On September 11, 2012, Ambassador Chris Stevens was slain in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Stevens spent his life, and gave his life, to bring good will from the United States to the people of the world. We may never know all of the circumstances of Stevens’ death, but we do know this: ongoing protests against the U.S. in other parts of the world mean that we have not yet succeeded in building strong bridges. We don’t understand them, and they don’t understand us. Some even harbor resentment, which we also don’t understand.
My work in Africa has been humbling. I have six years and 13 trips’ worth of experience building bonds for Bentley with the people of Ghana. In Ghana, one asks permission before entering a village, and each village chief asks the same question: “What is your mission? For what purpose have you come?” The first time I took students, I stumbled through a longish response, which often had an element of “we’ve come to help.” But I knew it was a muddled mission, and that I wasn’t crystal clear myself on why I was there. The frequency of the question caused me to think about it a great deal.
It didn’t take long to recognize that I suffered from “white knight syndrome.” I was going to “help” through a one-way transfer of knowledge and experience. Then I put myself in their shoes: Would I open my door to a stranger appearing suddenly in my neighborhood, offering to help? Not a chance.
Were we going to Africa as the self-assured missionaries of Poisonwood Bible went to Africa: to impose our values on others? It was disturbing, prompting more reflection. My compelling reason for going to Africa? I was curious. I wanted to know more, just for the sake of knowing more. A desire to understand other people and other cultures and other ways of looking at the world was reason enough. To propose that I could “help” was not only futile, but insulting. Now my answer is more clear: “We are here to learn. To learn from you.” And I mean it.
I work very hard to cure students of “white knight syndrome” before I ever take them to Ghana. I have seen for myself how much damage can be done by good intentions. We are taught to “give back,” but I’m not so sure that we have that right. The more we learn, the more capable and competent we become as a human being. So give me learning.
I have learned that I have a lot to un-learn. Ghanaian ways lead people to live lives of calm and kindness. Generosity and hospitality inform their everyday life. Puzzled by our hypercompetitive, acquisitive culture, the Ghanian people I know don’t establish their value in relation to me based on a comparison of possessions. They believe people have intrinsic value simply because they are alive. Since I, too, am alive, we are equal — both granted the gift of life. We build bonds of friendship by sharing life: peeling palm nuts, pounding cassava, breathing the same air, no conversation necessary.
And when the time for conversation comes, may we be the ones asking questions. Seeking understanding. Wanting peace, in honor of Chris Stevens.
Diane Kellogg is associate professor of management at Bentley University