Being deeply interested in evoking social change, I’m still grappling with what it really means to me. Through participating in famine camp, I think I learnt to come to terms with the idea that there’s no perfection in doing charity work.
When I heard of Famine Camp, the first reaction is FUN – followed by slight tinge of guilt – it shouldn’t be fun if it’s about empathising with the poor right? What if it was all hypocritical play-pretend, 30 hours of subjecting oneself to pseudo-torture still far away from the realities of those in abject poverty? I wasn’t wrong – our simulations were inadequate. But they were never meant to be. I mean, other than legal obligations to keep our camper safe, there are many reasons why simulations are ‘good enough’.
I suppose the idea of the famine camp was not for those already aware of the sufferings in the third world countries, those younger with less exposure to such news. Camp commandant Lai Hock keeps talking about ‘the seeds that are sowed in you’ when he addresses the campers, and it made me understand that learning is a long process.
While some campers already have a heart for the poor, they were rare and few in between. Most people signed up because it is ‘fun’, with their friends, for CIP hours or simply because they were forced to by their schools. Some of their attitudes were not very nice, and it’s true that some of them will leave this camp without learning much. However, there are also the heartwarming stories of campers growing personally after a moment which particularly struck them. When I asked my campers what they learnt, they gave similar answers, answers they know we wanted to hear. But when I changed the question to “What was a particular activity that made the day enriching for you?” they gave me personal, varied answers which showed me just how diverse the experience can be for different people. We can track if they understand the key messages by the reflections they write (which may not even be a true indication), but we can never know the true extent of our impact.
Another thing about the simulations were – they are not meant to simply develop empathy – they are also meant to be empowering. Campers see the grim side of things, but are always reminded to think in terms of what can be done, or even what they can do to change the situation. Sympathy or empathy is worthless without future actions – we fast for extended periods of time but that’ll be just that. How can we develop our future generation to be optimistically realistic – I think that’s a worthy challenge.
Lastly, I learn about the value of gathering a large group of people in one place. I’ve learnt an incredible lot from my fellow famine leaders, volunteers and facilitators. Everyone was so different but everyone respected each other and wanted to know each other. Being surrounded by positive energy is probably the best way to feel empowered. Being the least socially able person I know, I dreaded the idea of having to socialise. But there’s always a thin line between socialising and forging friendships. I discovered that I have a great capacity for friendships simply because I have the curiosity to learn about different people’s stories. While it took me a lot of energy, I’m glad I went ahead with ‘socialising’ because it paved the way for deep, real conversations that made me truly want to be friends with my fellow volunteers. And I’m sure that’s how the campers felt too. Awkwardness is to be expected, but stepping out of one’s social circle and thus comfort zone is what open the doors to real relationships, and connections between people is magical thing.
Ultimately, I learnt that expectations are simply out of the question when it comes to advocacy camps like this, and it can be applied to most things in life. There are definite goals, but specific expectations will only make one lose confidence in one’s idea. Things will never go 100% the expected way, and being caught in the details is a human susceptibility. It is accompanied by the fear of failing when anticipating possible reactions and the discouragement when things don’t go according to plan. It is why people fear starting anything at all, or get disappointed when they try something but seemingly failed. Keeping this in mind, optimism is something I desperately need to learn, and it is indeed something I learnt from how the facilitators managed the camp.
I think I expected the famine camp to transport me to the third world, but I think it made me take a step back, to re-evaluate what it means to be an advocate for the poor in a first world country. Advocacy for the poor is a concept I’m grappling with as well. Is it money splurged on publicity when it can go to building a water well? Or is it creating a future generation that will be more proactive in aiding their fellow human beings? It is never an easy question to answer, and ultimately there are many ways to solve a problem. Can’t wait to explore what it means to be a social changer for myself!