Faith and I had the opportunity this past week to join a team of volunteers from the Starkey Hearing Foundation(based in, of all places, Eden Prairie, Minnesota!) that were in Uganda to provide hearing aids to hearing-impaired children and adults.
This experience was in itself quite extraordinary, and there is much I could say about the excitement of people who were hearing for the first time in years; the strange sensation (perhaps fear?) of children who were hearing sounds for the first time in their lives; and the questions I had about whether Uganda has the speech therapists and other resources to now help those older children who never learned to use their vocal chords during the crucial early years of life.
BUT, I’ll instead talk about something else.
The first day that I volunteered with Starkey, we were fitting people for hearing aids here in Kampala. I met a lot of wonderful people, got to talk about our beloved Minnesota with several staff and volunteers who had traveled from there, and then I got thrown on to the front lines – actually testing different hearing aids in patients’ ears and trying to determine which one was most appropriate for each person.
Then on Sunday, we traveled up to Gulu in northern Uganda. If you have heard of Gulu, it’s probably for all the wrong reasons (See this post, then this one). In any case, Faith and I assumed that the fittings in Gulu would be basically the same as in Kampala, with just the location changed.
The cadre of volunteers in Gulu was much larger. And much more famous. There were so many people in the entourage, that we never quite got a handle on who all was there. We know that Jessie Dylan was there (he produced that Will.I.Am video in 2008); we had several conversations with the former CEO of Best Buy’s wife; a daughter of a former US President was there (feel free to guess;); but most noteworthy among the volunteers was a group of several NFL players (among whom the most noteworthy was Santonio Holmes).
Oh and also, there were a lot of film crew.
As you can imagine, the two days that we spent fitting hearing aids in Gulu felt much different than the two days in Kampala. The cameras swarming around made everything feel a little more staged. People being pulled aside for interviews, and areas being blocked off for filming gave a definite sense that the work we were doing wasn’t as important as getting good footage of the work we were doing.
For me, one of the most absurd moments came when a cameraman asked Faith if she could go track down a boy who had just finished the entire fitting process. This cameraman explained that the boy was one of their “characters” and that they wanted to get some good shots of him sitting through the post-fitting counseling session. So, he was brought back to sit through the counseling session…again.
Before you begin to regard me as a disaffected volunteer, let me say that I was genuinely impressed with the athletes who had come all this way to serve others. They seemed like very genuine, caring people, and I was especially touched by Tommie Harris, an All-Pro defensive lineman for the San Diego Chargers. Tommie made a special effort to sit down, talk with and form friendships with students from the school where the fittings were being conducted.
In fact, everyone who was there to help people get the right hearing aids, and to understand how to use and take care of them, seemed much more interested in doing than in being seen doing. And I honestly doubt that any of the athletes were trying to get attention (they might actually want less of it). Even if they were just out for some good press, these acts of kindness may not do that much to shape the perception of these players in the US (whether or not someone gets touching footage of him in Africa, Santonio Holmes will probably be regarded by most people as a hero primarily because of his Super Bowl-winning touchdown catch).
But in any case, the consensus apparently holds that famous and semi-famous people shouldn’t do a good deed without being filmed.
If it’s true, as I suggest, that the demand for coverage of celebrity humanitarianism comes from filmmakers and viewers and not from celebrities themselves, we should ask why people want to watch videos of famous people volunteering their time in the service of others.
Perhaps our celebrity-obsessed culture needs occasional validation that the people we idolise are indeed worthy of our adoration? Perhaps some idealistic fillmmaker thinks that if ordinary people see enough famous people doing good deeds, the masses will rise up and do likewise? Or perhaps, on the contrary, some cynic believes that viewers can only be compelled to contribute to the betterment of humanity if they perceive it as ‘cool’ because celebrities are doing it?
Or perhaps the explanation is more basic but more insidious. Any story is only as good as its characters, so perhaps the default characters — poor and marginalised people in Africa — aren’t considered sufficiently interesting to make for a good story. Celebrities are.