Now in its third year, the Kenan Summer Fellows program allows students the opportunity to explore the question of what it means to live an ethical life through independent research and experiential learning. The two students below will be regularly checking in on the status of their projects and reflecting on how their views on their selected issues continue to evolve.
Lara – The Curator
I found the first room with a sign marked African-American Art. It had hardwood floors, solid black walls, and not a single piece of art. This must be some sort of a joke. I looked for a plaque with an artist’s name, an explanation. I was positive the empty room in the museum was a critique of the failure of the mainstream art world to recognize non-white artists. In reality, the empty room was just that, an empty room. The museum was in the midst of changing exhibitions. Nevertheless, the blank walls were stamped in my brain for the rest of the day. Any poet knows better than to let a good metaphor go to waste.
A brief early history of Black Art: First, they say people of color can’t make good art. Maybe they don’t even say it. Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Botticelli. White men. Maybe they dig up a few Ashanti masks. (Without paying, of course.) Black bodies are either used as props or absent entirely.
The similarities with literature are apparent. Western thinkers once assumed that only whites could make capable writers. Only whites could be lovable protagonists. Black culture, language, and history were tokenized and human beings were reduced to tropes; bumbling slave, Uncle Tom, the “Angry Black Woman”.
Today, the art world does a much better job celebrating the rich talents of African American artists. One of my favorite pieces from a recent visit with my family to the Baltimore Museum of Art was Strange Fruit by Alison Saar, a life-size sculpture of a black woman bound by her feet and hung from the ceiling, her naked body contorted in pain. The piece is named after the verse penned by Abel Meeropol and made famous by Billie Holiday:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
The same lines provide a haunting sample for Kanye West’s song “Blood on the Leaves,” one of many references to America’s racist past in his album Yeezus. Though Kanye’s music is rife with critiques of racial and economic inequality, the mainstream media isn’t paying much attention. Kanye is overwhelmingly cast as arrogant and extravagant, famed for songs like “Clique” and “Gold Digger,” while the overtly racial messages of “New Slaves” and “Who Will Survive in America” are often glossed over.
It’s disappointing to see Kanye’s treatment in pop culture; it’s alarming to look at the greater trend. Kendrick Lamar’s album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, is a poignant snapshot of the rapper’s Compton upbringing. It navigates themes ranging from racial profiling to the grounding role of the family. Yet, the two songs from this album that repeatedly get airplay are “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Backstreet Freestyle.” Whenever I hear Top 40 stations playing “Swimming Pools,” which features the line “get a swimming pool full of liquor and you dive in it,” it’s always made out to be a glorification of drinking culture. In fact, the track is Lamar’s contemplation of his relationship with alcohol after a life watching family members “living their life in bottles.” Taken out of the context of the album, the song reduces Kendrick to the trope of a “typical rapper,” concerned with money, sex, and partying. When he loses his vision, he’s at risk of losing his humanity.
It’s important that rappers like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar are in the spotlight, but it’s not enough. The problem in the world of pop music is that, by and large, it’s still primarily white people who are the arbiters of taste. The same goes for the art world; it’s primarily white collectors and critics who decide which black artists have merit, which of their voices get to be heard.
There’s a lesson in this as I begin approaching my interviews here in Alabama: It’s not good enough to just listen to the stories of black communities in Birmingham, write some poems, and bring them back to Durham. You get one room in the museum and Kanye still can’t talk about race.
People need to be heard on their own terms. The ethical curator, whether she’s looking at art, music, or literature, can’t just pick and choose the black voices that work with her preconceived notions of art. She asks, “What stories still need to be told?” “How do you want them written?”
Only then does she pick up a pen.
Caroline – Against Voluntourism
I’ve recently arrived in Uganda for the second summer in a row, and in many ways it feels like coming home again. It’s a very different home from Duke, but the relaxed culture and friendly people make it feel even more welcoming.
Last year through DukeEngage I observed a very interesting cultural phenomenon: the intersection of the rural Ugandan village culture with that of the Western service groups that visited for a few days or weeks at a time. While getting acquainted with the culture, I made mistakes, and so did members of the other groups. Many of us who volunteer genuinely want to serve effectively; many times we just don’t know enough about the culture beforehand to fully understand how to conduct ourselves and our projects. Sometimes our best attempts can even cause more harm than good. In the year since my DukeEngage experience, I’ve wondered whether some of our mistakes could be avoided with more effective training. Which brings me to my current research: studying the ethical training and practices of service groups in Uganda. My goal is to identify differences in training among various types of service groups and areas that need improvement.
My journey back to Uganda took three days, six hours of plane delay, one missed flight, and one lost bag (I’ve been living in one outfit for the past few days), but to me all of these are problems of privilege. I made it here safely, and that’s all I really care about.
I rode in a van with an American service group to our village. All major roads lead to the capital, Kampala, so we had to drive an hour east to the city before heading back west. It’s an inefficient route for sure, but timeliness is a lower priority in Uganda than in America. Their culture is much more rooted in relationships than it is in deadlines, which is something I love about being here.
As our van stopped in a large town for our driver to go to the bathroom, street vendors selling chicken skewers swarmed our van in the dark of night. I felt rude, but my instinct as a young woman told me to ignore them so they would go away. There’s no fair way to buy food from one vendor and not another. Plus since we didn’t know how long the chicken had been sitting out, it was safer to say no to everyone. But the vendors were persistent, knocking on our windows with bright phone flashlights.
I’d experienced the aggressive street vendors last year when traveling through Uganda, but this time they did something else. The vendors put their phones up against the windows and started taking pictures of us. I immediately felt uncomfortable and looked away – but why? After all, we were a van full of muzungus (foreigners, often white people) and we must have looked pretty weird. But the men shoving cameras in our faces, disregarding our lack of consent, made me feel objectified.
Isn’t this what many tourists do all the time? We walk through towns, snapping pictures of anything that is different from our home – buildings, wildlife, and sometimes even people. There’s a reason tourists get a bad rap for being selfish and rude; the majority are focused on their own enjoyment and don’t take the time to fully understand the cultures they visit. But I believe that tourism doesn’t have to be this way. Tourists can learn to behave as guests in others’ countries.
In reflecting on my DukeEngage service work in Uganda, I’ve done a lot of reading and discussion about the growing concept of “voluntourism”—the idea of doing volunteer work in an exotic location. It’s an intriguing way to attract volunteers to hard-to-reach locations. In recent years, the word “voluntourism” has garnered a very negative connotation, and not without reason. Like tourism trips, many voluntourism trips are designed primarily around the tourist’s enjoyment and happiness. Volunteers are assigned a project they can accomplish and feel like they’re making a difference, even if that project is not what the community needs or even wants. Often volunteers snap pictures of starving babies or poorly built houses. Many volunteers lack education about the community’s culture, so they inadvertently disrespect the attire, customs, beliefs, and wishes of the community.
