Humility is a Tricky Thing

I had two interesting interactions this past weekend. I know that I tend to tell tales sometimes, but I want to get at something, so I’m resisting my need to do so. The important parts of the tale I want to tell are the two things that were said to me when I described my placement.*

Good for you-what you’re doing is commendable and courageous

Why? What about this makes it so commendable? I’m going to Ghana for 3.5 months. That’s kind of nothing, relative to the many people that have come before me and the many that will follow. The impact I have overseas will be very small compared to, for example  (of hundreds of examples that I can think up), the impact that any APS working for EWB will have in the 1-3 years that they’ll be overseas. Sure, I am going to do everything in my power to maximize my impact here in Canada, but I can still guarantee that others have done and will do more than me. I think that this internship should only get as much celebration as it deserves; one wouldn’t call an internship with an Engineering company “commendable”, so why should my role be any different? It’s a job, after all.

I really believe in EWB’s work overseas and the thoughtful approach to change it brings to the field of International Development. That’s not to say that EWB is the only effective Development organization, just that it’s one way for me to do something which I believe can make the change I would like to see in the world. Is it courageous for me to jump into that change? I don’t know. I’ve always been taught to stand up for what I believe in and that’s what I’m doing. I’m not going to go slay any dragons, or anything. I’m just putting my ideals into action in one way of many that it is possible to do so; is that courage?

I guess what I’m getting at is this: wouldn’t the world be a much better place if doing work which could have some kind of positive impact on that world was just normal, instead of commendable and courageous?

You’re going to be living with a Ghanaian family? That’s so humble of you!

Yes, I will be living with a host family and likely in a more rural area (although not nearly as rural as some JF placements). No, that’s not me being humble. It’s not even me accepting the advice of EWB, even though it’s the advice I’ve been given. Rather, it’s what makes sense. My placement is all about translating district-level realities upwards to decision-makers who might not experience or understand those realities. How can I be expected to do that, if I don’t experience or understand those realities myself? Moreover, I don’t even think I’ll come close to understanding the extent of the rural realities of many districts in Ghana in the 3.5 months of the probable relative luxury I’ll be spending there. Living with a host family is not about being humble by casting off my Western luxuries; it’s about being real to more effectively do the work which I am setting out to do.

This is a challenging headspace in which to be. On the one hand, I feel like talking about humility is a very backwards thing, but on the other, I want to make it clear that this, to me, is a job. It’s something in which I believe very strongly and I’m going to do my absolute best to be the best I can in this job because of that belief. That doesn’t make me any more courageous, commendable, or humble than anyone else I know who would do the same for something in which they were heavily invested.


*-I wish I could remember exactly what was said, but I’ve captured the essence of the statements required for the purposes of what I’d like to say.


2 responses to “Humility is a Tricky Thing

  1. I think the thing to keep in mind here, Chris, is that what you are doing may not seem very humble, or commendable, or courageous to you, but to those people, such as myself, who have never even considered going to Africa to work as an agent of change, it is.
    You say that it isn’t humble of you to go and live with a Ghanaian family, but it is! You don’t see it, but you are a humble person to begin with, so your going and “slumming it” doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to you. I think that you see it as just you doing what makes sense, given the situation that you are going in to. But it is, particularly to very comfortably Westernized people like me. Giving up our creature comforts to live in a rural Ghanaian household for 3.5 months is a very foreign, and therefore humbling, idea.
    On your discussion of what kind of change that you will be making in such a short period of time. . . Development work — at least from what I’ve understood from the few classes I took on it in first year, and from discussions with Miranda after her development trip there — is an ongoing process. You aren’t just going on a feel-good trip to build one school, or to dig one well. Those kinds of things, while having a good short-term effect, are often just ways to make Westerners feel as though they are “making a difference.” While your project may not be long-range, it is still going to have a huge impact on the development of governance and rural infrastructure in Ghana. From what I understand, and I may be completely off base here, you’re going to be investigating and processing data on the education system in rural areas, which will undoubtedly be utilized long after you’ve returned to Canada. Your personal undertakings, while short-term in duration, will potentially have long-term effects for the lives of Ghanaians.
    In short, I think that you need to stop taking such a belittling approach to what your impact will be this summer. That’s not to say you should take licence with it and tout yourself as the saviour of Ghana, but I think you need to perhaps have a more well-rounded self-image of what you are actually be accomplishing this summer.

  2. Its interesting to see the you have been feeling very similar things to me over the past few weeks. I have found it fairly confusing dealing with people’s reactions from my actual internship job. To me, volunteering overseas or even working is a matter of choice that is very simple for any of us to make given the globalization of the world today. A friend of mine gave me some advice on this by putting it into perspective, that it is a choice that we can make, and seeing working in Africa as humble/difficult to do is a product of the perceptions we build for ourselves.

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