Boats

by zunguzungu

The more I’ve learned about how people live their lives here, how the economy works, and how Wazungu fit into the picture, the more I’ve come to question whether any of us have any right at all to be here. Not that I’ve concluded that we don’t; I am here, and I’m sad to leave, and I plan to return. But it’s a much more difficult question than it is often allowed to be, much more complicated ethically than arriving Wazungu generally seem to realize. I don’t know how they are thinking when they leave, what they’ve learned, what they bring back with them. But its the Americans who think they’re at camp, who don’t realize that its people’s lives their vacationing in, who really make you sick at heart to be from a wealthy Western country. There’s a game that I remember people playing, the first time I was here, in fact, that was exactly that: it involved running through villages, some combination of race and scavenging hunt (and seemed mostly to be an Australian thing), but what would have been impossible not to notice if they had not succeeded themselves in not noticing it, was that the very homes of people living in the country that was welcoming them had been transformed into a sporting field, to be trampled on. Thinking back, it seems hard to believe that those guys were as bad as I remember them being (I saw them drinking at a bar after one of their games and someone explained the rules to me), but intellectually it isn’t so far fetched; much more vicious things are done in the name of development than that, if less blatently disrespectful.
My persistant nemesis is a flycatcher who always wants to know when I’m leaving, demanding that the proper job of a tourist is to buy and leave. Because I don’t, I sometimes genuinely feel threatened by him; if they’re going to be, people tend to be subtly rude here, but there’s nothing subtle about the look in his eyes and it scares me a little bit. But its hard to put into words the lack of respect, the lack of appreciation, and the silent patronizing contempt that makes up the typical white tourist, and the only surprising thing, frankly, is that there aren’t more people like this flycatcher. It’s not to say, however, that those feelings aren’t there. But a Tanzanian that will unnecessarily hurt anyone, even the most viciously ignorant and disrespectful foreigner, is a very rare person. A lot of it is the very politeness that most Wazungu utterly lack; whatever a Tanzanian thinks of you will not stop him or her from stepping out of their way to do the decent thing, to give you directions, to let you know that you’ve got a wad of bills hanging out of your pocket, to let you know that your shoe is untied. It is so sickening to see that maturity, that decency, so utterly lacking in the people who have come to save the continent, that I lack words, and I won’t waste any more.
Liz has given me a view into how a lot of NGO’s work in this country, and I’ve tried to pass some of those stories along. I’ll try to do some more of that. Because, as pathetic and as vile as they are, the kind of ignorant viciousness of your average tourist-volunteer is nothing compared to the destructive power of corporate ignorance in the NGO world. Ultimately, the tourist-volunteers who come for a week or two, who come to lecture their elders and casually disrespect the ways of life of people they don’t begin to understand, ultimately these people will go home leaving very little behind. Their very ignorance makes them inneffectual. But NGO’s have become a fundamental part of how this country works; development aid is no joke in countries whose economies have been hamstrung by trade regulations and foreign debt, by years of Western meddling, countries that are crippled according to the very definition of the status quo. Development aid is the bread and water that keeps an incarcerated convict alive; calling it “charity” is only a way of disclaiming responsibility for the slow death that has replaced the fast one. I can’t put it any more bluntly than that, so again, I won’t waste words.
Instead, let me give a little space to Adam, Liz’s research assistant, a farmer from Amani who became a tour guide and who is now working with Liz in her journey through the dark underbelly of NGO education. We were talking the other day, and he asked, for example, if Europeans would ever let an African come to their country, to lecture them on how they live their lives, to study them, and to remake them. We started talking about African priests in white parishes in the states, and you’ve got to admit that the spectacle of a Nigerian delivering a Mass to old white folks who think someone from the next state is “foreign,” well, that’s comedy. But the question didn’t need to be answered. We all know the answer.
Here’s what he wrote:

The donors are using Africa as their market place. By using money they have managed to take control in making decisions of the activities they fund. That money is a big boat, on board are poor people, and the sailor is a funder. They take poor people everywhere they want. They use the advantages of people being poor to colonize and divide them by using their money.

The boat is a good metaphor (and Adam always talks like that), and if I can extend it I would say that the two week AIDS awareness volunteers are like people that step on board a canoe without keeping their center of balance low, who take huge strides that threaten to overturn the boat and don’t even realize they’re doing it. As the boat pitches, they complain that African boats aren’t as comfortable as Wazungu boats, that Africans haven’t yet learned to be good sailors, and soon enough they go back home to their own boats. But it’s the multinational at the tiller, USAID or the WTO or the IMF, and the trickle down effect that such “donors” have on day to day life that drives the boat into choppy waters. Adam made the point that people have been living their lives for a long time before people came along with words like “participation” or “entrepreneurialism” or “globalisation,” and if you don’t recognize that, you’re never going to understand where the boat might want to go on its own. But I feel like I’m talking in circles, so let me, again, say no more about that.
The very inadequacy of words, of discourse, and of speech reminds me of my own place here. In the US, the kind of project I’m working on seems strangely political and its not hard, in academic circles, to tell myself that what I’m doing has some connection to the real problems of the world we live in. It would be interesting to know how many academics believe that about their work. But that illusion is impossible to sustain here. Like all the other tourist-volunteers, I’ve come here for me, and if I do any good, it won’t be because of my impossibly irrelevent work, but because of the simple good one does simply by living a decent life. Being a friend, being family, being a neighbor, being a considerate stranger; these are the things that Tanzanians excel at, things that I hope to learn from and emulate. I’ve advanced my dissertation in significant ways, but the important things I’ve done here have been spending an afternoon with a lonely old woman, playing with children, and trying to be a good teacher instead of a mediocre one. And these are not things one needs to go to Africa to do. But sometimes, I guess, it helps.