I’ve used the word “voluntourism” in a sneering way to refer to these types of trips. But as Daniela Papi writes in “Is ‘Voluntourism’ Itself Being Exploited?”, the word is not as bad as it seems. Not all “voluntourists” are disrespectful, just like not all tourists are disrespectful. If you respect the community’s culture and pursue sustainable initiatives that the community wants, what does it matter if you’re volunteering in an exotic place or visit a cultural landmark? The problem comes from the fact that many of these voluntourism trips are designed to satisfy the volunteer only, and in doing so facilitate disrespectful behavior and projects. The word “voluntourism” has become a proxy for disrespectful volunteering.
Just as I believe tourists can learn to behave as guests, I believe volunteers can be taught the same—and it might even be easier considering their typical desire to “do good.” Many programs designed around “responsible volunteering” are growing in popularity and strength. But there are still no universally binding guidelines for responsible volunteering or volunteer training, and that’s where I hope my research could one day help.
Lara – Comfort and Confrontation
On Monday afternoon I interviewed Joyce*, who is ordained as a Deacon in a local Episcopal church. During our conversation, we talked about her childhood in the all-black neighborhood of Smithfield, her experiences in the church’s leadership, and the anti-racism activism that has been her life’s work.
Every year, Joyce leads a racial sensitivity training that is mandatory for new members of Alabama’s Episcopal clergy and lay leadership. The majority of the program’s participants are white men, as is her co-chair. Joyce tells me that, after years of running the workshop, they’ve figured out a system for talking about race. “I cover internalized oppression,” she says, “and let him do all the talking about white privilege.”
I nodded in understanding. The white man speaking about race issues to a predominately white audience is easily accepted as benevolent, reasonable, and relatable. He’s empathetic and well meaning, while a black person making the same case might be seen as accusatory and spiteful, unwilling to simply “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”
As Joyce found during her programming, it was much easier getting through to white audiences when they didn’t feel accused of perpetuating racism, when they saw someone who looked like them whose ideas they could start getting behind. Maybe there’s an opportunity for me, as a white ally, to create safe spaces for members of my community to consider their views on race without defensiveness or animosity.
Or maybe that’s the wrong idea.
“It wasn’t a safe space for me. And the whole world is a safe space for them.” That’s Karen*, a member of a local Episcopal Church who had taken part in a workshop similar to Joyce’s. “[The white participants] would push back and argue and the conversation would end. We were hoping they’d listen, but they never seemed to get it.” Karen thought the conversations on race, though an important initiative, had too much of an emphasis on keeping everyone comfortable.
Karen and I spent much of our interview speaking about the years she’s spent fighting to protect the historically black town of Rosedale, where she raised her family. Over the past half a century, local officials have progressively rezoned areas of the town until only 14 of its original 100s of acres remain, leading it to be recently named one of America’s Top 10 “Places in Peril.” “White people,” Karen tells me, “have always been taking our land.” She’s more worried about saving her home than she is about keeping them at ease.
I think back to a seminar class I took the first semester of my first year at Duke, when one of my favorite professors made a comment making light of date-rape and blaming victims for assault. I looked around the class to see if anyone had noticed that my legs had started shaking under the table and that I’d dug my nails into my hands to keep myself from tears. Walking out of class, I brought up the comment with a few classmates. “I think I might send him an email or something,” I said. “My friends shook their heads, telling me not to stir anything up. “It was a messed-up comment,” one said, “but he’s usually so nice.” Another told me to “choose my battles.”
I was dismissed in the conversation because I was too worked up. I was worked up because I am a survivor of sexual assault. And now I was being told to stay quiet so my professor would be more comfortable?
From a strategic standpoint, Joyce is right in acknowledging that we often have trouble changing our minds when we feel antagonized. At least in the short run, it seems people respond best to discussions on race or gender that feel as non-confrontational as possible, and perhaps especially when it’s a member of their “group” doing the talking. At the same time, this strategy can be dangerous when it comes at the cost of silencing someone’s pain.
Perhaps more importantly, however, allowing conversations on race to be dictated by the comfort of their white participants can mean that substantive change comes too slowly. I’m reminded of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.'”
I’ve come to realize that the goal of mitigating racial tension may have different requirements than that of challenging entrenched, systematic racism. The former seems to forbid confrontation, while the latter may demand it.
As I work to turn my interviews into poems, I still don’t know whether my intent should be to hearten my audience or to confront them. I had hoped to wrap up this post with a moral, but I couldn’t decide between a cheerful “Can’t we all just get along?” or a more radical, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” I’m a long way from the knowing the most effective way to talk about race, or the most ethical, or how the two can ever overlap. For now, at least, I’ll let the stories speak for themselves.
*Names have been changed
Caroline – Religion and Faith-based Aid
I was eating lunch in a muzungu restaurant when “Imagine” by John Lennon came on the speakers. Coincidentally, a specific line of this song has been stuck in my head all week: “and no religion too.” Lennon sings about the conflicts caused by religion, and to me, this emphasizes what I’ve been thinking all week: Religion is powerful.
My community partner is a Christian organization. They don’t require employees or volunteers to be Christian, but faith does permeate most of what they do, from staff meetings to school. As a result, the organization attracts many faith-based service groups. Through my interviews here, I’ve found that even some volunteers of secular groups cite religion as a reason for choosing to work with this organization.
While working with this NGO I’ve observed that religion holds tremendous power. Religion is paradoxically both individual and communal; both deeply personal and highly shared. As a community, religion has great power to support its members. Church communities are a generous source of spiritual, emotional, and financial support; last Sunday in the village church I heard requests for wedding funding, and many service groups that travel here fundraised through their churches in America.
This week, I worked with a faith-based volunteer organization from America serving in both religious and secular contexts. One significant incident occurred when I first met the group – one of the first things the group leader asked me was if I was a believer in God. When I said yes (I’m Catholic), she seemed to automatically accept me into the fold. It was as if sharing a common religion gave me credibility to understand and work with the group. I have experienced this phenomenon with my community partner as well. Staff meetings, school fellowship services, weddings, and even the radio constantly feature American worship songs. The fact that I knew many of these songs from my 7 years in church choir gave me automatic credibility within the community.
Sharing a religion goes further than sharing interests or a common background. It automatically assumes shared core values; it implies that two people would inherently understand one another because they share the same beliefs. But then the personal aspect of religion comes in. You can never truly know what a person believes, or how strongly he or she believes it; you can only know what he or she tells you. Case in point: Yes, I’m Catholic, but I don’t believe every Catholic doctrine and I haven’t been to church in a year.
Still, that one profession of my religion carried with it the assumption of everything I believe in. Two questions still nag at me: did I unintentionally overstate my spirituality? And if so, was that wrong? Stating that I was Christian undoubtedly helped me gain the group’s trust to study them for my research. And I nodded along to their descriptions of their mission outreach in Uganda, in what I meant to be objective understanding but what might have come across as accepting agreement.
I wonder now what the group would have thought of me if I had told them I belonged to a different religion, or no religion at all. More than likely, they still would have been completely polite. Many of them had specifically discussed how to interact with people of other religions (while 84% of the Ugandan population identifies as some sort of Christian, there’s another 16% that doesn’t). In their interviews some of them stressed the importance of acceptance: you could talk to people about Christianity, but they ultimately may have different opinions – not better or worse, just different.
