Monday, June 22, 2009

My Moral Compass:

I am sitting on the second of two long flights back to Houston and I have, of course, lots of time to think about my trip this time to Africa. While I wish I was sleeping, there are so many wonders that I have experienced that I have to be diligent to remember each and every one. It would be so easy to return to America and say to myself…”Okay…mission trip. Check that one off the “bucket list” so to speak. But, I have found that my life is nearly complete in Uganda. You ask why? I am come to a point where I absolutely believe that aid is killing the spirit of the Acholi, dare I say the entire country of Africa. I hope that soon everyone who is operating in Africa will realize that they are, indeed, only “giving a man a fish.” I have come behind many organizations, the World Food Bank and Children’s Hunger Fund, just to name a few, whom I believe to have perpetuated a culture of “gimme” in Africa. Children in Africa are beggars…they look at Muzungus and they automatically want something. They think that we exist to give them something. Sadly, we have turned them into those beggars. We waltz into their villages and camps and hand them a piece of candy or worn out t-shirt and get back on the bus. Before we do anything else, we are reaching for the hand sanitizer to make sure that we don’t leave a part of them on our skin. What kind of aid is that? When we went to a “graduation” ceremony for some people who had been in training to be tailors for some time, there was a tent set up for the “V.I.P.” group. The “V.I.P.s” were the white people. I was astonished and embarrassed. In fact, my family will tell you that I further “embarrassed” them by going to each and every one of the people whom I could reach and stretched out my hand in greeting. I shook hundreds of hands and, in Africa, that is not an easy feat as they have a very complicated handshake. But, I was determined to show them my solidarity with them. As we sat through the service, I was annoyed that the white people still sat on one side and the natives on the other. So, I was quick to get up and go sit with the villagers and play with the children. Yes, I am sure that I was quite a site, but I just didn’t want the celebration to be about “them and us” any longer. Interestingly, I met the Pastor of the village two days later and he took me aside and told me how much it meant to the people that I would leave the tent and sit with the people. He told me that it was a very special thing that I had done and he wanted me to know how much he appreciated that I wanted to be part of the village and not just a by-stander. I tell this story not because I think you should know how “great” I am, but to tell you that I just don’t think that we are willing to get out of our comfort zones enough when we are in different places and be “where the action is.” I believe that people really do like it when we show that we do not think they are different. I think it is important for us to realize that in many cases, WE are the different ones. Heather bought a shirt in the airport that I think is wonderful. It has the word, “Muzungu” on the front, which is what African people call white people. What is clever about the shirt is that written on the back are the words, “My name is not Muzungu.” Every where we went during these past four weeks (and during the other seven trips that I have made), children stare at us and yell out, “Muzungu, Muzungu.” It has served as a reminder to me that I am the “different” one. For the first time in my life, I am not the ordinary person on the street. I am a different color. I speak a different language. And, I am not the same as the majority of people on the street. It feels really good; in an awkward sort of way. I have gotten used to people staring at me. I have gotten very used to being called strange names. I have gotten very used to being laughed at. And, I have gotten very used to doing everything I can to “bridge the gap” between the Acholi people and myself. I am used to having people speak in front of me in a language that I just simply do not understand and I have to hope that what they are saying is “okay.” I have had to rely on people to translate to others and I have had to hope that what they say is just what I said. I am rather fluent in Spanish and I am also somewhat fluent in sign language. I know that I can “speak” well enough to get my point across. But, when I am here, I have to hope that the person who speaks for me “gets it right.” If not…then what I have said is for naught. My words return to me void and I cannot imagine anything more devastating than that. Because of this, I have learned to be a person of fewer words in Africa. I imagine my family is saying, “Yeah…right” as they read this. But, I never want to leave my words as empty to people who have suffered so much and who are relying on me to help them so much. I gave a translator 30,000 shillings once; which, at that time, was equivalent to $12.00 and he thought I had given him a fortune. One day, we worked on the bike all day long and Barr gave one of the fellows, Sam, 35,000 shillings and he thought he had made quite a lot for a day. That amounts to $16.00 American dollars. Do you understand that these people work for less than that per month? I happen to know that Sam makes about $75 a month working at the church, but he is required to be there from sun-up to sun-down. Literally. He opens the church and closes the church. He teaches lessons, runs errands, does the handiwork and anything and everything that Pastor wants him to do. The people who work at the hotel where we stay, Jo Jo’s Palace, make $17.00 per month. They all stay in a hot, cramped room, with no bathroom, but they have a job. They work all day and all night. But, they have work. I just do not think that we understand the nature of the work that most of the world has to endure. I was continually shocked when I walked up to the market in Gulu around 9:00 (yes, I was out late), and found scores of women on the side of the road trying to sell their tomatoes, avocadoes, mangos, cabbage, and so on when the road was totally dark. We really do not understand what “hard work” really means. These are people who get up at sunrise, perhaps earlier, and work in their gardens. Then, they take what they can harvest and bring it as close to town as they can get to sell at the best price they can get. It is no wonder that I just am not good at or willing to bargain with people over some prices. While I know it is expected, I just don’t feel good about haranguing someone over 500 shillings ($.25). We would never do that in America! Imagine, if you will, going into your local Dillards and bargaining over the price of an item! It is just not in our nature and it is certainly not in my nature to try to take that little from someone who has worked so hard and who has so little. I am returning from this trip with a resolve to try to stop the “giving out” of food, clothes, and so on to people in Africa. I am returning from this trip with a real mission and that mission is one that teaches them the benefits of hard work and reward from that work. One of the things that we put on the application for the school was, “Will you promise to tithe?” The women and men had to say they were willing to give back from what little they had in order to be able to be admitted to the school. I can see that the real problem in Africa now is the NGOs (non profits) that offer the people something for nothing. It is time for the people to learn how to give as well as receive. They have received for 25+ years…and rightly so. But what has happened it that those gifts have been nothing more than, as the old adage says, “Give a man a fish and he eats for the day.” These people cannot look forward. They have been given help in the form of a fish to eat today, but they have no skills for which to eat for a lifetime. That is where we come in. I am determined that no one I help “eats for a day.” I am going to fight World Food Bank,” Children’s Hunger Fund” and all the rest of the organizations who are still on the ground in Gulu to stop the handouts. It just saddens me that all this time, they could have had someone giving food AND teaching the people how to grow the food. Instead, they threw out bags of rice and beans and went on their merry way. Their donors were assured that what they did was of great benefit to the people in Africa. But, they have deluded themselves. What they did was make the problem worse in Africa. The people needed to learn the skills to grow their own food at the same time they were given the help. Of course the help was needed! However, the people should have been given hoes and rakes and seeds and shown how to produce, for themselves, the very food they were being handed. This is my “new” mission in Africa. It is to stop the free “handouts” and start helping make those “handouts” tools that the people can actually use to help themselves. Trust me…these are very hard working people if given the chance. They have learned the art of survival. We need to turn our moral compasses to a point that gives them a chance to live, not just the chance to survive. There is a BIG difference!

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