Saturday, January 16, 2010


Dear Advice Giver:

I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I toss and turn at night. What should I do about these strange feelings I’m having?

How much of a shithole am I when I spend the morning visiting malnourished children and then, later on in the day, go on a food binge because the experience depressed me?

Should I even complain about the skills of the people with whom I’m working when I’m here precisely because they recognize that they need help?

Should I feel guilty about having a rare night out with volunteer friends if what I’m going to pay for dinner and drinks is more than what a family of six from my program’s target beneficiaries spends on food for a week? Should it make a difference when I’m not in development work anymore?

Am I perpetuating the practice of sitting allowances by receiving mine without question or am I justified by spending it on necessary work-related expenses (like paper or internet connection) that I won’t be able to reimburse otherwise?

When everyone in a meeting – men and women, young and old – starts deeply probing inside their noses with their forefingers - am I the one who is impolite because I flinch, look away and still can’t accept this as normal behavior in this part of the world?

Between being a tourist and a zealot, which side of the scale am I closer to? Since I’m here for only a short while, should I be spending more of my time taking pretty pictures for my album or should I spend every single second trying to save someone, anyone? Does one choice make me a flake and the other delusional?

Should I just go ahead and offer my help when I can – especially if what’s needed isn’t something that’ll put a significant dent in my resources – or would I just be propagating a sense of entitlement and dependence that’s going to boomerang back in the future?

What am I doing here when there are millions of people in my own country who need help? How do I go back home and make this experience mean something?

And lastly, dear Advice Giver, are there more creative ways to say “No” the next time I’m asked any of these questions: “Is the Philippines in America?”; “Aren’t you from South America/ Central America/ the Caribbean ?”; “Can you give me money for my circumcision/ a water pump in my village/ carpentry tools?”; and “Do you want another helping of delicious nshima?”