Any of you who have read this blog before know that one of our goals here is to portray our students, our colleagues and our friends in Africa in a way that would feel appropriate to them. This doesn’t seem like it would be difficult, but writing about Africa to North Americans often means stepping onto a well worn path that doesn’t always head in the direction you want to go.
I thought of this the other day when talking to an acquaintance. I was mentioning our efforts to link up some of our East African students as pen pals with the young women from an at-risk teen program here in the Boston area. Noting that project seemed like a good idea, my friend said, “It is always good for U.S. kids to see that someone has it much worse.”
While it is often true that U.S. teens have some significant resources that their peers in East Africa might not have (like free high school education, for instance), but it seems to me there are some problems with this view. I don’t know about you, but being told that someone else has it worse never really makes me feel much better when things are going wrong. And then there is the fact that sometimes, as poor as they are, our young women in East Africa have resources that an American teen might NOT have, especially when it comes to a support network and the self-belief necessary to get through school.
The “look how much worse it is there” view of Africa has spurred significant aid and generosity to the continent over the years, and I don’t want to disparage either those efforts or the results. More and more, though, we are hearing from African-based communities that they would like us to think of Africa as more than a endless charity project. One article from today’s Guardian references the push to have us understand that lives in Africa are more rich and varied that we are accustomed to seeing in the media. This shift in viewpoint can be difficult for nonprofits like us, who are trying to draw in donations, but I can’t help but believe that we appeal to the very best part of our donors when we do this correctly. Real charity requires us to respect the spirit even while we are feed the body or educating the mind. The consequences of that respect are generally both surprising and fulfilling.
This brings me back to our teen correspondence project. The goal is not so much to have one group of teens become more grateful for what they have (the words teen and grateful often look a little awkward together), but to encourage both groups of young women to think of themselves as being an important part of the global community. All of these young women are hindered with too little money and too little resources. They live in a world that splashes signs of wealth and celebrity over every bus station wall and street corner. And all of that can easily leave a young woman wondering if she matters at all to the world at large. This I think is what we really want when we bring one life closer to another half a world away. Getting to know someone who lives on another continent reminds a girl that her impact can stretch far–much, much farther than people might ever imagine.