By Farai Musariri, Hendrix Collge (2016)
Mr. Musariri is a Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Major with an interest in poverty studies. He was born and raised in Zimbabwe, where had a very modest upbringing. In 2014, Farai was a Shepherd intern in Baltimore at The ARK, a program of The Episcopal Community Services of Maryland. He plans to pursue graduate studies in Public Health, with an emphasis on Health Systems Management. He is convinced that thinking critically and paying attention to the little things is what makes the distinction between a genuine philanthropist and a mere giver, thus this essay.
About 4 weeks into my summer internship, I walked into Kate`s office, my supervisor and mentor at the time, where I saw a lot of pictures of children our organization had served throughout the years. After close inspection of the pictures on one of Kate`s old bulletin boards, a particular girl stood out to me. Her kinky brownish-black hair, her big brown eyes, her thick lips, and the gap between her two big incisors. There was something about her. Her handmade beaded necklace, and the picture`s label, “Nyarai,” all of a sudden made sense: she was Zimbabwean. Knowing fully well that Nyarai is a Shona name, and that Shona is spoken only in Zimbabwe, I became bothered by the realization that a child associated with my country, my ethnicity, my pride, had received some services from our organization. My mind paced restlessly, and this is where my dilemma began.
Summer of 2014, I was placed in an 8 week internship with a charity organization in Baltimore, MD. I was ecstatic, mentally charged for action, and ready to unleash the “provider” in me. I finally had a chance to potentially help, no matter how modest the influence, someone in a worse situation than mine. The saintly “I desire to be cultured into a global citizen, through, among other things, giving back to humanity the wisdom I have gained through my hard life circumstances” that I had mustered the guts to present to all the colleges I applied to through my Common Application was now to be tested … Yet, not as easily as I thought!
The organization in Baltimore was committed to helping children in families that are dealing with or have just dealt with homelessness. Through a preschool program and partnerships with health programs, our aim was to counter the effects of the trauma associated with homelessness and poverty on children. Homelessness seemed to significantly stall the children`s psycho-social and cognitive development, and this led to, among other things, learning disabilities and behavioral problems such as short attention spans, and over protectiveness when it came to communal resources at the center. Without intervention, these hindrances would almost ensure that the children we served would struggle to escape poverty by lowering their prospects for academic success in the public school system, thereby inadvertently perpetuating the “vicious cycle of poverty” as Michael Harrington would call it.
The entire time I was there, we worked with close to 15 children a day. I had read so much about homelessness, in particular—one of the few aspects of poverty I had not experienced—that I had painted a horrible image of homelessness in my mind. Fortunately, my depiction, a dehumanizing image which, at best, objectified the people whose children I committed my time to serving, was completely wrong. I found that my version of the face of poverty is virtually non- existent. The children looked no different than those who had comfortable homes, they had needs like any four year olds, and they were as sweet as could be.
I quickly fell in love with the children, and, unlike the teachers who constantly enforced rules, I was a friend, a brother figure, a sports companion, and the new favorite person to put my 4-year old friends to bed when it was time to take a nap. I grew to appreciate the bittersweet experiences of working with 4 year olds all day, 5 days a week, and I even developed an especially soft spot for John, a dreadlocked boy. Despite constantly being in trouble for his disruptive behavior, stubbornness and slightly violent tendencies, John was a very smart bundle of joy. Like any other four-year-old, all he needed was attention and extra patience. He clung to my hand almost as if his dear little life depended on it every time we took walks on the playground. His hugs were so genuine, warm, and meaningful I wondered what the world would look like if our feelings were always this sincere towards our counterparts. His playfulness even reminded me of the four year old me, how I often got into trouble because I never took anything too seriously. Despite my nostalgia, part of me could tell that John`s and a lot of his classmates’ almost uniform, slight tendencies towards aggression and rowdiness were some of the effects of the transitory nature of being homeless. I immediately understood why these children were prone to learning disabilities.
And then I saw Nyarai’s picture. In all honesty, I am not sure if I was perturbed by the mere thought of her being in the program, or the heretofore unimaginable possibility that there could be a homeless Zimbabwean living in the US. I had unconsciously determined that homelessness was a problem for poor Americans, and that in Baltimore, a predominantly black area, this problem affected only black Americans, not the foreigner, the black African. I had succumbed to the stereotype of the lazy black American as one of the explanations for why poverty is so rampant in this population demographic. At the same time, I had elevated the African in America to an ideal, hardworking, and high-achieving individual who was making it in America and was mostly immune to the financial problems that regular people deal with.
Actually, part of me was concerned about the image of Zimbabweans in America after this incident. My self-worth was seemingly on the line because of my identification with Nyarai’s parents whom I knew nothing of. I found myself being very self-centered and judgmental of her parents without justification. Even worse, my inability to sympathize with the black Americans that came through our office makes me wonder if, to some extent, I had fallen victim to a form of racism. The rhetoric I often heard that denigrated black Americans and crucified them for being poor despite the evidence that there are so many things working against them, had become common and unnerving to me—maybe even believable. Was this even possible, considering that I am a black man too? I then wondered whether I was actually doing any real service to the children. I was unquestionably showering them with love, or maybe just attention, but was I really making a difference? Was I going to end up being one of the many volunteers and interns that came through, cast glances at these children, patted them a little and walked on because their missions were complete? They had brilliant “experiences” to plaster on their resumes, and they felt so good about their service, BUT … did they care whether the people they served were untouched by their service?
