"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Thursday, August 27, 2015


Whenever I travel to Uganda I am struck, of course, by the differences between my life here and the lives of my friends there. Sometimes it is enough to make me feel ashamed of or embarrassed by the excesses of my everyday life here in America. It's an issue that often crops up for CTT volunteers who travel to St. Mary Kevin on our team trips, especially after they return home. One year team member Sara, a college student at the time, read aloud to the team as we drove back to our hotel on the last day of our stay. We would be flying back to our very comfortable lives in America in the morning. She read an excerpt from The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz:

After completing two years of work in Rwanda helping the poor set up businesses with microcredit, the author was about to have a celebratory dinner with her friend Dan as she was heading back to America for a while.

“We walked into AliRwanda, a luxury store for expatriates that featured a wide selection of goods at exorbitant prices and headed straight for the seafood counter, buying two frozen lobsters flown in from overseas. Croissants and crackers, nuts and olives also found their way into our basket. There was a small but high-quality wine selection with wines from France and Italy and Chile. We were in heaven.

When Dan reached for two bottles of Moet champagne and put them in our basket, I cringed, not daring to ask the price.

The cashier, a large woman with thick forearms and a blue scarf around her head, stared at me intensely with her enormous eyes, Mine glanced downward in a rush of shame as I acknowledged to myself I’d momentarily shifted into a New York way of being, where buying expensive food for wonderful meals was part of what it meant to be part of city life. The woman’s look, though, was enough to bring me back to the local context: At $60 each, two bottles of champagne cost more than many Rwandans earned in a year at that time.

‘Please remove the bottles from the bill,’ I told the cashier.

Looking at Dan, I added, ‘This is just too much.’ Though the food wasn’t inexpensive either, in my mind the champagne tipped us over to the truly decadent.

Gently, Dan put his hand on my arm. ‘We said we were having a feast with champagne. You love champagne. And this is a first. Let’s just have fun tonight.’

He moved the bottles back toward the woman.

I shifted them the other way.

‘I feel a little ashamed by it,’ I said. I just don’t know if it is right to be doing this while we’re living here.’

Dan looked at me. ‘I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense on one level. We’re working with the really poor, and you and I couldn’t be more privileged in relative terms. But don’t pretend to be someone you aren’t. If you were at home, you’d celebrate with champagne. If you want to remain happy and alive in this work, you need to reconcile this part of who you are and understand the inconsistencies with the work you do and how it all fits into your whole way of being. Besides, our other choice is the Algerian red antifreeze we normally try to convince ourselves is drinkable wine. You decide.’

We bought the champagne. On the drive to the house we talked about choices and how they would just get more complex. We lived with enormous privilege in all aspects of our lives. Most precious of all were our passports that would allow us to leave the country whenever we wanted and our sense of empowerment that led us to believe we could accomplish the impossible.

The challenge wasn’t whether to buy a couple of bottles of champagne; it was instead not to take our privilege for granted and to use it in a way that served the world and our highest purpose.”

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