Everyone in the service groups I’ve talked to so far has been very tolerant of other religions. But in asking volunteers about their definitions of religious sensitivity, I received a wide variety of responses. Some of the best definitions emphasized not just tolerating people of different religions, but accepting them. One volunteer explained to me that religion can be deeply important to someone’s being, so not acknowledging their religion could be rejecting part of their inherent wholeness.
Maybe one of the problems in the world today is that some of us do okay with religious tolerance, but we don’t quite have enough religious acceptance. I’ve always struggled to understand why religion causes so much conflict, when most religions share the same core values (ironically most of them emphasize peace). We argue so much about specific beliefs or doctrines that we often forget the big picture. I know my views are very unorthodox, but I sincerely believe that all religions are equal – one God, many Gods, or no God – as long as they teach you to be a good person. My religion is my personal choice, and it’s no better than anyone else’s.
You may say I’m a dreamer. But my religion is not the only one.
Lara – Ethnography, Identity, Interrogation
I was driving on I-65, on my way home from downtown Birmingham, where I had just finished the day’s second interview. Over the course of my three weeks in B’ham, I had focused primarily on speaking to older women, but I had occasionally spoken to male community leaders who I thought could provide a unique perspective on my project. On this day in particular, both of my interviewees were men with prominent roles in the Birmingham community and during lunch I found myself in an impromptu conversation about my project with two members of the local Rotary Club, a service organization.
Driving the first few miles, past Vestavia Hills and into the town of Hoover, I was feeling pretty good. I had gotten a great deal of encouragement from both of my interviewees and the men at the BBQ place; they were eager to understand my work in Birmingham and more than willing to engage in discussion about race and economic justice. During my first interview, which was with a historian of the Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement, I stayed after nearly an hour talking about his grandchildren and being shown family photos. He told me I reminded him of his daughter.
But as I merged onto Route 31, my excitement about the day’s interviews started to fade. I began to wonder if the reason why these men responded so well to me, a chipper 18 year-old student, was because they could so easily picture me as a daughter or sister.
Last year, hundreds of women petitioned Barack Obama to stop referring to women as “wives, mothers, and daughters” in his speeches. Though this rhetorical tool can be both effective and well-intentioned, it often indicates a form of empathy that views women solely as they relate to men. When I initially heard about this petition, I thought it brought up an interesting point, but wondered if these descriptors might still prove worthwhile. After all, men continue to make up a large majority of Congress and other pivotal leadership positions; why shouldn’t we appeal to their concern for the women in their lives?
Then, I thought back to so many of the women I had interviewed during my time in Birmingham: the domestic abuse survivor who spent twelve years fighting for legislation to protect Alabama’s women; the public school teacher with students picking through the trash to get enough calories; the victim of housing discrimination so desperate to get her story out that the words collide before they make it out of her throat. My male interviewees of the day could imagine me, a young white woman, as their daughter or sister, but could they view these older black women as their mothers and wives? And, if these women aren’t being listened to as daughters or mothers or sisters, are they being heard at all?
By the time I pulled onto Riverchase Parkway, I was beginning to wonder if the connection I had sensed during the days’ interviews had been less due to my age or gender and more to other commonalities I shared with the men: my patterns of speech, my education level, the color of my skin. Having been raised by two researchers in a predominately white suburb of Washington, DC, I’m conversant in the language of doctors and lawyers and academics. It would be impossible for me to enter this project with the same fluency when talking about poverty or discrimination.
I had, perhaps naively, assumed a sense of solidarity with the older black women I’ve been interviewing, in turn expecting them to trust me with the unadulterated narratives of their experiences. Several weeks into the project, I’m learning to interrogate the inherent role my background plays in my ethnography. In what ways might I change a black woman’s story just by being in the room? Have I been viewing myself as her sister, while really appearing more to her as the white man’s daughter?
Thus far during my project, I’ve found it fairly easy to leverage my position as a student to create conversational spaces with an incredibly diverse group of subjects. Yet, perhaps I’ve been too quick in conflating my access to an array of people with my ability to draw out their full, candid narratives.
I pulled into the driveway of the house where I’ve been staying with family. Red brick, perfectly manicured lawn. No matter how many hours of testimony I collect on my little Sony recorder, this is the only story that really belongs to me.
This post marks my last week in Birmingham. After a brief visit home to Washington, DC, I’ll be getting on a plane to South Africa. As I begin my interviews as an American student in Cape Town, my position as an outsider will be even more on display. In the next phase of my project, I’ll need to constantly reflect on the way my identity influences the stories people tell, and, just as much, the way that I hear them.
Caroline – Cultures of Commitment
This weekend, I attended the wedding of a dear friend I met last year in Uganda. I was excited to support him and to experience a Ugandan wedding for the first time.
Last Thursday was the bride’s introduction ceremony, hosted by her family. It was an all-day affair attended by about 400 people. Although there was some translation into English, the ceremony was mostly performed in the local language. After ritual displays of respect and negotiation over the dowry, both families accepted the marriage. Then groups of “brides” danced in for the groom to find his fiancé. The actual bride did not appear until with the third group of women, an exercise to teach the groom patience. Local performers filled the ceremony with lip-syncing and dancing. After a huge lunch, engagement rings were exchanged and the cultural marriage certificate was signed.
On Saturday, the wedding was held in a church. Like the introduction, the wedding was held on “African time”— a.k.a. two hours after I showed up at the announced time. After the bride processed in with all of her family and friends, we heard many welcoming songs by different worship and dance groups. The chairmen of the wedding announced the program and welcomed distinguished guests like the family of the bride and groom, local leaders, and “our special guests of a different skin.” Then came the vows, at which time everyone with cameras came up front to crowd around the bride and groom. After another song and a long sermon, the bride and groom signed the legal marriage certificate. The whole ceremony, which took about three hours, was punctuated by references to the bishop who had just died and whose funeral would be held in the church immediately after the ceremony. At the end, the bride and groom were whisked away for pictures and the reception.
When my family at home asked me what the wedding weekend was like, I summarized it as beautiful and different.
I realize that sometimes I see most easily the differences between American and Ugandan culture. There are many aspects of Ugandan culture that I like more: the focus on relationships, the lax view on time. When in Uganda, I’ve tended to adopt a very critical view of American culture in favor of Ugandan culture. Still, whether I see these aspects as better or worse, they are still different.
Differences seem to stick out more, whereas sometimes we don’t notice the similarities because they just seem normal. So it’s easy to view a culture as entirely different, just because we haven’t consciously identified the myriad similarities.
Though there are many differences in the wedding traditions, there are many more similarities. The wedding is still a special day, the bride is still the most beautiful woman in the room, there are still invitations and bridesmaid dresses and flowers and cake. And more importantly, there is still love and respect and commitment.
The same is true of Ugandan culture in general. Children still play and go to school, adults still work, people still value their families and friends and beliefs. My friends here still laugh, fight, dance, smile, love. We’re the same. Our similarities don’t need to be qualified by recognition of our differences. It feels to me like we’re all just humans sharing common joys and struggles in a global world.
Lara – Birmingham to Cape Town
The (Un)learning Curve
After 26 hours, three airports, and one re-routed piece of luggage, I had finally arrived in Cape Town. I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac, immediately regretting the brown pair of Birkenstock sandals as my (now, only) choice of footwear. Lesson one: in South Africa, July is the coldest month of the year.