Regarding Nyarai, I am left to mull over why I was so disturbed by the fact that she received our organization’s services, yet, at the time, I did not share the same sentiments for the black American children I was working with. I really cannot say I have a satisfactory answer to this question, but I know for a fact that I wronged the families I was serving, and dealing with my dilemma is still a work in progress. As a Christian, I defied the greatest law in the book: “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” But, all I can do now is learn from my mistake, and pray that these children end up in the hands of people less prone to judge them.
Now, months later, while I reflect on my time in Baltimore, I find that I had lost touch with myself: the real, poor me. The memories, as vivid as a nightmare, begin to flood my mind. At the time, I had failed to recall that I am a poor Zimbabwean student studying at an elite US liberal arts college because my financial deprivation was “welcomed” and “mitigated,” if only for a short while, by people who sympathized with my circumstances unconditionally. Had I forgotten my past barely two years after leaving Zimbabwe? The times I had to wake up at 5 am before going to school to fetch water at a borehole away from home because we had unending power and water cuts; the time I came home from visiting an aunt to find my mother and my brother surviving only on wild mushrooms and sadza, a cornmeal dish—the staple in Zimbabwe. Had I somehow forgotten that falling into poverty was not a choice? It was not something we could change—it was a politicized multi-faceted struggle that still has not been completely dealt with.
While realigning my interpretations, I remembered how we became poor. Zimbabwe bended to her knees almost instantaneously. My earliest memory is that of gas becoming scarce: the day one of our neighbors had to line up at a gas station for two days just to get five dollars’ worth of gas. I recall a day, one of many, it was announced that teachers’ salaries were to be released a week later than expected due to unforeseen government problems. Because my parents were both teachers and because we had been living from one paycheck to the other, this was a severe blow on our financial situation. We waited patiently for the announced payday, rationing our meager food supplies. When they actually got paid, they learned that grocery stores were literally empty, and, like our neighbor, they had to line up for prolonged periods of time when they heard rumors that a store was expecting a food delivery. Sadly, the prices of basic commodities escalated literally by the hour rendering my parents’ salaries almost worthless. Although we formerly could afford to eat decently off of my dad’s monthly salary alone, now both his and my mom’s salaries combined were not sufficient to sustain us through a single month. At the peak of our crisis my parents’ savings worth an equivalent of about US$10,000 were all of a sudden worth less than US$100. At this point, we were done for!
This was all in 2008 when my troubled homeland experienced fresh turmoil. Our inflation broke record levels, poverty rates skyrocketed, and socio-economic unrest perpetuated by selfish motives rose to vexing levels. Like many others, our family became a statistic for human rights activists; we were counted among the extremely poor only to show how bad the leadership in our country was, not to help us. Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirayi were the talk in international media, yet our poverty—a more pressing need—was ignored. As a 14-year-old I could barely fathom the extent of this predicament, yet the scaling down of our meal portions and choices, and the speedy changes in my parents’ financial spending were all inklings of the crisis at hand.
In fact, though, our precariousness was not as big a problem as the ruination of the social constructs I knew and embraced as definitive of my identity. As my teenage years went by, my connection with my father withered. His expectations for me as a young man rocketed abruptly: since we could no longer afford a helper, I had to make sure our garden was always green to supply ourselves with a constant supply of veggies since we could not afford meat anymore, yet I still had to maintain great grades at school. For a while I avoided talking to him to avoid showing my frustrations, as well as to shield myself from fully confronting our situation. My pride in my country and my people quickly dwindled in a state of helplessness. It was clear that only institutional changes could enact the changes I wanted to see, yet these were nowhere in sight. Our struggle for survival was encouraging selfishness and human exploitation especially in the context of those who actually had the power to make things different. They, our leaders, were only worried about winning elections and making big bucks in office, instead of alleviating our economic quandary.
My awareness to the many parallels between my situation and that of the children I was serving in Baltimore leaves me with a literal psychological complex. I was poor, and they were too. Our economic recession in Zimbabwe is a big factor as to why so many people are poor there, and an economic recession in 2008 led a lot of people to poverty here too. Unfortunately poverty is politicized in both Zimbabwe and the US, which substantively stalls socio-economic progress. What my false sense of self—as a deracinated scholarship boy—temporarily stopped me from seeing is that these coincidences are not unusual but all too predictable.
From my experiences in Zimbabwe, also, completely innocent humanitarian efforts lost their significance because a socio-economic hierarchy spontaneously formed when a helper- recipient relationship was established. We embraced the helplessness that our helpers instilled in us, and we developed inferiority complexes that subsequently hindered our chances for upward mobility. Because our helpers had great plans to help us overcome our problems, we felt condescended on because their decisions to help us implied that they determined that they knew better than we did, regardless of how true that actually was. In the long run, we became dependent on our saviors, as it were, yet these were natural instincts, and I doubt if much can be done to prevent the perpetuation of this dependency.
