Lyle said something about Interns a while back that I didn’t quite understand until now. We were sharing thoughts about a perplexing phenomenon, people who supposedly came to learn something about the sustainability business but were disinclined to listen or get their hands dirty. Not only did they fail to take instruction, they were “know-it-alls”. Lyle said they had likely come from privilege. “Trust fund babies” he called this particular type of volunteer. They were arrogant and not very helpful.
It made sense. Students who came to Piedmont Biofuels over Summer break weren’t the type who had to mow lawns or flip burgers to keep their creditors at bay. I didn’t fully appreciate that they might not even know how to cook or run a lawn mower until now.
Summer has come to Ghana, bringing us new faces from the States to share the FS2BD project workload. As part of the deal, we offer shared living arrangements in our home.
As a clarification, our “Summer” is actually the Rainy Season and it more resembles Winter. It’s the most comfortable time of year, with temperatures falling below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, sending me searching for leggings and a jacket. Allison, our wonderful ‘summer’ intern from North Carolina is dreading her return to North Carolina where the daily highs will be in the 90’s and beyond.
Lyle’s comment finally hit home after we experienced a most arrogant and un-coachable intern. It was an engineering student who had come to the U.S. from abroad. He arrived, dressed in black, panting from the heat like a dog and was obviously unprepared for the world he found himself in down here.
It seems he had the wrong impression of Kumasi from the beginning and admitted he hadn’t taken the time to read about it. He was shocked to find that free wifi wasn’t available everywhere and that the power and water often went out. Further, he was perplexed as to why we would be growing and cooking our own food and didn’t understand the concept behind our compost pile.
Yet, he refused to listen to our simple advice about pretty much everything. Within a week or so, his failure to take our advice about drinking lots of water resulted in disaster. He succumbed to dehydration and heat stroke and nearly died.
Bob and Allison sat on either side of him for two hours, willing him to live as he slipped in and out of consciousness. Jay, Jeremy and I scrambled to provide support and Eric sent a taxi to bring his wife Linda, a registered nurse to the scene. At one point I was convinced I was going to see my first human being die. My heart thumps in panic as I write these words. It was a horrible experience.
Sharing was not part of his skill set, as he was quick to state in a disdainful tone of voice. Group assets soon became his and his alone. He quickly alienated his lab mates with his sense of entitlement. And yet he brought nothing to the party, nothing of his own to share. So in reality, he was quite accomplished at sharing the assets of others as long as he didn’t have to give anyone else a turn.
We weren’t surprised. We knew who he was when within minutes of arrival he asked to borrow a pair of our shoes. He went on to help himself to food others had purchased and prepared. As well as pillows from around the house, including the spare bedroom.
By sheer luck, I discovered that he had been ‘sharing’ the neighbors’ trash bin the whole time he was here. I was mowing the grass outside our compound wall and saw him walk across the street to place three full bags of garbage atop their already full bin. “Did Albert give you permission to use their trash service?” I asked. “No, but no one’s ever said anything.” was his flippant reply.
I immediately crossed the street to retrieve his garbage and apologize to Albert. Albert asked who had put the trash there and when I told him he nodded his head vigorously, “Always.” he said. An obroni had broken the unspoken code about sharing and it was outside his comfort zone to confront him. I wished I’d noticed sooner.
Before his term was half finished, Bob took steps to send him home and waited for the inevitable to happen. Sure enough, this young man’s arrogance soon became so intolerable that his work mates began to complain. In writing. Not only was he reluctant to share the lab equipment, but he was talking down to his co-workers, particularly the Ghanaians.
Finally, he spilled methanol all over the lab floor because he was unwilling to use a funnel. To add insult to injury, he refused (when asked politely) to clean it up. Rather than breath the toxic fumes, one of his lab mates got a mop and bucket and cleaned up the spill.
Watching her co-worker clean up after her housemate was the last straw. Allison reached her breaking point and contacted Bob. “That’s it!” Bob said, with the trace of a smile, “If he’s pissed off Allison, he has got to go.” Let it be known that Allison is the most even-keeled person on project. She is extremely level-headed and emotionally mature. A pragmatist not given to drama. I was both shocked and relieved to hear her story.
To be fair, he was quite young. But given that Allison is even younger makes his age no excuse. Unlike Allison, who works in the garden, ‘gets’ the compost thing, follows our household trash protocol, buys and/or harvests her own produce, cooks for herself and knows how to mow a lawn, our more privileged intern had never learned to cook or touched a lawn mower.
When his lack of skills began to come to light, I was perplexed. “How could he have reached this age without knowing how to do these simple things?” I wondered aloud to our friend Nauzley. “Oh, I’ve seen people who came from abroad and didn’t even know how to dress themselves.” she offered. “Seriously?!” I asked. “Sure,” Nauzley affirmed, “Back home someone picked their outfits and dressed them.” Wow!
I now have a new appreciation for Lyle’s role as Intern-Coordinator. As well as a better understanding of how privilege can lead to arrogance which can lead to a blindness of sorts. The kind of unseeing that comes from never having to do for ones’ self. And a sadness that those who have the most to give sometimes end up taking the most.
Ultimately, our privileged intern called a taxi and left without saying goodbye to anyone or thanking them for sharing. Or for saving his life. Blind to the impact he had on all of us. Blinded by his own arrogance and sense of entitlement.