I believe I mentioned that one of the more unpleasant “flycatchers” (as they’re sometimes called–the guys that try to sell you stuff and follow you around like flypaper when you’re in the wazungu part of town) once told me that I had no business in town if I wasn’t going to buy anything and that I needed to go home. Yesterday he asked me when I was going home; I answered, “in a month,” and he seemed delighted with that answer, although its not strictly true. My plane ticket is the 25th, and the days are starting to count down; these people bother me, because (although they’re jerks) they remind me how strange it is to be wealthy among poverty (and they make me not feel so bad about returning home to a place where its so much easier to forget that!).
The blog is starting to wind down too, if talking about the blog in the blog isn’t too clear a sign of that. But I find that the desire and ability to report from the frontlines are starting to wane, about right on schedule. But more than that I find myself wondering a little about what I’m doing, why I write this blog so furiously and why people read it. Lots of funny stuff happens and I like sharing that; lots of interesting stuff happens and (as anyone who’s made the mistake of asking me about my dissertation knows) I have a tendency to talk at great length about stuff that I (and perhaps only I) find interesting. But I wonder what the people I’m writing about would think of it? Why do I feel no desire to show them? Even the thought makes me nervous; I like knowing that I can write whatever I want about the place I’m living in and no one here will (likely) ever read it. That doesn’t seem like a good thing does it?
Not that most of them would want to of course; who really wants to know about my dysentery (I do like that word; say it aloud!) except people that know me personally? And not even them! But the history of writing about Africa has largely been like that, a discourse about peopole who never have the chance to tell them how wrong it is and who wouldn’t be listened to if they did. It’s a little dispiriting to realize that I’m following in that grand old tradition; I wonder what kind of strange things I’ve said that any fool living here would see to the bottom of? But computer literacy is an incredible barrier here.
I’ve been talking to Liz, who visited for a day, and one of the things she’s discovering, as she researches how ngo’s operate and how they provide trainings and things, is just how much of a class wall different kinds of literacies really are. Its possible to maintain the fiction in the United States that anyoine can, with hard work and a good solid bootstrap, teach themselves the things they need to know to get ahead (hell, its possible here too, I heard someone say just that yesterday). But here, the vast majority of the adult population has an education that qualifies them for nothing. And the more Liz has told me about the ways that NGO’s and adult seminars are run and organized, the more of a fiction it seems to be. Most adults here are nothing close to computer literate, business literate, and couldn’t write a “proposal” to save their life. But while there are a variety of organizations out there in NGO land that would love to give money to a group to teach “underserved” people how to do various things like that, the way you get to that money is to write a proposal. If you don’t know how to write a proposal? Well, then you’re out of luck. Catch 22.
And the people who actually are writing proposals seem to be complete charlatans, or at least all of them that I’ve encountered. If you remember the post I wrote about the tree planting seminar in Lushoto, well, Liz gave me an update. It turns out that the kijiji were not only being called the “Waharibu Mazingira” (environment destroyers) after they were dismissed from the seminar, but it became increasingly clear that they had only been invited in order to have a scapegoat for deforestation (they were all charcoal sellers). The Ubiri women’s group had written a proposal to USAID to teach tree planting and they had, as a way of tightening the screw in the proposal, proposed to invite the people who were cutting all the trees down. So after they got the tree planting seminar out of the way, they disinvited the kijiji folk and used the rest of the money to give themselves business education classes (which, from awhat I could tell were sort of a cross between neoliberal propaganda and a tent-revival meeting).
So Liz, interested in knowing what the kijiji thought of all this, trekked up the hill to ask them. Apparently it was quite an undertaking, first having to convince the local village head that it was okay to ask them questions. If she’s reading, maybe she can supplement my account here, because I’m not sure I remember correctly, but the gist of it seemed to be that after the village head berated his people (to Liz) for not having formed a group, she spent a while talking with the kijiji folk about how they could form a group and write prosals (they were trying to decide what the best name would be). Even they saw which side the bread was buttered on. But they were also indignant about being portrayed as the environment destroyers and pointed out to Liz that they grew their charcoal on plots of land that they bought and worked themselves. It wasn’t as if they just trekked off into the forest and cut down trees recklessly; they were more like private farmers. But I don’t expect that they’ll get much out of their proposals; USAID likes to give money to people that play the game better than those charcoal farmers have ever been able to learn to do. They’re not literate in the right ways.
This entry is long, rambling, and as mixed up as my digestive tract, so let me get to the point. While its always been clear what a profound barrier “literacy” is in any modern society, what a profound marker of the division between haves and have nots it is (and I taught SAT prep for years to rich kids could afford to become more test literate than their peers, something I’ll pay for in purgatory), so many of the sickest aspects of Tanzania’s dependency economy seem to come down to just that problem of literacy, most loosely defined. Want to become a tour guide? You must learn two European languages. Want to get a grant to put your hand into the river of USAID funds? You must know how to speak NGO-ease. But these literacies are available only to those that already have the means; so many of the ways that one might use to lift oneself up are, in fact, structured such that you already have to have the skills you’re trying to attain in order to get them. That catch 22 seems to be popping up everywhere. Even me; I teach in a school in a rural area, filled with poverty, but as low as the fees are, I’ve become increasingly aware that only the elite in the village (rich only in relative terms, but more well off nevertheless) can afford to pay even those reduced fees. Does that help the area to make the difference between the richest in the village and the poorest that much wider? I don’t know. I could give more examples, but I’m running out of time on the internet computer that I and one in a thousand Tanzanians are able to use.
With all that in mind, he notes ironically, winking off into the ether, it feels funny to be writing a blog about people who won’t read it.