By Guest Blogger: Carly Brady (Palmetto Health Global EM Fellow)
It was the last night for the OneWorld Health medical outreach team in Masindi, Uganda. To celebrate, the hotel arranged for a local dance team to demonstrate some of the local tribal dances and music. Shell covered hips and legs provided a gentle shushing noise while the clapping and stomping created a more clearly defined rhythm. Grass skirts accentuated hip movements so that a simple shifting of weight created a rapid and wild swing of the skirt, capturing the audience’s attention. Auditory and visual stimulation merged into one. It was a far cry from the ballet and tap routines I had grown up trying to master in small town West Virginia. I was simultaneously filled with the desire to join this mass of bodies and movement while also overwhelmed by the strange and different nature of the dance patterns.
Then they asked for volunteers. One of my comrades bravely stepped forward and he was graciously received. They gently draped a grass skirt around his hips and began directing him in the most basic of movements. More and more volunteers added to the dancing mass until finally I could no longer resist the urge. My curiosity outweighed my fears of embarrassing myself and I stood up and allowed myself to be drawn into the madness. Rapidly we danced in circles and I focused intently on mimicking my partner’s moves exactly. In my mind it was like a scene from Footloose, Ugandan style.
And then we were done. The music stopped. Now the sound of heavy breathing and sweat permeated the open area. Some serious dancing had been done. I prepared myself for them to be impressed. I knew I had danced my little heart out. They asked for a photo to be taken with me. I imagined it was because they didn’t know an American could dance like that. Then… they said it, “Thank you for trying.” Not, “What incredible dancing legs you have!,” or “ Please come back and dance with us again.” It was like the Ugandan version of the “Heart and Hustle Award.” There was no indication I had done any decent dancing at all, just appreciation for an honest effort. After laughing about the event numerous times with my team, I began to think a little more about the whole experience and how I felt that it applied on a greater scale to the realm of humanitarian aid.
When humanitarian aid first came in vogue, aid workers were glorified. They were treated and received like saviors. As time progressed, and people began to evaluate the repercussions of some of these aid attempts, books like “When Helping Hurts” drew attention to the reality and severity of the situation. Good intentions are not enough to stop bad things from happening. We must educate ourselves and allow the communities where we are working to help determine the mode and means of intervention. As result of this conundrum, many people have begun to shy away from the idea of short-term trips or medical outreach in general.
However, as this pendulum swings, first towards focusing on the purity of the acts and then on the imperfections, I believe that our approach and the subsequent dialogue surrounding these aid attempts needs to lie somewhere in the middle. While we must always strive to make our programs better we must also not allow ourselves to be incapacitated by the fear of failure. I am concerned that in a society where we are conditioned to measure quantitative data and measure success purely by objective calculations, we can find ourselves hesitating and missing opportunities as we pursue guaranteed success. If you want to dance, you must first step out onto the dance floor.
My dancing was severely lacking. I am now aware of that. My hope is that it will at least be slightly better the next time I return. With each attempt I will continue to make an effort to improve. I understand that we cannot be this laissez faire when dealing with human lives. The truth is that some individuals are still dealing with the repercussions of other people’s good intentions from fifty years ago. As a result, I fully believe that you should heavily research any team that you are considering joining. Study the pertinent historical aspects of the country you will be traveling to. It is impossible to know the mountain range until you understand which tectonic plates set things in motion long ago. Be prepared for poverty and devastation like many have never seen. But in the end, remember that it is impossible to steer a vehicle if it isn’t moving and so your first action must be to move. Step out and go.
After you have gone, when you are compiling all of your information for a retrospective analysis of the trip, remember that whether your objectively measured quantitative data calls it a success or not, those people who you took a chance on will absolutely look at you, know that you considered them valuable and worthy and they will say, “Thank you for trying.” Some would argue that this is not enough. I would agree that if we allow this brief “thank you” to be the final end goal then it is wholly inadequate. But ultimately, I believe that the first step towards becoming a participant in the world around us is actively and intentionally stepping into the lives of the people we want to help. That relationship has to start somewhere and I believe that if you can come each day and say to people “Your life is equal to my own and I am going to do what I can today to show you that,” then there is something small in that very moment which is being accomplished.
Screaming loudly, “The system is broken!” will not fix the problem, nor will pretending that the brokenness isn’t there. If our options are anger, apathy or active participation then I think there is only one logical conclusion ,even if this means accepting that our participation will not be perfect. Walk onto the dance floor with what you have, knowing that it will not be enough, and for the time being, find a way to make yourself okay with it.