My mind is nearly always caught up with the idea of foreign aid, of my role in my community, and of the things that I can do that will reduce the need for people like me to be here in the future. It paralyzes me at times, motivates me at others, but either way seemingly omnipresent.
Unfortunately, thinking of things in this light is also, in some ways, dehumanizing. When I find people doing me a favor, although I'll say thank you immediately, I will in my mind be on full alert. Why is this person helping me? How far am I away from my home? Should I talk to him or pass by? Where is my cell phone? How much money am I holding right now? Is anyone else around? The furthest thing from my mind is the exact feeling I'd want to have: I wonder how I can pay this person back.
These fears, as is the case with most all fears of the human mind, are not completely unfounded. The overwhelming majority of acts done to me in this country hold only the facade of altruism and in fact are done in search of a bigger greater favor on my part. There have certainly been uncountable times when I've struck up conversations or done/had done a favor, and ended up having to explain that I'm a volunteer, I don't have money. Yes, I'm hungry too. No, I can't give you my passport or get you to America. Look, I see that you are in pain, but I can't do anything for you. No, actually, I'm not a doctor.
And so, what is there to do? I have trained myself (more appropriately put, been trained by Uganda) to control my smiles and cries in such a way that people in the community know me, will feel comfortable with me, can come and talk to me, laugh with me, joke with/at me...but if they come asking for undeserved favors, they will be met with malevolence. I've told kids, mothers, fathers, and even grandparents that they have bad manners. I've made kids cry, scream bloody murder because Opolot is chasing after them. Ok, chasing the kids is kind of fun...but telling a jaja that she has bad manners is pretty terrifying.
Once again, unfortunately, I think that this is really the only realistic way to prevent the community seeing me as an ATM, not to mention to prevent me going absolutely insane. There exists no room to do such a favor for one person with the skin color that I have. It would spread faster than a brush fire. Its happened. And yes, this is the fault of generations upon generations upon generations of "foreign aid," as well as the community.
(Note: There is not a single day that I do not want to empty my pockets, my house, and give the shirt off my back to these people in my community. Not a second goes by that I don't think about how great I could make these people's days by giving them t-shirts, some pencils, an egg, money for some yoghurt. I am no different than any other person who wants to help this country. But, and this is the important part, I SEE that giving them that handout is, while thought to be a selfless act, is absolutely without question the EXACT OPPOSITE. If I wanted to feel good everyday, then hell yeah, I'd give out everything. I'd hardly eat food, saving every dime to give away to these people. I'd feel great. It would be AWESOME. But it is the people that would suffer. These people have been given crutches, and after enough years, they find themselves using crutches as replacements for legs. It absolutely sucks to rip those crutches away from them, and watch them using their legs for the first time. But that is foreign aid done properly. And that's what I'm here for. If I were here for myself, I'd be giving them handouts everyday. For those of you reading this that do give money towards foreign aid, please please make sure you are doing it for the right reasons, and that the money is not going towards the perpetuation of an NGO in a country where they don't belong, but rather towards ENDING THE NEED for what you are donating.
Bottom line: The hardest thing about being in this country is a direct result of all the "assistance" that has been given to it. We, and therefore I, am my own worst enemy here.)
Sorry. Soapbox. Anyway, along the way I've found that this feeling as formed into a desensitization and an inability to appreciate a gift that is just a gift. More generally, a showing of mutual understanding and respect for another, and nothing else. Something so intrinsic is, of course, quite rare, but that doesn't mean that it never happens. When it does, I miss it as such. I figure it is some kind of Long-con, designed to bite me once I've let down my defenses. The respect is given, but not received.
Since this realization, I have sat down with 5 people of my community with whom my respect cannot be higher. It is amazing that after only a year I have 5 people like this. I barely have 5 in America. Anyway, I talked to them (some in english, others in Ateso because they couldn't understand me otherwise) and let them know how much their support and continual care means to me. A couple were awkward, some misunderstood what I was trying to say...but I think they mostly got my point. "Look, because of the world that Uganda is right now, I can't appreciate you in the way I wish I could. Even so, I just want you to know that I see you (couldn't help the Avatar reference), I recognize your help with me, and I also see all the things you are doing for your community and your country." Something like that.
I'm trying to deal with being someone who loves giving out praise, doing favors, etc., in a country where doing so has serious repercussions. I'm confident that I'll never figure it out.