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Pathfinders Diary: For God and My Stomach

22 Nov

Pathfinders ProjectFrom Pathfinders Project Director Conor Robinson comes this look at corruption and the struggle to survive in Uganda. Click here to read Conor’s full post. The Pathfinders are in Ghana now, working with the Alliance for African Women Initiative. Visit their website to keep up with their journey.

[...] I understand why the students on the soccer field stole free kicks from each other and hogged the ball even when it meant their team failed to score. The individual opportunity to touch the ball was more immediate and important to each child than the team winning, so much so that players injured their own teammates for a chance to kick the soccer ball. And I understand why cooperative activities like the Human Knot failed so miserably with the students. The desire to be free from the Human Knot was more powerful than the desire to work with others for the freedom of all. Over and over, Ugandan students attempted to escape from the Human Knot by exerting force on the tangled arms that held them in place, heedless of the injuries they caused others and even themselves when they did so.

I’d like to treat both of these student behaviors as metaphors without pushing my argument too far. Student athletes in every country and at every age level have trouble sharing the ball. All of the middle school students I coached in Los Angeles wanted as much action as possible, too, even when it meant they ran into each other and lost the ball. Special Education SignAs for the Human Knot and other cooperative games I attempted to introduce, one hundred different factors probably contributed to their uselessness as educational tools in Uganda. Looking back on Uganda from Ghana, I still can’t parse all of the cultural differences that made the entire teaching experience a constant, fascinating puzzle.

I’m not claiming any special insight into the Ugandan people as a result of my time there. People struggling to survive under harsh conditions in Uganda are no different from people struggling to survive under harsh conditions in America. The only difference is my awareness. To borrow from Terry Pratchett, “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors.”

I didn’t have to travel outside of the United States to find individuals struggling to survive, but I may have had to travel to gain new perspective. I am convinced more than ever that charitable giving and service are inseparable from humanism. We cannot claim to promote compassion while failing to act out of sympathy for those whose plans for the future extend only as far as the next meal. And we are fools if we believe that messages or even demonstrations of empathy mean anything to those whose sole concern is survival. If we are sincere in our desire to change the outlook, we must be sincere in our efforts to change the condition. [...]

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