Here is a reflective paper on my time in Mbale, written in a magazine article format. I would love to hear what you think!
By: Hanna Nussbaum
Many Westerners enjoy the luxury of exploring and traveling to the many corners of the world. In past centuries Caucasians have been the most eager and able to travel and encounter people groups different from their own. With the history of Western colonization and missions tattooed on their skin, every white person spending time in Africa today carries the baggage and connotation of “muzungus” before them.
In fact, the term “muzungu,” which is used widely across Africa to describe white people, is literally translated in Kiswahili as “person who walks in circles,” revealing that African’s first impression of white people was disorientation and incompetence.
As a student studying in Rwanda and Uganda for four months I struggle daily with the frustration that my skin color influences every situation and relationship with Africans, although it is a characteristic that I am powerless to change. Despite my efforts to blend in, I practically have “$$ MONEY $$” written across my forehead. Therefore the question becomes: how can I, as a person who without choice represents the white race, change the assumption that all “muzungus” come to African with pockets bursting at the seams with hand-outs and replace it with the mentality of partnership and service?
The community of Marare sits just outside of Mbale, a small city in Eastern Uganda. Its residents generally farm maize, cassava, beans and sweet potatoes. Until a few years ago Marare lacked a clean water source, trained medical professionals and a primary school as a base for an educational system. Food for the Hungry, a Christian NGO with a field office in Mbale, initiated a partnership with the people of Marare a year ago. Since then FH, alongside the locals, has built a sustainable and clean water source, as it was the most urgent need.
In addition, significant time has been spent in conversation between the FH staff working in Marare and the community elders, church, and parents to understand what needs should be prioritized. Education was the clear and resounding response. Without a primary school building the education of Marare children has been limited to informal lessons under the shade of trees taught by poorly trained teachers. The literacy rate of Marare residents is less than 10%. When I asked a village elder about his dream for the community, he replied, “Send a Marare student to university; it has never happened before.”
How to Educate
Although many of the children of Marare have not received a formal classroom education, I was stunned to realize the practical knowledge and skills they had mastered at young ages. Cooking, caring for young siblings, helping transport bricks for the construction of the primary school, and fetching water were all tasks that I watched Marare children do to with an attitude of service and understanding of the necessity of their contribution. I was humbled by the responsibility of these children, and more aware of the blessing of my education, but also how that has predisposed me to selfishness. Thus it is crucial to realize that Marare children are not completely “uneducated.” Many of them do not know how to read, write, or do arithmetic, but I have no doubt that a twelve year old girl from Marare can provide for herself at least as well as I can at twenty years.
In addition, most African communities like Marare transfer knowledge through oral traditions. Riddles, proverbs, stories and folk songs teach children about their history, important lessons, good morals and skills.
I was blessed with the opportunity to sit with many children and parents in Marare one morning and simply listen to them tell riddles, sing songs, and teach through proverbs. To sacrifice this unique community-centered learning style for the sake of formal classroom education would be an enormous loss. Therefore, a creative combination of learning approaches, which embraces both the richness of oral tradition and the discipline of book learning, should be implemented in Marare to leverage the people’s gifts.
Still, one of the largest challenges in developing the Marare educational system is the lack of trained and dependable teachers. Ugandan teachers are very poorly paid and therefore have the tendency to come late to class or not at all some days. As the Marare Primary School is built, finding dedicated and knowledgeable teachers should be a priority.
Meeting the physical needs including clean water, nutrient rich food and accessible and affordable health care are essential to the well being of the people of Marare. Yet educating children in ways that are both relevant and practical, using both oral traditional and classroom education is the crux of the community’s progress towards development.
The Core Need
However, equally essential to the community’s need for education is the need for a long-term mindset within which progress is made. In the month that I interned with FH in Mbale it became vividly clear that the staff base all aspects of their community work on developing relationships. With the big picture of priority needs in mind, the staff spent hours each day conversing and listening patiently to the community elders, mothers and children. Instead of blindly teaching skills that seem necessary, they mentor and live as examples of how certain skills apply to daily tasks.
Because organizations like Food for the Hungry depend on financial support from Western Christians there is an ever-present challenge of fulfilling the desires of Westerners and doing what is best and most sustainable in the field. The contrast between these two agendas was made blatantly clear when a short-term missions team visited Marare for five days.
A group of eight Canadian adults came as representatives of their congregation with the purpose of kick-starting their partnership with the church in Marare and helping the community begin building a primary school. It is clearly a blessing and encouragement to the Marare congregation that there is a church on the other side of the world that is committed to working with them towards long-term development.