Over the next 24 hours, I would be in for even more schooling. The off-position of a light-switch here is down instead of up and the steering wheel is on what should be the passenger side of the car. My host mother, a delightfully energetic art teacher of English descent, has been thoroughly amused by my confusion. I’m told that Mitzy, the black and white cat who roams around inside my house, is feral. Harold the tortoise, on the other hand, is my host family’s beloved pet, with free reign to wander the gardens and swim in the pool.
I’ve been here about a day, and I can tell that I’m in for a lot of relearning. After spending three weeks conducting interviews in Birmingham, Alabama, I thought I was really beginning to understand racism and poverty. As it turns out, my familiarity with American racism and American poverty may actually hinder my ability to truly understand the same forces in South Africa.
For instance, ask any South African about race, and they’ll likely name four groups: white, Indian, black, and colored. Blacks, who make up about 79% of the South African population, are considered a distinct ethnic group from coloreds (9%), who possess ancestry from Europe, Asia, and various tribes of Southern Africa. Under apartheid, in which blacks were completely disenfranchised, colored South Africans were given limited voting rights and were relegated to an economic position below whites but above blacks. Having just arrived in South Africa, I have little idea how these distinctions have colored the nation’s complex racial tensions.
Last night, I met up after dinner with my friend Justin, who is spending the summer in Cape Town interning with South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union. On recommendation from my host brother, we went to see a performance by a group of local electronic dance music (EDM) artists like Hyphen and Jak Skandi. Justin, who by South African standards is considered black, was stopped at the door. “Where are you from?” The bouncer asked, “You must be from Congo. I can see it.” Justin laughed it off, but the bouncer was only satisfied once I pointed at my Duke ID and Justin’s blue baseball cap. “It’s a university in the United States,” we told him.
I later realized that Justin, an American, and the bouncer, were the only two black people I saw the entire time at the venue. The majority of the crowd was white, and the only colored people I saw hung out almost exclusively with each other. In the U.S., I would have at least known where to begin unpacking the scene to understand the racial dynamic. I’d have drawn assumptions about everything from the neighborhood to the style of music to people’s form of dress. In Cape Town, I’m not able to rely on such clues.
In traditional mindfulness practice, there’s a principle called “Beginner’s Mind.” It’s a way of observing the world without reliance on past patterns of knowledge, as if every moment is completely new, the way it might be for a young child.
As I begin recording the testimonies of women and community leaders here in Cape Town, I have to remember that, in many ways, I’m starting completely from scratch. This is one of the biggest differences between my ethnographic interviews in Alabama and here in Cape Town; in the former, I’m at least partially entwined in every story. Though I can’t truly understand the lives of my subjects in Birmingham, I nonetheless entered each interview with an understanding of American culture, albeit from a different angle.
In South Africa, on the other hand, I’m a total outsider. I’ve yet to discover how this positioning will play out as I interact with my subjects. Will my identity as a foreigner allow me to understand race-relations in South Africa as a detached observer? Or will the advantages granted to me by my wealth, education, and skin color distance me even further from South Africans that continue to feel the effects of apartheid?
During the time I spent in Birmingham, I learned an incredible amount about race and economic justice. And now, for the next few weeks, I plan to unlearn it entirely. As they say in Zulu, Sawubona. Hello, Cape Town. I’m ready to dive in.
Caroline – Violence in Context
Walking around my rural village in western Uganda, I feel welcomed, at ease, and safe. Aside from a few robberies, the village rarely has much crime – much less tribal violence. So when I found out about the July 5 attacks in Kasese, it was a huge reminder that Uganda is not all as peaceful as I believe. I’ve heard many times about turmoil in the north, but this news hit close to home – this weekend I was planning on traveling to Queen Elizabeth National Park, passing right through Kasese.
Needless to say, I’ve postponed my safari plans. But in the meantime, I’ve been scouring the newspapers to determine what happened and when the area will be safe. I’ve been pondering all week how to accurately and comprehensively explain the attacks in this post, but each day I became even more confused. By the end of the week, I came to this conclusion: I honestly have no idea what’s going on.
On Tuesday, July 8, the newspaper announced that several groups had attacked police stations, military barracks, and a palace in several towns near Kasese in western Uganda. It reported that 85 people had died and the attackers had stolen 22 guns. The attackers, “armed with guns, pangas, spears, bows and arrows,” were speculated to be army veterans. Others suspected the attacks were caused by the Mai Mai tribal militia from Congo, who apparently fight using witchcraft and anti-bullet herbs.
On Wednesday, the death toll had risen to 98 (or only 65, depending on which article I read). In the absence of a definitive culprit, President Museveni accused several groups: he blamed the security forces for not identifying the attacks earlier; he blamed the regional king and followers for not respecting other ethnic groups; he blamed past leaders for encouraging chauvinism and tribal division. One article attributed the attacks to the Mai Mai from DRC; another statement definitively said it was the rivalry between the Bamba and Bakonzo ethnic tribes.
On Thursday, it was reported that apparently only eleven guns had been stolen, not 22. This day’s consensus was that the attacks were caused by “ethnic tensions among the Bakonzo, Bamba, Basongora, and Banyabindi ethnic groups.” Another article claimed the tensions were more complex, involving further divisions into the Bakonzo Basongora, Bakonzo Baghendera, and Bakonzo Banyangetse.
And on Friday, as I write this, the newspaper says that several Kasese leaders have been arrested for knowing about the attacks. Now the defense minister is blaming the attacks on “an alleged struggle for liberation of the Bakonzo people from oppression by the Bamba.”
After reading all this, do you have any idea what’s going on? Me neither.
As a naturally curious Duke student, it’s extremely difficult for me that I just can’t comprehend what’s going on. In America, CNN would be updating me with every breaking discovery. But in rural Uganda, I only have a couple articles in the daily newspaper from which to glean the motivation behind the attacks. This information is clearly incomplete, understandably so because of the logistical difficulties of reporting rural news in the developing world. And official statements from Museveni’s government make it even harder to distinguish between truth and political rhetoric. Constantly placing blame on various institutions and ethnic groups only serves to exacerbate tensions and raise the likelihood of continued violence.
But I suspect that the problem in my personal understanding is deeper than Uganda’s information systems. Even if the newspapers could tell me all the facts, I have minimal context to understand the different ethnic relations. It’s reminiscent of colonialism, when European powers split up Uganda and other African countries based on arbitrary borders, disregarding the existing ethnic divisions. Like the colonial British, I have come in here with my white privilege as an outsider. I’ve tried to understand, but the truth is that there are so many subtleties in language, culture, and ethnic histories that are so foreign to me. No matter how much I continue to learn about these subtleties, I’ll never be as well-equipped to understand the tensions as a native Ugandan who grew up surrounded by these ethnic divisions every day.
I may learn more facts about the attacks by the time this post is published. Still, I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand the different power struggles that (possibly) motivated the attacks. It’s one of the hard parts about accepting that even though I’m comfortable in my village, I’m still an outsider.
Lara – Giving a Narrative Humanity
Abu finds me at our meeting place and greets me with a smile. He’s wearing a dark green sweater and a white taqiyah. He gestures to the cap. “I’d take you for coffee,” he explains, “but it’s Ramadan. Let’s walk.” We spend the next two hours meandering from Tennant Road to De Waal Street, the area known to all Capetownians as District Six.
“We used to all live here in harmony,” Abu tells me. “Muslims, Christians, Jews. You could be black, colored, Chinese, Indian—it didn’t matter. We all got along.” Located in the heart of Cape Town, District Six had a legacy as one of the city’s most vibrant areas, home to musicians, artists, and writers like Abdullah Ibrahim, Gregoire Boonzaier, and Richard Rive. Abu is a former resident of the area who has spent the years since his retirement volunteering at the District Six Museum, where he often shares his stories with visitors.
As we cross the street, we see a group of men and women in traditional Islamic garb walking to their cars. “They’ve just come from the Gaza march,” he tells me, his eyes filling with pain. “It’s a terrible tragedy.” I think of the recent headlines. Ceasefire Rejected. Hamas Accused of Using Civilians as Human Shields. IDF Launches Ground Invasion. I stare at the pavement. We continue walking.
As we walk around, Abu points to the plots that used to be his grandfather’s home, his favorite barbershop, places he used to spend time with his friends. “These used to be row after row of houses, and now look. Car park after car park.” He wants me to write a poem about the parking lots.
In 1966, the passage of the Group Areas Act declared District Six a white-only area. The government began removing residents in 1968, and by 1982, over 60,000 people had been moved to the Cape Flats Township, 25 km away. When he lived in District Six, Abu could walk to work in 10 minutes. After the relocation, the bus took him an hour and a half each direction. “This,” Abu tells me, “once was seven blocks of houses.” It’s now a Best Western with high, white walls.
Though he told only a small part of his personal story, Abu taught me more about District Six than I could ever hope to learn from statistics and headlines. We talked about his love of singing, his four children, and the keys to an easy fast. He told me of gangs on the street corners, jazz concerts, and curry stews.
Towards the end of our walk Abu takes me to site of his childhood home. It’s now just a field. When I ask him to pose for a picture, he paces the plot until he’s gotten the exact spot. This piece of land was the bedroom. This is where the kitchen would stand.
Around the next corner, we see another group coming from the march. Abu stares at the ground. “A horrible injustice,” he says.
When I was about six years old, my Bubbe began the tradition of sitting all four grandchildren around a large wood table and showing us faded photographs of our great-grandfathers and great-great grandmothers in Europe. L’Dor V’Dor. From generation to generation. When I was fifteen, we got in a fight that left both of us in tears.
“How can you talk about every Palestinian like they all think the same?” I asked her “Even the children?”
“In Gaza they teach hate in their schools,” she replied sadly. It’s a way of thinking not uncommon to my older Jewish relatives. “When Israeli children die,” one charged, “the Arabs dance in the streets.”
Last night, along with photos of Table Mountain and Camps Bay, I posted a status on Facebook for all my loved ones at home:
I’m in South Africa, but tonight my mind is in Israel. Several friends have asked me my thoughts on the situation, so here goes.
The best thing I know how to say is that most Israelis and Palestinians alike want nothing more than peace. They want to be able to feed their families; they want to know that their children are safe. When your life is in danger, this is very easy to forget. It becomes easy to think that every Palestinian is Hamas, that every Israeli is cheering attacks on innocent children. And hatred is born in these single stories… Every perspective has an entire life behind it, often one full of fear and suffering we can only begin to understand.
Though I wasn’t thinking about moments like my walk with Abu when I wrote that, it reflects the hope I’ve held at the root of this project. It’s a sense that among headlines and statistics of extremism and cruelty, it’s really the tangled, personal stories that ultimately matter. When we sit down over a cup of coffee and listen to people talk about their communities, their dreams for their children, even their favorite meals, they come alive in us. We begin to see their spirit, their compassion, and their brokenness. We catch a glimpse of the things they carry. We remember that they’re human.
I begin to think of what Gaza and the West Bank would look like if every Israeli spent an afternoon listening to a single Palestinian story and vice versa. I start to wonder what it would be like if these were the stories featured on CNN and Al Jazeera instead of bloody headlines that often serve as our only narrative.
Abu and I end our walk and sit at a local coffee shop, where he doesn’t order anything. He beams at me through his plastic sunglasses and I thank him for the tour. Abu did more than explain the injustice of District Six—he brought it to life. When we say goodbye, he points to another parking lot, as if reminding me of my promise: Tell this tragedy with the humanity it deserves.
Caroline – Cultural Relativism and Rights
I spent last summer in Uganda teaching primary 3 math. My experience was no piece of cake, and one of my biggest frustrations was the style of teaching. The students were taught to memorize words and facts rather than synthesizing information or thinking critically. They could parrot words back to the teacher, but that didn’t mean they understood what those words meant. When I tried to teach broader concepts or critical thinking exercises, the students didn’t understand because they weren’t used to it.
After reflecting on the fact that two months was not a long enough period to make a lasting change, I started to think: who says it needs to change? Who am I to come in saying my way is better? Maybe the system was producing results, but I just couldn’t see them because they weren’t the type of results to which I was accustomed. Regardless, I wasn’t the person to change the Ugandan education system—a native Ugandan was. By the end of the summer, I believed there was nothing “wrong” with Ugandan education, just different. Furthermore, I emphatically believed that there was nothing “wrong” with Uganda in general.
This year, however, a couple of issues have challenged that perception.
Several volunteers complained to me about improper childcare techniques at a local orphanage. The house mothers had cut the nipples on the bottles so that the babies would drink faster and propped the bottles in their cribs. The babies were too young to feed themselves and the end result was that most of the formula dribbled out of their mouths, or they ate too quickly and projectile vomited. The babies were also only changed once a day because of limited diapers, bathed in water with feces, and never burped after feeding. All of these practices were simply done to save time or money and the house mothers didn’t realize that they’re medically harmful.
And as I’ve interviewed volunteers working at several different primary schools, many expressed frustration to me at the use of corporal punishment. Unlike American schools, which utilize verbal punishment and revocation of privileges, the most common Ugandan consequence is caning. In one service group, this spurred an argument between volunteers who believed that caning was just an unfortunate cultural practice they had to respect and those who believed it was fundamentally and morally wrong.
These two issues standing before me are more than just questions of which practice is “proper” or “right;” they are questions of whether there even exists a “proper” or “right.” Academically, I understand the concept of cultural relativism, that you can’t judge a practice by another culture’s morals. But after seeing and hearing about this in person, it makes me wonder whether there aren’t universal truths. Does medical evidence make one practice right? (And does that make a conflicting practice wrong?) Do you have a fundamental human right to the safety of your body?
At the same time, I can’t pretend to consider these two issues outside the larger context of cultural relativism. What about female genital mutilation, a medical horror in the western world but a sacred ritual in parts of Africa? What about gender roles? What about genocide?
I’m still loath to say that any practice is fundamentally wrong. I’d be more inclined to say that better practices exist; that there are healthier ways of feeding babies and more effective ways of disciplining students. But even I can see that’s clearly a cop-out.
