In the season of indulgence and excess, people find themselves thinking of Africa. Whether briefly or otherwise, we allow our thoughts to wander to the various third world poster nations and we proffer throw away statements to families who doze with bursting bellies; if only there was a way to share our leftovers with the needy. After having this thought and recognising the impractical nature of such a venture, for the most part we feel better, though for those of us who have a guilt that’s slightly harder to abate, we can call the number on the screen and commit to a dollar a day before breathing a sigh of relief that we’ve done our bit for another year.
This time three years ago I was commencing my first trip into the big world on my own. I flew to Africa and spent six weeks on a volunteer project in Swaziland, assisting in a day centre for orphans and building mud brick houses for disadvantaged families. This programme was coordinated by a not for profit organisation who offered various packages to people wishing to see the world while ‘making a difference’. As I boarded the plane that day in early January, a warm glow surrounded me; I was doing something noble and good. I had been blessed with a life of opportunity and privilege, and now I had a chance to give back by voyaging into the third world with the vague intention of ‘helping’ in an effort to prove that I was open minded and generous. After all, I was under no disillusion; I was one of the lucky ones.
Being born beneath the star of cynicism, while others blindly embraced the tour, as the weeks unfolded I became increasingly aware that the ‘aid project’ with which I was involved was in fact just another tool of the western world. Rather than existing to bring about a shift in the social taboos of the SiSwati people and instead of possessing the intention of building infrastructures and providing educational opportunities to close the gap for the African nation, the programme was little more than a commercial venture fuelled by the discontentment, guilt and arrogance of the first world; people like me, who had tricked ourselves into thinking we were there for others. Actually, we had come purely for selfish gain, hoping to find ‘meaning’ in our lives, or else to offer some kind of something as a means of making ourselves feel better about the fact that we’re doing nothing significant to adjust the disparity between the first and third worlds. We ‘volunteers’ give a month of our time and believe that we’re square; we pay our tribute before returning to our modern conveniences without having to feel responsible. Of course, it didn’t work out that way and I came home feeling a fool for the ignorance that I had exhibited regarding the state of poverty stricken nations.
However, visiting Africa certainly taught me many things that I hadn’t expected to learn. For one thing, I was shocked when I was informed that in countries such as Swaziland, our ‘help’ is actually enabling a self destructive ethos for the local people. During my visit in their country, I spent a weekend with a man named Myxo who still lived the traditional lifestyle of the SiSwati people. He explained that by sending money or visiting his country we are being unwontedly selfish; that in a Kingdom where the soil is fertile and land is freely given by the King to any SiSwati man willing to reside and work it, his people are choosing to migrate to the townships frequented by white tourists in order to sit with destitute expressions and be given cash by ignorant but good intentioned westerners, rather than bothering to earn an honest living for themselves.
I also returned with the sobering realisation that no amount of ‘giving’ is going to abate those feelings of discontentment with which so many of us from the first world are plagued. After being back for a few weeks, while I remained abstractly aware of the blessed lifestyle I enjoy in Australia, I was no happier about my job or personal prospects. This desensitisation led me to wonder at whether, rather than being justifiable feelings, perhaps I was simply a victim of the western condition; that in the absence of genuine problems over which to fret, we invent our own sources of grief and suffering. Upon considering this theory, suddenly my various basis of angst seemed pathetic and invalid.
Without a doubt I consider it is good and healthy to open our minds to other places in the world, whether through travel or by other means of educating ourselves. In saying that, I am ashamed to admit that despite the sobering realisations I made regarding Africa and our bandaid treatment of the country, I have done nothing for these people since arriving back in the land of opportunity. I guess the size of it made me feel impotent, though I know that’s just an excuse to make me feel better.
Please be aware that I realise that I’m judging we westerners harshly here. I have a lot of faith in the human spirit and on a basic level it’s great that we consider others and recognise that we are lucky people. I also recognise that when we donate to one of many and numerous charities to ‘save the children’ we’re trying to help in the only way we know; by sending money, the single entity we value above all else, aside from our comfort and lifestyle. We are also targeting our efforts towards the only continent the majority of mainstream organisations encourage us to assist. When it comes to Africa, we’ve been alerted to a problem and we’re doing what we can to fix it. This can only be a good thing.
Certainly, it’s imperative that we recognise that it isn’t only in Africa that people are having a hard time. In fact, there are many places where communities are finding things much, much worse; at least the majority of African countries endure their poverty in relative peace (though of course there are exceptions to this; the Ivory Coast has been in a constant state of war for many decades). Unfortunately, many places sorely requiring foreign aid aren’t considered trendy to assist. Somebody’s agenda clearly dictates it either unfavourable or unbeneficial to acknowledge the humanitarian needs of political refugees in war torn countries, for example. It’s hard to accept that those who are most in need of our support are the very ones whom the government and popular media of our country have chosen to censor.
So this holiday period, why not dedicate some of your spare time to considering the places in the world which are currently most in need of our support. Africa will not be forgotten if you spend an hour reading about the current climate in Palestine, for instance. For an easy to follow explanation of the history of the conflict, here is a website you can visit: http://www.merip.org/palestine-israel_primer/intro-pal-isr-primer.html. Or to view current statistics regarding the war and learn more: http://www.ifamericansknew.org/.
If you learn something new, tell a friend about it. Because more than anything else, well intended Australians simply need more information regarding the political climate of what is rapidly becoming a global village. Let’s face it, being the barer of this information will feel much more rewarding than providing your bank details to an automated voice message recorded by an organisation preying on your guilt and already maxed out credit card.
Happy holidays, guys. x