July 23, 2008

TCDC Conversations

Here at TCDC is like being in another world and I am anxious to move on. This place is a safe place for the many missionaries and development workers who come to try out their latest projects or do research or work to convert more Tanzanian muslims to Christianity. Our group has had lots of interesting discussions about this and where it fits into the 'discourse' on Africa and its 'development'. One of the things that inevitably has to be asked in these sorts of conversations is: development toward what? and for whom? Mwalimu Nyerere expressed this thought very eloquently, and in principle the Center is committed to the same sort of vision. But in reality, students and aid workers come here for their own reasons and with their own prejudices.
An interesting conversation with an American who grew up in Kenya as the son of missionaries and has done a lot of work in Djibouti:
"Well," he told me, "you can't blame all Africa's problems on the West." I thought this was intriguing because I had never stated that I did or that one should. As I began an explanation of US foreign policy in Africa, he listened and agreed, but then began to rail on 'the usual suspects' in the sort of ideologically lazy blame-game played by lightweight racists: "Well, these African leaders are the ones that are corrupt. Who is holding them responsible?" I agreed and explained how many of the corrupt ones were propped up by the United States government for their strategic interest. He claimed to agree, and we continued to discuss about culture. He said, "the reason Somali society doesn't progress is because all the men want to do all day is drink chai and chew chat (a popular lightweight narcotic). He also made various statements claiming that whenever Muslims own the land, the land is never prosperous.
The illuminating thing about these sorts of conversations is that they are usually had by the very people doing long-term work or research in Africa. It is sooo interesting to me how many people want to 'study' Africa but never see the culture and people as contributing something potentially very necessary to an ongoing conversation about culture and sustainability. Like when my friend expressed admiration for the Maasai and the way they have sustained their culture, another student from America felt compelled to chime in, "But you know they have a very high mortality rate!" Since when did that become the ultimate criteria for the good society?
I am truly ashamed at the arrogance of Americans in Africa; almost every day different situations are presented to me that make me question and probe how I interact with people here. One of the things we discussed as a group is the cultural assumptions we bring here and where and how to 'be ourselves' while still honoring our 'guestness' among Tanzanians. The Tanzanian people, I must say, are profoundly impressive. I have found them to be extremely polite, hospitable, welcoming, and very gentle.
Watching A Panther in Africa about Pete O'Neal's work in Tanzania continuing the legacy of the Black Panther Party, I was struck by something he said about 'being caught between two worlds' and not being able to return to one in U.S. (and partly not wanting too) but also not fully part of the life-world he lives in--i.e. not completely adapted to being 'Tanzanian'. I found his struggle to be tremendously inspirational and moving and also applicable in a way to the situation I have often found myself in.
One of the things I reckon with in understanding myself is what I am and how I got this way. And in considering this, I have realized many times that the existence I came from and the people I grew up calling my friends are gone. The path I have chosen to push myself down has alienated me in a way from many of those I grew up with. And the deeper I go down the path, immersing myself in various experiences--in the Delta, Atlanta, at Howard, and here in Tanzania-- the more friends I make and the more I understand a certain, shall we say, point-of-view. And the less I seem to be able to understand the point-of-view of people from my own socio-economic/cultural background. And that scares me, it really does. But seeing what Pete went through confirms for me that these experiences are just a part of life, and an essential part of life for anyone who is struggling from any perspective to make sense of the madness we are living in.
This relates to the many students of my generation also studying in Africa who I find myself unable to relate to. And I can't just go back; I don't want to return to the way they think. But at the same time, I am still a product of my envirornment and no matter how many different places I gain acceptance into, I will never completely 'fit' there. And the place where I could be accepted, I no longer fit.
It feels very strange, very lonely, but in the end it is also tremendously gratifying and I wouldn't trade it for anything else.

3 comments:

Sam July 25, 2008 at 11:15 PM  

When I was in Japan for 10 days, I found all the Japanese I met to be pleasant, gentle, and polite people. Almost excessively at times; they are notorious for their politeness.

My brother, who has lived there for three years, however, has a much more nuanced, balanced view about Japanese culture, the good and the bad- why they have such low crime yet high suicide rates, low drug use yet rampant alcoholism, such warm welcoming of foreigners yet the impossibility of a non-natural born citizen to ever be assimilated fully into their society.

I don't think you ought to disregard those opinions because they come from a different perspective than your own. It is telling that some people (I'm not putting words in your mouth, but some people) consider a foreign person's observations on the USA to be more valuable than an American's observations on the rest of the world.

It seems, on the surface, that you are putting up walls and boxes that need not be. What has always surprised me, in spite of the striking diversity of cultural tradition, is the overarching similarity of our species. It occurs to me that it is up to a given individual whether to emphasize the things that separate us into different real or imagined tribes, or to emphasize the things that bind us as members of a shared descent/family, and which is more beneficial to both that individual and to his/her environment/community. People make these observations and judgments on stages as small as their neighborhood and workplace and as vast as the world community. Very often, both barriers and bridges are arbitrary human inventions, and serve simply as self-fulfilling prophecies.

Just a few thoughts, I pray that you savor this rare spat of optimism. (Though i think I tend to be pessimistic when the dialogue is optimistic, and optimistic when the dialogue turns to pessimism. This kind of balancing input may very well be similar to your friend's comments on the Masai, in terms of merely offering a different facet to the conversation at hand.)

Nathaniel Mathews July 28, 2008 at 4:08 AM  

Hmmm...I am sure there are many ways to complicate my rather cursory analysis of Tanzanians. However, my larger point was how Africa is treated as a passive subject, an underdeveloped mass of potential for Western 'actors' to try out projects and research on.
I make no claim to be objectively accurate about the totality of the situation. I know many sincere Westerners who do scholarship or development work. Yet, and still, there is a larger structural problem of inequality in the world which belies your otherwise correct assessment of our common humanity. How can those struggling to survive on the tourist dollars of the West legitimately claim equality with those privileged to travel around the world? People are not equal is the plain fact...of course because of their own cultural choices, but LARGELY because of oppression, injustice, and the vestiges of colonial underdevelopment.
Even if colonialism isn't the 'fault' of visiting Westerners such as myself, I and others like me benefit from that inequality. Case in point: Americans don't move to Africa in order to survive and send money back to their families. However, the reverse is true in America.
Anyway, perhaps I will have further opportunity to reflect on your thoughts in my travels.

Sam July 28, 2008 at 1:24 PM  

Ok. I agree with all that.

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