Monday, February 16, 2009

My Role Here

My friend Bradley left an interesting comment on my last post about my role here and how that fits with what I talked about in the last post, which made me realize that I maybe have depersonalized the blog a little too much. The reason these concerns about Western involvement in Tanzania have been in my mind is because I have been questioning my own role here. I include myself in the criticisms I have offered, and it has forced me to fundamentally rethink this trip.

Walking down the street here, I feel my foreignness as palpably as the equatorial heat. While I have found people to be very open and friendly (perhaps more so than anywhere I've ever been), the children who greet me follow my passing with cries of "Muzungu!" (stranger, or white person). There's no animosity in it, but they are right. I am a stranger. It is the disconnectedness of the group of aid workers who I joined for their regular after-work tennis matches who despite having spent the day administering sanitation projects and refugee camps, seemed to be completely comfortable discussing the new shoes they had bought, the wind-surfing board they were bringing over from Norway, and the party they were going to that night, without a single mention of anything Tanzanian.

This is not to say that all foreign involvement is bad, or that these particular ex-pats are not having a positive impact. There is a considerable lack of trained professionals like civil engineers here, and refugees need resources from wherever they are available, as quickly as possible. It's just important to remember that Westerners should always be a second choice after local employees. There is a fundamental paradigm shift that has begun, but has not pervaded the aid and development community from helping the underpriviliged, to providing the support that cannot be provided locally for these people to choose their own futures.jkxcnvkd

One organization that we have been working with here that fits that mold is called Sustainable Harvest. This U.S.-based for-profit company exports specialty coffee while helping farmers improve their crops, their profits, and their quality of life. The unique knowledge of agronomy and the international coffee market brought by their foreign staff combined with the deep understanding of local culture and conditions of their Tanzanian staff has helped make Kigoma coffee some of the best-respected in the world.

What this trip has already shown me is that international aid and development is not the simple, altruistic endeavor I had thought it was, and is often counterproductive, but also that the field is learning and improving quickly. With any luck my time in kenya will be an experience that feels meaningful and worthwhile, and so will a job upon graduation that supports the underpriviliged.

1 comment:

  1. julien!
    it sounds like you are certainly getting an interesting perspective and learning a lot, which is such an important part of going abroad. even if you come back thinking that the system is totally screwed up and you didn't belong there, you still learned that in and of itself.
    but i suspect you will end up feeling comfortable and doing good things and helping people (even if it's just by being your sweet self and making someone's day a little brighter, and perhaps giving some people a different/better view of americans because of your good nature).

    i just wanted to comment and say i'm enjoying reading your thoughtful and informative blog posts

    missing you from wes,