Photo above taken from our accommodation balcony in Kampala – January 2010
In 2009, I thought I was told to go to Uganda by God. Luckily, I really wanted to go.
Also, rather luckily, I was in a privileged family and religious community where this behaviour was encouraged. Missions trips were a right of passage. Dad went to church with someone leading a trip to Watoto Suubi in Kampala. Over that year, I worked to save up as much as I could, had some very kind people at church offer to support me, and my parents paid for the rest.
Smacks of entitlement, doesn’t it?
Our group from all over New Zealand assembled in Auckland on the 31st December, our hearts full of purpose, our bags full of paracetamol, pencils and cheap underwear for the babies’ home. We celebrated New Year’s Eve in three different time zones and found ourselves in Kampala at the dawn of the 2010s, swaying on our feet but undeterred. We were here to help, and if we stumbled upon Joseph Kony, like we were possibly led to believe we could, all the better.
We did what well-to-do Christians do when they go on a “missions trip” – physical labour on a tangible project they have no right being anywhere near; visit various local projects like churches, orphanages and schools as guests of honour, mostly because we were white; get shuttled around and have everything explained to us; pretend we knew more than the first line of ‘Tutira Mai Nga Iwi’ when we were called on to respond to the many musical performances we enjoyed and our sudden lack of connection to our own Māori culture was exposed.
As you can tell, I find it hard to look back now. To be clear, I don’t know how Watoto managed their staff, orphanages, villages, builds or overseas volunteers. I don’t know what kind of problems they face, and whether this kind of voluntourism is baked into their business model out of financial necessity. I don’t pretend to understand how to navigate the complexity of allowing well-meaning but hopelessly rich mzungu into a deprived community for a short time, and whether the benefits outweigh the costs.
I’m sure Watoto were doing the absolute best they could with the situation they had. To be crystal clear – none of my blame lies with them or how they operated.
But I have come to realise that the mission trip was far more problematic than I realised at the time, and that it’s worth asking harder questions of current trips happening now, and closer to home.
We did a good thing; our hearts were in the right place. But did our sense of entitlement and ignorance cancel that out? I, and those who supported me, spent thousands of dollars to send me over to a country I didn’t know a damn thing about, to do something I had no qualifications or experience in, probably because I’d just watched Invisible Children and felt a horror inside me I couldn’t describe.
I look back, and I am frustrated with how trusted we were, how pandered we were, how revered we were.
How we didn’t expect anything less.
I don’t pretend to know the amount of emotional labour that goes into making white volunteers feel comfortable in Kampala.
Who the hell would let a seventeen-year-old girl anywhere near a building site of a school in New Zealand? No-one, and nor should they. So why should it be any different in Uganda?
Why should I be let into an orphanage for hours at a time, putting my desire for a photo and feel-good opportunity to before the baby’s safety and healthy attachment development?
When did I stop and ask a single question of the Ugandans employed to make our stay better – the ones who organised our itinerary, cleaned our accommodation, cooked for us, drove us around, translated for us?
When did I stop to think about who and what they were going home to, after we retired for the night after “all our hard work”, our bellies full of plantains, rice, mangoes and Doxycycline?
What did life look like for Ugandans when the voluntourists went home?
I didn’t have the maturity, the empathy or the curiosity to ask these questions when I was in Uganda.
As I got older, I started to wonder if I was the only one who looked back, uncomfortably. It was Weh Yeoh who first got me thinking about it at university, when I stumbled on his website called Why Dev?, an organisation committed to thinking critically about international aid work. He opened my eyes to the horror of orphanage tourism, the harmful ways that classically “poor” countries are portrayed in the media, and the most important question a charity can ask itself: what is our exit strategy? He also introduced me to the term ‘White Saviour’, which Teju Cole has co-opted.
The questions organisations like No White Saviors were asking made a lot of sense to me, and I stopped talking about what I’d done. I became ashamed of a religion that endorses this “rite of passage” that perpetuates such waste, selfishness and ignorance, where the real cost is being paid by countries that have already bled at the hands of the white saviour for centuries (The Heart of Darkness, The Poisonwood Bible, anyone?)
In my horror at my ignorance, I wrote off mission trips entirely.
Until I met Tess and Nick Laing.
Tess and Nick are two of the most educated, empathetic, practical people I’ve ever had the fortune of meeting. I first met them in 2016, when they were back in Christchurch from Uganda. I’ve heard them speak once, shared a dinner table with them twice, and read their blog whenever it lands. That’s it. That’s the impression they left.
They live in Lacor, where, “Nick sees patients at St. Philips health center, manages 9 rural health centers for the Diocese, and has co-founded the social enterprise OneDay health. Tess works with our local Church St. Catherines to organise the community. She’s part of a small group “Wakonye Kenwa” (The help is amongst us), who are trying to bring about positive, social change in the Lacor community, which includes fighting for better water access, and against the huge alcohol problem.” But they so captivated me because they’d done the exact opposite of what I had.
Gone over to a developing country with intention. Found out how their skills could serve the community. Embedded themselves within it. Decided they didn’t have the answers. Listened. Learned. Acted to support what the locals were already doing. Used their white privilege on behalf of those who simply weren’t being listened to. Committed for the long haul.
If I could use one word to describe them, it would be humble. They injected the word with courage, love and grace. Gentleness. Wonder. Holy fury at what injustices are allowed to occur, daily, in the lives of those without power. The will to change and act and do, even in the face of bureaucracy and corruption and floods and power outages.
Reading about their incredible work in Uganda showed me that mission work isn’t inherently bad, like I’d thought. I’d just never seen what mission is supposed to look like.
So to Nick and Tess, thank you for showing me how it can be done. For showing me that in our failure and frustration, that is where we learn the most. For giving yourselves so willingly to a country that can use your talents for their advancement, because you’ve given them more than three weeks and one corner of a classroom. For stopping and sitting with the locals, and calling them your friends. For being there for the long haul, through the births and deaths, the medical centres washed away and the alcohol legislation being passed. For sitting with a child as he reads to you. For sharing food at your table. For remembering that the way white people do things isn’t always right. For staring your privilege in the face, and rather than being ashamed or defensive, simply getting to work. For showing us how it can be done.