How We Cause Damage by 'Helping'
We cannot truly help what we do not understand.
I am writing to you from the shelter of a veranda in a rural Ugandan village, where the current rainstorms and bellowing thunder are drowning out my thoughts. This is my fourth month living in Uganda, with four remaining. Uganda is incredible, with many of my pre-empted dreams sparked to life with more beauty than I expected. The clay-red roads, I wash it from my feet and sandals every evening. The vast array of plants, I rest in their shade, and smell their lushness after the rains. The wildlife, I listen to its constant chatter night and day.
The culture here, however, is far more complex and intricate than I ever could have imagined. This is not something to necessarily be overwhelmed by, or worried of, due to the accepting and understanding nature of Ugandans. Mistakes are okay. However, as decent people, I strongly believe that when we enter a new country, we should do so sensitively with love and a mannerly curiosity and interest into their way of life. Uganda, as we know, is a country where lots of expats reside, mission teams fly to, and support is sent. Unfortunately, in the quest to do good, we are damaging a beautiful country of beautiful people because we refuse to learn about the way of life here and listen to the opinions of the people we are throwing money and resources at so brashly.
Take it like this: you are invited to a friend’s house for a meal, and before entering the house, the host removes their shoes. Are you going to do the same? I think so. When eating, do you insist that the meal is made to your acquired taste, or do you tell them specifically what you want to eat in advance, regardless of their own tastes and preferences? No, you appreciate the effort, the time, and the food regardless of if it takes the place of your "Saturday night takeaway tradition." You see, entering a new country is in many ways like entering a person’s home. It is important to accept and appreciate the differences in another culture, and the way things are done. It may not necessarily agree with your palette (which is alright) but never should we try to change others simply because they are not the same. When entering a new culture, we enter their rules. We should not expect the same treatment as in our own country. Neither should we believe that the way we do things is better, simply because it is different.
Since arriving here, I have watched people come and go who pay into charities and into businesses which, for some reason, seems to give them a sense of entitlement. They live separately from Ugandans, and from their culture. It causes divide, hurt, and offense that these people want nothing to do with how the people here live. They expect Ugandans to prepare them European meals—they do not want to try anything new, they do not want to learn. Their sense of entitlement and careless flaunting of money places them on a hierarchy. They put themselves above Ugandans and Ugandans put themselves below expats. They are made to believe that they are not equal, because these people do not want to associate with them. These are the people that are trampling muddy shoes over an Isfahan carpet in another person’s home.
It also comes across in more subtle ways too—for example mission teams, backpackers and tourists who come into towns taking photographs of things from scenery, to animals and people. Yes, the people. Visitors come to the country taking the obligatory "selfie with the 'poor black children'," to set as their new Facebook profile picture. It seems harmless until it’s put like that, doesn’t it? People take photographs of villagers and kids without their consent (or even a relationship with these people) to post on social media to benefit no one but themselves. In Europe, you would be arrested for taking and posting photographs without consent at schools and orphanages… so why do it here? One day, I walked down the street to have a couple of guys taking pictures of me and yelling “how do you like it when we photograph you?” The idea that this is what all white people do is heartbreakingly disappointing, but an idea developed through countless people doing just that.
So please, enter a new country with a heart to learn and love. Be willing to try new things and to listen to people. Treat them as people. Just like people from home, with opinions, dreams, aspirations, thoughts, and standards. Don’t take photographs of them if they are strangers, don’t treat them like there is a barrier between them and you. Don’t hold them at an arm’s length, as though you are so different from them. We are all people, and under the surface and the culture we are all the same. We all want to be loved, valued, and respected. When entering a new country, be willing to be a part of that country or at least learn about it. When you enter a person’s house, you don’t ignore them. You don’t do your own thing, help yourself to their fridges, and take selfies with their children.
