WVU in Jamaica: A Clear and Open Mind

by Amizade Global Service-Learning

This post is part of a group blog and will include submissions from West Virginia University students who participated in Amizade’s Spring Break Service Learning Course in Jamaica. Keep checking back to hear more stories from the group as they experience Jamaica, serve with the community, and reflect on their experiences!

In the New Yorker article, “Alms Dealers”, Philip Gourevitch argues that humanitarian aid is a tool society uses to separate itself from the self-inflicted wounds that slice deep into the history of humanity. Each day we are reminded of the dark scars that war, poverty, slavery, colonialism, unequal development, racism, and fear have left on the hearts of man. When we turn on the news each night, we are compelled by shadows hanging in the eyes of those who suffer. We fear the thoughts that swim around their heads. Witnessing their pain forces us to experience a similar emotion, which we quickly hide under our sympathy. We cast away our eyes, cast away our guilt, and cast away our shame. We go about our daily lives, forever fearing but never acknowledging that obscure glitch programmed into the human mind that makes us act the inexplicable ways we do. He argues that the Western world attempts to vindicate itself from the sins of the past through the use of the U.N., N.G.O.’s, and other humanitarian aid organization and missions have done more damage than good.

But as individuals, how could we not attempt to remove ourselves from the flaws that haunt our species? We want to be better; we want to be the exception that proves the rule. We want to prove that we are not all horrible creatures and that mankind is not doomed to forever repeat the cycles we have pulled ourselves through, time and time again. We believe that we can combat death, anguish, and sorrow with love, compassion, and hope. We remove ourselves from the issues, put ourselves above the turmoil, and convince ourselves that as educated and upstanding members of society, it is our duty to provide our services to those in need. We feel obligated to ameliorate their suffering and help pull them out of whatever hole fate has buried them in.  Gourevitch tells us, that no matter what our intentions are, we must not make such careless assumptions. We must stop setting men and women from different cultures aside as the “others” who need to be saved because it is commonly a history of Western intervention that has forced them into whatever situations they have to face. In history we have exploited “third world” economies, destroyed their political systems, and have damaged their cultural integrity. When we come into their homes and communities offering solutions to their problems, often, we are just setting them up for more destruction.

I do not believe that this means that we should set aside our empathy and board up our hearts, rather, that as globally concerned people, we need to check the motives for what we are doing. We need to make sure that we are not forcing “aid” upon people who do not want it or need it. Any global service learner needs to understand, that we are simply students and guests. We should stand at the doorstep of our host’s homes with open eyes and a hungry mind, eager to learn about their culture and ideas.

As global service learners, we must stop viewing the world through a filter of American righteousness. We cannot crash into a society holding on to a preconceived notion that we are a parental figure there to help pull them out of the childish ways. Too often, this is the approach people who look to solve the world’s problems take. “Don’t you know how to act,” they scold them; “your people are starving in the streets,” “Don’t you care about human life? Your soldiers are slaughtering the masses.”  “Don’t you know how to respect your women? They live in shame and fear of their bodies and minds.” We must stop berating the people of the world for their actions and dismissing them as a result of their culture or society. We must stop making them into “the other” and instead question the role that our race and our people have had in creating this social order that exists.

If you have a desire to travel, please realize that it is your own heart yearning to find something that it may not even know that it needs. Maybe you need relief from the consumerism that floods your daily life. It is easy to become consumed by the material based society that causes us so much stress and worry. Maybe you find nothing but emptiness in the pop culture and media that is constantly buzzing around our heads. Maybe you were born with a curious soul that seeks out the answers by absorbing as much knowledge as you can. Maybe you are searching for some unknown beauty in your life that always seems just barely out of your grasp. Maybe if you go a little farther, reach a little bit beyond your borders, you will find what you are looking for. But please realize, your travel benefits you much more than it does the people you are visiting.

Before going to Jamaica, I don’t think that I would have completely understood everything I have just said.  I wanted to help others, but I did not fully understand the concept of my work helping me more than it helped those who received my “aid.” Like Pico Iyer said in his essay “Why We Travel”, I journeyed out to find something in myself. I was looking for the tools I needed to answer the questions I have about life and the world I live in. The way I see it, the world is a giant puzzle and every experience in my life is a puzzle piece. I am trying to put together my own understanding of the human experience by determining how these pieces fit together. What causes humans to act with violence and hatred and what causes us to act benevolently? I feel that traveling has helped me to discover puzzle pieces that I did not even know that I was missing.

While I feel that I have gained so much knowledge about the Jamaican people through my trip, I would never consider myself qualified to characterize the people and the place, because I have only seen it through my unique perspective. I can tell you that the scenery is beautiful, the culture is full of life, and that the people are welcoming and loving. I can tell you that I would not trade my experience for anything in the world and that it has sparked a love for traveling in my heart. I can tell you that I want to go back. But in order for you to really understand what I am saying, I encourage you to visit with clear and open mind. I guarantee that you will gain more than you ever expected you would and that you, like me, will be in love with what you have learned.

By: Amanda Stoner