Updated: Jun 16, 2018
I used to wear these rose tinted glasses back in my early college days – in fact they weren’t really rose tinted, they were Oakley sport glasses with polarized lenses and bright silver frames. I was full of passionate idealism and a naiveté that colored my perception of the world. In my idealism, I objectified the poor – especially people in developing countries; but I failed to see the way I possessed a lingering colonial bias that marginalized the intelligence of the poor while romanticizing these people on the outskirts of civilization being somehow saved from the burden of knowledge.
At that point in my life I was steeped in discourses debating international economics, politics and consequences from decisions made at the World Bank. I was immersed in theory and case study on the impact of debt, structural adjustment and failing development programs measured in infant mortality, child labor, hunger and disease - real issues absolutely abstracted from any part of my life. I took US and European policy personally creating an image of the disenfranchised poor masses powerless to understand the forces affecting their lives. This view, of course, perpetuated Western intellectual superiority while marginalizing all other knowledge. Even though in my heart I was filled with this, what I thought, humanitarian gesture, it was absolutely prejudice.
My college professor, Nikoi Kote-Nikoi, was formative in my personal realization of the way I perpetuated certain kinds of biases. I used to get carried away in my papers. Nikoi would often caveat.
“Karri, you should take care to not romanticize the other – be it indigenous person, poor person, rich person, or someone from a different culture.”
Soon enough, I had an experience that illuminated Nikoi’s admonishment.
When I was 20 I lived in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and interned with an NGO. We worked with a United Nations researcher on a project to assess the efficacy of aid distribution among international organizations. One day we went to visit a Food-for-Work project sponsored by World Lutheran Relief Services with local government officials and aid organization representatives. We drove and drove out into the stark drought-infested landscape of southern Matabeleland. In any direction you could look - nothing lived. The red earth was dusty, parched and cracked. When we arrived at our destination, yes, i was shocked. We had gone to see a small dam built under the pretenses of increasing water supply for cattle and local communities – it was impossible to imagine that water had ever flowed across this landscape or that people could live anywhere in the vicinity.
The dam was just about 15 feet high and 20 feet across built with rocks set between two boulders. We easily walked over the dam where we would supposedly see the rest of the water project. In the near distance, a few women, a man and a cow gathered around a hole with a couple of 5 gallon plastic buckets. Two boys were playing nearby. This was an astonishing scene. The hole in the ground was enough for a person to climb down into and scoop out water with a bucket. The women had all walked more than 5ks to get there - sometimes they came twice a day. And always when they walked home, with buckets hoisted on their heads, they had to go without spilling a drop, less they incur shaming by their families.
The Ndebele grandma sitting next to the hole looked up with a nearly toothless smile and offered me water from the plastic bucket. The water was dirty and there were flies. This was all she had and without reservation or embarrassment she offered. I was mortified. I knew I would never drink that water and I didn’t have to.
At the same moment, I became completely self-conscious. I stood out like the proverbial double sore thumb in a ridiculous brightly colored striped t-shirt wearing my Oakley polarized glasses. I noticed the boys pointing at me, mocking me, my sunglasses and laughing riotously. I was embarrassed I felt ashamed. This was the first time I felt white and Western.
There was nothing romantic here. My woe is me attitude feeling pity for the unknowing geo-politically isolated poor person shattered. The moment I was able to see these people as my knowledge peers, I created more dignity in the world. They were as aware of global realities as I was, arguably if not more.
This awareness welled a great grief inside me – I understood my privilege is something that would never leave me and I would take everywhere I go.
This experience changed forever my perception because it changed what I believed about my place in the world. I learned to see with my privilege but without the prejudice of misplaced self-pity that leads to objectification, which demeans and marginalizes.
As my rosy glasses came off, I decided that as long as I continue to travel in remote places, poor places, developing places, I would no longer take photos. When I was there at the well, I had a camera with me – but in the humiliating awkwardness of being grossly out of place, it felt inappropriate to take a photo – merely the presence of the camera would be just one more rung on the ladder of my privilege. I perceived how the camera as an instrument of taking, itself led to further objectification of people and circumstance.
That is because the things that I wanted to photo – women with bundles of firewood on their heads or buckets by the water hole or beat up busses overflowing with people, chicken, mattresses, babies and goats, oil cans, and bags of corn, were compelling to me because they stood out against the privilege of my life – in their novelty, my perception, I was looking down on them as inferior or wanting circumstances. But until then, my privilege was obscured by my worldview; where even by US economic standards my family is utterly middle class, but the truth is, I am the 1%. Simply being in these far off distant places was something that my counterpart peers would never experience, and to take their objectified presence with me through my camera, which captured the novelty of what was poor versus the novelty of what was amazing about their capacity to live and the scope of their reasoning and depth of their wisdom, was no longer suitable for me.
Now two decades later, I have traveled to many places labeled by the West as developing world. Without my naiveté and without my camera, but with great respect for my place in the world and the privilege I possess, I perceive the world very differently than as a youth.
I cannot tell you the number of times I have been impressed to tears by people’s wisdom and depth of humanity – be it in deeply remote southern Africa, the autonomous Tibetan plateau, or culturally distant places here in North America.
Contrary to my youthful idea that placed the developing world in an intellectual margin, I learned that even in the most remote of places, there dwells enormous wisdom and a deep grasp of the immense complexity of the modern world.
Literacy, education, fancy houses, fast food – none of what is Western, per sé, is necessary to possess intellectual depth and breadth. Because I learned to value what is not peer reviewed nor sanctioned by political protocol nor buoyed by international agency or press, I changed my perception of the world. I changed the world. Now my glasses are Technicolor!
People I had deemed incapable of understanding the world, whom I had perceived as globally disenfranchised, illiterate and poor, taught me how to be a human being.