My Love Hate Relationship with my Co-operative House

At the end of each day, I look forward to going home. When I return home to the cook group playing upbeat music, housemates swing dancing in the kitchen or just playing foosball in the living room, it makes up for a long,exhausting day at Cornell. For me, home at Cornell is a small, blue house on North campus.

I still live one of the co-operative house on campus. Although the building is owned and supervised by the university, the house itself is self-governed by the nineteen undergraduate residents. Until now, I have always painted a rosy picture of my co-op life. Perhaps, being a freshman in a house where half the residents were seniors did not allow for much opportunity for me to handle problems in the house. So much so that I did not even think there could be problems in the house.

This semester, I am a house officer – treasurer for Whitby and half of our residents are new – they moved in this semester. So I feel more responsible, or more entitled towards house operations. It ranges from are we getting enough bread/bagels for breakfast? Does our budget allow for a new house printer? Why is our kitchen so messy during the weekends? Why aren’t people doing their chores? Can we sponsor more house events to increase bonding between residents?

Being able to make decisions about how our co-op runs, how we live and what we’d like our house to be gives me a greater sense of belonging to the house. It feels more like it’s my own home and not a university building I have signed a contract for. But the issues we face are sometimes more complex than which printer we want to buy.

When your cook group goes to the kitchen on Sunday afternoon to prepare dinner for the house and finds the sink full of dishes, used pans with remains of two day old omelettes and counters stacked with kitchen applications, it’s hard to love your co-op in that moment. Since there is no way to tell who all contributed to this mess and how much, a handful of people must take the responsibility to clean it up. In recent weeks, I have often had to help clean up this collective mess.

I wonder if the house was like this last year as well. Even if people had not shared their responsibilities equally, I don’t recall being frustrated about it. Then I realized that last semester, I just did not take it upon myself to clean the occasional collective mess. There were some older housemates who would often clean a mess they did not contribute to. Then they’d send an email to the house list-serve about cleanliness. Now I am that older housemate.

At some point during the collegetown apartment lease madness, I even considered moving out of my co-op because I was so frustrated with cleaning others’ mess. But when I went to the kitchen that weekend, it was neat and someone had baked cookies for the house. I definitely didn’t want to move out. This place and the people aren’t perfect, but no home or family is.

Volunteering in Africa or Vacationing?

Last week, I came across a student organisation on campus which raised funds to help African women affected by Obstetric Fistulas to undergo surgery. They climbed mount Kilimanjaro for fundraising and this year, they have raised over $18,000. When this organisation advertised its info session, I was intrigued.

Before the information session, I didn’t know what Obstetric Fistulas were. There was a slide to explain what was the ’cause’ for which the organisation was working. The speaker said that when women give birth without medical care, some of them have fistulas in their birth canals. And consequently, they are abandoned by their families and friends because they don’t want the curse. The money the organisation raises goes into surgeries to correct the fistulas in women affected by it.

Then came a series of slides about the trip to mount Kilimanjaro. It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime, memorable trip to take. However, I was not so impressed with the tourism like aspects of the trip. There was a safari, a party and a four day service project at an international agency where they interacted with Tanzanian children. I had my doubts: how can anyone even understand, let alone serve the people another country in just four days?

But that aside, I found the cause and the trip worthwhile, until one of the last slides. At the end, the president of the club informed us that the trip costs about $3,000 per person.

This past January, thirteen students had taken this trip. In all, they had spent about $40,000 to get attention, through which they raised $18,000 for their cause. Well, that doesn’t make sense to me. If the members had directly donated half the cost of the trip they were taking ‘for the affected African women’, they would have crossed their fundraising goal.

I was am disillusioned. Who was this trip really for? For the African women who are suffering from an obstetric fistula or to ease the guilt of students who were simply taking a vacation in Africa? While I appreciate the fundraising, the trip itself did not sound like a “service trip” to me. Unless we consider the $40,000 that went into the local economy of Tanzania to be a form of service.

Two days before the info session, I had read a guest column in the Cornell Sun titled “African Aid: Your Help Might Hurt” by Daniel Lumonya, a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. His words captured my feelings perfectly.

“You may realize how very little you know about the people you wish to save or about what they have to deal with every day. In fact, you may soon realize that your projects are no different from treating a compound fracture with a band aid or a cavity with Tylenol. In both cases, you will leave the patient worse off than how you found them. So if you choose to go to Africa without the proper knowledge and skills, go with the intention of visiting, not helping: Go to learn, not to save.”

When I left the info session at the end, I was angry but mostly disappointed. I’ve had some long conversations with other students about this and related topics. But I don’t know what I can do about this. I’m frustrated. For now, I’m just compiling a list of books or documentaries to educate myself.