Hopes, fears and Uganda….
Aged 20, writing my final year Geography project on the role of Community Health Workers in preventing HIV/AIDs in rural South Africa, my supervisor suggested I should go and visit the projects I was studying. I disagreed, saying that if I had the money for a plane ticket to get there, I would rather spend it on supporting the work itself. My limited skills and experience were of no obvious use there. He said it would change my perspective on the world. I said that if I couldn’t be of benefit there, I shouldn’t go. I was stubborn, probably a bit scared, and I didn’t have the money anyway.
So – almost 10 years later – how have I ended up signing up for a 15 day trip to Uganda to do voluntary work with Rejuvenate Worldwide?
Well there are probably still plenty of ways in which I’m naïve and stubborn, but one thing I have learned since then is that ‘encounter’ is really important. In my part time work as a researcher, it breaks my heart when I hear well-educated academics discussing their subjects in a way that is so detached from the real lives of the people to whom their work actually relates. Thankfully this is not the norm where I work, but I often wonder whether the agenda of university research would change if more academics let themselves be more closely exposed to the social issues and inequalities we spend much of our time reading and writing about.
We see this in politics too, where power is often wielded clumsily and insensitively by those who have little or no experience of what it might be like to be dependent on the services that the state provides, or to struggle to feed a family on a low income.
It’s encounter that changes us, that prevents us from accepting the status quo. Avoiding encounter may be more environmentally friendly (in the short term), more financially astute, and more suited to our skills and experience, but it also leaves us much more comfortable with injustice. It is the unrest and dis-ease that is often results from encounter with something ‘other’ than we’ve experienced before which makes us unwilling to live with things as they are.
It can move us from a place of ignorance to awareness, or from a place of vaguely compassionate inaction to involvement, action or solidarity. Keeping out of other people’s lives is a good way of avoiding sharing their pain and joy, but it also leaves us with few resources to interpret or express our own. It’s not that going is somehow better than writing letters, signing online petitions, or setting up standing orders: these are all really important ways of connecting, influencing and making a difference. But I know for me there is a difference between being written to, and having someone come and visit me and listen, or give me a hug: the fact that they’ve done so means we can share in whatever’s going on. For a moment at least, my pain or excitement becomes theirs, and vice-versa. It’s not that they will fully understand my life, or I theirs, but the willingness to be present makes a difference.
One of my hopes for this trip then, is that it will help me to realise some of the things we should be more joyful about (creation, the beauty of the natural world, friendship, what people can achieve when they work together, people’s generosity) as well as some of the things we should be more angry about (the prevalence of preventable illness, disadvantage and inequality). I expect I will learn a lot more besides, and I hope to that I will be able to give something myself as we get involved in some youth work, English teaching and helping local partner organisations with work on building a new school.
I am a bit scared – I have never done a trip like this before, and I’m not sure how I’ll react to things being less predictable and controllable than they are in the part of the world I’m used to inhabiting. However, I am really glad to have the opportunity to go – I see it as a gift and a chance to grow and learn – and I am especially grateful to be able to go with such a wonderful group of people that I know will support and encourage each other.