Abigail Pratt's account of her trip to South Africa with Karina Kloos

A taste of Africa

By Abigail Pratt (class of 2006)

After leaving Paris and working for a year at the European Center for Security Studies in Germany, I realized that my real interest lay in humanitarian aid. I figured if I went to Africa, and into the field, I could see if this was the career path for me. I left knowing about the problems, government corruption, AIDS, crime and poverty, but also having heard that it is a continent of such vast beauty and kindness that, once you have experienced it, every other place seems tame.

I thought I could leave Europe, work in a children's home, gain valuable field experience and eventually return and work for some NGO to "alleviate poverty and hunger." By the time I left Africa, I had been all but stripped of those notions and my idealism had been badly bruised by the realities that I had seen on the road. This is not to say that I returned without hope, or that I didn't plan to return and work for an NGO, but simply that I had a better understanding of the role I wanted to play.

{mosimage}I started my trip at TLC Ministries, a children's home founded in 1995 for AIDS orphans and abandoned newborns. The founder of this place of refuge, Thea Jarvis, is the most remarkable woman I have ever met. In the past 13 years, she alone has been responsible for finding true and loving homes for 630 babies who would have likely died in infancy or grown up in a state institution. It is really hard to describe what true love feels like, especially in writing, so I will simply say this: I left part of my heart there, with those children. I think of them constantly, wonder how they are, hope that they are happy and pray that soon they will have lasting and loving families. Each child arrived with a story so incredibly painful that it is a blessing they are too young to remember. Some were found in the veld, exposed to the sun and wind, left to die by mothers who were simply too young, too sick, or too poor to care for them. Others were abandoned at the hospitals, or taken out of squatter camps by the government and put into foster care. Because of one woman's vision, each one of these children will now have a new beginning, and it was truly remarkable to be a part of that.

I hadn't expected to be hit so hard by the realities they faced in their short lives. So while the love for these kids was always there, so was a feeling of extreme frustration. I asked myself on a daily basis: How can someone throw their newborn in a trashcan? How can someone leave their two-year-old in the care of a six-year-old and just walk out the door? Why is the adoption process so laborious and inefficient when anyone can look and see that there are babies needing homes, and families wanting babies all over the world? Why are the 80 percent of people in squatter camps with HIV/AIDS still not getting the treatments they need? And above all, why can I not do more?

On the road it was more of the same frustration. There were white Land Rovers, cruising the cities, advertising every NGO under the sun: Concern Worldwide, Save the Children, United Nations programs, CARE, Christian Aid, and so on. All of them are there in Southern Africa to fix a problem that cannot be fixed until the citizens decide to make the change themselves.

{mosimage} Karina and I talked constantly about the impact of foreign aid: Is it helping? Is it hurting? Is it a new form of neocolonialism? Is it a way for the Western world to steer the continent? Where exactly is all this Western aid going and who is benefiting? Everywhere you looked there were placards announcing that a school, hospital or library had been built from donations by "agents of virtue" (as Paul Theroux calls them in his book Dark Star Safari ). Behind the sign, you would see a once new, modern building with some absurdly Western fixtures, awkward and out of place, falling to rubble because after it was "donated," no one ever cared to manage its upkeep. Now, families with livestock are squatting in it-better as a shelter than a library-and this happens all over Africa. Well intentioned global citizens give money, schools, and clinics to governments that end up pocketing most, if not all, of it. I was reminded of Dr. Yates' class every day and wondered how such a beautiful part of Africa could be struggling so. By giving so much, it seems that the Western world is unwittingly creating a welfare continent, one that gets by on donations and is stripped of all motivation to work and earn a living. This again begs the question, what role should we, the rest of the world, play in this situation?

Looking over this article, I feel that you readers will get the impression that the whole experience was negative. On the contrary, it was probably the most important thing I have ever done. I love Africa, with all its faults and challenges and dysfunctional ways. It is a beautiful place with friendly people who deserve more from their governments. We met an incredible Setswanan woman (Ma Ramotswe, I think), educated in Columbia, Ohio, who knew more about the U.S. than I did. We chatted with a thirdgeneration, white Malawian who spoke to us about the need for Western business investment over simple aid. The young men in Malawi called us "plane tickets," hoping that we, muzungu women, would fall for them and take them out of Africa. Each of these individuals added to the overall experience and I would not have changed a second of it.

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