Everything I am about to say is a byproduct of my last eighteen months as a rural Peace Corps Volunteer, my experiences, challenges, projects, conversations, interactions, and so on. I’m not asking you to agree, I’m just asking you to read and be open to my perspective. Carry on.
It is safe to say that I don’t sleep much. Not in America, not in Uganda. I stay up brainstorming, preparing materials, and trying to cross things off my neverending to-do list. I lie awake in bed listening to the drunkards stumble through my compound, the 16-wheelers crash over the speed bump next to my window, and the deafening speakers from one shop compete against their neighbor’s. And when those noises become my nightly lullabies and I consider drifting off to sleep, I don’t. New thoughts emerge, increasingly each minute that I am here, which can easily be summarized in five words.
“What am I doing here?”
I imagine every Peace Corps Volunteer, international aid worker, long-term traveller, and human asks themselves this question once or twice in their life. This question isn’t new and it certainly is not new to me. It stems from books, articles, studies, and research that I have read. From presentations fellow PCVs have given, Ted talks, and discussions I have had. From news stories I see, people I interact with here, and most of all, from observation. And while this may seem like an anxiety producing, self-doubting thought, it’s not. It’s actually quite the opposite and makes me constantly question how my small-scale work can improve and be as productive as possible. Other times I delve deeper into my thoughts.
“What am I doing here?”
“Am I actually making an impact?”
“What would I be doing if I wasn’t here?”
Within my lifetime social enterprises and the “One for One” campaigns have skyrocketed. And I am not saying that I think helping other people in the world is bad. I mean look at me, I am a Peace Corps Volunteer. What I am saying is that we, myself included, tend to focus solely on the one-sidedness of many of these initiatives. The simple, easy-to-understand, and easily marketable for the American public, “1:1” side. This is understandable for both businesses and consumers because why would I ever market a negative impact of my business’s product or service, if any, and why would I ever think that a smiling kid holding a brand new soccer ball could ever be bad?
Naturally, we tend to only focus on the “positive” social impact of these organizations, initiatives, and goods due to the media, chosen testimonies, our morals, and our preconceived notions of what Africa is and “needs.”
We buy the rice sack purse to feed that starving child. We purchase that $60 pair of shoes so a barefoot little boy can receive a pair of shoes in exchange. We buy that water bottle so a village can get a water filtration system. I say we because I did the same exact thing for years, even as I travelled the world teaching and volunteering while never stopping to really think about what I was doing or how it could be better.
The fact that #thisisafrica, #thirdworldproblems, or a popular meme picture of a black boy in disbelief and a tagline of “so you’re telling me…” is the extent of our exposure and knowledge of this continent is certainly only helping to form these misconceptions. The last two years in Uganda have allowed me to see another side of the story. A side that needs a lot more discussion and improvement (in nice terms) and in other terms, a negative side. I hate to place what I am saying into a ying and yang generalization because it’s not just positive and negative, but for my purposes right now, hear me out.
The negative side. I would’ve never considered anything to be negative about giving a child a pair of shoes, giving a village a borehole, playing in an orphanage for two weeks, or sponsoring a student via a church organization years ago. Since living here I have observed that as Westerners, we tend to identify what we see as a problem then find a simple solution.
“Oh, kids don’t have shoes.”
Yes, there are a number of health concerns with people not covering the soles of their feet.
“Let’s give them shoes.”
Now, here are the problems with that quick fix:
First, where is the educational aspect of why wearing shoes is important for children. My pupils don’t wear their shoes because they don’t want to, the shoes break and can’t be fixed, they’re impractical to play football in, et cetera. Culturally, wearing shoes is not “required,” so to speak, as much as it is in America.
Are these fabric, thin flats going to withstand the first huge storm of rainy season, and if not, what will your organization do to repair or replace them? Or before you give that family a water filtration system, counsel them on why clean water is a health benefit, discussing things like typhoid, worms, giardiasis, washing hands, washing fruits and veggies, etc. Because I will tell you that when the WHY isn’t addressed, very little is effective. That filtration bucket will be used to wash clothes in and those shoes will only be worn to church for an hour every week.
Secondly, where is the transparency about the fact that your pair of shoes cost $60 yet the pair the child is getting is certainly no more than $2? Has anyone ever broken down what the other $58 is going toward? I am using shoes as my example but think about any social enterprise you know of. It would be great for the Western world and all those 15-year-old Kelsey-minded people out there to see that there are other costs in these grand endeavors.
Most consumers cannot or do not consider the differences in the cost of living in rural Africa, or that it is much lower than it is in America. Therefore, one $60 pair of shoes could buy over 100 pairs of shoes in my community. More importantly, we hear “charitable” and forget that there are other costs involved. People need salaries both near and far, shipping, customs, tools, medicine, taxes, etcetera etcetera etcetera. And even about the fact that yes, everyone will tell you that your business needs to stop wasting time and money in other parts of the world because, “America needs it too/more,” but looking at real numbers can prove that $1 in West Nile, Uganda can do an incredible amount more than $1 can do in the states.
