By some slim chance the last three books I have read have all touched on a similar theme that has been in my mind for a while. With the situation in Aleppo as well as the rest of Syria heating up, I think of the US’s role as a first-world country in international human rights work, and especially the role of those here in the United States who are financially privileged. I attend a school that places a lot of pressure on serving abroad as a student missionary, with almost all posts located in third-world countries. I see the value in this program and recognize that it helps rather isolated students experience a different culture while also bringing important help to the location. However, I think sometimes in the effort to be helpful, people or organizations may lose sight of what’s most important in a region, and priorities can get mixed up. If I were to be called to be a student missionary, the most important question I would have to ask myself is “What is my motive?”
I won’t try to find an answer to this dilemma. It’s been around for quite some time, and I don’t think there’s a simple conclusion. Each of these books explores situations with people from both the United States and England trying to give aid to people who they perceived to need their help. In each story the social intricacies of the situation are explored in a way that helped give my mind a better understanding of how my presence or aid in a foreign country can affect more than I may intend it to. In the hope that they help someone else to think, too, here they are:
Swing Time follows a young woman who works as a personal assistant to a well-off pop star. In the latter half of the story, the celebrity decides that she’d like to build a school for girls in western Africa. The protagonist then spends time living in the town where the school is built and sees how it affects the social situation in the surrounding area. The pop star also adopts one of the African babies with less-than-legal privilege. It’s a real trip, and raises interesting questions about the effectiveness of rapidly-introduced foreign education.
State of Wonder follows a woman who works for a pharmaceutical company funding a research project in the Amazon jungle in Brazil. When their first liaison dies after going to report on the drug being researched, the company sends Marina to find out why he died and how much progress is being made. During her stay, she sees the effect the researchers have had on the native tribe, as well as how inter-tribal relations are affected by the pharmaceutical companies’s presence. It’s a fast-paced story with a strong mystery plot, but reads like a literary novel. It left me mildly uncomfortable, and was deeply stirring.
White Teeth was written by Zadie Smith prior to when she wrote Swing Time. The two books share many of the same themes, but where Swing Time took the reader abroad, White Teeth looks at the legacy of “white aid” in domestic Britain. A well-meaning WASP-y middle class family takes several muslim kids under their wing and begin raising them as their own kids. In the process, the kids’s parents feel their children have let go of their native culture at the cost of receiving a private education. White Teeth is much more complex than the previous two books, but gives a greater reward in return.