Photo: Seane Corn
We call these humanitarian trips "Bare Witness" because we want to illuminate not only what we experience on a practical level, but also expose the limitations and misconceptions that are within us as well and be willing to change them. If we can't learn, we can't grow. Too often, what stops people from engaging are feelings of inadequacy, shame, fear, their own assumptions and prejudice and helplessness. So it is in this spirit that I offer this next story. I am certain it will illicit critical feedback, but if it can continue fueling dialogue and create a forum for awareness, then exposing this ironic and challenging moment on our trip is more than worth it.
To preface this, before I visit an unfamiliar culture, I always ask God to reveal to me the places within me where I need to grow and to expose my limitations so that I can transcend them and transform them into wisdom.
Careful what you ask for...
It was on the very first day in Uganda that we did our first call to action. We visited the Achouli Quarters, a slum that houses thousands of displaced Northern Ugandans who had fled to Kampala because of the violence that was taking place. This impoverished slum is on the edge of a rock quarry where many of the men, women and children work tirelessly chipping away at the mountain of quartz with only a mallet and spike. I grew up down the street from a rock quarry in New Jersey and was always aware of the massive machinery and explosives that were used to dismantle the mountain into rocks and gravel and was sobered to see the workers doing everything manually. Instead of drills, they had mallets. Instead of trucks, the women hauled pounds of rocks balanced precariously in baskets on their heads. Instead of experienced, unionized workers in protective gear, they had children.
We were there to meet some of the more impoverished villagers and bring them food, including flour, sugar and beans, and medical supplies. We also brought clothing, toothbrushes and school supplies for the kids. The village leaders organized this day and let us know their needs. Many of the families came out to meet us and sang traditional songs, as is their custom. Thank God for Suzanne, a musician. With her help, we also came prepared to offer them a song in return.
Suzanne and I were walking through the village on our way to meet up with a particular family when a man, obviously drunk, came angrily up to us shouting and pointing his finger close to our faces. "When you come here, you look at each one of us in our eyes and you say, ''Hello!' You say, 'Hello!' We are people!" Suzanne and I were confused, but heard him out, figuring he was just drunk and we didn't want to get him any more excited than he already was. "We are not animals! We are not monkeys! How dare you!" Some of the other villagers came over and tried to make him hush, but he kept screaming, "We are people and deserve respect!" over and over again. As some of the villagers kindly led us away, he was silent for a moment and as we passed I turned to look at him one last time. Staring hatefully at me he spoke two last words. "F*** you."
What I'm about to tell you is a hard story to share, but a very important and necessary one. I'd rather not taint an amazing journey that will help support many people, but this trip is called "Bare Witness" purposefully, and if I do not share the good with the unconscious, then I am only telling part of the story and I'm denying you, and me, an opportunity for truth and therefore growth.
Seane is confronted with a racist remark from an unlikely place—her own group of volunteers