Blog Competition: Reconciling Duke Privilege

Sophomore summer, I completed my global health fieldwork in a small village in rural Uganda. There, I volunteered at a local orphanage and taught at a local primary school. During lunchtimes, I watched children clamor for a bowl of mushy posho (a boiled root vegetable) and beans.  For many, it was their only meal of the day.

On rainy days, the third grade classroom’s tin roof leaked.  The water from the borehole that  supplied the school’s drinking water turned brown.  The “baby class,” kindergartners, who didn’t have a classroom, were sent home.

Halfway through my summer, I was invited to the capitol for a dinner celebrating President Brodhead’s tour in Africa.  I arrived at the Serena Kampala, a five-star hotel, and marveled at the tiled floor, the sparkling chandeliers, and fountains — luxuries that suddenly seemed so foreign to me.

At the reception I was served 5 types of juices.  At dinner, our 30 person entourage enjoyed a four course meal.

I couldn’t help but feel surrounded by a sense of privilege and disturbed by it.   I calculated the cost of the meal and the accommodation, how many roofs it could buy and how many  school meals it could provide.  Was this ethical?  Was it right of me to take part?

As Duke students, we have to reconcile our privilege, not only abroad in developing countries, but also at home, on our campus.

We are served by hundreds of housekeepers, dining hall staff, and bus drivers.   Our student organizations have access to plentiful funding.  We can leverage networks of incredible professors and peers.

Sometimes (at least for me), this privilege can feel disconcerting.  The question is how to reconcile it. Maybe the key to living ethically is to recognize our privilege,  its complexities (are we equally privileged?), and how we can leverage it to serve someone other than solely ourselves.