On Work in Africa as a Career, Rather than a Religious Crusade, Campaign or a Movement

March 19, 2012 § 3 Comments

There has been loads of interaction regarding Uganda in my life these past two weeks. I work in Uganda, so that shouldn’t be surprising. But, after #KONY2012, my life feels a bit like a viral discussion. Phone calls, emails, facebook posts – messages…it goes on. And, I couldn’t be more grateful to IC for sparking such a valuable conversation.

It was, however, a very small interaction that caught my interest last week – one that could have easily been overlooked. And, one I did overlook at first.

It was when I posted the Kony 2012 Drinking Game to my friend Sheila’s facebook wall, and she replied with this:

“Nice. I say, bring it on. One day we will get this whole thing right. Right??”

What has me coming back to this post was her use of the vernacular – “we.”

After living in Bots as an expat for more than a year, if Sheila knows one thing – it’s that none of us have figured it out yet, and no one Mzungu can stand up in front of all the others and announce that they have the answer to how to do this dance just right.

“We” are all trying to figure out how, exactly, is the best way to weigh in on our little piece of global issues that people have been trying to solve for generations. “We” have all signed up for jobs outside of our comfort zones, our cultures – our usual frame of reference. “We” all have the propensity to get carried away in our desire to help, and misstep.

“We” all like our alcohol/marijuana/cigarettes/insert-your-crutch-here when the going gets tough. “We” have all had moments of public embarrassment – my friends are still teasing me for drunkenly burning my lip a month ago trying to smoke the wrong end of a cigarette.

But the point is that we’re all trying.

I had a long conversation with a shop owner I have an account with this week. He smiled when I walked into his office – “I’ve been wanting to you about this whole Invisible Children thing,” he said. “Tell me what you think.”

But, before we got there, he said something else. He said – “You know, personally, I get the criticism, but then, I think. ‘Hey, so, they got the story wrong, they didn’t do it just so. Regardless, there’s an army of informed people standing around telling people the real story. And, at least Invisible Children got everyone lookin’ east. At least we’re paying more attention, now.’ And, come on, that in and of itself is valuable right? Those guys could have careers marketing all kinds of things. And, they picked something they’re passionate about in Uganda. So, you know – there’s some good in this, right? At least in the dialogue? I mean, they could have been telling us all about phones, or Nikes…but they picked Uganda.”

Once he finished, I really didn’t need to tell him what I thought. He had covered it. And, as I walked out of his shop, I felt like he had been the one educating me.

I walked out of his shop feeling humbled, again, by the truth that I’ve picked a career that puts a target on my back. We all have, and we’ve done it willingly – because we’re people that wanted to help.

And, it’s exactly because of that glaring, damned target that all need the rest of us to remember that we’re human when we fall – particularly when we may have set ourselves up for a little too far of a tumble. And, let’s be real – we all do it.

Not to mention, we all tend to forget that, regardless of how we feel, this desire to help has become a career – and it does not equal the sum total of who we are as people. And, when it does, we’ve made a grave mistake.

I ended up sitting on my bed – crying – after a Skype meeting last night. It wasn’t anything that was said. It was just the realization that I crossed a line – somewhere – and I keep teetering back and forth on it, this reality that my personal investment in Uganda is so huge that when things don’t go like I hope, it affects more than my company – it affects me. When we struggle financially, when lines don’t release the way I hoped, deadlines get pushed, or confusion sets in – I think about it on a personal level, and it takes everything I’ve got to learn to make that separation.

But make that separation I must. It is absolutely necessary to know that my work in Uganda is not the sum total of who I am – and that our failure or success is, quite simply, not about me.

In this profession, the personal and the professional mix in a big jumble of emotions that crux somewhere between wanting to make a career out of providing help, and wanting the way you help to make you a career.

The reality is that it’s a career – not a religious crusade, a campaign or a movement. And, at the end of the day, the people behind these careers gone religious crusading campaigns and movements are only human.

And, you can be certain that the little scar on my bottom lip is a quiet reminder that, no matter how good we get at separating the personal and professional – we are all, indeed, still working on getting it right.

(Pictured above: Sheila, playing with some of the children in Kakooge on her last trip with me).

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§ 3 Responses to On Work in Africa as a Career, Rather than a Religious Crusade, Campaign or a Movement

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