The Americans Are Coming
By: Claire Sieffert
In the second week that I worked at a Ugandan clinic for HIV/AIDS patients, the organization was due for a check-up. The donors had decided it was time for the clinic’s regular inspection to guarantee the good that they were purchasing was acceptable.
Pre-visit, our colleagues’ mantra was “the Americans are coming, the Americans are coming!” It was like a picture book from the 18th century, where the whole town bustles in circles with excitement because “The circus is coming!” The Americans were the best entertainment this clinic had seen in a while, an opportunity to be entertained while entertaining foreigners. They had an exotic appeal: the Dignified Americans, Visitors From Afar, the Good People that made the clinic run—so long as the money flowed.
Everyone put on their Sunday Best for the Friday that the Americans came. My fellow Canadian and I were advised to look presentable, and maybe that’s because I don’t have the eye for ironing that Ugandans do. Rich or poor, wearing a crisp collar no matter if they run a business empire or a business on the side of a dirt road. Appearances could be deceiving, and I learnt that I couldn’t judge an income based on polished presentation. One of my colleagues speculated that some people have a talent for business wear because of their poverty; impeccable presentation could preserve some dignity. So when the Americans came, I followed orders and dressed up in the name of dignity. These were big donors, so this was a big day for our clinic.
The Americans didn’t see the real clinic though. Fridays were a day off, a day without clients so that the administrators could recuperate after three days of steady patients. The visiting donors only saw a pre-meditated version of the clinic, done up in a bow. They saw an ideal, unproductive version of the clinic, observing traditional dancers from their seat of honour under a shaded tent in the parking lot. On a normal day, that tent was the containment zone for TB patients, and I would walk through holding my breath because a hypochondriac doesn’t mix well with airborne diseases. But the Americans weren’t here for medical care; the donors had come to tend to their client, the AIDS support organization that needed financial supplements to stay alive.
This Welcome Festival was a well-planned progression, starting with traditional dance, moving on to a sedate walk through the front doors with staff spectators on either side of the promenade, culminating in a moving story from a teenage AIDS survivor. It was beautifully orchestrated and heart-warming, but it was far from a glimpse at normal operations. This was a fanfare designed to leave an impression. Impressions get funding.
The hype was enormous, but the Americans were identical to any businesspeople in downtown Vancouver. And the Americans noticed us too, zeroing in on the only two Caucasians in the crowd.
It was a big white spotlight on the mzungus (Ugandan speak for “white person”) in the crowd, an embarrassing singling-out of two unqualified interns. The Americans asked us who we were, where we were from, and how two Canadians in well-ironed business casual had found their way into a Ugandan workplace. They shook the hands of the two mzungu interns before continuing their inspection.
We Canadians were actually standing beside another American, a real-life Californian who had come to intern in Uganda just like us. But she wasn’t Caucasian, so the Americans never noticed that they had a compatriot in the crowd.
The Americans seemed incubated in a world of things they should see or wanted to see. It reminded me that I have to resist the urge to make sweeping assumptions to over-simplify our world. If we rely on first impressions, we will never get a second impression to rethink all of our preliminary beliefs. At my clinic, the American Friday was probably the most superficial day of our operation; the donors didn’t see our staff operationalize, help vulnerable people, and make change. They saw what they expected to see, in a simplified world where skin colour equaled origins. They saw what they wanted to see, a vibrant staff welcoming the charitable foreigners. They might have seen the strange relationship between donors and recipients, a system of quasi-worship where the donor monitors and the organization complies, but that was only visible if they looked beyond black and white.
By: Claire Sieffert
Biography: Pursuing a Bachelor in International Studies, Claire Sieffert is currently in her second year at Simon Fraser University. To gain perspective on her classroom education, she left Vancouver last summer to spend three months in Uganda. Uganda was a surreal opportunity to study, to intern with an HIV/AIDS support organization, and keep learning about where her education might take her. Claire will keep exploring her options in the field of international development after her intended graduation in 2016.
Claire can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org