A white girl with intentionally ripped jeans who boards a plane to volunteer as a teacher in Africa is called, by many, an idealist. That white girl was me, and after having spent a few months teaching in a school in Uganda recently, I have come up with a better term for myself and for the many others like me: colonialist. She is assuming that her way of life is so much better than that of the “locals” that she has the right, nay, even the responsibility, to go somewhere exotic and teach it to the locals. She is surrounded by poor African children she can help, while being blind to the big picture and to the long term effects of her presence.
Uganda does need help, of course. I have great respect for the physicians who go there and perform spinal cord surgeries and for the engineers who build power plants in remote areas. What worries me, however, is the conception that we, Western whites, have something to teach Uganda about everything. The thought that no matter what we are doing there, it is good. Because we are, unquestionably, doing a better job than they would.
After I’d finished my army service, I had to pick a place to travel. Israelis traveling after their service is a phenomenon so common that there is no longer any question as to whether one will go, only where. Since I wasn’t drawn to the drug-seeking crowd in India and wanted to save the world, I figured Uganda would be a good place to start.
Although I’d had no formal training, I was bestowed upon my arrival at the boarding school with the title “Teacher,” sometimes even “Madame.” Just weeks before, I had been a simple sergeant with little say and many commanders; now I was Madame. I liked it. I had virtually unlimited freedom in deciding what to teach, and was oddly revered by the principal and the other staff members. I taught English, Math and Sports and also took my students to the village internet café a number of times, after I’d learned they thought internet was “a type of computer.” I showed them how to search, helped them set up email accounts and introduced them to Facebook.
At times it felt like I was showing them the stars in the sky, and they were mesmerized. But now that I am back, I know all they are left with is the sensation of how small they are, and how far from the bright lights. Facebook will connect them to a world of which they will never be a part.
I was enamored with one of the girls, Grace. She had a brilliant smile, was intelligent and poised, and made me laugh. I encouraged her and developed a rather close connection with her. Had she grown up elsewhere, she would have become a leader for social justice, the head of a large organization, a talk show hostess. But she won’t; she is a girl in a small Ugandan village and will be lucky to find a job nearby, and a husband, and have children.
I wanted her to be something more, and I was saddened by the realization that she wouldn’t. Her future had not been something to be ashamed of until I came along and clumsily handed her my own dreams and goals. I had assumed her aspirations were similar to mine, and my sorrow at her not being able to live up to them would be transferred to her.
The evening I said goodbye, she looked at me with eyes full of disappointment. Her voice was beyond sadness; it was numb. “Why are you going,” she asked. But obviously, I had to go home. The real question is why I had come in the first place.
Maybe their futures aren’t sad at all. Maybe what is sad is that we are working so hard that we fail to see how rich we already are. Or that while our friendships have been reduced to posts on Facebook, Ugandans talk to each other, on the street, in the store, on the porch. Or that while we smile a handful of times a day or a week, Ugandans smile by default, even to passing strangers. Or that the only time we use our body is at the gym. Maybe what is truly sad is that although some of them are hungry and dying, we in the Western world are starving ourselves and committing suicide. I am not a big enough fan of our way of life to become its missionary.
I spent one of my days off riding a bicycle on the banks of the Nile. All the huts were made of mud and were topped with straw roofs. One of the houses had the words “YOUR WELCOME THIS GOOD LYFE” painted on it in bright green. I smiled. I asked a young girl I saw out front where I might buy some jackfruit, and she handed me a large chunk of one from a tree by her home. She beckoned me over to sit and enjoy it with her family. She did not ask for money. I’d grown so accustomed to the role of the giver that I’d forgotten how much I was receiving, and once I’d begun to see myself as a teacher, I overlooked all that I had yet to learn. As I filled my mouth with the sweet yellow fruit I wondered whom I was there to save, and from what.