Last year in Uganda, I was racked with guilt each time I thought about how I craved a warm shower, potable water, internet access, or even any electricity at all.
I am not even in the country, yet, and I can tell it will be more difficult for me this time.
The students have already been there for about two days, while I have spent the better part of the week in Paris in complete comfort and seeing all the historical places you probably imagine. Only, I mainly see them over my shoulder. I see them when they crop up between buildings as I walk along the Seine or down side streets. The Eiffel Tower and other monuments appear and disappear again and again. Considering the next part of my journey, it feels wrong to visit and enjoy the famous sites, and with few exceptions, it doesn’t even feel right to acknowledge them, let alone photograph them.
The other day, a few of us stood in the courtyard of the Louvre, but not waiting to go in. Rather, to photograph Davis, a writer, dancing around in his white, full-lycra suit so we could capture images for his next project. The same goes for places like Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe near the Louvre, the Luxembourg Gardens just across from my hotel, and so many statues, structures and ridiculous architecture. I seem to only glance and don’t bother to actually stop.
I keep thinking about where I am going next.
Don’t get me wrong. Ugnada is an amazing country.
However, when I recall our trip last year, I remember some students romanticizing everything from children’s tattered clothes (which in the poorest communities, are often one of the few pieces of clothing they have), or some of the places and smells. It smells like sweat and burning because people rarely get to bathe and they are literally burning things. I don’t find anything romantic about it.
I remember John getting frustrated last year that some students weren’t really SEEING what was in front of them. He feared we would leave without them really thoroughly understanding what they saw. He desperately wanted a “teaching moment” (which, as it happened, we certainly got a few days later).
I remember during a reflection one night (and certainly a similar night the year before in the Dominican Republic), when student after student talked about how connected s/he felt to people s/he had only briefly met. In the DR, some really felt as members of families. Yes, families were very generous to us, but we were only visitors who would never return or stay in contact. A couple students talked about “how happy all the children were” and I wasn’t sure if they honestly recognized or admitted to themselves that it was merely an event to see the students, but once we were gone, everything would go back to normal for them as if we had never even been there at all, or if it was a defense mechanism for the students to avoid that part of the reality.
In some of the communities we traveled to, death and disease are common. Clean water and electricity are not.
I remember students saying they would change the way they lived after they returned home. Each promised to “live simply so others may simply live.”
I don’t meant to be hard on anyone. I am sure some did, or at the very least sincerely tried, to some small extent. It seems odd to say, but it was almost good to see when they later wrote things like “I feel uncomfortable being so comfortable” after they returned home.
But while we were still there, I recall being somewhat negative. After they said so many optimistic things about how they understood what they saw and how they would change, I remember thinking, “Do they really understand how truly challenging that will be?”
I admitted to them that, a couple decades earlier, I had been to Africa for the first time and thought the same thing, but when I got home, I returned to virtually the same habits and rituals I had before. Maybe I changed more than I’m willing to admit, but ultimately, I gave up very little of what I had. I didn’t truly sacrifice anything. And, as a friend recently reminded me, it isn’t sacrifice if it doesn’t hurt, right?
Worse, though, I became and angry young man. I don’t mean nasty, but certainly somewhat bitter. I became more pessimistic. I unquestionably got angry at our government.
I don’t want that for our students. But then, what is my hope for the students this year?
Don’t become negative. Don’t grow angry. But, don’t give in to the helpless feeling that there is nothing you can do to change things, either. Do what you can. I don’t want to say no act is too small, because small acts change little. However, you can start small and keep working to do more, day after day, year after year. I hope that you each do at least one significant thing in your life to help others after of this trip. I don’t mean you shouldn’t simply live every day of your life in a more conscious way. You should. But I do mean I hope you each do something noteworthy. I do. It might not happen this year, or next year, for that matter. But, I hope you keep working toward a goal of helping others.
It isn’t enough to live with less. You should want to give more.
Someone might call you a bleeding-heart liberal. Shake it off. Someone will call you naive. Shake it off. You know better and you have seen, and better understand, what most of those people will be criticizing.
Don’t get haughty, but don’t allow yourself to be unassertive or uninvolved.
I hope you don’t get tired of the quote, but you will hear it, again and again: Be the change…
From what little I know of each of you, I am confident it will happen. After all, you chose this trip, not a semester in Ireland or Italy, or wherever. You’ve already made a significant choice.
Keep making those choices.
I am really looking forward to joining you very soon. I can’t believe I’m not there with you.
Sleep well and stay safe.