On going to Africa

The other month an old friend from high school contacted me via facebook. I hadn’t communicated with her for 8 or 9 years. Anyway, we only messaged once; but I got a chance to look at her profile (and she probably looked at mine). Hers had this interesting bit about how she’s going to Africa to volunteer with her church. Which got me thinking, because this sort of idea is interesting to me.

The first thing to say is that it’s a very courageous thing to do. Furthermore, it seems far more valuable to go places and help people personally than just to send money—because then it’s a two-way street, where you can bring ideas and experiences back with you and use them to help your own people. Someone I know once said that instead of foreign aid, why doesn’t our country have a policy where right after high school there’s a mandatory one-year abroad helping the poor? To me, this sounds like it’d be a step forward.

I still think from time to time that maybe I’ll go somewhere to help people. But I think it less lately, because I realized that I don’t have to go to Africa to practice kindness and generosity. In fact, it can be very challenging to practice it right here and now—questioning my own assumptions and challenging myself each day.

So I’ll challenge another assumption. Are undeveloped nations around the world really so poor? It depends on how you define poverty. I get the idea from reading that in many places that are materially poor, they’re not so poor in other ways. In fact, some cultures have a sense of community, spirit, and unity that’s not present in ours. At the same time, some of the richest people in the world materially are very poor in other ways. So perhaps the so-called poor in the world have as much to give us as we have to give them.

Or another way to look at is that we have a lot of room for improvement ourselves, so instead of going to Africa to help, we can challenge ourselves right here in our daily lives, and we’re not necessarily being any less courageous. But what can we do? To me, it seems, a lot. We can pay attention to the effects of our personal decisions; our consumptive habits, our personal relationships, to start. We can try and understand each other and build communities that reflect that which we value most. We can open up to frictions within our own society, in order to learn about them so that we may act to smooth them out. We can pay attention to what is being done in our name —and with the fruits of our own labor—around the world.

I read somewhere recently that charity is going out of style. People are realizing that instead of patching up problems that we’re creating, it makes more sense not to cause the problems to begin with. Newer movements like fair trade, organic farming, and buying local are all based on this idea. When I think about this, I wonder if there is actually anything more ethical that I can do than simply not harming. Either way, there’s enough work to do on the non-harming front, right here, that I don’t worry too much about the question.

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