So Far, Yet So Complicated

Opinions  /  by Helena Thomas '17  /  February 24, 2017

Alejandro Turriago '17/The Lawrence

Psychologists recognize the human tendency to see problems close to home as complicated and nuanced and to see problems farther away as simple and straightforward. For a long time, I’ve been guilty of this mental distortion.

As a freshman in high school visiting a Ghanaian Orphanage on a service trip, I met a young boy who let me win every game of checkers we played. The owner of the orphanage told us that this boy had watched his friend drown in the Volta Lake. I scribbled down numbers in my journal, prices paid for the boys, and calculated how many boys could be bought with the money used to pay for one year at my school––all the slaves by the lake, every single one. Returning to Ghana the following year as an intern for Challenging Heights, the leading grassroots organization fighting slavery at Volta, complicated my comfortably simple worldview. I was forced to confront some uncomfortable truths: Children in Ghana, once “rescued,” were re-trafficked. Their families sent them. Their parents had been enslaved on the lake. Their owners had been enslaved on the lake in their childhoods.

These children need to be rescued. But what I had always seen as a moral imperative became a nuanced and daunting situation––one that was worsened by global NGOs implementing blanket strategies that had been “proven to work” in other places with completely different cultures, landscapes, histories, and people.

I arrived for the second time expecting to hit the ground running, but my coordinator wanted me to sit, listen, and learn: no presentation, no video campaign, no teaching English at the school they ran. It turns out, the “service” trips I was most proud of, the traveling that had shaped my identity, was the office joke. The office staff lamented the visiting donors’ inability to pick up a different empowering physical hobby as they took time out of their 10-hour workdays to find a wall for the visiting CEOs to come and paint. This is all aside from the resentment these organizations created towards those families who took back their children, siding with the white men who call Ghanaians savages. The world didn’t make sense. Compassion, action, empathy––the most beautiful human capabilities––didn’t fix problems.

To the donors, to me, these issues were simple: There is wrong, we mean well, we come with love. So we are doing good. We are helping.

A far-away, simple problem.

How do we confront his intellectual wall, this inability to see humans as fully human because our minds can’t wrap themselves around the complexity of others’ lives? This blind labeling, coupled with a harmful, backwards, even venerated notion of “action,” seems too entrenched in our psyches, in our “headless hearts,” as some development economists describe the reasoning of many charity workers.

These questions lack simple answers, but we must listen. We must run after ignorance, advertise it even, creating connections, reciprocal relationships of shared knowledge and empowerment. We must be careful with the notions of service and advocacy.

For many years I lived thinking I had a responsibility to tell stories that weren’t my own and to solve problems I’d never experienced. “To whom much is given, much is expected” is pasted on the wall of my room and impressed into the crevices of my mind. I often feel angry, guilty, and confused by irrational thinking that leads us to act as if the inherent equality and value of a human life is negligible. But what about the people who don’t get to tell their own stories, who don’t get to solve the problems that have surrounded them their entire lives?

It’s a tough question. My role is not inaction, although there was a time I felt paralyzed by the ineffective, bordering on neocolonial repercussions of my well-intentioned actions and commitment as a foreigner. My role is empowerment. My role is to facilitate action and self-advocacy. My days onstage can be left to musical theater performances. My future holds something better: community, dignity, innovation.