What Was I Doing?

I went to Uganda ready to change the world. I came back bruised, disillusioned and wondering: What was I doing there?

I am from Israel. It’s a tiny country; ten of us could fit into Uganda’s open arms, with extra room to breathe. Israel is two percent water; Uganda rests on Africa’s largest lake, Lake Victoria. We pray for rain; Uganda has two rainy seasons a year. We are surrounded by enemies and violence, whereas Uganda has been living in peace for years. And still, I left my dusty, arid country and went to a lush green land – in order to help them.

Uganda’s beauty is hard to overlook.  From the enormous lakes to the tall misty mountains and exotic animals, it is rich and diverse. Underneath it all, lies an abundance of natural oils, minerals and gases. But it recieves more international aid than most countries in the world. What is the problem?

The problem is the people. They have been ruled, beaten, betrayed and now they are being given money and again, being told what to do. How could they not end up tired, dependent and lazy? The mzungus are here. The whites will do it. I once walked down the road in my village in Uganda, when a group of schoolchildren all whined at me, “Mzungu! Mzungu, help him!” pointing to a filthy-looking man. What was I supposed to do?

Very early in my trip I decided that giving money to beggars was a bad thing which I wouldn’t do. It would only create dependency. Giving large sums of money in aid was equally harmful, as I knew it would all go directly into corrupt politicians’ pockets. Teaching, perhaps, would be all right.

But a lot has happened since my smiling, idealistic self built a curriculum for the “poor African orphans.” Now, a few miles and days away, I look back at my time volunteering in Uganda with more than a trace of sadness. Because despite the fact that I loved those kids dearly and felt passionate about my work, I think I may have done them more harm than good.

Firstly, I don’t believe I am the right person to serve as a role model for those students. It’s inevitable that any teacher who is remotely capable, will be looked up to and emulated. And so I can say honestly and modestly that I think those students will want tom in some ways, be like me. But they will never be white. They will never be Western. They will never, really, be like me. And why should they want to be?

Why should those students know more about Shakira and Rihanna than they know about their tribal dances and exciting history?Why should they want to wear jeans instead of dresses made of kitenge fabric? Why should they have to listen to me speak about things I think are important, in my accent, on my conditions, when there are plenty of apt Ugandans out there? (They exist. But they are in universities, in hi-tech companies and in other countries, making money. They are not teaching because they don’t feel the need to. The whites are doing just fine.)

Another painful question I ask myself, is: How much can you possibly teach in a few months, that will make the tearful goodbye worthwhile? Did I change their lives? Did I make such a lasting impact that the experience of parting and being left behind will be forgotten?

These are kids who have had to lose many close people in their lives. I think the traumatic experience might stay with them a little longer than those arithmetic problems I gave them. They will remember that I avoided the question of when I’d be coming back, more than they’d remember what I taught them in English class.

So what if I opened a slice of the world for them? All I did was make them aware of how tiny and distant they are from it all.

Which is why I think perhaps whites should pick up their bags and good intentions and leave. Of course, I am scared as you are of what will happen: Buildings will stop being built. Students won’t be taught. Healthcare won’t be given. People will die and things will be a mess.

But time will pass. And then a new generation will rise – a questioning, tuned-in and intelligent portion of society will stand up. They will vote. They will shout. They will make a change. And I know it will be so much deeper, so much more rooted and lasting and real than any change we mzungus might make.

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5 thoughts on “What Was I Doing?

  1. Pingback: My First Words. « My Blog

  2. Your talking about years of suffering for people before something that dramatic could possible. You saying that a paradigm shift will just come in time, and maybe it will. But the question is what is the price? How many people will die of malnutrition or forfit an education because of it. I would love to believe just like you, but even with the best intentions and ALL the resources in the world these problems take decades to heal. Take a glance at Obama- all the resources in the world and even after a few years were still struggling to see the “change” that was promised.

    Anyway just food for thought. Loved the post.

    Love, Andrew

  3. I’m afraid you hit the nail perfectly on the head here.
    As they say: “Sadder but wiser….”.
    Though you conclusions leave me to wonder: surely there must be some ways how we might encourage change without stepping into the traps you describe ?

  4. Danya, really impressive and if I could wave my magic fairy wand I would suggest to Bill and Melinda Gates that they step aside as well. In my view the model they have in their heads, which also unfortunately guides alot of international organizations and the thinking of such wonderful journalists as Nick Kristoff is that better access to contraception and family planning is the crucial lynchpin in improving women’s lives. You went to Uganda to do good as you so insightfully described, but Israel is facing huge challenges and desperately needs young people with your courageous questioning for the answer is not the 2 state solution which most liberals still hold onto as THE solution.

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