A Tiny Fish in a Great, Big Sea

It seems I alternate between working with small, grassroots organizations and big organizations with connections to government and a broad impact. Those who have been reading this blog for years will remember the frustration I felt in Jerusalem, when I wanted to see the direct impact of my work and felt frustrated by the slow (though major) impact that comes from working with a major institution. On the flip side, there is a clear thread in my posts from Nepal of the frustration I felt at having such a limited impact on one small community, especially because I saw such major, societal-level problems all around me.

I feel very fortunate, this summer, to get to experience both the high-resolution close-up of fieldwork and a taste of the bigger picture that comes with interning for an internationally renowned organization. My time in the office in Kampala has afforded me the opportunity to become familiar with the work of Bioversity, not just in Uganda but around the world. The scale and scope of what they have done and the generosity, kindness and patience I see in my colleagues as they work with participant households makes me so proud to be an intern here.

A household in Kiboga

A household in Kiboga

Through my frequent visits to the field, I get to be reminded of why this work is so important. Bumping around rural villages (where I feel like the Pope or the Queen of England as I wave to all the people staring at me as we pass), I get to be a part of the everyday life of a rural Ugandan, even if just for a few moments. While I certainly don’t have the same sense of what daily life is like for Ugandans that I did in Nepal, where I was embedded in the community, working with the same people every day for months, I am treasuring the glimpse in to life outside the Kampala expat bubble that I get on these visits to the field.

Data collection in Kiboga

Data collection in Kiboga

Perhaps because of what I learned during the year at school and read in countless books and articles and reports, I am noticing more than ever the intricacies of daily survival for subsistence farmers in rural Uganda. The amount of labor that goes in to living, day to day, is staggering; the battle for survival fills me with gratitude for my life in the US (and in Kampala), and reminds me of how far we still have to go. It is a feeling I experienced many times in Nepal—how can this place be the same ball of rock that I came from just a few weeks ago? How are we all on the same planet, yet basically unaware of the lives of those who don’t live close to us? Is it really possible that in this one world, there are people who eat whatever they want whenever they want, who put pills in their bodies to fix anything that goes wrong, who spend their time sitting in comfortable buildings and thinking about abstract ideas and problems at the same time that there are people who dedicate their entire day to finding food to eat, preparing it and battling the exhaustion and frequent illness that comes from inadequate nutrition and constant disease?

The ironic thing is that the more I learn and the more experience I gain, the more I feel like a very tiny fish in a very big sea. Yes, change is slow, and yes, no one can do everything all at once. But the magnitude of poverty and the number of “interventions” we would need to implement to bring people on this part of the planet to the same standards that we enjoy on another part of the planet feels so crushing as I sit in the yards of people’s homes as we interview them about how they feed their children. Sometimes, instead of feeling empowered to make change, I feel the hole getting bigger and bigger in front of me.

I feel so corny thinking of the famous Jewish saying from Pirkei Avot, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Avot 2:21), because it feels like exactly what I am supposed to remind myself when I feel hopeless about the rate of progress. I have to wonder, however, if Rabbi Tarfon (to whom the saying is attributed) ever tried to travel from one of the richest cities in the world to do tikkun olam (aka development work) in a rural area in Uganda. My soul, in fact, feels perfectly split. I want so badly to work constantly, in the most remote, poverty-stricken areas, to do more, better, faster for the people I have met here in Uganda and over the last few years. And, on the other side of my soul, I want to throw in the towel, forget all I’ve seen and learned, and build for myself a stable, easy, comfortable life close to the people I love. Of course, I will do neither.

Though I wish I could do more, I know what we are doing is very good, and that it will create positive change. I cannot un-see the places I have been, and I cannot pretend not to know possible ways to help them. Wherever I go, I will always carry with me the people who opened their homes and their lives to me, and I will feel compelled to do everything I can to repay their generosity and openness with what I am learning as a development practitioner. And I know that I’m not the only tiny fish swimming around in here. Talking to my classmates, who are stationed around the world working on issues of governance, climate change, health, education, economic development and so much more, reminds me that I am part of a school of fish, and I feel a little better. Eventually, slowly, change is happening. Or, as Nemo says, “Just keep swimming”.

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