I know what you’re going to ask.
I’ve been to South Africa twice now, so which trip was my favourite?
And that’s one question I just can’t answer. There is no way I can choose between both experiences because they were so different from each other.
The first time I travelled to Africa I was very much an idealist. Although I’d been told time and again that I was not going to change the world, I still believed that there was some way I could make a difference and I was shattered when I realized that I was just a blip on the radar, at best.
Now, I don’t believe I can change the world. But I do believe that no act of kindness (no matter how small) goes unnoticed. At least if I do something good for someone, they will pass it on or appreciate it. Like giving out school uniforms. Yes, one girl has one school uniform that might last her a few years. But it’s the fact that she now wears a new school uniform which will give her the confidence to raise her hand in class that is important.
Non-profit and nongovernmental organization work is about crunching numbers. It’s about getting the most bang for the buck you’ve been donated. Pinching pennies works wonders, especially in developing countries and although there are necessities that people need, some things are luxuries. I feel sad to admit that when you work with people who have nothing, they will ask for everything.
So organizations have to be thrifty with their compassion and with their money because there are other people with necessities – hundreds of thousands of people with necessities that must be met. Two school uniforms is a necessity, a paraffin lamp so your house doesn’t light on fire is a necessity.
Besides learning to differentiate between people’s wants and needs from a bare development perspective and becoming more of a realist, I found a large difference in my support back home.
There are some things I didn’t report on, or video. There are some things I photographed that I will not show you because I am afraid you would pity me for having seen what I have seen, and not grieve or find compassion for those I’ve helped. There is a difference between flaunting what I’ve seen that at the end of the day haunts me so that people will recognize what I’ve done, and giving people the information and the evidence of a world that needs their help.
Which leads me to another dilemma – how do we help?
NGOs are essentially useless – anyone who has taken a political science course has heard this before. Volunteer and relief organizations exist because governments have failed people. For this reason, I do not see any NGO as being anything but a relief organization (sustainability is just unattainable) that exists to take the place of governments that have failed their people.
And that’s what I’ve learned – or maybe I’ve just become more jaded.
I think it’s probably that I’ve just grown up. I believe that through knowledge and expertise I can change the world in a small way, not necessarily through actions. And that’s the biggest difference between my two experiences in Africa.
So none was better than the other; they were different.
I’m sure that’s the answer you expected.