Over the last couple of weeks, 3 different people from various circles in my life mentioned hearing about a musical called Witness Uganda, and thinking of me. Based on the title, my initial thought was “oh boy, this sounds Jesusy” – but then I did a bit of research, and to my pleasant surprise, Witness Uganda is actually an inspired-by-real-life musical that wraps EVERYTHING (and more) I’ve been saying about misguided aid work in to a much more interesting package complete with absolutely amazing music and Broadway caliber theater talent.
There were a couple of parts that got me choked up, even though musical theater does not usually have that kind of impact on me, because it was so parallel to what I experienced – the frustration, the disappointments, the helplessness, the overwhelming-ness (I know, that’s not actually a word), and the joy. He even referenced the taking pictures thing!!
What made it particularly interesting is that the storyteller here, Griffin Matthews, is not your typical Mzungu. He’s African American, which has forced me to reconsider my use of the term “white savior complex”, and think about replacing it with “first world savior complex”. Griffin points out through the musical that Mzungu, even though it pretty much translates to “whitey”, doesn’t necessarily mean white skin, but white/western cultural background. When he points out to a Ugandan teenager that he is “African American”, the teenager responds “so does that make me African African?” This is a scenario I’ve never seen played out before that challenged my own stereotypes a bit. Griffin is also gay, and doesn’t go through great lengths to hide that. For those who aren’t aware – being gay in Uganda is punishable by 14 years to life in prison, that is, if you survive to that point. He doesn’t need to go down there flying a rainbow flag and holding gay pride rallies to make a difference – instead, just by being there, being himself, and letting people get to know him, he’ll allow for minds to change on their own, which is so important. That is how so many minds have been changed here, and we certainly see the difference its made over the last decade or two.
A friend of a friend recently posted a link to a fundraiser on Facebook to financially support an American nursing student to volunteer at a hospital in Tanzania for a few weeks. Airfare alone will cost over $1500, accommodations, probably another $500…for a nursing student who isn’t actually qualified or certified to be administering care. $2000 would pay for a Tanzanian girl to attend a semester or more of nursing school in her own community, where she’ll probably live her entire life and save lives for years and years. This is the huge disconnect we have between ACTUALLY helping versus BELIEVING we are helping. I loved how Witness Uganda cut right to the chase describing this kind of volunteering – the character Joy, who runs the compound where Griffin initially volunteers, explains how she puts on her fake voice and fake gratitude (“WELLLLLLCOME!! Thank you SOOO much!!) to the well intentioned volunteers who come and go every 4-6 weeks. The problem with this scenario, of course, is that nothing changes. The volunteers keep coming thinking they’re actually doing something good, and the hosts keep letting them believe it because the money that they bring in is useful. The dialogue needs to change on both sides, a point that Griffin made after the show.
I won’t rehash more points I’ve already made in previous posts on this topic because I’m fairly certain I’ve beaten it to death, but the overall themes to Witness Uganda come down to the same general points – wanting to help is good, but good intentions are NOT enough.
And if you are able to catch this show, even if you don’t give a rats ass about any of these issues but just like good theater, please support it. Griffin mentioned during his talk after the show that this musical is also providing one of few opportunities for black musical theater actors to be “playing someone other than a token or a singing jungle animal.”
Also, I feel like when I write about this topic I am “preaching to the choir”. If you read these posts and disagree with me, I’d love to hear from you, if you can discuss it without being mean :)