The problem with band kids is that people don’t want to have boring, predictable conversations they can’t relate to. Oh, your friend who plays second trumpet is upset with the girl who plays first trumpet because of X, Y and Z? Hmm. Fascinating. It’s hard to interest somebody who has never been to band camp in the drama of seating auditions and the scandals of missed F#s, just like it’s hard to explain to that guy who isn’t in your cult why this man’s choice of blue over red Kool-Aid is so terribly relevant.
And in this decade, where college students often feel the moral thing to do is only eat free-range chicken that’s regularly taken to Disneyland, there’s a new breed of band kid: the African volunteer. This species is a more lethal, antibiotic-resistant strain of band kids. You might recognize us as those annoying people who always have an anecdote about crazy, foreign taxi rides or are ready with a quick exchange rate calculation to tell you how much we paid for that Coke you’re drinking in Uganda/Swaziland/Ghana/the Motherland. And if you thought overly talkative and self-absorbed people couldn’t get much worse, then the guilt factor will be an unfortunate surprise. I mean, it’s okay if you don’t want to listen to my hundredth story about the emaciated children. I’ll bet they wish that these stories didn’t exist either.
When it comes to these summers in Africa, including my stories about my own stint in Uganda this past summer, it’s incredibly easy to deliver a superficial monologue. It’s easy to declare that poverty exists, and most people who have visited the developing world can draw upon at least one sighting of “distended bellies.” If you’re looking for them, tales of woe and destitution are there. It’s normalcy and self-sufficiency, the universal basics that become harder to pay attention to and a lot harder to articulate.
I think that’s why we end up with all these terrible, identical stories from college students about “this one time in Africa” preaching about both the privilege of the tellers and the helplessness of their beneficiaries. A girl I met this summer introduced me to the phrase “poverty porn,” referring to the way that volunteers share the images of the people they meet. The context of these images, which is almost always as a Facebook profile picture with thousands of African children, often doesn’t leave much room for interpretation: There’s a presumption of substantial need. The end result is almost a form of entertainment, a voyeuristic and sometimes inaccurate impression that leaves volunteers and their friends and family with a warm, fuzzy feeling about making a difference.
To be fair, there are some appropriate ways to absorb these images without violating people’s privacy. Some people legitimately do treat their trip to Africa as a reality check, gathering stories and experiences that enable them to be thankful for their life of privilege or to ground the motivation for their dreams of being a doctor/activist/teacher. But when this tack invariably begets public blog posts with the stories of women who have been raped, or catchy anecdotes about an individual’s struggle with AIDs, it starts to get a little icky. It gets hard to distinguish between casual stories that the protagonists wouldn’t care if you shared and, well, poverty porn.
I’ve realized that just as it’s easy for some people to tout the poverty of the country they visited, I tend to overcorrect and ignore any problems that existed in Uganda. I feel kind of uncomfortable telling stories about my summer that make it seem like there were down-on-their-luck Ugandans in the country at all. I want to speak in a vacuum, an environment just as superficial as some sleazy poverty porno. I want to brag about how good I got at taking bucket baths; I want to tell you how little patience I gained for inconsistent WiFi. I really want to explain to you the plot of Irrational Hearts (my favorite of the soaps that air on Ugandan Public Television twice weekly). My stories are no more interesting or accurate than the “saving babies, taking names” ones, although they do have the added bonus of sweeping a whole lot of Ugandan issues under the rug.
In spite of this weird aversion I’ve developed, something about my summer is leaving me grasping at how to articulate the experience and the weird non-sequiturs of Uganda. I’m finding myself wanting to, and having trouble, describing the people I lived and worked with. It’s a mix of wanting to legitimately share it with family and close friends and just trying to figure out what happened to the whole “cynic” personality that I’ve always been able to rely on. Feel free to write the remainder of my columns off as yet another self-absorbed and egotistic college student’s self-promotion. Feel free to pity the whole African continent for their bad luck with visitors. Even though I can recognize the redundancy of stories about my summer, I can’t seem to shut up about this one time (in Africa). So sit back, relax and see how long it takes you into the semester to get sick of my summer.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity junior. Her biweekly column will run every other Tuesday. Send Lydia a message on Twitter @ThurmanLydia.