This post originally appeared on The Her Initiative, a fabulous venture bringing awareness to water issues around the world and bringing women from around the globe together.
I moved to Uganda in 2010, a fresh graduate from college with a diploma in International Studies and a focus, I would proudly tell you, on Development and African studies. Along with that diploma, I also wielded a naively arrogant attitude, thinking that somehow my studies and my 3 short-term trips to Africa had afforded me some kind of African Development Street Cred.
I was lucky to land at Cornerstone Development, an organization whose culture is vastly different from most nonprofits, where I would learn many lessons as a white girl in Uganda. Now, over 5 years later, I realize how very much I still have to learn and I’ve settled into a life rhythm and a community where proving my street cred is an absurd notion. My experiences and the people at Cornerstone have taught me important lessons over these few years, saving me, in a way, from my own arrogance.
I originally came to Cornerstone to work with children from the streets and my interests led me to deeply care about women in leadership. Cornerstone was gracious to let me follow my curiosity and morph my role into a kind of “gender consultant” for the organization. However, I soon learned that a young American girl jumping into the rivers of gender relations in a very different culture can lead to murky waters. Confronting relations between men and women quickly takes you to several sensitive and quite personal issues, right at the foundation of culture. And here I was, an outsider with my passions and beliefs in tow, thinking I could change the world.
This led to epiphany number one: I don’t know much. As it turns out, you need more than just passions and beliefs when working in another culture, and you often need to tame those down in order to be effective. I know that’s not what people want to hear; we are a society fueled by our passions and beliefs. We define ourselves by our opinions and which side we take on any issue. This has a tendency to create oppositional energy or, in other words, to pit ourselves against the other side and create divisions. But when trying to effect change, at some point it became necessary to put aside my beliefs and simply ask questions.
For a whole year, this is what I did. I just asked, trying to figure out why few women were stepping into leadership and diving deeper into the roots of the issue. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “The heart can never be totally right if the head is totally wrong.” If I tried to ride my passion without getting a true grasp of the issue, I wouldn’t have moved in the right direction. I would have simply been the foreigner marching forth with my torch of righteousness with few people following behind me.
Once I realized this, I came to epiphany number 2: Relationships are key.
Creating relationships that are open, without power dynamics involved, are essential to creating change. It sounds obvious, but for many people this requires an unfamiliar humility. I am grateful every day for my coworkers, who are open enough to tell me when my ideas won’t work or inform me on a piece of the cultural puzzle I may not be clued in on. Asking questions and forming relationships work hand-in-hand. You can’t get insightful answers to your questions if you don’t have open relationships; and you can’t form open relationships if you’re telling people what to do rather than asking and learning. But if you would rather have a committed team working with you than being the foreigner marching ahead on her own, take the time to form relationships.
The key word here is time, which leads me to epiphany number 3: Lasting change comes slowly.“I would rather be a pilot’s light than a firework” has become one of my guiding mantras in my work. In just 5 years of living in Uganda, I have seen a lot of fireworks explode and fizzle away. A social enterprise has a cool idea, gets a lot of publicity and maybe even a celebrity or two behind them, launches their program, and it quickly dies out. Or maybe it continues on, with a lot of fanfare from the West, but with exaggerated impact on the ground. Sometimes it seems like these enterprises are built more for the satisfaction of their Western founders than for truly making change. They have not taken the time required to ask questions and to form relationships, but their social media accounts are buzzing.
What I love about Cornerstone is our longevity of vision. We have been operating for over 25 years and growth has come slowly, but organically. I believe our impact is undeniable, like a pilot’s light steadily heading toward the destination. I’ve seen my incredibly talented colleagues keep their heads down and do the work required to make a difference while others seek social gratification and I’ve had to remind myself plenty of times that it’s the work that matters more than what the world thinks of me.
I truly love my life in Uganda. Many of us who work out here laugh when those at home think we have sacrificed much to be here. Sure, I may not always have access to all the same material goods in America, but I always have a chance to learn something new and dive deeper into my own growth. If you are considering any international or social work, I invite you on this incredible growth journey and I can’t wait to hear what you learn!