Suitcases and Songs

It’s about that time again.  I’m gearing up for my last weekend in the states and trying to plan the next 12 days.  I have purse samples to finish, paperwork to send out, textbooks to purchase, supplies to get together, donations to organize, a day at the DMV and everyone rushing to try and make plans before I leave.

In a way, I’m extremely excited and in another way, I’m horrified.

If I had a dollar for every time some one close to me has said, “I know what you’re going through,” I would be rich.  If I had to give away a dollar for every time some one close to me has said “I know what you’re going through,” and actually did, I may have given away $2.  Quite honestly, those close to me don’t know.

It became apparent at one of my best friends weddings.  I thanked one of the other bridesmaids husbands for putting together our website and as he said, “It’s not a problem, really,” all I could say was, “but you don’t understand, you don’t understand what it means.” And then the tears started rolling.  It was extremely awkward for me, I come from a family that practices avoidance behavior with emotions and having any sort of emotional outburst is not acceptable.

I had spent the greater part of the morning shelled up in the bathroom of our bed and breakfast.  Things hit you at the most awkward of times.  I knew doing this would be a little difficult but I wasn’t quite sure I knew just how difficult.

 Right before I left the states the first time, I met with someone I had considered a friend and inspiration at a bar for one of my last drinks.  She basically gave me a verbal ripping that made me feel two inches small, brought me to tears, and made me think of some lie to say about why I was emotional other than it was her.  Truth is, when you look up to someone and begin to see them as someone else slowly, then face the fact that they have no faith in anything you can accomplish, you realize what you thought was friendship was never anything except a word. Then, you doubt yourself.  It’s even worse when this is the person that inspired you in this path and opened your eyes to a different world.  Perhaps over the years I had been too desperate to join the “cool kid clique” and garner her attention.  In the end, I realized I’m not sure I really wanted it.

So I left, not knowing the isolation that I would place myself in.  I lost touch with a lot of people and found myself placed in different worlds.  It was fascinating, it was breathtaking, it was heart breaking.

I will never forget the day in India where I came face to face with a former child bride covered in scars from acid burns after her teenage husband tried to destroy her.  The amount of drug use and alcoholism is shocking and constantly in your face.  Alcoholism has touched my family, like many others, and is a painful thing to watch.  Daily seeing passed out people in the streets or the effects of this disease on those around you lets old wounds just fester.

The hardest toll on me has been Uganda.  I love the women I work with but when you are the sole person on the ground, the fear of disappointment can be overwhelming.  These people who have no hope have suddenly placed so much of it in you.  Often times, you have no peace, no alone time, no time for reflection and when you give and give and give all you can in your heart and spirit, sometimes that is what you need.

I’m not ignorant to the fact that I would never be in Uganda if it wasn’t for certain events.  I would be in South Africa or most likely, back in India.  I know that some of the anger and betrayal I still feel drive a lot of my stress compounded with the daily phone calls and emails being asked to pick up the broken pieces and promises.  It’s heartbreaking to tell someone “No, I can’t, I’m sorry.”

 Along that initial road, I went in and set up my own separate venture with what I was told from that party would be blessings, in the end it was anything but and just another step in the decline of what, and who, I once held highly.  It’s a shame but at the same time a haunting experience that I learned a great deal from participating in, the hardest being how to stop letting anger eat you alive.

The anger can be overwhelming when you are placed in any situation that you don’t understand.  The anger manifests in different ways and anymore, I wonder if anger is really any different from any other emotion.  When a woman comes to you who has been beaten, tortured or forced to prostitute to feed her babies, I feel anger for her life.  When a woman comes to me in an intake interview and lists her occupation as “peasant,” I feel anger for her not knowing she is so much more.  When a woman hands me something she has completed in the training course and says it is the first time she has ever felt like something, inside I feel anger because all I’ve done is hand her a needle and thread, and that makes her feel like something? I get angry for every person that has ever belittled or held her down to where she doesn’t realize she is something with everything she does.

In this context, let me explain that anger can manifest itself in different ways and doesn’t indicate an outburst or rage.  But in my core, inside of me, I feel it and it can become consuming to you. 

When you combine the anger with the isolation, you can be a ticking time bomb.  The bomb went off at my friends wedding.  Thankfully, held in during the entire day until after the reception.  Then I could not get the tears to stop and they went on, and on, and on for almost two days.

