“She remembered the project, although she had not known the people involved in it. She recalled that there had been a white man and a woman from South Africa, and one or two other foreigners. A number of the people from the village had worked there, and people had thought that great things would come of it, but it had eventually fizzled out. She had not been surprised at that. Things fizzled out; you could not hope to change Africa. People lost interest, or they went back to their traditional way of doing things, or they simply gave up because it was all too much effort. And then Africa had a way of coming back and simply covering everything up again.”
I love this passage from Tears of the Giraffe, the second in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith, set in Botswana. It sums up, in one paragraph, the outcome of so many altruistic and not so altruistic foreign-led aid efforts in Africa.
Another Volunteer’s Perspective
On Friday, I went hiking to the falls again, this time with the Form 2 (9th grade) girls. Margaret, a young woman who is an agriculture volunteer from Eastern Canada, came along. She is working with a small, unfunded NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) on a plateau near Lake Victoria in Northwestern Tanzania and was visiting Morogoro for a few days.
We talked about her experience here in TZ and a previous internship she did in Senegal as well as my experience so far at Sega. She commented on how unusual it is for a volunteer to feel as well utilized as I do and commented that Sega is one of the only NGO’s she has come across in her year here that she could recommend to friends who are anxious to contribute money to a good cause in Africa. She pointed out how much difference it makes that it is run by an American and told me that she plans to do HER next blog on Sega!
Doing Good or Trying To
Many volunteers who go to less developed countries are frustrated that they cannot make the kind of contribution they had envisioned. This is partly due to the radically different expectations and practices around work and productivity but also because most organizations in this environment don’t have the capacity to effectively utilize either people or money. Many volunteers have to create their own work once they get here, some even leaving their original assignments and going out in the community to create their own projects.
But to be fair, it’s not as though the Africans have asked for us to come here most of the time. In fact, one of the questions I have had more than once is “Why do people from other countries want to come here?” My now stock answer is “Because it’s very different from where they are from.” I can’t bring myself to say, “And they think they can improve or help you or your country,” even though this is generally the underlying assumption of most volunteers.
Of course, there are other struggles for volunteers beyond the work, including finding appropriate accommodation, boredom due to limited social and entertainment options, physical discomfort due to heat, bugs, or illness, and disappointing food.
I am certainly experiencing all of these difficulties to some extent but, lucky for me, the work has so far been very rewarding.
So Why Come?
Well, definitely not for the food! By the end of our discussion, Margaret and I had come to the conclusion that by far the best way to approach this experience is to focus on what we can get out of it versus what we are contributing (Polly, Sega’s founder, had suggested this soon after I arrived). That way, if at the end of our stay we think we have made any sort of contribution (and hopefully done no harm), we can see that as a bonus. I may be a volunteer who does get that bonus since Sega is a well run organization that is getting better all the time and really knows how to use resources effectively. However, coming to Africa with the belief that one is here to improve the place or the people frequently results in disappointment and disillusionment. As the Price family, misguided missionaries to the Congo, learned in Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful historical novel, The Poisonwood Bible, Africa often has other plans and other forces working on it that make the change you are trying to enact unlikely to occur or last.