August 29, 2010
Iganga Town, Uganda

Finding the balance is treacherous. Somewhere between apathy-inducing sympathy and hypocritical heartlessness I have to believe lays the way to help people help themselves.

I have no delusions of grandeur. No belief that I have solutions to old and complex problems that a whole country and generations of people failed to think of on their own. So my public health work that is the job I undertake in various countries (including the USA) is not one I take with conceit or the expectation of changing the world right now.

Still, I find it difficult at times to navigate through the confusing waters of what I should do, what my expectations for others should be. So it is with the orphan support program I’m responsible for in my current job. I do not know what it is to live, parentless and income-less, in rural Uganda. I don’t know the nuances of finding food and shelter when the people who would generally be responsible for such things are unable to.

It would be so simple to write a check. To dole out cash with little expectation from a student to help…because, how can they help? What do they have to contribute?

Only they do have resources. Not cash reserves or rich friends, but every culture, every person, has something to draw from that enables them to survive. And I can’t help but think that pretending those resources aren’t important or don’t exist, that people – even students – are helpless as they navigate through life, is counter-productive. It instead leads to a culture of entitlement simply because…a culture of apathy to its own progress and success.

I lived in rural South Africa from 1999-2001, not long after the elections. South Africa, with Mandela at the helm, was the world’s darling. Aid money coursed through the economy, often unchecked and seemingly with little oversight. As a result, when I approached the communities I lived and worked with, I was once met literally with, “what will you bring us?” there was no discussion of collaboration or mutual contributions. And when I told one of my schools (requesting computers despite the lack of electricity in the community…and for that matter potable water) that I had brought myself, the principal told me that he “would hate to have to report me to my boss for not doing my job.”

And so now I find myself flirting with the other side – or at least feeling as if I am. An attitude and expectation that students be held accountable for, be participants, in their own educations. Passing grades, contributions to the other materials that are necessary in schooling.

My colleague gently reminds me that many of these kids are alone in the world save for their siblings. Some are scrimping to help their sisters and brothers, are caretakers in a way that I can’t begin to imagine. And I am chastened. Humbled. Who am I to require anything more than their survival?

Only this program…any program…won’t be here forever…won’t help forever. Children grow up and sponsors fall away. Recessions linger and donations shrink. People must figure out a way to survive – to dare to thrive – in spite of the harrowing circumstances that are unfair but still their circumstances.

Sometimes it feels like I’m dancing with the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” crowd; that wonderfully ignorant notion that people have that somehow they managed to get where they are purely by their own volition, their own determination and brilliance. Never mind their station in life, their social capital, their family history, a break, a fluke, an accident.

I am not so delusional. I know that where I am is squarely on the shoulders of a community of people that actually spans the globe and has been everything from steadfast contributor to flashes of influence.

But I also know that my organization is now part of these students’ community of influence. Contributing fees and support to an education that might otherwise be beyond reach. But community alone – like a person alone – can’t be everything. And so while I don’t want to pretend that the obstacles I’ve overcome in my life’s journey remotely reflect what these kids are forced to, they still have to overcome. They have to study and diversify their resources, think creatively for solutions, because it has to be done and no one can do it for them…even with a program designed to help and the best of intentions.

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1 Comment on best of intentions

  1. Tom says:

    Preaching to the choir. I agree wholeheartedly with this entry’s sentiment – you have to live here to “get it.” Missing you and loving the blog. It is like therapy…but free!

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