My travel doctor told me to talk about my experiences, that it would help.  The only problem is people don’t want to hear about it.  If I had another dollar for every time I  heard someone say, “I don’t want to hear about Africa,” “All you talk about is Africa,” or even the most cutting to me that I’ve heard, “She can go on all day about Africa, trust me,” I would be so rich I could buy my tears their own individual kleen-ex.

This is the truth though, the reason it becomes conversation is because it is now my daily life.  When we have conversations, I hear about your daily life, your dog, your cat, your house, your wife, your husband, your new car, your new job, anything.  I never get tired of hearing about that, and yes, lately everything I talk about tends to do with Uganda.  But right now, I know little to nothing of anything else.  That’s where my life is, my days are, and trust me, those days are insanely different then they ever were.  I have nothing else to discuss.  Yet, if I sit silent then people wonder what’s wrong.

It’s a difficult edge to be cut in, when you realize that your life no longer connects with anyone surrounding you.  When you recognize the isolation that you have chosen to be in, it sucks you in immediately.  It is not calm, it is not quiet, it is instantaneous.  Sometimes I try to tell myself it’s because its something different, the other person can’t connect with what I’m saying, they don’t understand.  And they don’t, but here’s a newsflash, I don’t understand your life anymore either.  

In the last year, I have gone from worrying about flawless hair, makeup, co-ordinating outfits and the latest social event to worrying about how I’m going to get 178 children through school, getting 28 women out of poverty, continue to keep them out of prostitution,  housing 3 girls (former child prostitutes) that I can barely even communicate with, living a life where I have to look over my shoulder constantly and trying to change the communication pattern of women who have constantly been beaten down, forced into sex and feel like they don’t belong to the world.

I’m trying to take a group of women from “I can’t” to “I want to” to “I will try” to “I can do this” to “I did it” to “Let me help you do it.”  

The other thing you don’t realize until you get there is if it’s even worth it.  What if we do pull out, have I accomplished anything to make their lives better?  I watched firsthand with a program that had been around for years and as I saw the impact and the way lives were shattered, promises broken, I am terrified to follow that path.  You see the impact charities have, creating a culture of begging, a culture ripe for handouts and how this sudden rush to run to the third world and be the rescuer has left a path of destruction.  I see so many people who are content to not improve their lives because they don’t have to, they won’t have to and they aren’t encouraged to.

My idea was to go in and set up a program delivering life skills, providing jobs, mentoring, education without giving a free handout.  Anything given would be earned but on the way we would help women to strengthen themselves, believe in themselves and help change the path of sustainability by encouraging individual thoughts, processes and cognitive skills.  Let me tell you, on the backlash of the “White Savior Complex,” this is difficult.  Trying to explain you’re different is at times pointless.

Everyone considers themselves an expert on charities and setups now it seems, thanks to a few well written articles in a few credible and not so credible papers.  Truth is, unless you have made the journey or done the work, please hold your opinion.  Not every single person is the same, and likewise, not every organization is the same.  I have worked with people who did this because it made themselves feel good, because they liked the pat on the back, the people telling them they were something special, the feeling they got when people in their program needed them when no one back home did.  It is disgusting, it is hard to watch.

I sat and saw someone I was working with tell people that if we were to come to them, they needed to give us housing and food for the whole week.  If it wasn’t up to our standards, we would leave and take our program with us.  I watched as this person chastised the food we were given, even denying something saying, “I don’t like this, I’m not going to eat this, why do I have this?” when we were in a rural village where there was not a steady food supply.  I paid the women back for the food they gave us, to help them recover some of their expenses.  I felt so guilty about them taking care of us when we were there to help them, not to be pampered.  I was instantly given the cold shoulder and not said a single word to.  Not a single word, as in the other party even flew out of the country without telling me on the day I was coming back to their program to finish our work (things had gotten so difficult and the verbal abuse I was undergoing was so uncalled for that I left for a city six hours away but made a promise to come back and seal up the work we set out to do).  

That’s the mentality that has me sick to my stomach.  “Take care of us because we are here to help you.”  My women take care of me, they keep me safe, they keep me feeling blessed, they laugh at me when I’m washing my clothes in a bucket and take over because I’m a muzungu who can’t do it right.  When I cook, they’ll try it but then tell me what I did wrong and how I could fix it, or just kick me out of the kitchen period.  Never, have I ever thought that they owed me something or would I ever threaten to remove my program if they could not keep up with my expectations.  Never would I insult their food and never would I expect people who make less than $10 a month to feed me for a week.

