Incoherent Discontent: A Tirade Against My Own

Posted on June 7, 2011

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Last night I got home from the office around nine at night. Utterly bushed, I crawled my way into the dining hall in search of some scraps in the kitchens, just anything to tide me over to the morning. I thanked my lucky stars to find that there was a Christian mission staying in the hostel that night, and that they’d ordered a special buffet, which was conveniently starting just as I arrived.

I slipped 200 Ksh to a friend I’ve made at the guesthouse and he let me into the kitchens to gorge myself on the buffet leftovers. And it was quite the haul—stewed carrots with some particularly good beef, an odd mixture of mashed corn, peas, and potatoes, some pasta (and not the infernally tasteless white rice that just swarms every plate here), chapatti, and pineapple. I loaded my plate and slunk off to a dark corner of the dining hall, wolfing down my food as inconspicuously as possible while eying the missionaries at the other tables.

There were perhaps forty of them, mostly white and upper middle class by the looks, women in red tee-shirts and clunky brown skirts, men in blue and khakis, and all crowing themselves with caps covered in numeric scriptural codes. Americans most definitely, Californians by their look and their talk.

Oh and their talk.

About this child and that who they had shown the light of god to, about what a difference they would make to this nation by their one week on the ground, about the worthlessness of the local religious establishment, about the need to weed out who deserved their time and who didn’t. It became clear that they were on a one-week tour of the nation’s religious schools (whatever protestant denomination they belonged to), doing god’s work. Which is to say walking in, purging those they dubbed undeserving of the charitable works of the church, making a passing sweep at educating a few children with some disjointed and half-yelled English phrases, patting themselves on the back, and walking off. Without having really addressed anything deeper, without having really understood anything of importance, about the communities they had moved among.

A shudder of anger, perhaps scorn, ran down my spine. And I shot up—uncomfortable at being around these people, in part because I was uncomfortable feeling so hostile towards them.

Walking down the little lane to my room, I tried to abstract myself, to float about my head and pick apart the situation. I know I’m not really one to talk, working in an NGO right now, but I find that I have less and less patience for most of the foreigners here with each passing day (part of a general trend in my life of mistrust for many forms global engagement). My language is getting a bit clunky, so let’s break this down:

There are four general groups here—NGO workers (including missionaries), tourists, expats, and diplomats. My perception of these groups is fed in part my a little self-recrimination, a little academic scrutiny and doubt, a little of the opinions of those locals I’ve spoken to about these groups, and a lot of my own observations of late.

NGO Workers and Missionaries: Theoretically I’ve got no problem with this bunch. I actually believe in the good that NGOs and missionaries can do in foreign nations. But ever since my youth I’ve developed this notion that most groups are not living up to their potential—instead they can be downright detrimental. Often times they are the pornographers of poverty.

Forget for a moment the literature that’s emerging on the scramble for resources among NGOs, the growth of an NGO corporate culture, and the self-sabotaging nature of the proliferation of NGOs. That’s another beast—a larger and more sinister one—than the oafs on the ground.

Let me put out here my view on NGOs—they should get in, get the job done, and get out. They need two things to be successful and beneficial (aside form resources, legitimacy, the cooperation of local conditions and norms, etc.): an exit strategy, and an ethos of interaction that treats locals and local situations with all the nuance and respect with which they would treat themselves.

Alas, here’s what we see on the ground: a bunch of white folk step off a plane, convinced that they know what’s best, that they will come in and actively teach the locals the right way of doing things, that they are in the dominate position here, and that they can fix the nation through their mission. The end result is a mission that drags out forever, and drags out in an uneven fashion. The locals are the subservient beneficiaries of a service, not equal partners to be consulted and respected. The lack of awareness of local conditions (how an NGO salary itself can contribute to brain drain, income disparity, how one move by the NGO to improve one part of society might shake out to ten more problems for that community, how the complexities on the ground can change the way one must go about a task, and how that can only be achieved by forgetting one’s central goals and ideologies and working with locals to craft a local ideology and set of goals) leads to a perpetual state of near-master-servant relations. A perpetual presence, an altruistic and self-congratulating quagmire. I’ll not rag on about this incessantly, but you see it all reflected in the somewhat self-righteous, but ultimately very ignorant people who man most of the NGOs and missions.

This isn’t to say there aren’t good NGO workers. But being a good NGO worker is in part about making your footprint indistinct from the local footprints, about blending into the society, becoming a part of it to better understand it, of working with locals to set up localized and nuanced solutions. I don’t talk about the good NGO workers because they are good—unseen. I can only hope that I am one of those NGO workers. After all, a good part of my mission here is to leave behind replicable models built upon the local situation and with the guidance and aid of locals, and to help to reconfigure the organization so that it is of net benefit to the society in all of its outcomes and can run completely independently of outside support or oversight in a few years’ time.

Now to the tourists. I do not joke when I say that the average weight difference between a tourist and any other foreigner is somewhere on the order of a hundred pounds. The average age difference (and proportional difference in crotchety-ness) is significant as well.

All that I can say of tourists has been said before, so I’ll not bother saying too much more. But they are, in many places, the primary images of westerners to the mass of the population. And they are an opulent bunch. They overpay out of ignorance, stay at the most posh of hotels, walk with clumsy gaits in their oh-so conspicuous outfits. Again, there are some good tourists, but like the good NGO workers, they approach invisibility. The rest just perpetuate the image of Americans who trot around the glob in a strange, aloof neo-imperialist tour, wealthy as sin. And they lead to me getting mobbed and potentially robbed. I’m not too happy about that. Again, I hope I am one of the invisible bunch.

The diplomats I mentioned briefly in my last post—seen as haughty, hypocritical, and corrupt. Often, especially here, they are not in a country of their choice, and so a bit bitter. They order food in bulk from home, and many don’t have much luck in assimilating to the culture to better understand it. Again, a good diplomat should be invisible when compared to the rest of the culture, should be grounded and well versed within the society in which he or she lives. They should not be gated, somewhat bitter and distant, guardians of the coveted passport, and very aware of the power and wealth that status can bring them.

But the best for last: expats. This little group of white folk is quite unlike any other in that they do manage for the most part to blend in. They’re here because they’ve rejected much of their own culture and taken on another. But they’re still a class of their own—they’re still intensely strange.

Like the seven foot, seventy year old man who stalks around the Westlands (where I work) with a shawl draped over his shoulders. He’s a fixture here, and well liked. But I don’t know a local here who doesn’t think he’s got a bit of a gasket loose. And I’m sure if I fit into any category, it’s this one.

I’m trying to image what I would think of the West, this weird, hegemonic culture, if I grew up less-than-wealthy in Nairobi. I’d see the westerners on television, and I’d see the four communities here. I suppose I’d see them as rich, a little arrogant, strange and distant, almost inhuman. I’d think they had no depth, no history, no culture. I guess I’d see them as mad kings, wandering the earth naked and raving, but strong brutes, flailing about in blindness, striking down this and that, unaware of most of the trampling damage their elephantine figures have wrought upon the world.

I asked a couple of acquaintances if I was right in my guess. They said I was not far off. And it makes me very sad. Because I’ve no idea how to fix it unless we kings find our senses en masse. Fat chance.

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