We weren’t important.
That’s the thing to understand about the situation. That’s the thing people back here don’t understand, and how could I really expect them to, when I only recognized it myself after two weeks over there? We taught, but we weren’t teachers. We participated in a program that we weren’t running. We were substitutes, filling in for the Real Deal while it went off and upgraded itself. We weren’t important, and it’s questionable whether we were completely necessary. What we were, was helpful. And really, that’s all that matters.
When we first walked through Kibera, we thought how friendly the area was. “How are you!” was shouted to us by every single child we met on the street. Some smaller kids even took to chanting it as we went by, and it was as if their cries alerted the children still inside their homes to come outside and pick up the call, so that not one moment of the trek between bus and school was without greeting. Others came right up to us to shake our hands. We’d been told not to refuse anyone’s hand, regardless of its state of cleanliness, as this was the height of rudeness and cruelty. It wasn’t a problem. Everyone was so kind and adorable you wouldn’t want to refuse them, even if you’d seen them sucking the remains of a treat off of their fingers, or sneezing, moments before coming up to you. This happened a few times, but it was okay. We were welcome.
By the second week I realized that with the exception of men, people were only calling to me a little less than half the time. Hands were actually being pulled back when the greeters saw my face emerge after another volunteer’s.
“You look like one type of the locals,” I’d been told in a brief orientation. “People won’t expect you to be with the rest of the group. They’ll be annoyed when you can’t speak Kiswahili.”
It was happening. One morning, the only person to greet me was a woman who wouldn’t let go of my hand, and rapidly spoke to me as the rest of the group continued on their way to school.
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “Kiwezi kusema Kiswahili. I’m sorry.” She finally let go, scowling, and I was in the predicament of wanting to catch up with my group, but not wanting to run from her. It didn’t help that later we had a meeting with one of the organizers, who talked about what a great job the volunteers were doing, and how loved all of the mzungu teachers were. Though I was sitting in the front row, it didn’t register that she was excluding me from the praise. In Kibera, I’m not a mzungu. I’m not lumped in with the others. People don’t care about how I am, the majority of the time. Am I not supposed to be volunteering? I’d wonder. Am I not at the mzungu level? Is it only the white people who are expected to volunteer abroad, who are expected to come into other lands, sprinkling their white fairy dust and making things better? Should I have stayed in the US, if my services have no value?
No, as it turns out. Two nights later we learn that “how are you” is not a greeting. It is a name. The Howareyous are the whites. The children chanting and pointing are not asking about the volunteers, but counting them. “There they go!” is what they may as well be saying. I’m slightly more okay with this. Some of the other volunteers are not.
“What is a ‘howareyou’ anyway?” laments one guy, actually the only male American. “It’s just another volunteer, who are like a dime a dozen here, who come in for a little bit, and then leave, and don’t come back. They don’t do anything. And if you think about it, when you say, ‘how are you’, you aren’t really saying anything. You aren’t sitting down with a person and getting to know them and their troubles. You’re just saying it to say it, and it’s all meaningless, just like this!”
I wonder how many white volunteers came through Kibera, saying “how are you” to people, before the name stuck. The guy is still going.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been a minority, and now I know what it feels like,” he’s saying. “It feels awful. All these people are calling me this thing, and I can’t do anything about it. I don’t have the power to stop it.”
“Wait,” I say. “You’re talking about ‘Howareyou?'”
“Yes,” he says.
“So you feel like a minority, because people are calling you Howareyou and you can’t make them stop.”
“Yes,” he tells me. “What am I gonna do? Tell them all not to call me that?”
There’s no way he’s comparing this to the n-word right now, I think. If this mzungu thinks “howareyou” comes close to “nigger”, he is demented.
“But you know they’re calling you that because they recognize the power you have,” I say out loud, telling him, rather than asking him. “You are a minority here. But you only have this experience. Volunteers here are freaking out because passersby are touching their hair. My hair gets touched all the time back home. You’re counted, you’re seen as ‘different’. It’s the same way people of color see you back home, only there you have so many other white people around you, you don’t have to think about it. So you can think about it here, and recognize its problems, but don’t cry about it.”
This seems harsh, so I decide to talk about myself, instead.
“When we were in Margaret’s Safe Place, that was hard for me,” I tell him. MSP is a gated home in Kibera that’s somewhat hidden from the rest of the community. It’s a safe house for girls with undesirable family situations. ‘Undesirable’ meaning anything from having parents die, to being abused, to being raped, to I don’t know and don’t really want to think about it (sorry). It’s where girls go who desperately need it, and it’s good that it exists. I’m happy my girls have somewhere to go, but I have mixed emotions when, on a field trip, one of the girls in my homeroom excitedly tells me that we’re going to eat at her home, at Margaret’s Safe Place! It fills me with something, sadness, and a desire to track down whatever evil is responsible for making MSP a necessary place for my girl to go, and punish it. You don’t hurt my girls. Please.
“When Marte walked into the living room, I wanted to cry,” I continue. “I wanted to cry, because she’s my favorite girl in the whole school, and possibly the world, and I didn’t know she lived there. And wondering why she had to live there, and what sent her there, made me so angry and sad. I wanted to cry, but I knew that I couldn’t. She’s happy there, and she isn’t crying. Who would I be to sit there, crying over her misfortune? What if she had to comfort me? That would be too selfish. All I could do instead was stay there, and try to make her feel better for a little bit.”
“Do you think that’s what this program is like?” Our mutual friend asked. “Is that what we’re doing? Staying here and trying to make them feel better for a little bit?”
“No,” I said slowly. “Actually, yes, just not with those words. I used the wrong words. I think that what we’re doing is like the time at Margaret’s, except we aren’t really making them feel better. They don’t need to. They aren’t unhappy. We’re just staying with them, and allowing them to keep going. The teachers are training, and developing curriculum. The school will advance, and more grades will be added. We aren’t important, but we’re helping them to keep going.”
It was something we all came to recognize, not without some difficulty. One volunteer confided in me the nervousness she felt about returning to the US. She’d gotten a lot of sponsors for her trip by telling them that she was going to an impoverished place to empower girls and make their lives better.
“And now, when I go home, I’ll have to speak at a bunch of meetings and tell them how this went, but I haven’t empowered anyone,” she worried. “I haven’t done what I told them all I would do. I’ve just been here.”
“Well, you’ve done some good work with the girls,” I told her, trying to find a way she could have the experience sound more meaningful to superficial ears. “But wouldn’t it also be better for them to know that America wasn’t the answer to Kibera’s problems? That they didn’t need us to fix everything.” That maybe it was incredibly ignorant to think we held the answer to their problems in the first place, and more people should be made aware of the reality.
“Oh, definitely,” she said. “I’m not going to say I changed their lives or anything. I just want them to feel that their money went to something worthwhile.”
I think it did, just not in the way anyone expected it to. We came in thinking about all that we would be doing. We wanted to be actively helping. It turns out that the most help we did came passively, by allowing Kibera to take care of itself. We weren’t important. Allies are never the most important part; helpers should not expect to outshine those they are giving aid to. They probably will expect to, anyway. But they shouldn’t.
We weren’t important; we were needed, like tools used by the community to fish for the rest of its life.