Sunday, February 15, 2009

Welcome to Africa

I’ve found Africa. I’m now in Kigoma, in the west of Tanzania, along the banks of Lake Tanganyika. It’s a quiet town of a little of 100,000 residents, although it has a significant international community due to a number of refugee camps for people fleeing violence across the lake in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi. As opposed to the imitation Western sterility of Dar es Salaam, Kigoma exudes Africanness. Roads are made of the same rich earth as the tarmac at the Kigoma airport, and are covered with a checkerboard of ruts that must look like the Grand Canyon did a few million years ago. Buildings are low and made of wood and steel, rather than the ba? Glass and steel of the capitol, and everywhere there is a feeling of simplicity and strong cultural roots. Looking out over the deeply green, fertile hills falling to the impossible topaz of Tanganyika, balmy air carrying fresh lake air spiced with rich earth and flowers, it seems incredibly idyllic. And there lies a paradox.
Kigoma is a spectacular home to the cultural and environmental beauty that Westerners cherish in Africa, and seems a very livable place to boot. In fact, the calm climate, rolling, verdant hills, and crystal clear water recall European Rivieras where many Westerners choose to retire to escape city life, but here, instead of a rural paradise, it is considered an area in need of development. Meanwhile, Dar seems to have little to show for the foreign aid community cloistered in its north, and instead is marked by ugly, concrete behemoths, an exclusive commercial world, and very little that is recognizably Tanzanian, yet it is considered on its way to development.
It’s true that there is poverty here, and a considerable lack of access to essential services, but the same is true in Dar. Places like Kigoma are ideal locations for foreign NGOs, as there is the opportunity to start from scratch, where little has been tried before. Coming to this sort of community is indeed what I had envisioned in coming to a developing country to “help”, but Kigoma is in no need of a white knight.
Visiting the Jane Gooddall Institute (JGI), one of the few NGOS here not related to refugees, I was surprised to find the well-renowned organization staffed exclusively by Tanzanians. Tanzanians who were confidently, effectively, and independently taking steps to improve the wellbeing of their fellow citizens. The surprise was not that they could do this, but that it happened in a development community dominated by the belief that foreign expertise and training is needed for organizations to act effectively. The raw Africanness of Kigoma is not a reason to call in the Western development paramedics. It is precisely the opposite. Tanzanian-staffed organizations like JGI (although funded by a Westerner) can effectively address the challenges found here.
A visit to an Anglican hospital outside Kigoma highlighted the need for locally-grown solutions. In the impressive facility, we found room after room of empty beds not, according to the staff there, because of a lack of demand, but because so few people could afford care. Greater resources are certainly necessary, but that doesn't mean Kigoma needs to be saved. The knights are here, they just aren't white.

1 comment:

  1. Julien,

    I'm very much enjoying this blog, as it shows a great deal of thoughtfulness on these issues. It seems as though your very mainstream critiques of colonialism are coloring your view of international NGOs as well, I'd love to hear more about where you see yourself fitting into this system.

    Even as you raise the Tanzanian-staffed JGI above other organizations for its reliance on local workers, you yourself are still a sort of "White Knight." While the juxtaposition between yourself, emblematic of the international aid community, and the Tanzanians is interesting, I can't help but wonder whether you believe your own presence there is a part of a larger problem of Western interference in Africa. I suspect you'd say that the presence of Westerners is less harmful in the context of cultural exchange than under the mantle of "saving Africans from themselves."

    In any case, thanks for your thoughtfulness. Your postings are providing interesting color as I think about the way the U.S. Foreign apparatus approaches our relations with the world.