Packing Away My Life

Okay, so I haven't quite started packing for the big move next year (which probably will take place in May), though I have packed a couple boxes of books so our office didn't look like a cramped library and we could get rid of one of our poorly made bookcases. I tried to lighten the boxes of books by splitting them with clothes, but as my husband will tell you, I don't think it helped much.

I have, however, started packing for Africa, which my husband lightly jibes me for because if it were him, he'd be packing the weekend before the trip, if that! Sigh, I'm destined to be an obsessive over-planner, and hence my packing has begun, as have decisions such as should I get a mosquito net? Should I go with the 30% Deet or 40% Deet bug spray? What's "conservative" dress? Frick, I just realized I didn't think to put PJs on my list, what sort of PJs? I have enough trouble packing as it is for any sort of trip (just ask my husband who has to lug around my weighed down luggage), but for Africa, I mean really, even with lists galore, how can you really be prepared for the completely different world? And plus, we're strongly advised to pack light since we'll be carrying our bags around a lot... yeah, I'm screwed.

Another huge question I had was whether I should bring my camcorder or not. At first I'd thought it'd be a great idea, what a great way to remember all of the events and to relive the experience, especially since it's been a long term desire of mine to write a novel on the child soldiers of Uganda. A video would be an amazing way to document my experience in Uganda that I could use as reference later when I start my novel. However, obviously my first goal and priority is to the people of Uganda and I've since learned that taking pictures and recording video is often seen as rude, depending on the situation, so of course the camcorder is out.

But truly, as I've began my preparations for Africa, I've realized that there's far more to consider than I originally thought. Considerations on how to interact with the Ugandans without being condescending or colonial towards them. I absolutely do not presume to know better how to fix all of their problems then they do and truly I hope to learn from them as much as they learn from me. But then that brings up the question, what the heck do I have to offer them? I'm knowledgeable on the issues in their country right now and have helped raise money for the child victims of the war, but what could they truly learn from me? But maybe they don't aim to learn from me, but only to educate me so that I can come back to the states and educate the people here, and hopefully start a movement that can make an impact - which I hope to do. I'm very curious on what the Ugandans who are participating in this summit aim to get out of this.

There are currently many arguments against short term volunteer visits in developing countries, arguments I was not aware of until I was accepted and started doing some research to prepare for my trip. These arguments make it clear that volunteers can do very little good painting schools, etc. in such a short term visit and that it'd actually be more beneficial to just donate the money that would have gone to travel expenses directly to the people. When you think of it, why would the locals want some people paying thousands of dollars just to travel to their country to paint a school building when they could have hired local help to do it, not only giving one of their countryman a job, but also saving tons of money to be used elsewhere where there's a need. They state that these short term trips are mostly beneficial for the volunteers as a unique experience and a new perspective on life outside of their's, and often all these trips do is make the volunteers appreciate their own lives more. However, most articles do validate the usefulness of volunteers who take what they learned and apply it once they're back home to help the people in the country they were visiting. I'm very thankful that the group I'm going with seems very open and up front about these perceptions and that one of the main focuses for being accepted into the program was what you intended to do with the knowledge learned on the trip after getting home. Also, while the trip is costly, we're attending a summit and not taking a job away from the locals. The aim of the summit is to learn from the Ugandans and discuss at a "round table" (kimeeza) solutions for rebuilding and healing Uganda. We are to come as equals, not as superiors who assume we know more than the Ugandans about their own country's problems. The efforts of this summit is to build relationships that will last beyond the trip and develop into positive relationships overseas in which a mutual goal of helping Uganda rebuild and heal is worked on.

I hope that the youth we visit in Uganda get as much out of this summit as I know I will. I know that this trip and the fact that many view short term volunteer trips to countries in need as a trip more for the volunteer than those in need will inspire and push me to take this trip and make something out of it. I'm don't want to disappoint the people whom I will go on this trip with (who sound like an Awesome group of gals... yes, no boys were brave enough the venture out with us) or the people I meet in Uganda. It is a responsibility that I will carry with me even more so than I already do.

I am excited and nervous about this trip. The last thing I'd ever want to do is offend anybody while I'm over there and I have shed the assumption that people there will be thrilled to have me over there. Ultimately I would feel honored to be a part of the country's rebuilding and healing process, if they'll have me.

What do you guys think about volunteer work in other countries and their benefits or lack thereof? If you think they're not beneficial, what are better alternatives? As a soon to be graduate student of Social Work, I'm truly intrigued by this topic.

For a good summary and up-to-date issues with this conflict, check out this article.


Mas said...

This is kind of a tangential response to your post, mai wen, but it's what came to mind as I read your reflections.

As a general rule in life, I think of myself as an apprentice, learning, open to experience, still looking for the right questions, rather than assuming I have the right answers already and always. This sounds like the approach you're taking to your trip to Africa, so of course I think you're on the right track.

And, as is my habit, let me quote/paraphrase someone who said it so much better: Henry James described a character in one of his novels as someone on whom nothing was lost. Good aspiration for a budding writer, too, I'd say.

mai wen said...

Thank you so much for your comments, Mas! I quite agree with you, going with an open mind is the best thing I can do to learn the most I can. I have to assume that people can sense your sincere and good intentions and I'll just have to do the best I can to make sure that they know I don't intend to push my solutions onto them.

I'm excited, it'll be a learning experience and quite the adventure!


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