Recently my wife and daughter went on a school/church trip to Kampala, Uganda. They spent two weeks working in and around an AIDS orphanage and a small village.
The trip is part of a recurring program that has a variety of humanitarian, educational, and spiritual missions. It often shocks the team, typically a dozen or so 16-18 year olds, into stark awareness of how life is lived elsewhere, and what it looks like.
On this particular trip, they worked in a village than had never seen Caucasians, ever. The kids on the team, almost all girls, were mauled — not in a malicious way, but purely a curious one as the children from the village wanted to touch their hair and pink cheeks.
One day the kids went to visit an older woman.
She was taken aback, thinking they were… well, ghostly.
It was after this visit that some real learning took place.
The woman had no income and lived by selling goat milk. She was upset on the day of the visit because someone had stolen her goats.
Nevertheless, she felt compelled to give a gift to the visitors, as is their custom.
She did not want the kids to enter her home for a variety of reasons, but she returned from her shelter with a small sandwich style bag full of peanuts. This was her food and she felt compelled to share it.
In Kampala, girls are relatively worthless. Girls are considered trade bait and commodities. A 12 year old girl has generally only two outcomes in Uganda: traded for a cow or sold for sex. Mothers purposely distance themselves from affection because this is the course life takes.
The orphanage where my wife and daughter worked was overwhelmingly filled with girls who were discarded…no longer useful for trade or sex. Imagine having no value at 13 years of age.
Towards the end of the second week, there was a question and answer panel set up by a seminary in Uganda. The seminary students were African and had what I would call a binary understanding of the world and a qualified “if, then” thinking.
Here are some of the questions they asked the American visitors:
“Why did the Americans help Muslims in Yugoslavia and not Syria?”
“Why does your President say he is a Christian but allows Cops (Coptic Christians in Egypt) to be persecuted?
“You are a superpower, why do you pick and choose who you provide humanitarian aid to?”
“How can you be the richest nation in the world and have so much debt?”
“You are America, why are you so scared?”
My wife said they expected simply questions about America but not questions like this, in a place where electricity is on 4 hours a day and poverty and death are universal.
They did their best to answer the questions and while not contentious, the discussion did create tension. The questions spurned a secondary discussion amongst the American kids.
They felt like there was a purposeful hypocrisy in our politics and felt like our affluence had less influence than our character.
Bright, wide eyed American kids, conducting foreign policy. Perhaps this is our real responsibility in the world. Not necessarily being so quick to drop money or food but being more consistent in our portrayal of character and consistency.
This being a homeland security blog, these people who live in mud huts and metal sheds, and who live simple, simple lives want to know why America does what it does.
Homeland security is monumentally bigger than money, policy, and security. It is as much an idea as it is a function. Our security and place in this world are directly affected by what we present, how we present it, and whether it’s authentic.
The world is full, literally and figuratively, of places like this that pose the question: why does America do what it does?
Perhaps if we were to become more attuned to our reputation and more consistent in our behavior, our kids and our citizens won’t struggle the next time they find themselves in a conversation that starts, “We love America and thank you, but why do you….”