A girl in my social studies class at affluent Fairview High School in Boulder, CO shares with the class about her recent service trip to Malawi. As she tells us about the latrines she built and the holes she dug, I feel an overpowering sense of anger building up inside me. I am the only person in this classroom feeling this way, I know it. The rest of the class including the teacher are feeling good- what could possibly be wrong with a young person traveling to Africa to serve others?
I am the only black person in the classroom. I am the only African-born black person in the classroom. I am the only African-born black person born in poverty in the classroom…. But no-one thinks to ask me how I might feel.
Some kids have grown up in a privileged world. Sometimes these well intentioned kids travel to African countries to do good for poor people. Why not? Service work in foreign countries looks impressive on college applications. But how much good is that service work actually doing? Who is benefitting the most… the impoverished recipients of the latrines or the rich people doing the giving? That latrine is going to fill up in one year and those poor people will be back to suffering while the donor will return to the United States assuming that their hard work and act of giving is making a lasting difference.
Instead of traveling to Africa to “help”, how about visiting Africa to learn from the people there and build a connection, a relationship? Learn how to weave a basket, how to dance, how to grow food, learn an African song, learn how they really live. Make a friend. Ask them what they need and respect them. Just because they are poor doesn’t mean that they are not worthy of respect.
What if a person from Africa came to our American school? What if they told us what our school needed and started to dig a hole. How would we feel? Would we feel grateful? Would we feel empowered? Would we better off?