During the summer after my freshman year of college at Harvard University I traveled to Namibia to teach computer literacy at a rural village school in Namibia. Perhaps the most enlightening change that occurred to me during this trip was something I could have never predicted. You see, I expected to leave my summer in rural Namibia counting my blessings, re-envisioning the world and focusing on "what matters." I expected some sort of Eat, Pray, Love revelation that my life in America and at Harvard was bogged down by useless materialism and self-centered life goals. I thought I would just be the majestic American guy swooping in to save the day, changing the lives of thousands of people and then going home to retell the story.
It wasn't until a poignant experience in which a group of religious Texan volunteers came to the school I worked at to give a presentation on germs and sanitation (read more here) that I realized how horribly insensitive, misguided and untrue my expectations were. That is, when foreign volunteers go to "Africa" (you'll notice that many people don't bother to tell you where exactly they go, they instead typify and otherize he entire continent), it all-too-often becomes the case that the experience becomes me-centric. When I went home for example, everyone at home asked how many lives I changed. They asked if they even have running water in "Africa." People at home really wanted to know how hard it was to be in "Africa." So, Griffin, tell me about Africa, they would say, seemingly asking me to sum up an entire continent in three sentences or less.
What I find interesting about Americans volunteering in Africa is that the retrospective telling of the experience becomes intensely focused on the positive impact that foreigners have/had on the communities in which they volunteered. Many "I volunteered in Africa" stories become narratives of heroic successes, embellished tellings of opening the minds of underprivileged kids we Americans see exploited in commercials begging for donations on TV. For every "I volunteered in Africa" story there is a Facebook photo album depicting the woes and tribulations of village life. In doing this we American volunteers craft the voice of the host community for them and without them, forgetting that as much as we raise awareness of global poverty and issues we silence the actual voices of those we seek to serve. We silence our host communities and elevate our own voices. We effectively put ourselves on pedestals and forget what "Africa" really was.
Given this, a significant aim of Project Tangi is to re-tell the "I volunteered in Africa" story. I want to re-architect the archetype of the riding-in-on-a-white-horse American volunteer giving so many gifts for which host communities must be grateful to not focus on the question, "What did I give to Africa?" and to instead emphasize the question, "What did I take from Africa?" You may be thinking what my own answer is to that question. I'll tell you that the list is long and the length of that list only means one thing, that instead of running a victory lap to sing my graces I should instead be saying thank you to the community of Erkki Tauya Junior Secondary School for the gifts of love, community, support and joy that they gave me during my time teaching at their school.
In Oshiwambo (a Namibian tribal language) the word "tangi" means "thank you." Coincidentally it was also the name given to me by the students and staff of Erkki Tauya Junior Secondary School when I taught there in the summer of 2010 and is now the moniker for this project. Considering this, I wish to emphasize only one phrase throughout this entire fundraising effort; thank you. Let us always remember to give thanks where it is due and to continually live graciously and with gratitude for those who have helped us achieve our successes, no matter how small or large those victories are. So I thank you for the time you took to read this, for the funds you may donate, for the help you can give and for joining me in thanking a community that has forever changed my life.
Tangi unene (thank you very much),