Luxury, poverty, and the stories we need to hear

It was 2006, and I was fidgety at the table in the Hilton Tower Hotel in Kampala, Uganda. Across from me was an MP’s daughter and a businessman who would, in the next few years, attempt a run at the presidency. As Elizabeth and David chattered on about politics, technical training, and cultural events, I ricocheted between excitement and anxiety. Excitement because Elizabeth and David were discussing ideas that were challenging and potentially vital for their country. Anxiety because they were both wealthy, educated, healthy people. They didn’t need me.

Later, I was expressing this anxiety to the clever Ugandan responsible for my Hilton cocktail hour. I told him that I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell people back to the USA that my time in “darkest Africa” had evolved into brainstorming over drinks instead of pounding the orphanage circuit. At the heart of the conflict, I realized, was my millennial generation obsession with feeling like a contributor. My generation wants to know they are making a difference.

“But that’s what we need from you,” he said, “There are people better suited to work in the slums: doctors, lawyers, contractors, etc. We want you to go home and tell about your experience that was different from the other stories they’ve heard. We want people to believe in the good things that are happening here.” His knowing look completed that last sentence as if to say, even if Americans are not the ones doing them.

Apparently I was not alone in my anxiety. In a recent interview on the TED radio hour on NPR, Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda said, “The rich countries are attracted to Africa’s poverty rather than its wealth, and in the process they end up subsidizing our failures rather than rewarding our accomplishments.” Find the full interview here.

The dots of life have a providential way of connecting sometimes. Moving home to San Antonio felt like a huge departure from the far-flung path I had chased in academic and philanthropic pursuits, but the pull was undeniable. I was sandwiched between another academic research trip to Kampala, Uganda and a genocide-scholar conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and I clearly remember the day walking over Blackfriars Bridge in London and saying to a friend: “I think I just need to move home.”

At that point I figured that development, postcolonial theory, and the political economy of representation would fade into my background like high school chemistry. But I was in for a refresher course.

The San Antonio I came home to was rippling with discussion on history, progress, race relations, and neighborhood identity. The city where my family has lived for generations is now continuing my education, even as I re-encounter Africa, this time from a whole new angle.

Flash forward to the office of the President of Ker and Downey, a luxury travel company that specializes in African safaris. Their itineraries are some of the most exclusive and luxurious in the world. After looking at my resume and quizzing me about my time in Africa on academic, missional, and philanthropic business, David Marek said, “Are you going to be able to handle the wealth of our clients and the way they want to experience Africa?”

An excellent question, Mr. Marek.

I’m an unlikely candidate for accommodating special dietary requests and VIP services. However, as a student of human nature I do know one thing: you cannot love what you do not know.

In graduate school we often talked about “compassion fatigue” generated by the countless adds for NGOs that show the sad eyes and protruding ribs of sub-Saharan children.  When a person sees one million hands reaching up for help and freezes knowing that they cannot help them all, that is compassion fatigue.

But how much more stamina does my compassion have for the places that I love? The poverty within the African continent is real, and it’s not something that we should ignore, choosing only to focus on the majesty and rarity of the Big Five or the South African winelands. But really, can you truly fall in love with a place and not be moved by its gaping wounds? Ker and Downey would say “no.” After 30 years of business on the continent, David Marek is a crusader for various philanthropies, even involving stateside networks in a campaign to provide mosquito nets and clothing to the people of Africa. Every Ker and Downey trip pays tangible homage to the great need accompanying the grandeur.

I feel the same way about San Antonio, a city of many resources and many needs. When we millennials move into town, we need to be fully aware of our place and time. We cannot just come to play, but we cannot just come to help either.  Living in a city requires give and take. Appreciation and generosity.

In the same TED radio hour on NPR, Chimamanda Adichie cautioned against only listening to one story. I would broaden that to one discourse, made up of thousands of stories with one message. We need to hear the diversity of stories. The safari story can bond a heart to Africa as can the medical relief story. It is at the intersection of these experiences that we begin to understand Africa as a real place, not a G8 line item or a safari photo montage.  Africans are people, not statistics, whether they are sitting at the Hilton or fleeing a famine.

When I think about my experiences in Kampala, Bosnia, Los Angeles, and London, I immediately think about my experience in San Antonio. I think about the shroud of mystery over the inner city when I was growing up . Then I think of the recent hype surrounding Dignowity Hill and the various neighborhoods south of downtown. I hear the voices from my academic career joining the critics of inner-city development, calling it gentrification.

San Antonio’s urban core is part of a global conversation on change. The discourses are diversifying. Areas are being shown off and sought after, sometimes for what was already there, and sometimes for what is changing. Voices of preservation are mingling with voices of progress. It’s not a perfect process. We can all think of at least one example of someone who has been overlooked or frustrated by the process.

We need to have these conversations. The people who have lived in the areas for generations and the people seeking to move in and be part of the neighborhood have a lot to offer each other. Perhaps the most valuable gift is that of their story and the way those stories draw us out of our ghettoes and into community. In the end, I think that it will be this multitude of stories that makes San Antonio stand out among the major American cities as an incredibly stimulating place to live.

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