Fully Present in Africa

Caitlin O’Donnell[1]

Before I got here, my understanding of Africa was limited to what I heard about it on the news and what I remembered from my freshman History seminar in college. Which is to say that my knowledge of the place was reduced to Poverty, HIV/AIDS, and Colonialism— not an optimistic picture. Blame the journalists, blame the history book writers, blame the continent itself,  but it just seemed like the only news coming out of Africa was bad news. If I’m being completely honest with you, Africa sounded a bit scary from where I sat in the suburbs of New Jersey. But then again, most places in the world would sound scary to a young person whose greatest challenge in life was the SAT.

Nonetheless, a lifetime as a Girl Scout, several years in Amnesty International club and an enlightening college education made social justice and service very important values in my life by the time I was ready to graduate last spring. I sought an opportunity to do some direct service overseas, so I applied and was eventually accepted to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, which placed me where I am today: Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.  I’m teaching English, Music, Social Science, and Religion at a local secondary school in the city, along with three other American volunteers. I’ll be here until the end of 2013.

I don’t mean this to be self-serving, but this is usually the point in my story when the person I’m talking to will tell me that I’m brave or generous, and that I’m going to change the world, like my service is a noble thing. I feel some shame now when I confess that before I arrived in Tanzania, I secretly agreed with them. Romanticized visions of life in a hut flashed through my distant, starry eyes. I could build a school like Oprah! Maybe I’ll see a lion while I find a way to provide a remote village with electricity! I’ll pave roads! I’ll educate children! I will change the world! Eighteen years as a student had taught me that our society is unfair and broken; at last I was going into the thick of things to do something about it. It was going to be great. And noble. I just knew it.

It definitely has been great, but not in the ways I expected. There isn’t a single Tanzanian who has been delivered justice because I showed up, nor is there an inch of newly paved road that had anything to do with my work. HIV/AIDS still infects about 8% of the population here, and Tanzania’s average life expectancy continues to hover around 55 years. Service here, it turns out, is not as straightforward as I thought it would be, and the Third World is a very complicated place. Even if I make it through the full two-year term as a Jesuit Volunteer, even if I become fluent in Kiswahili and work really hard every day, the mark I leave in this country will still be small and temporary at best.

In the beginning it was a hard thing to accept because there are a lot of improvements to be made here. Tanzania is desperately and tragically impoverished, and the flaws in the country’s government, education system, and economy were glaring to my American eye. I was hungry to do something about it, to fix things and see results, to improve Tanzanians’ quality of life with concrete development and legitimate social change. With time, however, the question “What can I do?” became a better one: “What should I do?”

As a volunteer with good intentions, my work in Tanzania is not going to be the sweeping structural social change I had stupidly dreamt of before I got here. It’s not my place; that kind of initiative has to come from a Tanzanian, who will naturally be far better equipped than I, a white person, a twenty-something, a foreigner. My purpose, and maybe the purpose of any service more generally, is just to be present. Nothing validates a person’s humanity like another person’s humanity, and that is absolutely something I can provide. Unlike the elimination of corruption in the federal government, smiles and kind words to my Tanzanian neighbors, fellow teachers, and friends are definitely feasible. To be enthusiastically, peacefully, and lovingly present is both something that I can and should do. To be fully present to another person might be the greatest service and honor we can give them.

So I’m not living in a hut, and I definitely won’t get around to constructing that school like Oprah did, but I won’t deny that I still fantasize about it from time to time. There are still countless rural villages without electricity and the paved road that is closest to my home here is still a ten-minute walk away. Can my service change the world? Probably not. But I’m content to hope my humanity might brighten a small corner of it.


[1] Caitlin O’Donnell volunteered in the Center for FaithJustice’s LeaderworX program for two summers while a student at Villanova University.  You can read more about her JVC experience at http://twoyearsintanzania.wordpress.com/.

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