I feel a lot of pressure to take a definitive stance on these types of issues—especially since I’m evaluating how volunteer groups respond to them. I almost feel like a fraud, presenting myself as some sort of expert on service ethics when clearly I don’t know all the answers. Many times I doubt my own authority to conduct this type of research; I’m just a college student who still makes mistakes interacting with the community. And who am I to deem certain behaviors or views “right” or “wrong”? Like the issues I face in my community, the issues within my research seem to become more relative as I delve deeper.
Lara – Politics in South Africa
You can take the girl out of DC, but you can’t take the DC out of the girl.
As a DC-area native and a Political Science major, I find myself listening compulsively to any line of conversation that mentions politics in any form. Here in Cape Town, that means listening closely for any mention of Jacob Zuma, Julius Malema, and other high-profile politicians as well as any talk of “housing lists” or “Black Diamonds,” a term referring to the black elite who profited enormously from post-apartheid business opportunities.
In the two weeks I’ve been in South Africa, I’ve had maybe a dozen conversations that touched on President Zuma’s tenure in office. The criticisms of Zuma, I noticed, generally fell into two categories. The first was one of disappointment. The ANC makes big promises but doesn’t deliver. The second blamed the country’s economic woes on government handouts. They give these people houses, and a check, without teaching them to work. It makes them lazy.
In the few discussions I’ve had, I’ve found that the latter criticism come from whites, coloreds, and blacks from other African countries. The main group that is referenced in this manner as “lazy,” are South Africa-born blacks, who make up the core of the African National Congress (ANC) voters. They’re also the group with the clearest historical legacy of disadvantage. One of my interviewees, an older white man, told me the other day, “Every day I get a slip in my mailbox reading ‘House boy for hire. Hard worker. Honest and reliable. Every one of them is from Malawi or Zimbabwe.” He went on to discuss the cultural problems plaguing poor, black, South Africans.
My response was visceral and immediate. My mind swirled with charges of callousness and misunderstanding. Unemployment here is above 20%. That’s a structural failing. It’s a legacy of apartheid, not just black laziness. I found it shocking that my interviewee, a man heavily involved in economic justice work, could make such an allegation.
I think back to the dialogue on race between New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait and The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. In discussing the position of American blacks, Chait describes a “cultural residue” of oppression that “itself became an impediment to success” for blacks. Coates’s response raises the possibility that a concern with “black culture” reinforces racist stereotypes while misplacing the blame for systematic inequality.
“There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself.”
Arguably, the apartheid system came about in South Africa as a way of protecting working-class Whites. By limiting the positions and wages available to Non-Whites, the National Party could guarantee that even the poorest Whites would have steady employment over Blacks, Coloreds, and Indians. South Africa’s formal racial segregation didn’t just force Non-Whites into chronic poverty by legislating income inequality; it also made certain that Blacks would be last in line for available jobs. Thus, Blacks disproportionately faced decades of structural, race-based unemployment, a legacy the South African government is still struggling with today.
I began to wonder if the line that had sounded to me like the “black culture” critique was actually a criticism of the ANC’s shallow treatment of this legacy. It’s not enough to build houses. You need to fix our broken schools and broken spirits. For so long, South Africa has had an economy that’s been off limits to blacks. Perhaps the complaint was not that the ANC was coddling their core constituency, but rather misunderstanding the depth of apartheid’s harm to them. Had my interviewee been a Birmingham native talking about the position of American blacks, I might have had an idea of his overall ideology on race. But in Cape Town, I couldn’t say.
Last spring around graduation, my friends and I started joking that at least half of Duke students would eventually have a job in “consulting.” In every field our university produces the nation’s elite troubleshooters, prepared to offer critical analysis of any situation. Sometimes, it can seem like we’re all fluent in a different language of “this is where we’re going wrong.” My bugs: politics, race, language, gender. PC Police in Training.
I remember a conversation on sexism in South Africa I had with a white woman who has a career in the field of Gender Violence Prevention. We were discussing President Zuma’s acquittal on charges of rape several years prior to his election. “She was wearing a wrap, so of course she was asking for it.” She went on with disdain. “You know Zuma has five wives and loads of children. But his people love him.” My mind raced. I was at once saddened by the rape trial and irritated at this woman’s contempt for Zulu culture. And I was upset with myself. I had been there two weeks and already felt it was my place to identify flaws in South African culture.
Nancy Andreasen, a leading neurologist focused on the study of creativity, writes that “the essence of creativity is making connections.” Looking at Cape Town after studying political theory and American race-relations has unlocked new texture. But I’ve found this framework can be restrictive when I attempt to shoehorn a new encounter into a preexisting paradigm.
As I conduct my final week of interviews in South Africa, I hope to keep that balance in mind, using my background to draw connections rather than make judgments. My understanding of Cape Town gains dimension when viewed through a critical lens—as long I’m sure it’s not used uncritically.
Caroline – Dependency and Sustainability
This weekend, I went on safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park. I thought it would be a relaxing escape from some of the awkward disparities that plague my village experience, but I thought wrong.
On Saturday afternoon, I went on a boat safari on the Kazinga Channel, a stretch of water connecting Lake George and Lake Edward. I posed my camera’s 300 mm lens at the vast array of wildlife: elephants, hippos, water buffalo, crocodiles, and numerous bird species. But as we reached the end of the channel, we started to pass local Ugandans doing laundry and bathing. We were entering a Kazinga fishing village. I immediately put down my camera and it took me a few minutes to get over the shock that we were literally floating into these people’s village, as if they were the animals themselves. But as a parade of young locals ran down to the water, I wondered: were they the attraction, or were we? A villager pulled out an iPhone, giving me the same sense of discomfort as when men tried to photograph us in our van as we drove from the airport.
Then a boy jumped into the water and began to shake his hips and dance. The children around him laughed as he shouted, “Pay me! Pay me!” To him, we were just a boat full of foreigners with money in our pockets – after all, he was right.
This brought me back to one of my constant struggles within the village. Children walking home from school ask me nearly every day for my bag, my water bottle, pens, money, the shoes on my feet. Sometimes adults even ask me for money or to buy things for them.
I always say no.
Maybe I’m being mean. After all, I could easily buy another bag in America, or spare 40 cents for a hungry child. But I know the problems these free handouts cause. First of all, there’s no way to distribute money or goods fairly to children I pass on the street, creating jealousy and conflict. More importantly, giving gifts carelessly creates an expectation, and even a dependency, on those gifts. Dependency culture, as it is called, reduces communities’ motivation and ability to develop sustainably on their own.
Most volunteer groups I’ve interviewed so far also understand these implications, so many of them have policies against giving gifts to strangers. Still, many volunteers have told me that refusing people who ask them for gifts is one of the most difficult situations they encounter.
The main reason I don’t give gifts is because I want to create relationships based on communication and trust rather than gifts. In most cases, I believe I’ve succeeded. But recently, every time I see my favorite child, he asks me to give him my bag when I go back to America. Two days ago, he wrote me a note: “Caroline I love you and miss you. Leave me bag and pen and bottle.”
