“Why Africa? Why wouldn’t you just go to Europe where you won’t have to worry about typhoid and malaria and unsafe water, and can actually take a hot shower?”
I wanted something different from everyone else. I wanted to live with less; to martyr myself for the sake of learning and helping, and being one of the few brave and willing ones to step into one of the most impoverished parts of the world. Over two months in, I’m embarrassed to write that, and ashamed of my somewhat sub-conscious mindsets of white privilege and white-saviorism or as my group likes to call it, “voluntourism.” The pill of, “Just because I’m white and wealthy, and a Christian doesn’t mean I have all or really any of the answers,” is a tough one to swallow. I’m tempted to beat myself up for the fact that this was even a pill I needed to swallow in the first place- but, I give myself grace because I know it’s not my fault, or yours, that we were born where we were. It’s not our fault that we were taught in our history classes, from a young age, that the U.S. is the greatest nation in the world and that we’re better than everywhere else. It’s not our fault that some of us were taught in our churches that those who have less than us should receive pity. That, in order to be more like our Sacrificial Savior, we need to step in and save all the brokenness in the world – and then receive praise and admiration from the church. What we were taught in our safe, wealthy, Christianized communities is not our fault. However, I do believe it is our responsibility to hold these ideals up to the light and examine them closely: How well do they reflect the truth that all humans are equal? How well do they reflect the truth that God created and loves diversity? Have we considered that maybe there is no one “right” way to live? Are these beliefs a product of growing up in one of the richest countries in the world? It is not our fault that living with “the least of these” has been glamorized in our society, but I believe it is our responsibility to examine just why we see this as glamourous, as well as our responsibility to de-glamourize and re-humanize privileged individuals living in impoverished areas, treading with humility and grace with every unsure step.
Hear me on this: I don’t have answers. I don’t know why the world is the way it is, why there is so much disparity, why I have everything I need and more while some die from lack of basic needs being met. I also don’t know what to do about it. I don’t know why God brought me to this place, to a continent that, for reasons unknown, I always knew in my heart I would live in for a time. I don’t exactly know why He plucked me up out of my safe and wealthy bubble, and brought me to a place that doesn’t often fit those adjectives. I’ll tell you one thing, I am grateful He did.
Here’s what I do know: this experience is exciting and breathtaking, but it isn’t glamourous. There is nothing glamourous about having diarrhea every other day because the quality of food is poor and my body isn’t used to it; nothing glamourous about hand washing clothes that never really get clean, and coughing from heavily polluted air; nothing glamourous about freezing cold showers and squat toilets, and nothing glamourous about witnessing firsthand a lot of the “brokenness” many of us have been sheltered from. There is also nothing glamorous about how people I have grown to know and love here face this for their entire lives, not just for four months. Something else I know: I’m not saving anyone. Mostly because I don’t know how, and truthfully, I’d rather be people’s friend- most people here are SO friendly and welcoming. I’d rather hear their stories and share my own. I’d rather hold their babies and cook meals with them, and if they ask for a hand with something, extend it, than tell them what, to me, looks “wrong” with how they live and how they should fix it. I just don’t believe I have the right to do that. Even if I did, I wouldn’t know what to say. I don’t know what’s really wrong or how those things should be fixed, but I’m very imperfectly learning how to listen and, sometimes painfully, accept what is different from what I’m used to. Of course this isn’t to discredit real issues that exist around me like hunger and poor sanitation, or to discredit the help and effort that is being tirelessly done to eradicate them. This is just to say that I don’t have answers to these issues that I’m just barely educated on, and I’m not going to pretend that just because I’m a white Christian living in the thick of it that I do. I often compare myself to an infant here, just taking this life in breath by breath and trying to keep my eyes open, never knowing what’s coming next. I’m a student, and I’m here to learn.
Being here sure as heck isn’t glamourous or praiseworthy, but it is grounding. It’s grounding me in strength despite weariness, and peace despite unanswered questions. It’s keeping me so very human, asking a million human questions every day. It’s growing in me a curiosity and desire for a better way. There must be a way to love, and maybe even help, brothers and sisters without pitying them and diminishing their hard work and worth, without always being “right”, right? I don’t have answers; I just have where I’ve come from and what my eyes are seeing now, and the humble hope that God helps me learn better ways to love and respect his kids no matter what continent I’m living on or what conditions I’m living in.
Sometimes it all can feel heavy. The pictures above were all taken in moments that I saw something I found beautiful and felt a lot of joy because of it… which happens quite often. With open eyes we see a lot that hurts, but, in my opinion, a lot that heals, too.