What Daniel Morgan knows that Madonna and Oprah don’t

Meet Elizabeth.

She lives in Kampala, Uganda. On the day this photo was taken, Elizabeth spent her time following around two men bent on solving a problem. With Elizabeth’s help, Daniel Morgan (’10) and a Ugandan friend tried to figure out how they could hook up the scavenged motor you see in the picture with an old pedal sewing table to make a cell phone charging station. (Surprisingly, cell phones are nearly as prevalent in Uganda as they are here.) Elizabeth, Daniel says, was good moral support. All day she followed the two men around as they puzzled over their task.

Elizabeth and her mother Maria are native Ugandans. “Maria is 24 years old,” Daniel says, “and works for my boss (Dr. Moses Musaazi of Makerere University in Kampala) as a production manager, which means she counts, packages and oversees production of sanitation pads. I greatly admire Maria because despite working seven days a week and at least eight hours each day, she has also found time to teach Elizabeth to be very sweet and polite. Very inspirational.”

From Elizabeth’s point of view, this experience was curious science, exploration — and it was intriguing.  From Daniel’s point of view, Elizabeth represented the crux of Being the Change. What happened in Uganda that day was a kind of experience that will change her world. If all goes right, Elizabeth  will grow up to be confident enough, inquisitive enough and diligent enough to make improvements that she sees for Uganda.

That, in a nutshell, is what Daniel Morgan has learned on multiple trips to the East African country. I’ve been corresponding with Daniel for a while, and last week I had the pleasure of meeting him face to face. He is surprisingly wise for someone so young. Daniel has also learned (and taught me, by the way) that our perspective on American aid is somewhat skewed.

Daniel looks at Uganda through a different lens than he did a few years ago when he first dropped into Elizabeth’s world. “They do not think they are poor,” he told me. In fact, he went on to say that being agreeable and pleasant is part of their culture. Relationships, not things, are important. They do not aspire to the same things we Americans do. We often define success as the accumulation of wealth. How big is your house? How fancy is your car? How fast and efficient is your process? Or how many degrees to you hold? One need only look at the impoverished lives of the so-called successful like Charlie Sheen and Britney Spears to understand that something’s wrong with our American aspirations. That is part of our culture — and perhaps not the most noble part.

To use a rather startling metaphor:  Anyone can remove an appendix with a chainsaw, but it takes a skilled surgeon to do it without destroying the body. That’s perhaps why Madonna and Oprah, wielding all their power and wealth, have bombed in this arena. Both of their attempts to build schools in Africa have been dismal failures. Unquestionably, neither Oprah nor Madonna considered the culture from Elizabeth’s or from Dr. Musaawi’s perspective. They identified need based on their lives, experiences and expectations. They imposed their standards on indigenous people without fully understanding the culture, without allowing the native people to become their own future, as Daniel has so humbly learned.

The accumulation of wealth for our own pleasure and security is a poor way to live. While it may be temporarily exciting and pleasurable, in the end, it is often hollow. There is no better example of this than Charlie Sheen. Born into wealth, he spent his childhood traveling around the world living on movie sets, with no restrictions on his behavior, no curbing of his personal lusts and excesses. He has lived with unlimited freedom, excessive wealth, sterling opportunity and fame. Where has it taken him? To Detroit — where last week he was booed off the stage. He has run to the end of riches and found nothing there.

Elizabeth ponders with a friend, Peter, and Daniel Morgan ('10)

I think one could make a pretty good case that Elizabeth and Maria are far richer.


In a blog post Daniel wrote earlier this year, he expressed it all very well:

My passion for design and for improving lives blinded me from the true situation. I saw problems that I wanted to fix, and I wanted to see that fix as soon as possible. What I missed was that Ugandans don’t just need designs, they need to start designing. Abigail Mechtenberg once spoke of design as bread; design has the ability to tangibly improve peoples lives, but to dedicate a career to designing for the other 90% is just as unsustainable as spending a lifetime donating food. Certainly there are times when relief work is absolutely needed, in times of emergency and crisis. But spending a lifetime donating food to people that have the ability to farm, is no worse than designing for people that have the ability to design. Should foreigners design to fix problems or should we instead empower design?*

Daniel’s personal driver is a strong and motivating faith in God. He prescribes, I would suspect, to Rick Warren’s philosophy of a purpose-driven life. Daniel has found purpose, and in his purpose, he has found riches. He is making a difference. He is changing the world by devoting his time and talents to a purpose greater than himself, the same way so many of our Be the Change people do every day.

He understands that being rich has nothing to do with currency. True and lasting riches are found  in selflessness, in relationships and in humanity. Or in being the right kind of change.

You can read all of Daniel’s story at these links:



Reading recommended by Daniel: When Helping Hurts, How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself,” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

*from the blog Empower Design: http://empowerdesign.blogspot.com/2011/02/industrial-designer-about-design-for.html


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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