I watched one day as it was hair washing day.  Washing your hair in a bucket is easy, you take a cup, you pour water on your hair, soap, lather, rinse, condition, lather rinse.  I know, I’ve done bucket baths quite frequently when the water was dry in Gulu or in the village where we have no running water.  But this day, there this person was.  Out front of the school house after making a huge commotion about needing her hair to be washed.  Bent over a tub, children and women watching, having someone else wash her hair for her and giving them directions on how it should be done.  When it was completed she said, “See, that’s how WE wash OUR hair, when’s it dry you should feel it. It’s so soft.”  I heard her mention her hair washing 24 times that day.  I know, I kept count. I also still have the photo’s she asked me to take for some reason.  It wasn’t enough to get a crowd, but the documentation gave her such pleasure.

I felt it was a spectacle, a look at me, a moment to assure herself that here, in the middle of no where not only was she different but she was something that someone else was interested in. Back home, she’s nothing.  No one notices, no one cares, she’s just a poor person with a cold heart who can hide it in the wilds of a rural village.

That is the “White Savior Complex” front and center.  I have never felt better than the women I work with, I eat on the floor with them, I use my hands, I cook with them, I laugh with them, I cry with them and they cry with me.  It amazes me how they can look at my face, my skin, my hair, my eyes and hear my words and know how I am feeling.  They know when I am stressed, they know when I am trying to act happy and when I am genuinely happy, they know when I’m sick, when I’m healthy, when I’m exhausted and they know when to reassure me that together, we can do this. They are so intuitive and I feel like they know me, how I feel, because I am on their level when we are together.  

What gets me about these women is when I am looking at them trying to assure them, they know I am stressed that I am going to let them down or fail them.  I don’t have to tell them, but they can feel it.  They turn around and they reassure me, they let me know that we are a team, that together, we are going to do this and together we are going to change the lives of these 28 women.  These women know that we work together as a team, it is not me leading them, it is not me running them, it is not me dictating what they should do.  We hold open, community meetings.  We discuss the moves we want to make, how to make them and we do it all together as one unit.  

However, trying to explain this to everyone who thinks they know who you are and what you do simply because you live in a country in East Africa and started a charity organization is often times pointless.  I’ve learned to just say, “Well, that is a shame and hopefully we can prove you wrong.  I’d love to stay in contact with you, would you like to exchange information?”

I’ve started working tirelessly searching the right routes to promotion, recently signing up for Guidestar to show our transparency and commitment to putting the women of our program over our needs.  I’m not doing this to get rich, to get famous, to be some savior.  I didn’t even want to be in Africa, I wanted to be in India. Uganda was a fluke on my radar, some random chain of events that led me to a rural village and an opportunity.  The events, the happenings, the things I went through, the way things fell into place, I truly feel God led me to Uganda and to this village.  Trying to remember this and put my faith in him is just as hard as trying to figure out why I ever came in the first place.  The sacrifices I have made in my life and friendships over this at first didn’t make sense, but as it all falls in to place you see the lessons, learn what makes you stronger and what makes you weak and how to not fall in to the same path of destruction.  

I simply am a girl who wanted to start a handbag line and along the way found out about how most handbags were made.  Is it wrong of me to care about the production enough that I would rather start my own production from the ground up, getting to know the hands behind my bags, knowing they were treated well, knowing their stories, their families, their situations and making sure that no slave labor or children were used?  If I was of a complex, I would outsource my bags to China, have them made by tiny hands that can make tiny stitches in a factory and ship them back to me to slap on some racks. I would boast about my awesome designs and pocket huge sums because I got them produced so cheap.

Instead, I formed a not for profit and the proceeds from what we eventually sell will continue to fund education, healthcare, empowerment initiatives, mentorship, financial health lessons, sexual health lessons, clean water and a higher quality of life for women within their own culture.  We will never seek to westernize, destroy or tear down any culture, we simply will work within a culture, within their norms and give them a better life within their known path.

 I got so tired of hearing, “Well, this is how we do it in America, I don’t understand why you people don’t get it.” The world is not America, you can not treat the world like America.  You can’t. Furthermore, in these villages, no one cares how you do it in America because it does not apply to their life unless you are a pioneer settler with village technology.  

I’ve been chastized a lot because we haven’t produced any major items yet.  We are starting from the ground up with women who have never sewn.  It doesn’t come immediately or quickly.  It takes time and patience.  It takes dedication and it takes gaining their trust.  We have to work slow, we have to teach precision and an entirely new set of skills.  

