in my being able to go to the field (as was agreed upon as one of the terms of my fellowship), it’s mainly the fact that such a ridiculous large amount of money is going towards my mere 2 days of coming here to write some stories. I realize that the UN has plenty of money and is not going to lose it’s ability to feed more people due to the cost of my little trip, but I just hope that the end results of it are worth the cost for the organization.

More than that though, being here just makes me think about what it would actually be like to continue working in the field of international development, and particularly for a big multilateral organization that does pay for it’s officers to go on missions to impoverished countries and stay in nice hotels. It’s not that I necessarily see a problem with providing enough funding for employees to stay in comfortable hotels when they travel, and in fact, for many of them, I think it is important that the UN does provide such logistic arrangements in light of the difficulty of the work a lot of them do and especially the challenges they face in having to constantly move their families around or live in difficult environments. What bothers me is more related to perceptions and stereotypes that play into these kinds of accommodations – both those of the local people towards international development workers or expats and of expats towards locals. To a large extent, it just feels like my staying in this hotel or the groups of expats that stick together for the most part rather than befriending the local people (as seemed the case in Livingstone) just contribute to the divides and stereotypes that hinder the effectiveness of the work itself.

And within this context, I’ve found myself extremely resistant to being pushed into the stereotypes of expats or aid workers or Americans or even white people (despite not even being completely white), while at the same time engaging in things that essentially further these views. One of the most common stereotypes of Americans that I’ve heard many times is that all Americans are rich. You should see the surprise on people’s faces here when they learn that I’ve never owned a smartphone. And now, despite being a deeply indebted recent graduate with only a basic living stipend for the year, it feels weird and hypocritical to be staying in a fancy hotel or living in one of the wealthier (and whiter) areas of Joburg or being able to travel around Africa or simply saying that I work for the UN and having people comment on the high salaries that UN workers make. And the thing about a lot of these stereotypes that bothers me the most is when they are actually perceived in a positive manner —  the biggest, for instance, is the superiority that seems afforded to white people in a lot of places. One always thinks of racism in terms of someone oppressing someone else, but less often do people talk about the psychological effects that remain among the oppressed (something that Stephen Biko focused on with his Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa). This could not have been more apparent than when I had gone to a soccer game in Soweto, one of the townships in Joburg where the population is mostly black, and when my white friends where approached by tons of local soccer fans asking for pictures to be taken with them. One person even asked one of the girls to kiss their baby. It was literally like they were celebrities for no other reason than their skin color.

It still blows my mind that apartheid only ended less than 20 years ago and that so many people here literally lived in a time when racism was a key component of the country’s basic institutions and legal system. Change takes time, and changing laws won’t immediately change mindsets and attitudes that have been around for so long, and I’m starting to see more and more just how deep these attitudes go.

There’s so much more I want to say on the topic of race but I’ll save it for another post cuz I also want to mention the other mini revelation that has come about from these recent travels, and that is, my own stereotypes of Africa. Again, more instances of hypocrisy I keep uncomfortably finding myself in. Especially after just talking about the importance of people seeing Africa for what it is (a diverse continent) in my last post, I keep realizing just how much western media shapes our perceptions of places in Africa and how much it’s even influenced my own. Despite working in Joburg and acknowledging how different every single country is from each other, in the back of my mind I still had some preconceptions of what other countries would look like. For whatever reason, I still held on to the assumption that outside of South Africa, cities in Botswana or Zambia would look more like ones I lived in in Madagascar as opposed to Joburg. Low and behold, Botswana and Lusaka have tons of similarities to Joburg, and contain just as much economic diversity. As much as I hate all of the exoticized notions of Africa, which make it out to be a place that’s either war-torn and poor or full of beautiful landscapes with wild animals, my expectations seemed to conform to these views in a lot of ways when I found myself surprised at the relatable city settings before me. I don’t mean to imply that these places were exactly like Joburg or Chicago or any other city, but just that they were not some extreme polar opposite to what one would find in the U.S. either. It is the side of Africa that tourism agencies never promote and international media never cover, and yet it is what I think is one of the most important aspects for people to see. It’s not like the West doesn’t engage in the affairs of Africa in significant ways, and if it’s going to continue to do so, it only makes sense for the general population to have access to a better understanding of all the intricate facets that make up each country, and not just the natural disasters or political instability or death tolls due to starvation or fighting in various regions. The kind of coverage that dominates media now basically furthers the sense of “otherness” towards Africa as a whole, leading to skewed understandings of its people and forming the basis for the ways in which many Western countries often try to intervene.

