Sunday, July 8, 2012

For those thinking of going to Africa ...

Good for you!  By all means, go.  You'll be so enlarged by the experience.

If you're thinking of going to one of the lesser developed countries in Africa, though, here's the stupidest problem you'll have to deal with. 

There's a sort of 'different' status you'll have to understand and handle early on.  You're different in many ways, especially if you're white, and that's perhaps entertaining but not really helpful at all.  We're actually all the same, of course.

When my wife (right) traveled with me to one particular village where I'm known, she likened it to being Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie; folks welcomed her enthusiastically and dragged her off to meet family.  I'd told them that she was coming, so they made a big deal of having her there.  It's fun being 'special', I suppose, but emotionally exhausting, and it's unhelpful if you're up to anything more than just visiting.

It's worth remembering, these folks are stronger than most, work harder than most, are more creative and innovative than most.  They're bright, gracious, and open to the world.

Classic 'do-gooder' photo in Africa
The photo (below) from earlier today illustrates your problem a little further if you're trying to share the story back home.  It's the classic 'do-gooder in a third-world country' look, and it doesn't convey anything useful; OK, perhaps it does, but probably only to the folks that are in the photo themselves.  This family here set up the picture and a dozen more.  The photo doesn't explain that we've known each other for a few years or that we met the young lady at my shoulder when her daughter (the youngster in my lap) was two weeks old.  She introduced me to her family; her grandma adopted me and began my education.  The three boys on the left side are her nephews and my buddies.  The young lady's husband composed us and took this picture.  I'll deliver prints next time I'm in country.

The 'celebrity' role is pretty much automatic, especially if it's your first time here, and it is kind of fun.  Kids run after you and call out to you for candy.  Folks are willing to welcome you, and if you ask politely, they'll probably be OK with you taking pictures.  You can bring little gifts for children and get to hug a few of them, perhaps.  You can play the 'special' person role, but it's more for your benefit than theirs if you do.  If that's the extent of your opportunity and purpose, no problem.  If you want to help, though, it takes more understanding.  Check your attitude; they know so much more about living than you're likely to grasp.  They may be poor by economic measures, but they are power-players at life.  Put yourself in their place; how might you respond in their circumstance? 

If you want to be a friend, you can't be other than that; being too different or too special messes things up.  At least, that's the best I've been able to grasp.  Grandma (right) helps me understand, but it's taken time. Five years so far, and I'm still learning things.  They introduce me as a family member now, which is pretty cool.
There are things we might grasp early on, but it's easy to miss important truths.  Toys and clothes are fun, but probably not needed.  Books for the kids are nice and even useful.  Things that matter more though, are larger and more costly.  Caring enough to understand and love well is difficult.  Grandma lost her brother this month, and her 25 year old son a few months earlier; it's been a hard year for the family and her needs have changed.

Seeing it in person, you get to shed the perception that the folks here are just sitting around being poor.  They're extraordinary workers; intelligent, innovative, creative, and always looking for possibilities.  Early 'til late, they're at work providing for their families.

One of my greater pleasures, I noticed this evening as I arrived back in the city ... being ignored by students on their way to and from school.  They pass in droves, chatting about academic stuff, and don't give me a second look.  I'm so pleased for them and hope for the thousands of others here that they'll have a chance at higher education too.  And a better life, dear Lord.

So what can we do if we want to be helpful?