Urban babe in the bush
Close to my college graduation, I had the worst time thanks to the pressures of senior year madness. You know, job search, final exams, research projects, visa expiration and the realisation that you ain’t got shit figured out. I shared a heartfelt reflection soon after I -barely- made it to graduation of how I was unable to graduate with either honours or distinction. What I didn’t share then -and perhaps mistakenly- was that I secured 4 jobs and 2 university offers while in this horrible state. Two of the job offers, unfortunately, fell through the cracks because of visa issues and the university offers didn’t come with significant financial aid. But, two of the job offers were there and mine for the choosing, one in South Africa and one back home in Tanzania. Granted, they were both great opportunities, which one I would end up picking was based on the fact that I was home missing. So, when the moment came, without hesitation, I chose to go back.
Short-sighted onlookers gasped at the fact that I would trade in my American OPT and turn down a job in South Africa for a role in the middle of nowhere Tanzania. But I knew deep down in my heart that I was not going to be fulfilled anywhere else but home and if it meant going back home to a bush so be it.
So here I am, 6 years later, overlooking the Serengeti plains from my office window. I knew my hundreds-of-thousand-dollar-degree would take me places, but I did not imagine it would bring me to a job in the Serengeti.
Yet here I am, an urban babe in the bush!
I am working at a nonprofit organisation committed to wildlife conservation and community development work in the western corridor of the Serengeti ecosystem. This was a very deliberate choice for me because of some deep reflections and conclusions I had come to with regards to development work in the African continent.
For the past 6 years, I had been doing development work in other countries in the continent and beyond and grew many reservations in viewing nonprofit organisations –especially ones started by foreigners- as capable of achieving development and creating real change. I began to think that it is essential that locals get involved in development work to create radical change. Because the truth of the matter is that no organisation is built to die. They are all made to last. And, for an NGO to last it means that the problems it is trying to tackle must continue. Therefore, it is reasonable to be sceptical that organisations doing development work might not always want radical changes and progress for the communities they serve.
It may seem quite hypocritical of me to then be outchea working at an NGO myself - believe me, I know. But, this is why I am sprinkling some radical feminist critique on how this work is being done. I think anyone who is in the development work field must critically analyse their own positionality. You need to scrutinizer the ways you are contributing to the conditions that lead to there being a need for development work to be done. We must be cautious of deeming ourselves faultless do-gooders while we find self-fulfilment in delivering material excesses to a few people from the zones of abundance where we belong.
Barbara Heron, in her book, “Desire for Development: Whiteness, Gender and the Helping Imperative,” makes a point worth considering. She argues that the identity and role of a development worker is one inscribed with entitlement and superiority complexes that can be traced to colonial constructions of bourgeois identity. She articulates how the bourgeois constructed the white woman as a development worker and interviewed contemporary development workers to make a case for a sober de-romanticised perception of the development worker. Development work for Heron is neither noble nor innocent but rather a colonial continuity that has shape-shifted to fit neoliberal moralities. My scrutiny of any organisation doing development work in the continent is therefore not malicious but rather warranted by my understanding of the development work imperative in general.
I am less concerned about the rest of the people in this field but focused on my own complicity in this world where I am a development worker and other development subjects. In what ways have I internalised a colonial bourgeois mentality? Have I, as Maya Angelou puts it in her book “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” become a “Beentoo?” Have I been consumed by my experiences and relative privilege to the point of seeing myself as superior to my fellow Tanzanians?
The thought that I have somehow become complicit in hierarchical structures that create the development worker imperative eat at me. Still, the truth remains that I need to work here because if no Tanzanian does, then who will? I understand the difference in my experiences given my relative privilege and try not to be presumptuous about the similarities in my and the peoples’ here’s experiences. I also find myself guilty of having bought into the nobility-politics that position me as superior and therefore gives me the license to march into these communities lives to help them. But I realise I may be overly critical of myself. Am I too not a product or a current project of other people’s development work? Am I not just playing my role as a citizen in developing this country of ours?
So, at this point, I would like to silence the inner turmoil that distracts me from seeing the fruitfulness of this experience and the value that I may be able to bring here. I may not single-handily change any of the people’s lives, but I can help carve out an environment for self-development and upliftment of a community. The fact that I am consciously reflecting on my positionality and the ways I occupy space ought to count for something! I aim to continue exercising a lot of emotional intelligence in the ways I negotiate space within and beyond the organisation. I hope I remain compassionate and empathetic in my interactions with the people I come across.
I’ll be sure to keep you posted my loves.
an urban babe in the bush