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Apprehension

Before our trip to Nayngezi in 2008 I had very romantic ideas about what it would be like to “help” the people of Africa.  I understood the major differences between the regions and I knew I wasn’t going on safari.  I realized there would be no birthing in huts and that despite what you see on television, most people would be dressed rather similar to me. Yet I still had an innocence about what I would encounter.

Returning home from that trip I realized something had ripped inside me. To see the poverty, experience the extortion, come face to face with the abuse of the women, feeling the sheer loneliness of not speaking the language; I was surprised to come home never wanting to return.  It took me several weeks to be able to actually talk about my experiences, and yet I still could not explain to people the truth about some parts of our trip. We had gone without an “organization” to buffer our experience and ensure we only saw what we were supposed to see. Instead we had seen the reality of life for women in the Congo.

How do I share what I saw and my reactions to it without dishonoring the people of that area? How do I tell people about the poverty without making it an amusement, an interesting fact to know but not really understand? While there I found I couldn’t take pictures of the slums.  How could I snap photos that were only taken to show the gory details of how destitute the area was, as if to say, “See, I told you they were poor. ” Photos that couldn’t possibly convey the reality of living in a slum; the dignity, strength and creativity of the people despite the dangers they faced, the lack of resources, the smell.  Instead the photos would make the viewers feel disgusted and  believe they understood. The thought of taking such photos sickened me.

This is my last day to prepare to head back to Africa.  This time to Nairobi, a thriving urban area.  English will be spoken. The country is not in the midst of civil war.  It is a popular vacation spot.  The experience will be completely different.  But I find myself battling that feeling of not wanting to return.  I feel the knots tightening in my stomach as I think about leaving.  So I must face the truth, I am a coward. I would rather not see the truth than to face it again. But face it I must. I will go.

 

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Jennifer Vanderlaan CNM MPH is the author of the BirthingNaturally.net website. She has been working with expectant families since 2000, training doulas, childbirth educators, and midwives. She has worked with midwives in Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Her interest in public health grew in 2010, and she is now a PhD student learning to become a producer of knowledge.

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