During our pre-departure training, we were told to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This brings to mind trying to sleep with chickens crowing right outside your window, letting your intestines adjust to new food, taking cold showers, or being smushed into the back of a taxi van. Before departing, these physical discomforts were more apparent, more easily imagined, and more readily explained. They are also easier to overcome.
What I am finding difficult is the internal discomfort that comes from constantly coming face to face with the fact that I am privileged beyond belief. In Canada, I come from, and still residing in, a predominantly white/middle-class/bourgeois area. My heritage matches Canada’s dominant culture and I look like most of the people I live around. My privilege in my home context is normalized, engrained, and almost feels invisible. That is to say, I am not regularly confronted by my privilege. However, my privilege is exemplified in the very act I am now participating in: a white, English-speaking, educated, cis-woman who is taking a 6 month leave to participate in an internship. The fact that I sit here today writing this blog, and spend hours tinkering over wording, reflecting on my privilege, and thinking about how I feel uncomfortable being here is just part of my privilege.
Acknowledging and reflecting on discomfort and worry can be unnerving, but can also be a source of strength. Since coming to Uganda, I have felt insecure and unsure of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it – and I think this is a good thing. I have been conditioned to have confidence in myself, to believe that what I say and think matters, that my ideas are good, that I am smart, that I can make a difference and that there is a solution to most problems. I have also been conditioned to judge others, to seek out approval, to believe that my culture’s way is the right way of doing things, and to ignore/undervalue things I don’t understand. However, I am aware that my presence (and the presence of other people like me) can be a continuation of the colonial Othering process. How and why is it that some volunteers/interns feel that they know what’s best for the organization or what needs to change when they have just arrived? Why, after so much education and critique of the development system, do I still feel the desire to partake in development work? What personal reward do I get, and what stereotypes and discourses does that reward derive from? What do I hope to achieve, and why does it need to be achieved in THIS space? The reflective process of asking questions and breaking down assumptions/values that we have are especially important when we’re working in a cross-cultural setting. And the answers are important with regard to staying humble and acknowledging that I don’t have the all of the answers and I don’t have to.
Being here is also a reminder of all the inconsistencies, hypocrisies and challenges that our current world economic order creates. I’m not talking about poverty being shocking (if it was about shock, I would focus on East Hastings in downtown Vancouver). It’s about dealing with the fact that the world is so systematically unfair and unjust when it doesn’t need to be. For all of the rhetoric that capitalism makes it possible for people to improve their situations, that the ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ and that all we need is a ‘go-get-it’ attitude, living in other places reminds me that the world is still deeply divided along economic lines and I (we, in Canada) benefit from these divisions. The hypocrisy of the ‘development’ project is overwhelming when I am brought face-to-face with wonderful, warm, intelligent people who have very different struggles in life because of where they happen to have been born. The structures of power – which are helped and held up by all of us – the privileged/weak, the political/apathetic, the naive/informed, the patriarchal/progressive – resist changes and movement. ‘Development’ can be used as a way of appeasing and compensating for ongoing brutality, and as a way of glossing over structural barriers to equality. Real, long-term, transformative change, that accounts and compensates for decades and centuries of oppression/violence/colonialism seems impossible.
Mechanisms of power and subjugation play through us. To challenge this, we need to reflect and deconstruct the stories we tell and judgments we make. My discomfort and amazement at seeing people’s resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, at their patience with the mundane, at their perseverance with very real struggles is the cost of coming where I come from, doing what I do, and having the unwarranted privilege I have. My frustration and rage at the injustices of the world are real. It would be easy and feel good to hand out money and soccer balls, but I know that this would be to make me feel less guilty for what I have, and be proof that “while I was in Uganda, I helped – and I can measure it.” The more difficult thing is to sit with my discomfort. To sit back, observe and realize that my privilege doesn’t extend into the right to judge. To stop, reflect, and channel my frustration into something else.