Reconciling my own feelings about working overseas in development is difficult enough. Is there harm done? To what extent? Is there good? Does it make up for the bad? I don’t believe good intentions are enough, that something is always better than nothing. Sometimes the cure can be worse than the disease. But how do I know…for sure…how do I know?

Second graders aren’t that nuanced. Differentiating Africa as continent versus Africa as country seemed a fair starting point. So we looked at the map and named different places they’d been; and once they settled down from the excitement of talking about trips to San Antonio and Mexico – not differentiating city from country – we named a few countries in Africa.

Honestly speaking, I had an agenda of my own. Rather than perpetuate the singular vision of Africa, starving child with flies languishing on a distended belly, I introduced another face of the African identity. The city.

Everyone sees the rural villages with grass roofs and mud walls, that reality is well documented on television and in magazines. There is generally the photo of a long dusty road and someone carrying a load of fire wood or 20 liters of water or herding cows in the brown swath cut through a nameless savannah, dry grass brown and blowing in a breeze.  Those can be legitimate photos; I have a few. In the various villages I’ve lived in and visited, it is an experience in Uganda or South Africa or Ethiopia.

But it isn’t “the” experience.

And so I introduced Uganda with a skyline picture of Kampala- the capital. I’d prefaced this revelation, met by “ohhs” and “ahhs”, with “what does Uganda look like?” And after a flurry of “dry” and “sand” and “hot” we flushed out more –“ straw houses” and “sticks”. The tall buildings, not unlike Dallas or Houston, were not what they had described or expected to see.

But Kampala isn’t the only Ugandan experience either. And so I showed them Iganga, the rural town I lived in, and another picture of one of the villages my organization worked in.

We talked about foods – similar and different. We talked about water and the ways people collect it, the dangers they sometimes face.

I have no idea how much of our conversation stuck- the students are seven and eight year olds after all, their reference points are Spongebob Squarepants and Hannah Montanna. One child waved her hand in the air eagerly to ask a question and then earnestly told me about a movie she’d seen with monkeys who were being prodded with an electrical shock device, stole it, and then prodded their captors with it. I smiled and nodded and thanked her for her story.

Another girl, however, with a calm hand raised and a soft shy voice, shared that, “when the water is unclean sometimes you can put it on the fire for five or 10 minutes and then you can drink it.” And I was so pleased all I could do was smile.

Our session on my time in Uganda over, and the school day drawing to a close, I spoke briefly with the teacher who’d so graciously  cleared her afternoon schedule to provide time for me to speak. “The other day we were collecting shoes for orphans,” she shared with me, “and I was explaining to the kids that those kids don’t have shoes and sometimes they only get one meal a day- if that. It is good for them to understand that people live differently than they do in other countries.”

Maybe my message, like her parting comment to me, weren’t clear. I wasn’t sure if she’d soaked in the Kampala cityscape and filed it away with the photograph of the second graders hauling water from a swamp. I’d hoped to convey our similarities at least as much as the ways our worlds seem foreign- for the harsh realities to be balanced by the more beautiful ones. After all, Africa is large, it contains multitudes.

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