global health, Uganda 2012

advice for students working in poor places

“In order to contribute to Africa, I would have to know myself better and be clearer about my goals. I would have to be ready to take Africa on its own terms, not mine, and to learn my limits and present myself not as a do-gooder with a big heart, but as someone with something to give and gain by being there. Compassion wasn’t enough.” – Jaqueline Novogratz, The Blue Sweater

I’m traveling to Gulu, Uganda in a few weeks for a GlobeMed internship with GWED-G, a women’s rights and community health organization for one month. Too much is happening to even process what is going on, but I’m trying to carve out time to really think about why I’m doing this.

Many young do-gooders will be traveling abroad this summer. Here are a few thoughts on how to make the best of it. These are things I’m reminding myself of (aka tips on how to avoid the duffle bag complex):

1. Be a fierce listener

Taking bold action ≠ imposing solutions. Real leaders know how to listen, empathize, and then make things happen. Approach every situation with humility and flexibility — this is how you can prove your worth.

2. Let go of what you think you know

You don’t know anything. Just accept it. Okay, you know a tiny bit, but that class you took in global health does not make you a global health expert. Instead of assuming that you are a master, realize that you can master critical, thoughtful thinking.

3. Ask big and small questions

“What are the biggest barriers to accessing healthy food?” is just as important as “What is your favorite food to eat with your family?” Zoom in, zoom out. Understanding the big picture complexities of poverty also requires a deep understanding of the simplicities of daily life. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “human rights begin close to home.”

4. Leave small footprints

Someone said that Americans take up a disproportionate amount of space with their voice and presence. Try not to destroy the land you find yourself on, but do not be afraid to leave baby footprints. You are not weightless. Do your best to leave a positive memory of your time there.

5. Don’t expect to change the world

Think about what you can give, and what it means to maximize your impact. Have concrete, realistic goals. Recognize that you will end up taking a lot, so reciprocate to the best of your ability. You might struggle with the need to have a “productive” trip given the costs, but realize the limits of your time and ability. You won’t eradicate poverty in a month. Ask the people you’re working with, “how can I be most helpful for you? What does change look like to you?”

6. Immerse yourself

Know the songs on the radio, go to a religious ceremony, learn how to cook, visit the “tourist” destinations, dance, embrace the bucket bath, drink the local beer, learn the local language, etc. I think this stuff is important, but it’s a little weird to think about how much of these experiences abroad for young people are about “understanding the local culture.” Don’t do this for the sake of “studying” the Other, do it get to know people and to broaden your perspective of what it means to wake up somewhere else.

7. Remember: everyone is human

Always. This includes the people you are living with, the staff you are working with, the people you meet on the street and in the village, and the peers you are traveling with. Every human being deserves respect. If you wish to fight inequality, you must do your best to embody equity in your everyday life. Make an effort to form bonds to others, because that’s all that really matters in the end.

Stay humble, stay happy, stay hungry.

– L