Furthermore, East Africa, specifically Uganda, can be an absolute bitch to get supplies in.  Ever been in a country that runs out of brown leather or only has one factory that produces cotton knit fabric and their finishing machine goes down for two months?  Have you ever been in a country that runs out of propane for cooking for three weeks or where there is no water in the reserves for a month?  I’m not talking town, neighborhood, village, I’m talking a full country.  

Anyone who willingly subjects themselves to forgoing every ounce of creature comfort for an extended period of time, uses a hole in the ground in a squatting position for a toilet, has no running water, no electricity, no modern comforts (except for occasional internet and amazing cell phone reception), walks miles to get food and sometimes can only find potatoes and tomatoes, willingly lives in a country known for violent conflict, lives under a country full of violent conflict, gives everything of themselves to put a smile on another’s face, welcomes prostitutes, orphaned children, former men of war, etc into their homes with open arms and hope for their future, does not suffer from the white savior complex.  Trust me, if you doubt me on this, come visit. My home is always open.  Yes it will change your life but what is so wrong with having a life changing experience?

 Why is it so bad for someone to say, “Yes I went to Africa and it changed my life.” (I am fully aware Africa is the continent comprised of countries and yes, I do get annoyed at using “Africa” as a generalization). Why are people so criticizing of others who go on a journey, do see how other people live and realize that perhaps, some things in their life are trivial?  If you don’t like it, if you don’t want to change your life, if you’re not curious, then don’t go.  Maybe someone changes their life and has an eye opening experience through a car wreck, through cancer, through yoga, through getting a dog, through having a child, who cares? Mine just so happened to come somewhere in between India, Uganda and America.  

Mine isn’t about my selfish life of consumerism, mine is about how fortunate I am as a female to have been born in America and how it kills me to see an 8 year old put on the streets because her family thinks she isn’t worth anything more than earning dinner.  It’s about being hit in the middle of the street because I refused to pay my taxi driver extra money and he was pissed off a woman stood up to him.  It’s about the crowd that formed and even my night guard telling me I did not have the right a a woman to question.  It’s about reading headlines in India about rape, bride burning, dowries and front page news where a doctor that had two daughters was questioned about if he regretted his decision.  It’s about seeing dead female babies simply because they were born a girl.  That outraged me, that changed me and in my opinion, anyone born from a woman that they call “mother” should be outraged too.

Yes, I take pictures with cute Ugandan and Indian children.  They are the children of the women I work with and they come to be a part of you.  It’s not to make my facebook more cultured or international.  It’s because they are the part of my daily life that adds laughter.  We run through my yard playing tag, we teach them the ABCs off a wall painting in my garage that has been turned in to a school, I know their names, I know their mothers, I know their stories and I love them.  To me, it’s the same as being with my best friend and taking a picture with her babies.  

I’ve seen a ditch in Kampala where every Friday, aid workers come and rescue abandoned babies.  They sift through corpses and severely ill children, trying to pick the ones with the best chance.  How can you ever put words to describe that?  I’ve seen the typical poverty photos in reality.  Truthfully, I have a hard time taking those photos.  I have my camera with me but working in this environment has taken so much joy out of my love of photography, because this is not the environment I want to capture.  I want the beauty, the harmony, the wow factor that doesn’t involve sympathy.  

When you do this, you get pulled between your normal life you grew up with and your new life.  Your new life doesn’t understand your old life, your old life doesn’t understand your new life and somewhere in the middle you are expected to be able to satisfy everyone.  

And that broke me.

I head back June 8th.  I have my suitcases ready to be packed, I have an iPod full of new songs and I have a heavy heart.  Heavy because I doubt myself, heavy because I miss what life was like before I took this on, heavy because I have more eyes of doubt than eyes of support and heavy because I sometimes doubt myself when you see the grand picture.

It’s easy to question if working with a handful of women really makes a difference, really makes a change.  But at the end of the day, you can’t save the world, you can’t save them all.  But, you can give your love, your hope, your talents, your skills to a group of people who only know how to say “I can’t,” take them to “I can” and help them show others that life is and can continue to be beautiful.

 

One response to “Suitcases and Songs

  1. Jess – It’s hard to imagine what life is like in Uganda because I’ve not experienced anything even close to what you’ve described. But I can admire your committment. As for talking about your experiences … I love to hear you talk about the work you’re doing. May God continue to shower you with love and grace as you continue to move toward your “yes I can” goal. Love you. Auntie Wanda

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