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Grace: Why in the world am I here?

September 4, 2011

Up until now I’ve just been writing about what I’ve been doing, eating, seeing, and feeling in Senegal and not so much of what I’ve been thinking.  So let me first take a little dive into my thoughts for coming here in the first place.  Later I’ll talk about my thoughts now that I’m here.

Warning: this post may not be as entertaining as the others.

So first of all, I have grown up in a family with parents who regularly discuss the issues of poverty and the privilege we have (I was never allowed to substitute “starving” for “hungry), emphasize compassion for the poor in a Christian context (Proverbs 31:8-9: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy”), encourage thinking beyond ethnocentricity (growing up we were not allowed to say that people in other countries drove on the “wrong” side of the road, but the “different” or “other” side), and constantly exposed me to the international community (my parents have a lot of non-American friends).  From an early age I knew that there were billions of people less fortunate than me, that I had an obligation to do something for them, but that they were no less smart, deserving, innovative, or loved by God than me. I knew that my blessings in America were just that: blessings, and that I had done nothing to deserve them.

I also was blessed in high school with the opportunity to travel some, because my parents knew that they could tell stories about poverty until they were hoarse, but my siblings and I (this was before our family completion in 2008) needed to see true poverty for ourselves in order to really understand the extent of it.  Now, ok, I’m a little embarrassed talking about these trips, because they feel a little voluntourism-y to me now. Yes, the primary objective of these trips was for my siblings and my benefit. No, the “work” we did in orphanages in Myanmar didn’t really help the orphanages in any long-term way. But voluntourism or not, these trips changed my life by showing me first hand the harsh realities of poverty and loss. They were also a lot of fun, because let’s face it, traveling is awesome!

In 2008, my parents adopted my two brothers from Ethiopia. The addition of Amani and Habtamu into our family just emphasized all the more how completely undeserving I am to have grown up with such privilege. My brothers have also shown me that I am in NO WAY better, smarter, etc than “people in Africa”.  In a cultural environment (America) where “Africa” is a country and all “Africans” are starving, poor, and helpless, it sickens me to know that thoughts of superiority have crossed my mind more times than I’d like to admit. Oh yes, there are definitely starving, poor, and helpless people in the world. My brother Amani can recount stories of poverty that still blow my mind. And there is no doubt that Habtamu was helpless, as a 5 year old in an orphanage. But my parents didn’t “save” them, any more than a couple saves 5 and 10 year old American orphan. Orphans are orphans, the only difference is government protection and help. But anyways…

Through my (sorta strange) upbringing, international exposure, and brothers, I have developed a passion for the impoverished, and a huge desire to see the end of poverty, suffering, injustice, and preventable deaths. And after a trip to Kenya with a non-profit organization (my dad’s) to evaluate the effectiveness of their projects, I can’t quit thinking about ways to achieve culturally appropriate, sustainable development.

I also have totally fallen in love with Africa. Ugh, I actually can’t stand saying those words because I have heard them so often in a voluntourism-y, derisive context. Like “OMG, I met some African orphans while I was in Africa for a week and they were like soooooo cute and hadn’t even seen a camera before, it was so crazy! And there were some giraffes too when I went on a safari after working at the orphanage, and they were soooo amazing.  Now I’ve totally fallen in love with Africa! I just hope I can raise enough money to make a trip back next year, I just have to do something for those poor little African kids”. AHHHH. I really hope you can all see the millions of bad associations I have with “falling in love with Africa”. 

But I don’t know how else to say how much I love the variety of cultures, languages, peoples, triumphs, problems, landscapes, and faces to be found on this continent. So when it came time to choose a major, I chose International Studies with a concentration in African studies.  And when it came time to choose somewhere to study abroad (I am required to for my major), I chose Senegal.  Specifically, this program because it has a big emphasis on exploring the issues involved in international development. So that’s why I am sitting here in a house in Dakar, with a fan blowing on me (thank goodness), listening to the muffled sounds of Wolof conversation and the calls to prayer from the mosque.

This post definitely doesn’t cover all my reasons for coming to Senegal, nor does it even scratch the surface with explaining the situation we are in with development, the subjugation of Africa, voluntourism as a business, and general apathy.  But now you sorta know what I’m doing here, and can see that I’m (hopefully!) not like most people who visit “Africa”.  I’m not here to save the world, or enlighten the Africans with my Western wisdom. I’m here to learn, to observe, to think, to wrestle with issues, to make friends, and to have fun.

 

I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I know of books, websites, and people who have a few.

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