Sarah Loogman is the founder and executive director of Point One Vision.
One of the most impactful books I’ve ever read was a book written by Steve Corbett entitled When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself. I’d recently come back from my first trip to Uganda, Africa and was desperately seeking ways to reconcile the shock I experienced in the contrast of cultures upon my return home. Africa wasn’t the first place I had ever experienced third-world poverty, but it would become my last.
The premise of Corbett’s book is the ways in which volunteerism and charity work, especially in the field of short-term missions trips, is more often than not one that causes more long-term damage than the intended good. Creating the “white savior” complex, not only does this phenomenon steal away from the gospel truth that most missionaries intend to bring, but also creates a detrimental cycle within impoverished communities in which they can never heal themselves or become self-sustainable. I had experienced this firsthand when I had been backed into a corner between mud huts on a cannibalistic island of Lake Victoria by dozens of children, scratching at my arms shouting “Mzungu, sweets! Mzungu! (White person, candy! White person!)”. I realized in that moment that something about this picture was terribly wrong.
After reading Corbett’s book, I felt a strong urge to try it again - but better. This time I wanted to lead a team by myself. I knew how deeply my experience in Uganda had transformed my perspective of the world and I wanted to give that to others, too.
Before this second trip, I asked every person on the team I was leading to read Corbett’s book. I highlighted sections that I had found most valuable and repeatedly pressed upon the group the importance that we weren’t headed on a mission to save anybody, but that we were to partner with ministries and organizations already in place. What I most wanted was for this group of individuals to see what I had seen. This time, we didn’t take toys, candies and “white junk.” Instead we took medical supplies and specific orders from my Ugandan friends and contacts of resources that they actually needed.
I didn’t realize that I had failed again until we came home.
While volunteering time at a friend’s orphanage in Jinja, we encountered a woman on the street one day as we walked with the kids to their local church. Her name was Irene. She had been kicked out of her home by her husband with her brand new infant son and she had nowhere to go. We literally found her in the ditch. She stayed with us at the orphanage for a few days before we came up with a plan. Rather than just give her money and send her out, we decided to invest into her own sufficiency by providing her with the means to start her own business in making coal - a common job for an Ugandan woman. We set her up with the startup resources she needed, paid her first months rent in a remote village community and dropped her off with all the warm feelings that we had helped in the right way.
A couple of months after we had all returned to the States, I checked back in with my Ugandan friend on how Irene was doing in her new community. I was devastated to find out that she had been tormented and rejected by the village until she was forced to leave. The reason for this was because the villagers had seen her come in with a white American group and she was no longer viewed as one of their own. They either expected her to share her “white money” (of which she did not have to spare) or resented her for receiving the help that we had given her. She ended up right back where we had found her.
Just a year and half later, I’d go back for my third and final trip to Uganda - this time, alone. I didn’t bring donations, I stayed under the radar and spent more intimate time with my Ugandan friends who I already had emotional investments with. I slept on their dirt floors and tried to absorb as much of an authentic Ugandan living as a white woman possibly could. It was the best experience I’d had in the country of my favorite red soil and the one in which I left the least visible mark. I left very little behind.
I haven’t been back for many reasons. I know in my heart that I will be back again someday, but never in the same capacity as before. The less my presence is known there, I now realize the better it is for the Ugandan people that I love.
The revival of the civil rights movement taking place now in the United States reminds me of these memories. Though there is yet a cultural gap even between my African-American neighbors and indigenous black friends, my compassion for marginalized, impoverished and oppressed is the same now as it was when I knew no better. But now I do know better.
What I am reminded of is that my visibility is not always the most helpful and what is revealed to me now is that my absence is not, either. I have been so afraid of my helping that has hurt that there are areas in which I have minimized my presence at all. What hurts most is not to even try.
To the black community, here and there, I see you and I remember you. I may yet fail because I can never fully know you, but I will not fail by my giving up.
“Healthy relationships require transformed hearts, not just transformed brains.”
- Steve Corbett, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself