Africa is Not That Sexy

I am standing in the African village, the hot sun beating down on my shoulders, a group of village children surround me and chant my name, laughing and bidding for a turn to hold my hand.

That’s what I imagined working for a nonprofit in Africa would look like. Two years into founding and running a nonprofit dedicated to helping women in Uganda, I’ve realized that’s a far cry from reality. Sure, those moments come now and then, but the true reality? Me at home in Colorado with my husband and two kids, sitting on the living room floor watching Disney’s Earth and packaging necklaces into cardboard boxes.

The reality isn’t bad—it’s just not as “sexy” as I thought it would be. We live in an age when humanitarianism, philanthropy and international awareness have moved from completely off the radar to right in the spotlight. It’s great, and I would be the first one to thank God for it.

But it also seems like this attention has created an illusion—a romanticized picture of what it looks like to work in social justice. The Internet has made so much possible, but sometimes at a loss. Combine good graphics, pictures and a stellar website, and before you know it, something run by three full-time employees looks a lot less human.

Sure, at first there was an excitement in appearing bigger than reality, but recently we’ve felt convicted that maybe we’re enabling people to find satisfaction and fulfillment in a fantasy rather than reality.

The truth? Light Gives Heat (LGH) was birthed simply out of a response of love when two mid-20-year-olds and their 2-year-old son moved to Uganda to complete the adoption of their 8-month-old daughter. It was sort of an act-first-and-figure-out-the-details-later response. We knew we didn’t want to live life with regrets or should-haves, so we simply acted. Dave quit his job, we rented out our home, took the insurance off our cars and boarded a plane with nine pieces of luggage and a double stroller.

We got to Africa and it was … life. No cool music in the background, no slow-motion shots of beautiful “African villages” and no one telling us what we were doing was even good or right. Burning trash and body odor filled our nostrils. Things weren’t safe and predictable. Our Western ideals of time management and productivity weren’t valued. And, honestly, most of our first interactions with Ugandans were pretty, well, normal.

Within a month of our arrival, we were meeting weekly with a group of 60 Acholi women—most of whom had been widowed and forced off their land—and offering them a consistent income through the purchase of necklaces made from recycled paper. The Suubi (hope) project was born.

Fast-forward two years: We currently offer roughly 100 women a consistent weekly income, as well as literacy and English classes, and a handful of other consistent incomes through a tailoring project, Epoh. For our staff and volunteers, most days in Uganda are filled with long walks, long conversations and dirty feet. Most days for our small staff in the States are filled with long periods of staring at a computer, balancing QuickBooks, filing paperwork, packaging necklaces and shipping product.

As we’ve grown, we’ve gotten more attention—a good thing in many ways, but something that’s also led to more “eyes”on us. More people questioning motives and offering ideas that look good on paper but are often unrealistic within the culture and context of a third-world country. In fact, we’ve realized the traditional operating expectations for nonprofits actually set us up for failure rather than excellence.

Then there’s the personal aspect: Running an organization with your spouse is beautiful but messy. We both work full-time for LGH, but we’re also parents and we split our work time between the office and home, so one of us is always home with the kids. Though we work together, we never actually work together!

I’d be lying if I didn’t say there are days we feel like waving the white flag. Days when it feels like we’re holding the pieces and asking, Is this working? Days when the burden is too heavy, the work/home lines too blurry, the demands too high and the lifestyle unmanageable. Most days don’t feel like what working in Africa was “supposed to be.”

We’re flawed people trying to be real as we learn how to love and explore what it looks like to be connected to our brothers and sisters around the globe. LGH is working not because of connections in Hollywood, big breaks or a huge staff, but because lots of people have found it worthy of their time, finances and lives. Behind the website and branding, there are countless hours of tedious work, phone calls, emailing, brainstorming and lots of prayer.

Although no one ever said giving our lives to something big would be easy, fun or “sexy,” a lot of us have a fantasy that something glamorous happens when we do. It doesn’t—at least not in the way we thought it would. The truth looks more like life than a dramatic adventure film.

Beauty, hope and joy are found in the pursuit of living outwardly—sometimes it just takes patience to see the beauty, find the hope and experience the joy in the everyday.

Morgan Hansow is the co-founder of Light Gives Heat, a nonprofit working with Ugandan women to create and sell necklaces from recycled paper.

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