I’d tell anyone who wants to help to look around in his or her own neighborhood, city, country. Find someone you think is less fortunate, however you determine fortune to be determined. Have a conversation. Chat. I bet you’ll find that much of the time no one wants to be the recipient of your pity; no one wants his or her experience to be the currency with which you deposit the soft sentiments to make sense of your privilege. Realize that the cheap clothing, shiny jewels, fast smart phones, sweet bananas, organic coffee, and a myriad of other things that you have easy access to may be the result of people having been swindled out of the rights to their land and the fruit of their labor.
I’d tell anyone to get an education that teaches you to question the essence and insistence that pictures of people from certain places be stock photos of children frozen in a miserable moment. Do they ever grow? What do they become, having had their faces provoke pity and the writing of checks to organizations that are invariably headquartered in the richest neighborhoods of those poor countries. Do the people of the frozen picture moments carry luck throughout their lives? Do they die of misery, having been the depository of such a burden; of people’s tears; of the sorrow of retired men and women who lounge in their retirement homes with their TV channels stuck on World Vision shows. For a penny a day, only a penny a day. The old men and women reach out to the table beside them. No, that’s only a glass of water — not glasses, not a checkbook, not a pen.
I’d tell anyone who wants to help to wake up and realize that helping is not a step on a ladder — you up there giving me a hand, me down there. No, I’d tell whoever asks how to help to have the manners and the understanding to realize that this is also a moment that does not need to be frozen in time. Misery takes turns. This might be the moment of mine, tomorrow yours. Tomorrow yours, and when you have a collection of ignorant but well-intentioned people who want to take pictures with your children smiling, laughing, impudent at the camera as kids everywhere are, will that be enough?
I’d tell anyone who wants to help Africa to look around and realize that Africans have people who have already looked around their neighborhoods and cities and the rest of their countries and are having conversations and working together. Exchange ideas. That worked for you? Maybe it can work for us as well. Grow a heart, a useful one and then wake up.
Juliane Okot Bitek – Acholi poet and author
(Juliane is the daughter of one Africa’s most acclaimed poets, Okot p’Bitek). Brenda lives in a rural village in the Rakai district of Uganda.