Mountain gorillas, poverty, and incongruity

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.

I was invited last week to a free screening of a documentary about Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Such films are a solid reminder that while I’m not wealthy by American standards, I am wealthy by world standards. I have a 1,200 square foot house all to myself. I have my own car. I have air conditioning. It’s hard for me to watch something like that and not feel privileged, grateful, wealthy, and wasteful.

It’s almost a form of pornography for white, affluent, first-worlders. You feel better about yourself, but guilty, too. And you feel better about yourself for feeling guilty.

At one point in the film, someone mentioned that each of the groups wrestling for control of the area had their own agenda. My immediate thought was “And what is your agenda?” It’s impossible to claim that everyone but you has an agenda. That everyone but you is lying.

And then I went to the after party and listened to someone connected to the park talk about the work they’re trying to do while a bunch of college students ignored him and drank the free beer. It was hard to watch. There are people in Africa making illegal charcoal on park land, and these guys were chatting and drinking without a care in the world.

I wondered how much was spent that night, on free alcohol and travel and electricity, and why it didn’t go directly to the park instead. My friend wondered what she could do to help, claiming to be poor. I tried not to get snappish. She’s better off than I, and we’re both far beyond some Americans and almost everyone in the film.

What is the point of such an event, though? They didn’t appear to be soliciting donations, and if they were, why offer free booze? My only guess is that they were “raising awareness.” Hoping, maybe, that by spreading the word someone with enough money to make the free booze and travel expenses and the rest worthwhile. An elaborate setup aimed at the few with the money. The rest of us are left to the beer and the guilt.

What is there for my friend to do in such a situation? Nothing, I fear. The Congo is far from Texas. Aside from offering what money you can, there is nothing to be done, unless you wish to give Virunga part or all of your life. Some have, most won’t.

It was a difficult night. My friend’s distress, my doubts, the atmosphere contrasted with the content. I didn’t feel moved, I felt nauseated. The only awareness raised was the awareness that I need to stop doing these things to myself. I need to stick with first-world problems. I’m not affluent enough to deal with the third-world ones.


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