Moving on, money. Money, clothes, and all the rest. There are good intentions in giving. I appreciate people who want to give and help others. However, if you aren’t willing to listen to a country or understand a country, you do as much good as giving someone a sharp knife to drink their soup with. One hugely damaging issue in Uganda happening right now all over the place is people coming here from other countries who go into the streets and distribute clothes and throw money at everyone who asks. Statistically speaking, this tends to be white people. There are several problems with this. Primarily, it destroys local businesses and creates dependency in a village or town. What happens to clothes makers, tailors, and other business when clothes are distributed for free?
Additionally, giving money to random people causes similar problems but also ruins any chance of normal relationships between "white people" and Ugandans. Hierarchies and stigmatisms are raised. Since coming here, I have found that many people on the streets (especially children) will come up to me demanding money. Not out of rudeness, but simply because they need money, and they expect that because I am white, I am therefore rich and will give them exactly what they need. This is because people have done this before. Friendships that I have made have ended abruptly and with great disappointment, as I find people only befriending me with the expectation of money or gifts.
I hate that I must label the people doing damage as "white," but this is the painful reality. Ugandans refer to people with money or white skin as "mzungu." Although it merely translates to "white skinned person," the association attached to the word is one of a people with money, wealth, and success. It can go as far as the person being treated like a celebrity. I do not intend to stereotype. I am not trying to be racist, to discriminate or paint everyone with the same brush but when I walk down the streets of Uganda being white myself, I see first-hand the damage that people of my skin colour have inflicted on these people. Not help; damage. Damage because people didn’t listen to the country, its proper needs, or try to understand its beautiful culture. Damage because selfishly and carelessly, materialistic help was thrown at these people in order to make ourselves feel or look greater. In the process we make the people of this country believe that they are lesser.
Lastly, I want to mention pity. It’s a painful thing to watch newcomers to Uganda arrive, stand in the middle of the village with a hand over their heart saying “Oh, the poor critters… how could anyone live like this? It’s heartbreaking.”
Ugandans are happy, strong individuals. Despite materialistically lacking in some senses, they are intelligent and resourceful people that make the best out of what they have. Old school papers become paper bags. Car alloys become stoves. They are grateful for what they own, take pride in it, and work hard. They are happy and they enjoy their lives just as much as we do. In many ways, Ugandans are far wealthier than people in Western European countries. They have huge, deeply bonded families. They have friendships, kindness, and compassion on levels we can’t comprehend. Family is a crucial part of Ugandan life, and family can take into account close friends—not people who are necessarily blood related. Many Ugandans are horrified at the prospect of old people’s homes, or not knowing your next-door neighbours. Ugandans love people, and they will put people first in their time, resources, and lives. Don't assume they are miserable because they live differently. You will make people miserable in the process.
I have met several Ugandans that were given opportunities to work and live in the UK, but quickly returned to Uganda because they felt too alone within our own culture, and did not like the environment and attitudes. In Uganda there may be a physical lack, but there are things we all lack. Don’t pity people for it—respect their hard work and positive attitude towards what they are doing. Applaud their work ethic, their love, and optimism. Don’t think of yourself as any more privileged because in many ways, you aren’t.
This article in no way was made to hurt or offend anyone, but I do hope it provides some challenging insights. I understand that many people are striving to do the right thing when coming to Uganda, but it is just not what ends up happening because of a lack of understanding. That is why it is important that all we do is considered thoroughly before we take action. When we give, it needs to be done gently and discreetly. Look into it carefully, as many organisations will distribute clothes, gifts, and money in an appropriate fashion. Some may not. Giving is good, but it can be just about as good as giving sweets to a kid until he’s diagnosed with obesity if we don’t do it carefully. Let’s take time to listen and learn about a country and its needs before we dive in head first with what our country and culture believes is the right thing to do. Let’s take into account the stigmas we may be creating for ourselves and the drawbacks to every action we take. Let’s learn how to care for others properly.
It all starts with being willing to listen and learn.