Students in Griffin's Host Community
The most enlightening change that occurred to me during my summer teaching in Namibia with WorldTeach was something I could have never predicted. You see, I expected to leave my time in rural Namibia counting my blessings, re-envisioning the world and focusing on "what matters." I expected some sort of Eat, Pray, Love revelation that my life in America and at Harvard was bogged down by useless materialism and self-centered life goals. I thought I would just be the majestic American swooping in to save the day, changing the lives of thousands of people only to go home to retell the story to a captive audience. Having some world-shattering revelation about freeing myself from the shackles of Western development, I thought, was what was supposed to happen to you when you volunteered abroad.
Something changed, though, when a group of American volunteers came for a one-day visit to the school I worked at in order to give a presentation on germs and sanitation (read more here). Up until that point I happily shared the trials and tribulations of living in rural Namibia with my friends and family back home. I craved the fascination that I conjured with my stories of exotic animals and sub-Western-standard living conditions. But when I saw that group of visitors clumsily impose their views onto my host school, lecturing students who didn’t have regular access to soap and water that they “must wash their hands three times a day,” I realized something very important and very small. I realized that in order to have a truly immersive experience across cultures one needs to be thankful, not thankless.
That is, when foreign volunteers go to "Africa" (you'll notice that many people don't bother to tell you where exactly they go, they instead typify and otherize the entire continent), it all-too-often becomes a me-centric experience. When I went home after Namibia, for example, my friends and family asked how many lives I changed. They asked if they even have running water in "Africa" and how I dealt with it when living there. Was it scary to sleep alone with elephants and lions roaming around? Did I live in a mud hut? People at home really wanted to know how hard it was for me, a “normal” person, to be in "Africa." “So, Griffin, tell me about Africa,” they would say, seemingly asking me to sum up an entire continent, of which I had seen only an immeasurably small fraction, in three sentences or less.
What’s more, after volunteering in “Africa” the retrospective telling of the experience becomes intensely focused on the positive impact that foreigners have/had on the communities in which they volunteered. Many "I volunteered in Africa" stories become narratives of heroic successes, embellished tellings of opening the minds of underprivileged kids we Americans see exploited in commercials begging for donations on TV. For every "I volunteered in Africa" story there is a photo album depicting the woes and tribulations of village life. In doing this we volunteers craft the voice of the host community for them and without them, forgetting that as much as we raise awareness of global poverty and issues we silence the actual voices of those we seek to serve. We silence our host communities and elevate ourselves. We effectively put ourselves on pedestals and forget what "Africa" really was. That’s the thankless thing to do, to misrepresent the whole truth of the experience so as to elevate what people think of you.
What I learned in Namibia is that I had to re-tell the "I volunteered in Africa" story. I want to re-architect the archetype of the riding-in-on-a-white-horse American volunteer to not focus on the question, "What did I give to Africa?" and to instead emphasize the question, "What did I take from Africa?" What do I owe my host community for all that they gave and taught me? How can I best help this community with their, and not my, intentions in mind? These are the tough questions I must ask and answer in order to live thankfully.
In Oshiwambo (a Namibian tribal language) the word "tangi" means "thank you." Tangi was also the name given to me by the students and staff of Erkki Tauya Junior Secondary School when I taught there in the summer of 2010, and is now the moniker for my project to raise and donate funds to the school to help them build a new library. Considering this, I wish to emphasize only one phrase throughout this entire fundraising effort; thank you. So, I thank you for the time you took to read this, for the funds you may donate, for the help you can give and for joining me in thanking a community that has taught me to be thankful.
For more information about Griffin’s fundraising page and to donate, go to www.crowdrise.com/projecttangi
-Griffin Gaffney, WorldTeach Namibia Summer 2010
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