I have never been to Africa. Which is not entirely unusual for a middle-class, white girl raised outside of Cincinnati.
When I moved to DC for school, I was hell-bent on saving the world. Bright-eyed and optimistic, I had resolved to major in Peace and Conflict Resolution with an area focus on the Middle East. I knew almost nothing about the Middle East. I had information from a childhood obsession with Egyptology (largely on deities, hieroglyphics, and Cleopatra) and vague musings of Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq from daily news absorption. Yet, I thought that four years of schooling would somehow better enable me to save the world, to act as a peacekeeper in places I knew nothing about, to come in as an outsider and solve all the problems.
It’s funny how things change.
My best friend in college was Egyptian, raised in a small-town in Georgia and a regular visitor to his extended overseas family. This was my first taste of how wrong I was. He was bright and awkward with an obsession with technology. He was a YouTuber who spoke Arabic. He was deeply interested in politics, but he did not need to be saved. His family did not need to be saved.
I took an Arab Studies class where the other kids were even more ignorant than me. They looked at Islam as being something dirty, something tainted. They made lofty assertions about how to change the Middle East, what they would do to improve country X, Y, and Z. They were in their first semester of Arabic and they knew that this word meant this and not that. They spoke of vacations in the UAE and Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the places I had dreamed of going. They knew that the war in the Middle East was really about and they couldn’t believe that we were still fighting for people who were ungrateful and who didn’t want us (as if the presence of our troops was highly desirable).
The longer I spent listening to them, hating them for their words, the more I realized how wrong I was. How I was no better because wasn’t my need to major in the Middle East based upon a false assumption that they needed my help because I knew things? Wasn’t my dream to travel abroad based upon childhood fantasies I had had about archeological digs in the tombs of long-dead pharaohs, to become an Indiana Jones persona? Wasn’t my interest in all of this rooted in the idea that I was somehow better?
By the time I got into my Peace and Conflict Resolution class I was done. I didn’t want to be a white savior. I didn’t want to save the world. I listened to the other girls in the class with me, talking about their trips to Africa and to Israel. They spoke whole-heartedly about the potential for peace and how they were planning to move overseas after they got their Masters in Peacebuilding. We talked about genocide in Kosovo, apartheid in South Africa. We played out mock delegations to arrange treaties between warring nations, very civil and reasonable affairs where both sides were willing to make concessions. And the smiles around the room as the fake treaty was signed off on, full of assurance that this was the right path because that’s how negotiations go between countries, right?
It was that same semester I took one of the best classes of my college career. It was an introduction to sub-Saharan Africa—history, mostly, and its contemporary impact. The professor was what really made it; a South African adjunct who told stories and made jokes and had a realist view on the continent. I loved every minute of that class, from the dense theoretical reading to the excerpts of fiction. It engaged me more than any discussion of Said. The discussion wasn’t just about the pitfalls or dismal conditions, it wasn’t just about corruption and health issues. It was full of life, full of honesty, full of perspectives and cultures from a continent that I had boiled down to the midnight commercials of children with distended stomachs that I could “send to school with pennies a day.”
So, I changed my major. I decided to focus on Development—which had been a solid class. And my area became Africa, a continent I knew next to nothing about, with the decision to try and help out however I could.
I loved studying Development and I loved studying sub-Saharan Africa. I wanted so badly to go there. Every single year I would try to find some organization that would work with my schedule to send me there for a month or two to do some relief work. I wanted to serve abroad. I wanted to serve in the Developing world where I would “really make a difference” by doing hands-on work. I wanted to see the countries that I’d read about, that had reinvigorated my thirst for knowledge. I wanted to be a voluntourist.
I graduated one year ago. I haven’t been to Africa.
I’m in a one-year volunteer program in the states focusing on disaster relief/recovery. My year of service has taught me a lot. It’s taught me to look at the macro-level work, to dissect its micro-impacts so that I can feel that what I’m doing is meaningful. And that’s the issue. I work with a team of volunteers and there’s this common theme that if we aren’t able to see the impact of our work, it somehow means less. It’s not that it means less to those it impacts, but it means less to us. It makes doing the work a chore, like its busywork and pointless. It is hard to motivate a group of volunteers in an office, to convince them that they really are helping when they sit behind computers all day clicking through names and numbers that mean nothing to them.
We expect go to places and to be accepted with open arms in communities. We expect to build things with our hands and to hand food to starving children. We expect to teach non-English speakers our language with a limited vocabulary and a formal dialect. We expect to build wells and improve security at refugee camps. We expect to free women from religious oppression. We expect to teach young boys skills so they won’t become a terrorist. We expect to enter strange places and bring joy with our mere presence. We expect to be thanked.
I am a white girl. I was born middle-class. I was raised outside of Cincinnati. I went to a wealthy, private university. I majored in what I thought would help me do the most good in the world. I offered up eleven-months of my life to work for others. I am privileged. I want to do what little good I can while I’m here.
But I do not know how to build houses or roads. I know how to make a backyard garden in Southern Ohio, but I don’t know how to farm or how to set-up an irrigation system. I want to help sick children, but I don’t know the first thing about medicine. I understand international politics, but I am ill-equipped to improve local democratic processes. I speak French poorly. I’ve never worked with displaced individuals or in “third-world” conditions.
I am an unskilled white girl that desperately wants the chance to save the world.
Do not send me to a country so that I can updated my Facebook profile picture to me holding an African child. Do not send me to have a “cultural experience” so I can ruin someone’s house because I don’t know how to use plaster. Do not send me to do service in a place where I will do more harm than good.
There are some things I know I can do: I am good at organizing volunteers. I am great at research and finding new development opportunities. I can coordinate projects with multiple groups. I work well with non-profits and government agencies. I have a solid understanding of social services and humanitarianism. I understand grassroots development. I value the empowerment of local leaders and communities. I can do good where I am right now.
I still want to save the world in what little way I can. I still want to help people, to make lives easier down the road. I still want to go to Africa someday.
But I don’t have to go to Africa.