If it had been a random child on the street, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But this was my favorite former student, a boy I with whom I built a relationship and have sponsored for a year. I was hurt; I thought my friendship meant more to him than my possessions.
Then again, can I blame him? He’s grown up his entire life in an orphanage, with groups of volunteers stopping in for a few days or weeks at a time. After experiencing volunteers leaving over and over, these children can never expect to see the volunteers return again, but they can count on receiving gifts when they leave. I stayed for two months, but then I left, just like everyone else. I thought staying for a longer time was better, but maybe it’s worse – the children get more attached, and then leaving is even harder on them.
What kind of relationships have we, the voluntourists of the developed world, built with these community members? Are my favorite child’s gift expectations the result of my behavior, or that of seven years of volunteers in his life before me? And here’s the sad truth: I did bring a shirt and sweatshirt especially for him. I know I shouldn’t give gifts to just one child, but he is a child I plan on sponsoring and mentoring through university, so that warrants me an exception, right? Or am I actually reinforcing these same behaviors I’m trying to avoid?
Lara – Life in the Townships
The drive from my house in Cape Town to the international airport takes us past the townships of Langa and Guguletu. In just a few minutes on that stretch of road the landscape becomes unrecognizable, as suburban communities turn into line after line of row houses and then, at last, into a jungle of corrugated steel. Whole families crowd into shacks smaller than my freshman year dorm room, crooked slabs of metal cut from shipping containers and fashioned into homes.
I’ve met several groups of American tourists and other students spending time in Cape Town. After we chat about Table Mountain, Bo Kaap, and Robben Island, I suggest they take a tour of the townships, or shantytowns, that surround the city. It’s a piece of advice I’d gotten from my best friend, Marni, who had visited Cape Town the summer after 6th grade. She still remembers Khayelitsha vividly.
While most Americans opt to view the townships through an organized tour led by a local resident, my first (and only) trip into the heart of Nyanga was for an interview with Nomahomba Sixoka, or Mama Beauty, who runs an Early Childhood Development Center called Abahlobo Crèche. I was introduced to Mama Beauty by Anthony Ryan, the executive director of Lerato’s Hope, a Christian non-profit organization that serves families affected by HIV and AIDS in Cape Town’s townships. Mr. Ryan kindly offered to let me tag along as his family delivered donations to the crèche on Mandela Day, a national day of service.
On our way to the school, he explained that members of Lerato’s Hope only venture into the townships in the car emblazoned with the organization’s logo “because the people know it is bringing the children food.” His daughter Hannah, who coordinates volunteers for the NGO, tells me that several years ago the family car was bombarded on the way home from Beautiful Gate, a home for children with HIV/AIDS. “There were bullet holes here, here, and here,” Mr. Ryan points. “It’s a blessing none of the girls were hurt.”
When we get to the Abahlobo, children swarm the familiar car, smiles bright. As we open the trunk, children as young as three wander over to help carry in cans of beans and bags of school supplies. They stand in a neat line as Hannah hands out bright red goodie bags filled with nuts, sweets, and fresh fruit. We snap photos of their smiling faces to send back to the donors.
As the children eat their oranges in silence, Mama Beauty and I slip off to the side room. She answers my questions haltingly, in a thick Xhosa accent. She tells me about moving to the Western Cape as a single mother, about her fear when her daughters became sick with tuberculosis, and about her sense of duty when she fed the first hungry child who showed up at her door. Mama Beauty, Mr. Ryan had told me, went from feeding a handful of hungry children to running a school that often cares for more than 60.
Before we leave, Mama Beauty gathers the children to sing for us. They clap and dance and lose their pitch, like any pre-schoolers would, though they sing in Xhosa rather than English. The Ryans and I applaud, and the children grin from across the room. As we load into the car, I notice heads turning to stare at Hannah and me. I’m suddenly aware of my blonde hair, my leather bag, the phone in my pocket.
I came home from Nyanga with my mind spinning. My afternoon in the township had filled my head with images of destitution and triumph. 400 people sharing a single water spigot. Violence, drug use, disease. And Mama Beauty’s little haven, among the mess. With what I’d gotten on my tape recorder and camera, I was sure to write one hell of a poem.
Last night, I was flipping through the pictures I’d taken during my three weeks in Cape Town. There’s one of me posing with a seal in Hout Bay, another on a hike in front of Lion’s Head. And just before the selfie I snapped at the Mount Nelson, there’s a blurry photo, taken through a windshield. Mile after mile of steel jungle.
No matter how powerful my experience was in the townships, I’ll never have anything more than a collection of snapshots. Seeing Nyanga brought me a sense of shame, duty, and awe, but it’s a memory that I’ll file away rather than a life that’s always with me. When I write about Mama Beauty, about the townships of Cape Town, I’m telling the story of a place I can’t even enter unaccompanied. I’m telling a story that came alive for me just long enough to record it and bring it home, one whose language I cannot speak, whose texture I’ll never fully capture.
On the plane from Johannesburg to DC I flip again through the photos saved to my phone. Hout Bay. The Mount Nelson Selfie. If I stare long enough at the photo of Nyanga, I can almost hear the children sing.
Caroline – Views from the Community
At the final stage of my research, I’m interviewing community members who worked with each of the service groups I’ve studied. This is, in my opinion, the most important part of my research. It doesn’t really matter if a privileged white girl from an American university thinks each service group is acting appropriately; what matters is whether the community feels they are being treated with respect and dignity.
The responses so far have been overwhelmingly positive. Every service group has come in well prepared, needed minimal supervision, treated the community with respect, dressed appropriately, and taken photos at proper times. Every group went above and beyond; no group had any problems. Which means that either these volunteers are all amazingly perfect, or the community members are telling me what they think I want to hear.
Nobody’s perfect, so I’m leaning towards the latter. So why aren’t the community members being completely honest with me?
Maybe they’re afraid of the consequences of criticizing a service group – consequences that could come from their local NGO or the service group itself. I’ve tried to avoid this problem by emphasizing that nothing they say can be linked back to them individually.
Maybe they think that I’m associated with the service group, and they don’t want to get in trouble or offend me. Again, I’ve specifically stated that I’m not associated with any of the groups or their local NGO. But I worry that my skin color automatically associates me with muzungus, volunteers, outsiders. My background as a volunteer has helped me extract honest responses from the service groups in interviews – it could be doing the exact opposite here.
Maybe they’ve developed such positive relationships with the volunteers that they’re willing to overlook any minor act of disrespect. Maybe they give volunteers the benefit of the doubt just because they’re outsiders and don’t know any better. Maybe my questions are too simplistic. Maybe I didn’t get to know them well enough so that they can trust me. Maybe being polite and not speaking ill of others is just a cultural norm.
Maybe some of them are looking at the big picture: the financial impact of volunteers is so great that it’s worth any disrespect that may come with it. In addition to bringing donations and funding for projects, volunteers are eager consumers of food, lodging, and souvenirs. Because of the financial benefit, some communities may welcome volunteers even if they aren’t helpful – or worse, even if they’re harmful.
This is not a new concern. It’s one shared by DukeEngage as they survey community partners on the impact of students. Ask any community whether they would like to continue working with DukeEngage students, and most will say yes. It’s hard to distinguish whether that “yes” is because the students were actually helpful, or whether it’s more to do with the financial benefits or prestige of working with a major university.