Thirdly, across the board from the organizations I have seen here, no matter how great that program is, there is little to no follow-up with the individuals affected. You gave a kid a pair of shoes a year ago but have you or a village health worker in the community checked to see if maybe the shoes are broken or outgrown or if the boy is even wearing them? Did that borehole you built break, dry-up, or get spoiled again because it was built too close to a pit latrine? Did Sally have her mosquito net hung and has she repaired it since?
And to build off that, fourthly, do you plan to partner with the community to do this project? Have you asked them their advice on how best to solve this health problem? Is there a problem that they identify as far more important right now that this shoe profit could also be going toward? Who is going to do the in-the-field follow-up with the recipients? Is this sustainable?
Fifthly, did you ever stop to consider your long-term impact on this community? And by “your” I don’t only mean you as an individual or as a company. I mean “you” as “Westerners,” “foreigners,” or “white people” because you are now a representative of us and those who follow you in the days, months, and years.
On a very personal note, I can tell you right now that I have battled the missionary influence of the region I live in since the first day I stepped into Uganda. When the war ended in Northern Uganda years ago, missionaries from the west came. I have no problem with instilling hope for a better life in people. What I do have a problem with is handouts. Handing out candy, money, and clothes to people so they will believe in something. Adults in my community tell me that’s all they’ve ever known a foreigner to be: a missionary who will give them things.
Each and every day people young and old stick their hands out asking for money, and I explain that I don’t have any but I do have knowledge to share. They respond with very discouraging statements about me lying, not being good enough, or being of no purpose to the community because I won’t give money like the others.
And then I hear about how some Westerners post-war discouraged condoms and encouraged the idea that a woman’s purpose is to serve her husband. I look around and see how much this has impacted my community and the culture at large and I get it. I see the HIV/AIDS rates, the overpopulation due to lack of birth control and family planning, and the gender inequity. For all intents and purposes right now I understand I am only mentioning the extreme negatives, but what I find myself thinking about more is that not one of those people came over here (and continue to come) with any ill will in their hearts and minds. Nor did I. We say we want to help, we try, and we even witness the positive short-term changes. The smiles, the hope, and the fix. We can’t see our long-term and unintended effects, both positive and negative. This is what keeps me awake at night.
What is my Western Footprint?
I recognize I cannot change the way everyone in this world works and thinks. What I can do is be aware of my work. Which brings me to my recent project with DIFF eyewear this year. This somehow young company started as some mid-twenty-something dudes who got together to help the world while doing something they are passionate about. At first I tested the waters with this discussion you read here but I’ve been blown away by the heart, mind, and soul of this company as a whole. They are so receptive to feedback, ideas, and considerations from this corner of the world. So, this most recent initiative of supporting eye exams, glasses, and eye treatment in Uganda is a seedling that I have been nurturing like a fragile, newborn chick since day one. This project has been slow to start but since I am the only person on the ground over here trying to figure out how to best do this, I am trying to cross my “t’s” and dot my “i’s” before this seedling of a project branches out to more people, which of course is the ideal goal.
We are working with the community health workers, teachers, parents, religious leaders, LC1s and local governments, and hospitals to train, educate, and assess. We are individually counseling and working with every guardian or parent of a child to not only educate them but to set up personalized payment plans. Why? Because I refuse to encourage giving handouts to every person. I refuse to enable anyone. This project is about empowerment and ownership.
Everything is evaluated by the team of doctors and refractionists and when the next phase of this project comes into play within the next month (getting glasses for the eleven Awindiri children), each family will have invested something (money or volunteer time) into their pair.
If someone hands you a free apple, you might not care if you lose it, break it, or if it goes bad. But if you have to invest your own time or money into getting that apple, you’ll be a little more careful with it. The same goes with nearly everything in life (countless research also proves this if you don’t believe me). With this initiative between DIFF and myself, we are working hard to be conscious of our impact, make everything a community-driven project, and allow everyone to be supported while they take ownership in their health.
I am not perfect. I have made mistakes and will continue to. I put myself out here to learn and be critiqued and criticized. Such is life. In all honestly, I want people to criticize things that I say, think, and feel because that’s what this human exchange is all about. I’m not trying to be perfect, write the rules, or paint the canvas. I just want to open eyes, hearts, and further a conversation.
All in all, don’t stop your work, start sending hate mail, or send back those shoes. That’s not what this is for. I just think that starting today we can all be more aware, myself included. Conscious of our altruism in the world, again, both near and far. Consider another side of a story and if you don’t know, ask. Life is all about sharing and learning. You might be surprised what this world has to offer us.
Kelsey Sabo. Biologist & actress turned Peace Corps Volunteer. Now situated a stone's throw from the Congo and South Sudan at a primary school in the West Nile region of Northern Uganda. From the streets of New York to the dirt roads of Uganda, follow along as I attempt using technology and recount my adventures... Sarcasm guaranteed.