Saturday, May 17

A Month in Jakarta: Raison d'Etre

I arrived in Jakarta to begin my on-site work at the International Humanity Foundation's orphanage on Monday. Perhaps you already know this through personal contact with me or this earlier post. Now seems like a really bad time to be considering my reasons for coming here. Last summer would have been a far better time to be having these thoughts, but I guess it is natural. Coming in, you have some hopes of how you will be received, what you will accomplish. Maybe these expectations are unconscious, or maybe you have been daydreaming about them. Regardless, they are there. Perhaps you believe that through brute kindness and good intentions, you will teach the children conversational English and open their eyes to what lies beyond Indonesia, altering the course of and immeasurably improving their lives in a single month. If you are not quite so starry eyed, at least you hope to make a difference, to believe that your presence and actions changed something for the better.

And then you arrive, and a short while later, reality takes over. The organization ran just fine without you and will continue to do so after you leave. There were other volunteers before you and there will be others after you, just as outgoing and friendly and helpful as you, if not more so. You are not indispensable. In all likelihood, it will be something if anyone there remembers you after you are gone.

This whole, "You are not making a difference (at least not a noticeable one)," thing struck me yesterday. In a wonderful example of futility, I was trying to teach a computer class to Indonesian kids whose English skills were lacking on American Windows machines with fritzy mouses. I was forced to physically open all the windows, make all the selections and press all the buttons and hope the children remembered exactly what I pushed because there really were no other options. Even more, the day's topic, which I learned mere minutes before starting, was "Print Area in Excel." The classroom had no printer, which just made the exercise all the more pointless. I know very well that Nicholas Negroponte and Seymour Papert would argue that simple interaction with a computer is enough for children, but there are few times in my life I have felt as useless as I did then.

What then is the point? If I doubt my ability to actually affect change, why then am I here, besides the fact this doubt did not appear until after my arrival? Because I think it's right, and doing the right thing is the only thing worth doing. It is right to try. It is right to care and to actually follow through, not just expressing it in some limp-wristed, "Ah, isn't that sad" way. It is right to break off from everything you are comfortable with and use without any real appreciation to see how you come out of it, to know you can do just fine without conveniences as basic as running drinking water.

If nothing else, this feeling of futility arose quickly. It may dissipate with equal haste, and I am certain I am doing no harm in being here. Next week I will be taking over some English classes, classes in which I feel much more comfortable in actually transmitting some form of information.

1 comment:

Emmett said...

It's easy to dream that you are going to go out and change the world with your volunteer work. Reality is much more difficult. Still, that's not to say that you're not doing something amazing. Think about it this way: you say that the person after you might be far more helpful than you. But that's too abstract. The fact is that you are there, helping these kids, even if it's just showing them the technology and teaching them English. And let's say when you leave, they forget your name and your face. That doesn't mean that they'll forget your impact, your help. More power to you.