Unsurprisingly, I saw this same hierarchical structure in Baltimore too. As a helper, I was associated with prosperity and the families we served regarded me as anything but poor—the one thing I actually was and still have to overcome. I was in a position of authority because of my intern status, yet the people I served did not realize that we had a lot in common. My conversations with the parents we served, though rich, were very awkward. It was as if the parents thought I could never comprehend the extents of their troubles, yet I did. What is more interesting is that, according to Kate, my supervisor in Baltimore, my internship acceptance was partly based on my race because I would supposedly relate to black-people problems for that reason. Never before had I thought about what my color meant to those around me, but it did not take me too long to realize that, in the US, my race transcends my ethnicity. I had deceived myself into thinking that I had been chosen because of my anti-poverty drive, my energy and enthusiasm as a young person, or my advantage as a male since I could be a role model to the children we served who did not have many male role models. I did end up relating to our families’ circumstances, but not because I am black. My poverty background prepared me for this position, unbeknownst to me or to Kate.
Interestingly, I was chosen for something I was not, and that was a lesson of how easily people can be mistaken for things they are not, or, better, people being understood through only one aspect of their identity. I was taken for Black American rather than Black African, and regardless of our analogous life circumstances with some black Americans I know, I struggled to fit in or associate myself with their culture.
Reverting to my trek in the US, I am amused by my school’s decision to invest in my education based on my resilience in my poverty stricken teenage years, yet the poverty I knew for so long has no place at my elite school. No one is poor there, seemingly, and I have to look and act middle class to avoid attracting pity. Not even in my dreams had I anticipated the wealth I was to find here. As I describe my situation to friends back home, I am nourished with a plethora of resources, material and intellectual, nonetheless, my placing on a on the socio-economic ladder is extremely deceptive. Because I am aware of the “real” wealth gap between my college friends and I, I feel like a turkey in a chicken coop. I dress fashionably, yet my clothes are mostly from our “free store” on campus. I avoid going out with friends on Friday nights because I just cannot afford such lavish living when I contrast these privileges to the situation in Zimbabwe. Do not get me wrong, I acknowledge fully well that my friends and I have a lot of similar interests and capabilities, yet I cannot overcome the thought that I am a just a “charity case scholarship kid,” and, unlike them, I will have to confront my poverty once I graduate.
Thus, even as my really expensive liberal arts education tries to nurture me into a global citizen, I struggle with my identity. I am torn between the world of the economically able and that of the poor, and how that translates on a global scale. I know that people back in Zimbabwe need help, but I wonder what kinds of socio-economic shocks volunteers endure when they go there to help. I am convinced that these shocks are things we did not anticipate while expanding our attempts at globalization, yet very little can be done to counter them. I am moved with a passion to help, yet, to date, my most significant attempt at helping others triggered a perplexing reality check on the changes going on in my life right now. I am an intellect in the making, yet while I acquire more knowledge and training at my beautiful and wealthy campus, I realize just how easy it is to forget where I have been and what I have been through. Clearly, just being taken out, even for two years, of the situation I am actively trying to remediate has had a drastic effect on my experience working against poverty. If I have learned anything from this confused state, it is how easy it is to look upon others and their situations condescendingly once we get out of similar situations ourselves.
On the other hand, finding such personal connections with the children in Baltimore makes me wonder if I am better prepared to serve them because of my past and current life experiences. At the moment, we are both needy parties. I need help from my college, and they need theirs from volunteers like me. Most importantly, I understand the humbling notion of being a recipient of someone`s help, as well as the sense of my helpers’ unintentional condescendence on my situation. I am persuaded that these are the exact experiences I need to be effective in my future exploits in humanitarian work. Potentially, my memories, including those of my time in Baltimore, will be a major driving force in enacting changes especially with regards to cross-cultural service work. I am unsure of whether my feelings of helpless dependence will translate to those receiving my help, but I can only hope that my efforts do not force those I help to feel dejected. I fully acknowledge that my desire to help almost negates my recognition that there is a connection between them and me since I will have to suppose a position of authority, however, I am willing to overlook this problem for progress’s sake.
In retrospect, those of us who face these identity checks through service projects are either left wondering how exactly we can counter our identity crises, or we are left discouraged and unmotivated to enact change. It is highly unlikely that I will fully understand the reason of my partiality to Nyarai, but I know for certain that I was shamefully confronted by the sad realization that I was especially touched by her, a Zimbabwean child I did not know. I, on the other hand, had unconsciously accepted the plight of black American children as almost expected, as if their needs were any different from Nyarai`s. I am unsure of what will happen once I graduate and potentially escape poverty, but I only hope that my prosperity will not subject the poor to the sense of inferiority that I battle so hard now, and that my refusal to associate with black American culture does not influence my interactions with them.