As I analyze all these reasons for community members to respond dishonestly, I wonder if I’m the one being disrespectful. In doubting their honesty, am I implying that they’re not powerful enough, or educated enough, or moral enough to tell the truth? Why should I doubt them any more than I doubt the service groups I’ve interviewed? If they say the service groups are respectful and helpful and appropriate, then they probably actually are. Maybe everything is perfectly fine with the service groups in this community, and my entire research project is founded on my overreaction. And then that brings in the deeper issue that has been nagging me since I planned this project: my community partner never identified service group behavior as an issue. I did. So will my research be useful at all?
Lara – Writing and Capturing Memories
I stared at the Word document on my screen. It was already past 11 and the page was still mockingly white. In the week I’d been home from South Africa I had been coming up totally dry; my poems were unreadable, my essays had nothing to say. Writers block.
With the few scrawny lines of text blurring in front of me, I thought of the task at hand. Write poems about race in America. Better yet, write poems about race in Africa, too. My whole summer had led me to this stupid, blank screen. Write something that matters.
Before I left for Birmingham, I was lucky enough to have lunch with Kane Smego and G Yamazawa, slam poets who both hail from the triangle area. Kane had recently finished a project called Poetic Portraits of a Revolution in which he traveled to Tunisia and Egypt along with two other poets in order to profile the Arab Spring through spoken word. G was in the midst of planning a trip to visit his family in Japan, a pilgrimage I suspected would inspire another round of his vivid, thoughtful pieces on Asian-American identity. My knee bounced as we ate our bagels and I peppered them with questions. We talked about connecting with our subjects, about telling someone else’s story, about giving back to the communities we work with. Eventually, blushing, I asked, “Do you have any suggestions about, uh, the actual writing?”
They laughed and exchanged a look. “Don’t get it right,” G grinned, “get it written.”
I closed my laptop. It was clear that this was not the night I’d write the blog post to fix America’s race problem or the prejudice-shattering slam poem that goes viral. Still, I needed to write something. I grabbed my backpack to get my journal, where I write everything that doesn’t have a deadline. The green canvas bag was soaked through, probably from a leaking water bottle. I pulled out my black moleskine notebook. It was damp.
From the way I gasped, my parents must have thought I was physically hurt, and they came rushing over. We surveyed the damage. My notebook looked like the bottom right corner had been dipped in watercolor paint. Months of writing, in blues, greens, and pinks, danced together in a gruesome chromatography, a tie-tie tumor that turned paragraph after paragraph into vibrant, indecipherable splotches.
Sitting on the hardwood floor, with my cheeks hot and tears burning at my eyes, I bent over the journal. I had lost the bottom eighth of every page. A bright pink stain where there had once been thoughts about my first interview in Birmingham. A green and blue cauliflower where I had written about Nyanga.
I flipped gingerly through the soggy pages, taking stock of everything I’d written. Since I’d started the notebook, at the beginning of the summer, I’d filled 157 pages. There are doodles, to-do lists, notes scribbled during my interviews. There’s the first version of these blog posts, notes to self, drafted poems about parking lots, single mothers, and mince-meat pies. There’s Eileen’s kitchen table, where she shows me newspaper clippings and I give her computer lessons. There’s the scent of frying samosas in Davinia’s kitchen, where her stories of anti-apartheid marches blend with the sound of bubbling oil.
I realize it’s not a moral or perfect phrasing I need for my poems, but these flickering, precarious images. It’s these moments, suspended in ink, over which I feel like a guardian. There’s a certain ink-blotness of time, a blurring that seeps in from the edges. Decades leak like open water bottles, memories fade to pinks and oranges. Stories of the past warp and whither, from time or misspellings or the solubility of ink.
Taniya looks at me, hard, from across the table at the hotel bar. These are the things I need you to tell. Even without much to say for myself, my notebook, ugly and smeared, is full of stories that beckon. I’m a collector, a preservationist.
I flip again through my notebook, pressing the pages back into place. I pick up a pen, then open to a fresh, white page.
Caroline – The Power of People
On Friday, my last day in Uganda, the sun seemed to set in less than a minute. Like the fleeting sunset, my eight short weeks here seemed to pass quicker than I could blink.
My last day was an emotional day of highs and lows. The high was saying goodbye to one of my coworkers who was studying to be a lawyer. Before I left, I told her that my father, also a lawyer, had agreed to sponsor her 1.5 year bar course so that she could earn her license. She shrieked and we both cried tears of joy. I was touched by how important education and helping others were to her, especially setting an example as the eldest child in her family.
The low was saying goodbye to the children at the orphanage I have grown to love. One of my favorite kids hugged me so tightly that neither of us let go for five minutes, stopping only when the house mothers called for bath time. Other children didn’t understand and asked me if I was coming back tomorrow. Every time I had to repeat that I was going back to America and didn’t know when I was coming back, it broke my heart and theirs.
Wrapping up naturally makes me reflect on the impact of my time in Uganda. When I think of the crying children we left behind, I can’t help but wonder about the impact of having service groups love them for days or months at a time and then leave. Many of these children have already lost parents; are we just compounding their feelings of being left behind? In America we would probably categorize these as trust or abandonment issues; due to the severe impact of HIV in Uganda, it’s often just called life. Is it truly better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?
On the other hand, I see the huge positive impact my father’s sponsorship will have on my coworker. As her grandmother told her, education is the way to break the cycle of poverty, and as a lawyer she will be able to help her younger siblings through university as well. And beyond the financial benefit, our friendship these past two months has impacted both of us.
This year, my tangible impact to the community will come later this fall in the form of my completed report and recommendations, which will hopefully improve interactions with service groups in this community and others. But like last year, my daily impact has been more in the relationships I have built and sustained – with my office coworkers, teachers, children, house mothers, business owners of the shops I visit, and more.
Much of the most valuable service work is relationship-based and non-quantifiable, which makes the impact on the community incredibly hard to measure. As I’ve observed from interviewing volunteers as well as from my own experience, volunteers often feel that their work has benefitted the community partner, but not in a quantifiable way. Effective service does not always produce the significant “results” that you can summarize quickly on paper.
So what is the ideal impact of a service project on the community? In my opinion, there are several benefits that projects can provide:
- Money – providing donations or funding for local projects
- Expertise – providing outside knowledge and experience to teach local leaders and staff how to do something
- Manpower – providing extra staff for capacity building or giving local staff time to focus on more important tasks (but not taking over people’s jobs)
- Relationships – providing new perspectives so both sides can learn and encourage one another, even after the volunteers leave
Each project provides its own combination of these types of impacts, which can vary in their level of importance. For example, in my project this year, I provided:
- Money: sponsoring my coworker
- Expertise: my ability to do research and to understand and interact naturally with service groups
- Manpower: taking care of children in my free time
- Relationships: building lasting friendships with coworkers, children, and others
I feel that my work has been worthwhile, and I hope that my community partner feels the same way. So although I’m overwhelmingly sad to leave, I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to serve in Uganda, and can’t wait to return in the future.