However, I was deeply troubled and concerned watching the approach and tone of the short-term team. One morning in particular highlights several points of my frustration. Each morning the children were divided into four groups which cycled through four, thirty minute rotations including music, sports, Bible teaching and crafts.
That Tuesday morning I was designated as the assistant leader of the craft station. The woman leading the activity was enthusiastic about helping the children make a spinning paper wheel that when rotated revealed the Lord’s Prayer written in both English and Lugisu, the local language of Marare.
Within the first five minutes of working with the first group it was clear that this was an activity designed for a group of 15 Western children, but quite the challenge with 60 African children. They had little experience with scissors and because the physical activity of putting the paper wheels together consumed the full 30 minutes with each group, none of the groups had time to recognize what the writing on the wheel said. As each group were quickly finishing, the Canadian leader would try her best to get a word in and say, “Wait children. Do you know what the wheel means?” only to have her attempt at formally teaching biblical values fall on preoccupied ears.
The other frustrating situation that morning occurred during our last rotation of children at the craft station. Working with this last group the craft leader remembered that they had brought packages and packages of stickers for the kids to decorate their paper plate wheels. As the kids were finishing, the leader revealed the stickers and quickly found herself surrounded by a mob of children, tugging at her shirt, grabbing at the stickers and constantly asking her to give them some. I watched in amazement at the chaos as she lifted her hands above her head and cut segments of the sticker pages to fall to the ground where the children were rummaging. The entire scene was outrageous and the ensuing chaos unnecessary.
The most vivid point in the experience was when the woman leading crafts stepped outside of the classroom area after handing out the stickers, visibly flustered by the incident, and muttered under her breath, “Ok, let’s get out of here.” Regardless of the fact that it was lunchtime and she needed to leave with the rest of the missions team, in my mind her statement immediately paralleled the international community’s response to Africa in the past; see a need, drop materials that are irrelevant to the community’s context or unhelpful in the long-term, and then “get out of there.”
In reflecting recently with Dr. Dwight Jackson about my concerns with the short-term mission team he asked, “Was the trip planned by the Canadian church or the FH field staff?” After thinking a moment I responded, “The Canadian church arrived with a packed schedule of activities, lessons and crafts that their church discerned would bless the people of Marare, and in particular the children.” In processing with Dr. Jackson further he articulated a dilemma that I had not been able to put into words; that the “African gene” of hospitality and desire to welcome new-comers can keep field staff from vocalizing what things short-term teams do that are filled with good intentions but create unnecessary challenges for long-term progress.
From the perspective of the Canadian missions team, they perceived a need of material possession in Marare and therefore brought many suitcases full of games, pencils, toothbrushes, soap and washcloths, stickers and much more. What they failed to recognize was that presenting Marare with these suitcases created a challenging and complicated situation for the FH field staff that work with Marare long term. In the community’s eyes suddenly FH becomes a funnel for handouts from muzungus, which is exactly the reputation FH has worked so hard to avoid. Yet the FH staff has the responsibility for distributing the suitcases of “gifts” to the people of Marare. In a culture where relationships matter more than time or things, I cringed at being associated with a culture that obsesses over schedules and material wealth.
In order for communities like Marare to lift themselves out of poverty, they need partners outside of their community to offer their resources, expand their social network and walk with them through the long-term process towards sustainable transformation. However, as muzungus, what “offering our resources” means must be reevaluated.
Traditionally Western involvement in African communities has manifested itself in the form of food aid, school and medical supplies, money and resources for construction projects, and preaching the gospel.
If education is the prioritized need in Marare, then those seeking to contribute towards its development need to education themselves around what is truly helpful considering the social context. For example, instead of giving bags of rice, teach farmers how to fertilize the soil; instead of immediately teaching Bible stories, take the time to listen to the wisdom of local proverbs and folksongs.
Short-term missions teams can be incorporated into NGO’s work in developing communities “as a tool to achieve their goals, but should never be used as a strategy” (Dr. Dwight Jackson). Groups like the Canadian missions team can positively impact communities like Marare if they ask, listen and are willing to learn, before they speak and teach. Teams that come to serve for only a few weeks are most impactful and do the least damage to the long-term staff if the activities and projects are designed by the field staff who know and understand the community. This requires a humble and willing spirit for short-term teams because the work they are assigned to do may be more behind the scenes physical labor than glorified interactions with children at orphanages.
Ultimately, Marare’s greatest need is not only education for its own children but also reciprocated education on the part of those passionate about building the Kingdom of God through lasting partnerships.