Coming to South Africa has begun the process of helping me to answer a lot of personal questions on topics ranging from what I could or could not see myself doing with the rest of my life, how I want my experiences here to influence my activities when I return to the U.S. and what song I want to play first when I finally get my hands on The Beatles Rock Band. One question I still struggle to answer, however, is why I decided to come to South Africa in the first place. The answer seems like it should be simple enough—maybe it was a desire to find something my familiar surroundings could not offer, to meet and learn from people from different cultures or to discover my life’s vocation. These would all be admirable enough endeavors, and while they are part of the story, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t come to Cape Town partly because of my Bono complex.
I should probably begin by explaining what my Bono complex is. It is the completely ridiculous, irrational voice that tells me the world has a lot to gain if I emulate U2’s frontman by going to Africa, wearing a white bracelet so people know how savvy I am to acknowledge the need to fight poverty and HIV/AIDS, and trying to write songs that could someday be played when the starting lineup of the Marquette Men’s Basketball team is announced at the Bradley Center. I haven’t quite gotten to the point where I can pull of wearing sunglasses indoors, but I’m working on it.
The problem with my Bono complex is not what it has led me to do over the years. To be honest, I might not be a member of or even know about the ONE Campaign to make poverty history if it weren’t for having seen a commercial with Bono, one of Charlie’s Angels and a slew of other celebrities snapping their fingers to indicate that a child dies from extreme poverty every three seconds. I probably would not have helped organize benefit concerts for Habitat for Humanity or St. Bernard’s Parish in New Orleans if I had not watched Paul McCartney, U2 and most importantly, Will Smith, perform at Live 8 in 2005. No, the trouble is with what motivates me to do these things. At times, I have worried that a driving force behind my doing good deeds is the belief that they will make me look cool. The greatest downfall of this kind of mindset is that a person’s passion for the work they are doing will always lose out to their passion for making sure they look good doing it. Thus when the work gets tough, this type of person suddenly might not be so interested in advocating for education, women’s rights or whatever the issue may be.
For me, this gut check about why I do the things I do has been most revealing at my work sites. There have been some indicators of questionable service incentives at various points throughout my time in South Africa—how much I relish the admiration people express when I tell them that I teach guitar and reading at township schools; the satisfaction I take posting pictures of me playing with African children on my blog; sending postcards to my family that describe what I consider to be challenges at my sites. I think the most telling moment came one day when I was reflecting that I might not have time to accomplish an idea I had for my reading class. While my initial reaction was one of disappointment, my next thought was something along the lines of, ‘Oh well, I’ll be leaving in a couple months and it won’t be my problem anymore.’ I cannot remember the last time I’ve been so ashamed of myself.
I’m grateful that my self-centeredness has become more apparent to me in South Africa, because it has pushed me to try to do things for the right reasons. Two of my reading students walked out of class a few weeks ago because they felt that I was favoring another student over them, and though I was tempted to tell their homeroom teacher that it was fine by me if they did not come to class anymore—after all, the absence of those two wouldn’t have changed the fact that I could tell people that I had given reading lessons in a South African township—the voice that is showing me the real value of the work I’m doing advised me to explore a different route. With some crisis-control help from one of the school’s teachers, the students rejoined us the following class and have consistently been coming since that day.
I’m not perfect; I still occasionally feel pleased by the knowledge of how great all of this time in South Africa will look on a resume. But I have tried to balance my more selfish notions by reflecting on why the work I am doing is important in and of itself. The students I work with are not simply supporting characters in the story of how Brian Harper went to South Africa and learned valuable life lessons. They have stories of their own, with future chapters that will be influenced partly by the work I, and other teachers, do with them now. And who knows; maybe someday, there will be a paragraph in one of their stories about something they learned from the goofy, U2-loving American who hung out with them for five months. I don’t want that to be the incentive behind the work I’m doing with them, but if it does happen, no sunglasses or attempts at rock star cool will be able to hide my pleasure.