KAMPALA, UGANDA – After spending the last two months working in one of Kampala’s largest and poorest slums I can’t say I’ve seen much I didn’t expect. It has been a personally rewarding, emotionally taxing and incredibly human experience – but that was anticipated.
Even the guilt factor, an inevitable part of anyone’s first-time experience working in such an environment, has been manageable. I’ve been aware of it but it has not consumed me. Here is how it comes about and why you shouldn’t feel guilty.
As a relatively affluent human being it’s easy to start harbouring feelings of shame, as if it is somehow your fault that poverty exists. The guilt trip starts before you even leave home to whatever impoverished destination you are headed to, with people saying things with a wry smirk, like, “So you think you can go there and help those people?”
It’s like they’re implying that you consider yourself as some hybrid Robert Chambers-Muhammad Yunus-Jesus Christ that is going to free the oppressed, microfinance the poor and heal the crippled. And if you do, you should probably stay home. But if you don’t, then brush the comments off with a smile and ask your inquisitor where they got that great new G-unit flat-brim.
Then fly halfway around the world, burning buckets of dollars and carbon along the way, and get yourself settled into your new temporary home where you wish you could take pictures of everything because, Oh, the people are just so beautiful.
But you don’t because that would probably be exploitive, right?
The real kicker might not even come when you meet someone and you realize that your shoes are worth more money than they see in six months. The most overpowering, heart dropping, guilt inducing moment for me comes when meeting people twice my age with one-hundredth the education. Even with an efficient translator you can’t communicate very well because your minds plod along at two completely different altitudes. Try explaining profit margins to someone who can’t read, write or count.
It’s strange but don’t feel guilty.
Having been exposed to the social justice grinder that is Menno Simons College, my ideas about what poverty is and how it affects people were pretty accurate. Over the last few months I’ve seen several visitors come to our project and take a walk through the slum. They often leave emotionally drained and in disbelief that human beings actually live in such conditions.
Well, they do. Nearly half of us do, actually. But you should be aware of that before you even think about booking your flights.
The fact that these conditions exist should make you cringe and wonder why. But you shouldn’t apologize for having a comfortable life, being educated and wanting to understand the world you live in. You should want those privileges for everybody.
Anyone interested in the field of development should look for the underlying causes, social ills and societal structures that make poverty possible. The best way to do this is to talk with impoverished people and build relationships with them. Of course it is impossible to escape some ethnocentrism, no matter how long you spend abroad. You may become locally accepted but you will never be an accepted local so don’t kid yourself.
Don’t try to pretend you understand what “those people” have been through but rather try and understand why “those people” have been forced to go through it in the first place.
In Slumdog Millionaire, young Jamil believes in destiny – that life will fall into place just because it is so written. In real slum life there is very little talk about destiny, or even any plans past where the money for the next rent payment is going to come from. At least, that’s the way it is in Kampala’s Namuwongo slum and I doubt Mumbai slums are any different. The lack of forward thinking about the future is one of the most depressing byproducts of poverty. How can you have dreams or goals when you go to bed hungry three days out of four?
So stop feeling guilty about how well off you are. You’re not doing anyone any good and at the end of the day that kind of thinking is self-indulgent at best. Start thinking in terms of future opportunities for the organization you’re working with and for those that maybe don’t have the privilege to think about the future themselves. Then we can start making progress.
James Janzen is a former Uniter beat reporter and a University of Winnipeg student currently on hiatus.
Published in Volume 63, Number 25 of The Uniter (March 26, 2009)