A very close friend of mine sent me an email a few months ago, asking me if I considered myself a missionary.
The answer to that question is filled with so much complexity that I asked if we could skype instead of trying to write my thoughts in an email.
It got me thinking again about our reasons for being here. Michael and I often have puzzling discussions about this, and consistently fail to come up with a satisfactory answer. Which box do we tick? Missionary? Volunteer/trainees? Expat? Immigrant? Which category do we fall into?
The problem with categories is that I always seem to fail to satisfy their requirements. I’m not really an ‘in the box’ type of girl…
The Missionary Findlay’s: Michael and I are driven in our choices/actions by our faith in Jesus as God and man, and the way he lived on earth. We feel strongly that God is FOR the poor and oppressed, inviting us to join him in what has been a massive adventure so far, learning how to live more like him and (sometimes, when we’re not feeling selfish) making our choices based on what we can offer this world to see it be a more just and loving place. The added bonus of following God in this way (to Africa, to set up Maranatha Health, etc) is that He has actually made us who we are so that we can do this – a perfect concoction of passion, past experience, internal wiring from birth and our individual skills + his intervention in a gazillion moments has meant we are not only able to run this Organisation but enjoy the journey (when I have a feeling many wouldn’t!). Our project is motivated, inspired and fulfilled by our faith and the faith of others around us. We also have a lot of similar desires as some missionaries – to connect with the local community, to become a part of the fabric of the place, and to live at a simpler standard than other expats*.
I am often confused with the term missionary and its implications given that I see all followers of Jesus as having a joint ‘mission’ to represent our God of Love to humanity. Putting that aside, we are not, in my opinion, missionaries in any traditional sense. We are not here specifically to tell others about our faith – any more than I would normally share of my faith in any circumstance -, we don’t work with the church in any official sense, and we certainly have not gone to ‘bible school’ or any such institution (much to the disappointment of some Christians we know). We are not running a ‘mission hospital’; many who do this seem to have little awareness of development principles and even less ability to critique their ‘development’ work. We have set up an NGO and work in a professional capacity which is open for judgement by AusAID and the donor community, rather than a small group of churches.
The expatriate Findlay’s: In some ways we are like any other expatriates moving over here for a job opportunity in an NGO. We enjoy Uganda for the weather and the friendly people, we have professional roles that we are intensely committed to, and we love to have academic discussions about what this country needs/should have/is heading towards etc. We have friends in high places because the elite of Kampala are so interconnected and we enjoy rubbing shoulders with influential people that back home in Australia, wouldn’t even look our way. But that is about where the expatriate similarities end. Most big-shot NGO workers (who manage programs/projects) are exactly that: big shots. They drive around in vehicles worth well over $100,000, they live in Kololo (for you Adelaideans, think Burnside) in a big compound with numerous ‘house girls’, would not be spotted shopping at the local food market, if they attend churches they are full of other expatriates, they live at a higher standard than they would dream of at home because they are on western salaries, and almost their entire friendship group consists of other NGO managers, foreign diplomats, and international businessmen.
In contrast – we haven’t spent any time with foreigners (other than when our families came to visit) since we arrived. Our wage is at least a fifth of what managers with equivalent qualifications are getting (both Ugandan’s and expats) and the MH car is 22 years old (but doing amazingly well for its age apart from the suspension!).** I have never met an expatriate NGO worker in a management position that lives in a place like Kamwenge. Most live in Kampala, and at a stretch, in one of the bigger up-country cities full of other expats and all the mod-cons you could need: places like Mbarara, Mbale, Gulu and Jinja. I have been in many a meeting already, introducing myself as a manager at Maranatha Health who lives in Kamwenge, only to be met with disbelieving stares and raised eyebrows. Even Ugandan NGO managers fly in and out of Kamwenge in their big shiny white 4-wheel-drives for the day, happy not to have to even spend one night in my beloved village.
The volunteer Findlay’s: Many volunteers and Aid-workers-in-training come to Uganda. Whether it’s with a volunteer tourism organisation, a local NGO, the Peace Corps, or even something like an equivalent to Australia’s Young Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) program. They are here for any amount of time from 2 weeks, or sometimes (as in the Peace Corps) 2 years. They often live in relatively remote settings (I think their used to be a Peace Corps volunteer living in Kamwenge) and live with locals, often in home-stay arrangements. They make a big effort to connect with the community, and often learn the language. They live simply (some of the time) and don’t get paid a massive salary (also, some of the time). In these ways, we feel quite connected to this group. We bump into people like this from time to time, and I am often encouraged by their enthusiasm, hard work and idealism. I remember with fondness my volunteer days, when life was about learning and comparing experiences with other volunteers, finding projects to be a part of, and travelling to exotic places for long weekends.
But again, the similarities stop there. For one thing – we have a house, a place to call our own, where we have to cook and buy food from the market and do all the normal type living things that often these volunteers seem to avoid (as I did when I lived here a few years ago for 6 months in a ‘home stay’ arrangement). The other big difference is the level of responsibility. Many volunteers, when they meet us assume we are just like them – the donor who doubles as a volunteer. But when we talk about the complexities of negotiating bureaucracy, the difficulties of cultural pressures when making management decisions, handling political issues, registrations, reporting requirements to donors, dealing with issues of theft and conflict… we look with jealously at their blank faces. When we tell them that we have built a house here and plan to raise our family in Kamwenge – most volunteers think we are joking. You can’t actually move here permanently?! This is the experience you ‘get out the way’ before your REAL life begins back at home.
But Kamwenge is our home. Which brings me to the next category:
The immigrant Findlay’s: Sometimes, it’s easiest just to define ourselves as migrants to Uganda – the answer with the least amount of subtext and baggage. We love this place. Uganda is our home, as I said. We have friends and what we consider part of our family here now. We have migrated here because we would love our children to have the kind of life that Uganda can offer- with a focus on community, relationships and away from the god of consumerism that seems to haunt our houses in the West. We like our lifestyle. We like working for Maranatha Health and we are able to have the opportunity to use our skills and expertise in a way that would be difficult to do in Australia.
The problem with defining ourselves as immigrants is that it neglects so much of the reasons why we came – the great overarching purpose of Maranatha Health and our sense of ‘calling’ (missionaries), our desire to set up an effective NGO here and have influence in the long term both inside and outside Uganda (expat NGO managers), our desire to connect with the community and our choice to live in a remote setting on a small salary (volunteer).
So I don’t know. Maybe we can be all and none of the above, depending on who we are with at that moment. If anyone has any suggestions to throw into the ring, let me know…
*I do think I have a slightly romantic notion of myself as somewhat of an anthropologist as well, and can become FACINATED at times with culture and interaction. I often find myself desperately determined to connect and become a part of this place in a way that perhaps I never will – not from lack of trying though…
**I do need to point out thought, that the fact that we HAVE a car in Kamwenge is an immense privilege that very few people have.