In the western world, I often feel like people look upon Africans and their capacity as two dimensional. They are cast into suitably simplified stereotypes – uninspiring roles created and promoted and published over and over again, particularly by the NGO industry. The same story is retold by the swathes of voluntourists who visit Africa each year, in search of the ‘unique’ African experience to remind their followers how un-ordinary their own stories are.
Do I sound frustrated?
I am. I have heard these stories for a long time now. I am guilty of proudly propagating them myself when I was a young volunteer. And I STILL see them on charity TV advertisements when I return back to Oz.
What are these stories, you ask?
The first – and most common – is the ‘tragedy’ of Africa. Swollen bellies. Faces swarming with flies. Sick, HIV infected mothers. Famine. War. The hopelessness of black-skinned victims, passively waiting for the white saviour to come and give and rescue – whether it be by giving them sponsorship, school fees, peace, a goat, or to be looked after at an orphanage.
The other story is one of only resilience and joy. All the children are so happy. The music is amazing. The laughter. The dancing. The community and parenting that is so natural compared to what we do. But this story is only partly true: it idealises the exotic, and in doing so ignores the deep suffering that takes place when one is poor. It ignores the unjust system that allows for striking global inequality to continue. And it absolves us Westerners of any personal responsibility to work towards transforming the system and redistributing our wealth.
Craig Greenfield (whose reading I am a little obsessed with currently) discusses these two stories, in a fantastic blog on this topic and puts it far better than I can.
“When we name only the tragedy…we cast poor people as pathetic victims who can do nothing but wait for an outside savior. And we end up framing all our responses to poverty and injustice around ourselves and the money we can raise….
On the flip-side, when we name only the resilience, we gloss over the very real challenges faced by people living on the margins. We romanticize their lives….we ignore our own complicity in an unjust system. Apathy reigns supreme.”
Craig goes on to suggest that instead, we should be naming the tragedy and the resilience, telling these stories alongside of each other to show both the heart break but also what is happening from within these communities to transform them from the inside.
This story, I think, can actually be quite difficult to tell. It is for me. In the past, I am guilty of swinging wildly towards one side of the pendulum or the other. This swinging was borne out of my immature but determined attempts to inspire people in Australia to act, but simultaneously rewrite the far-outdated stereotype of ‘deepest darkest Africa’.
Stereotypes are so easy to fall back on. They often suit the narrative that we like to hear about our lives. Real or imagined – I cannot quite be sure – I still occasionally feel pressure from Australians to recount the story of MH with us as the heroes: ‘Michael and Kim Findlay, bravely moving to Africa and setting up MH alone in the face of so many local challenges, bringing health care to the sick, hopeless poor of Uganda’. *shudder* Even now, when we have this incredible staff team actually doing the work, I sometimes feel that donors following at home would prefer us to be the heroes.
But in this scenario like in so many others, stereotypes seem to do us an incredible disservice. They take away the beautiful but ordinary complexity of life. And, more importantly, they are simply not real.
Nowadays when I speak about Maranatha Health and our work in Uganda to people back home, I am often lost for words. Not because I don’t have much to say on this topic, but because I am trying to find the words to bring people’s human-ness to life. To be a witness to their experiences of injustice and tragedy, but also their immense capacity for resilience and as agents of change. To combat the natural distance and over-simplification that people tend towards when hearing about another culture. I so often wish I could transport people from Australia into Maranatha Health morning meetings to show the utter ordinary-ness of it all – the funny stories told by our staff, the times when no-one can be bothered talking, the laughter, the frustration at a patient’s bad decision making, the teasing of each others quirks the way families do, the counter-cultural compassion for their poorer community members, the annoying requests for salary raises, the wisdom from our team when problem solving an issue, the care for each other when grieving an unexpected death, the reminders not to use too much social media at work….
I wonder if this would allow Australians to see our staff as they are: flawed and ordinary and inspiring and skilled humans who are working hard (most of the time!) to improve the opportunities in their community.
In the blog I mentioned before, Craig Greenfield shares the Cambodia proverb: ‘It takes a spider to repair its own web,” making the revolutionary but obvious point that ‘the spider, the insider, is the key player’.
I find this an incredibly useful analogy. A web, like any system, is complex and beautiful and fragile. And repairing it takes time and precision and intention and the efforts of the spider itself.
Our staff, like the spider, are fixing their community from the inside.
in the interest of being authentic, Maranatha Health didn’t start quite like this.
There was a time when Michael and I, as outsiders to this place, led every meeting. Wrote the details of every policy. Treated every patient. Made every staffing decision. Created every roster. Visited every community and met with every government official we worked with. That was when MH was in its infancy. We were also young and collecting experiences and building an organisation and growing into our roles…
and still learning how to let others shine.
When we were doing all of this, it was our dream for it to be a fully Ugandan organisation. To empower and equip and up-skill and resource and release into the world an organisation – a movement – that would be transformative from the inside and demonstrate to the wider community the kind of health care that should exist, offered by Uganda’s own people.
And now…this dream has unfolded before our eyes.
These days, I am utterly in awe of our staff. They are doing everything.
They manage, they protect, they record, they treat, they implement, they strategise, they improve, they teach. They are Maranatha.
They are the keepers of the vision now.
And Michael and I? We are becoming sidekicks. Technical Advisors. Supporters. Strategic oversee-ers. Learners.
And witnesses to this incredible example of how to be a community and how to transform health culture in Uganda.
And it’s pretty darn amazing.