In sum, I’ve become more uncomfortable with more things, and I think it’s a good thing.

Africa is Not a Country

I’d like to begin this post with a short feature on Sophia’s Ignorant Moments of the Week:

The other day I met a former Princeton in Africa fellow here in Joburg who was one of the few who just ended up staying in Africa after his fellowship ended. Although he went to school in the U.S., he happened to be from Mauritius, so South Africa turned out to be a lot closer to his home anyways.

But upon learning that he was a Mauritian, I remarked,
“Oh, I thought you were Indian.” (because he looked Indian)

To which he replied,

“Well, I am of Indian descent, but just like Indian people in the U.S. who are still Americans, I am Mauritian. My family has been here for 12 generations now.”

In my head, I just gave myself an eye roll and slap on the forehead for my unbelievably ignorant sounding comment – mainly because, to imply that someone who doesn’t look like they come from a certain place must not be originally from that place is completely contradictory to the basis of what makes up America. To be American is to be Indian, Mexican, African, European, etc etc… everyone is equally American despite the fact that their parents or grandparents or great great great whoever is from some other place. So why would I assume, even for a second, that someone who looks Indian couldn’t identify first with being Mauritian (and, it turns out, a pretty big majority in Mauritius are actually of Indian descent).

But also, this recognition of my own terrible close-minded view of the world followed a series of other realizations about my unfortunate stereotypical American behavior of stereotyping other places in the world.  So many inner eye rolls and head shakes have occurred over the past few weeks as I’ve noted the hypocrisy of my disdain for simplified representations of Africa as a poverty-stricken, exotic, backward and traditional place in the world and my simultaneous tendency to describe South Africa as “not really that different from the U.S. compared to a lot of other African countries” – basically, robbing South Africa of its African identity just as I had done to the Indian Mauritian.

In all my disapproval of the much too common Africa-is-a-country mindset you find in much of the Western world, I have all this time been portraying this exact mentality when given the perfect opportunity to challenge it. It’s funny because, I’ve even come across this attitude from a lot of South Africans themselves. From “South Africa is not really Africa” to “we’re a lot more developed here,” the underlying message is always one of South Africa’s uniqueness in the African context; that somehow, by having big fancy malls, streets devoid of roaming chickens, a lack of informal produce stands on every corner, and most people being able to speak English, it is not your “typical” African country.

And yet, South Africa is the perfect example of what Africa is, but which a lot still fail to grasp; and that is:

A giant continent.

Seriously, just take a moment to think about its geographical size. Now think about how there could possibly be one homogeneous culture/lifestyle/language/political situation/economic circumstances across one entire continent. Of course, you are likely to find similarities across the countries of one continent, but in the end, they each have their own distinct identity while still being part of one larger identity. In the case of South Africa, I think it is so telling how a lot of Americans, including myself, try to define it in terms that distance it from its African identity –revealing of the underlying stereotype that Africa is one single, homogeneous place defined by its foreignness [to American culture] and even more so by its status as “underdeveloped”; such that anything that deviates from this norm must make it less African (think about countries like Egypt or Morocco, even, and how they often seem pushed into other categories like the Middle-East or Arab states, when they are just as much a part of Africa as Ethiopia or Ghana or Tanzania). So if there’s one teaching opportunity I’d like to take advantage of with my year in South Africa and the descriptions I convey to people back home or anywhere else, is that Africa is a vastly diverse continent fully of vastly diverse people; and that even within the different countries themselves, there is so much diversity (economic, racial, cultural, and so on) and every single one of them is still equally African.

