The following piece was initially developed as a submission for Nicholas Kristof’s 2013 Win-A-Trip essay competition, for which I was a finalist. I’m publishing it here because I think the ideas within it are vitally important, particularly at a time when an increasing number of western students like myself are engaging in volunteer aid efforts. You can read the blog of the winner, Erin Luhmann, here.
Update: the MSU Exponent published an adapted version of this piece under the title “Where we need hope-bearing stories.” Given that I had the chance to sub out the self-promotional portions of the piece for ideas that actually matter in the grand scheme of things, it’s the version worth reading.
“Most of us believe,” I was told one afternoon in East Africa, “that Kenyans or our own people cannot bring good things.” The young community-leader-turned-friend looked past me as he spoke without apparent emotion.
“So it is easier for Kenyans,” he continued, “to support something that has been brought by foreigners than their own sons.”
I was suddenly self-conscious — an American engineering student spending a summer in the rural Khwisero District as part of Montana State University’s Engineers Without Borders chapter. Equal parts well-intentioned and naive, working on a project to pipe drinking water to a local primary school — trying to bring a good thing into a poverty-stricken community with little hope for the future outside educating its children.
At a loss for fitting words, I froze, offering only hollow silence in response. I couldn’t quite read my friend’s face as he carried on with our conversation about the region’s development.
It had been a rough month for both of us, as we found our effort stalled by squabbling within the project’s management committee and bureaucratic foot-dragging over funding promised by a local politician. Instead of supervising construction, I had sat through hours upon hours of community meetings, drinking coca-cola out of glass bottles until long after the novelty had worn off. My team came within a hair of giving up.
I look back on the ordeal, that summer spent sweating away illusions about aid work’s glory, as the most difficult stretch of my young life by far. However, it horrifies me to realize how my frustration must have paled next to my friend’s, faced as he was with a floundering dream held in outsiders’ hands. His words are posted on my bedroom wall, though they tend to keep me awake at night. We don’t believe that our own people can bring good things. And their unasked question: How can that change?
I have benefited immensely from working in Africa. I have drawn, from my travels, life-defining passion, the wisdom to manage Montana State’s weekly student newspaper and the chance to interview as a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship. While our water project ultimately inched forward, I am not at all sure I have given enough back to the village where I came of age in return. I embody, I fear, the paradox that aid work has far more success empowering young westerners like myself than my peers and their communities in the developing world.
Do we believe that our people can bring good things? We must find a way to — all of us — for our future is held in that essential hope regardless of the continent and community we call our own.
I, blessed by opportunity, know that I could bring good things to a place that has a lot of them — but that is not enough. Nagged by that doubt, I have found my path shifting from engineering to journalism. Reading everything I can find about empowerment, I have come to understand that hope stems ultimately from the stories we tell each other — and that my future is in using media to foster it.
What are we taught by our stories — and by those told about us by others? Too often, the stories told about places like Khwisero focus more on outsiders’ heroism than the community’s strength, something I have been guilty of myself as I have tried to help. Hope is a human right, in its own way as fundamental as water.
I am writing here in search of an opportunity to return to Africa as a young reporter, a chance to help seek out the voices telling the continent’s hope-bearing stories and bring them to the world’s attention. I want to find those Africans, Kenyans or otherwise, who do believe their communities can bring themselves good things and work to amplify their ideas and accomplishments and dreams. Those voices, I think, would be far more powerful than my own.
And perhaps, if I listen well, I might find the words I should have had to share that long-ago afternoon.