You might be wondering why I feel the need to blab on and on about all of this diversity within the African continent. Well, one of the primary relationships between the West and Africa still seems to be that of providing aid for development. And while this is necessary and often facilitated through positive intentions, it also often ends up doing more harm than good. And much of this is due to the Africa-is-a-country representations and stereotypes I just thoroughly referred to. How can you ever hope to institute sustainable, long-lasting change in a country if the assistance you provide is based on assumptions that it is just a place full of underprivileged, helpless people in need? With the realization of Africa’s diversity as a continent comes the realization that every place has its own challenges, but also its own assets and unique potential for growth.

And, with that, I think it relevant to share this lovely video and critique of the video that I happened across the other day and just so happens to be about a PSA made by the organization I now work for: http://africasacountry.com/the-bullshitfiles-christina-aguilera-feeds-rwanda/

I think this is a wonderful summary of the almost unavoidable hypocrisy I feel about some of the messages we send out to the world to encourage donations towards “feeding the hungry”. Unavoidable because, while I totally agree with everything this person has written and all the absurdity in Christina Aguilera’s helping starving children in war-torn Rwandan by serving meals to them, I also have had a chance to look at this from another perspective (p.s. still trying to awkwardly avoid mentioning the name of my organization in this blog so I don’t have to worry about accidentally saying anything I shouldn’t).  The continuation of such generalizing, demeaning representations of Africa in PSAs and most charity ads you find these days is not so much an issue of the organizations themselves as it is of the larger attitudes towards charities and foreign aid. That is, making videos about how complex and unique the people in Africa are and how there is so much potential for economic growth in the country through the kind of assistance that provides people with opportunities rather than hand-outs is not going to generate much money from the big donors, government agencies, and sympathetic individual.  Images of starving children and the emergency situation in a country requiring immediate assistance, however, will.

I find it so frustrating that so many aid organizations such as ours do in fact make efforts to move away from the old model of charity that was essentially all about hand-outs. It’s not that we don’t have activities that work to develop communities or provide people with employment or allow farmers greater access to markets as opposed to simply giving people food (a temporary fix to the problem), it’s that the big donors, and especially governments, just aren’t as interested in funding long-term sustainable projects when they can provide starving people with food and in that way, quickly address a problem and promote the visible short-term outcomes of their assistance to the rest of the world; in the same way that the majority of people who decide to make donations to these organizations are often moved to do so by the simplified, drastic portrayals of starving people and the difference that a few dollars can make in their lives rather than by a deeper understanding of the alternative kinds of support that can be given to empower them to help themselves.

It’s not just a matter of the representations circulated by the humanitarian world. It’s a matter of shifting our entire mindset towards development aid on a global scale and the priority we give to it. Inequality is not going to go away anytime soon, and humanitarian assistance still does play a huge role in saving millions of lives. But until people stop looking at Africa as a place of charity and start seeking ways to strengthen governments’ abilities to serve their own people and people’s ability to support themselves, then life-saving assistance will continue to be a necessity, and the need to fund such assistance will continue to require organizations to promote the starving-African-child representation to simply obtain the needed funding for their work.

Aaaannddddd, to end on a positive note after a rather long rant about challenges in the world, I can at least say that I am finally feeling more confident at work and successfully did two things this week that I rather dislike:
1. Talking on the phone (…yeah, I know I don’t deserve to call myself an adult)
2. Giving a presentation to 1,500 high school students

(The first was to call up a bunch of people from the media to confirm their attendance at one of our media briefings; you’d be surprised at how hard it is to get ahold of some people. The second was to do some UN youth outreach and basically teach them about the UN’s mission/encourage them to get involved. I gave some background info, but luckily we brought along a lovely South African actress named Hlubi who works as one of our celebrity ambassadors against hunger and was able to get them way more pumped up and inspired to save the world and stay in school than did my little UN history lesson)

Image

me and the gorgeous Hlubi Mboya

me looking really awkward while telling kids about the UN

me looking really awkward while telling kids about the UN