Dear committed supporters,
I believe it has been over a month since my last legitimate post (the posting of the pictures was kind of a cop-out). It’s been a frustrating couple months and on a daily basis I sit at my computer asking myself if today will be the day where I fulfill my blog duties and I always respond to myself with the same disaffection: ‘well, if I write today people are just going to think I’m depressed and miserable so I should probably wait until tomorrow to see if something good happens so I can balance my frustration with some more upbeat news of progress on some level or other.’ After over a month of postponing these entries with the same logic, I came to the realization that if I keep waiting for the good to match the bad, the positive to match the negative and the hopeful to match the disheartening, I will indeed keep my already diminishing audience waiting until World Cup time, where I am sure to engage in some lighter reporting. So I decided to just write and see if through a short dissection of my life here, I might be able to find some uplifting news that keeps all of us from asking, ‘if he is so unhappy, then why the hell is he still there?’
So let’s get started. Most of May had been dedicated to my preliminary work following up to a strategic planning workshop that I organized with the help of an outside facilitator and short flickers of interest from our staff and management. Very soon into the process I realized I was in way over my head. With little interest and support from my colleagues within the organization, I had the goliath task of putting together an organizational profile that would include all the work done within the past two years, staff interviews and assessments, feedback from clients, governance and finances among a host of other topics which organizations may or may not pay attention to on a daily, monthly or even yearly basis. The process was beneficial in gaining an understanding of the inner workings of a highly disconnected organization which is kept together by some scotch tape and rusted wire, but that was not the purpose of my investigation. I wanted to provide a thorough contextual background to create a good strategic plan; one that is viable and realistic with the capacity of organization in mind.
So after a painstaking month of running around under this unforgiving sun, extracting information like a dentist might a rotten tooth, and hounding my director for funding for the workshop (I discovered this to be a task that I would rank slightly better than drinking a pint of gasoline) I finally got everyone together for our workshop. I presented my findings and recommendations and handed the stage over to our hired facilitator who spent two days getting our staff excited about work in a way I never thought possible. Despite my great appreciation for what I call ‘soft progress’, almost nothing was done to draft a strategic plan for our next three years of operation and the textbook for how we will run the organization. So I was left with a feeling of exhaustion and relief, which was quickly following by my realization that I would probably have to spend another month drafting this plan individually with the staff of each of the six projects which each sit in an area with a radius of about 40km: another mammoth task.
So now I am in the midst of bureaucratizing my organization. The difficulty of this task invokes images of Marco Polo returning from the East with all of his recently acquired perspective and knowledge on how the world can and should function, but is met with skepticism at best, and chuckles, disinterest and claims of insanity at worst.
Like many of the small lessons I have learned in the short time I have been here, I am slowly working towards the acceptance that all of my prior ideas about life, politics, people, development, health care, community etc. just don’t make any sense here. As a result of the Hopkins curse I have taken upon myself to look for research and contextual information regarding anything before taking action, lately I have been reading extensively on the political economy of post-Apartheid South Africa, global HIV/AIDS policy and everything in between. Through these investigations I have begun to grasp the concept (though far from implementing it in a practical setting) that the failure of Western development and aid in Africa rests almost predominantly upon the inability to understand and give credence to the systems the have existed in this continent since the beginnings of human existence in regards to government, community and fighting disease.
Nevertheless, the reality is what it is and the powerful coercive nature of the West is visible in even the most hidden corners of the continent. So moderate adaption to this model has become a certain perquisite for modern state survival. African governments, for better or for worse, are moving towards their massive bureaucratization (and other inconvenient by-products like corruption) coined by the West and leaving behind the more informal, community- and kin-oriented politics of pre-European, tribal civilization. However, many times this system is inherently incompatible with the culture and society of those who live within it, with disastrous results in arenas ranging from economics to HIV/AIDS. So what does all this mean for my village, my organization and my work?
It means that I must decide when and where I should capitalize on potential for the inclusion of Western methods of doing things and when I should acquiesce and give support to more culturally characteristic methods. For example, does my organization really need a ‘strategic plan’ to accomplish its goals? Is the HIV epidemic going to be alleviated through decisions made in Geneva and Washington and transplanted to Mphahlele? Where do I draw the line and say, ‘I agree with you here, but we must doing things differently here’? And do I even have the authority to come into someone else’s world and tell them how to run their organizations, communities and lives?
But, it is also important to consider the historical implications within each situation in order to best make decisions regarding these questions and not to mistake many of the negative traits of ‘modern Africa’ as results of traditionally African society, but instead, adaptations carried out to survive in the wake of the terror and destruction left by 20th century European colonists. For example, black South Africans were violently removed from the land of their forefathers and corralled into homelands where they were at the mercy of systems of intellectual submission and migrant labor dominated by whites that had contributed to the current psyche of shame, humiliation, and disempowerment. These characteristics should not be mistaken as ‘African laziness’, instead they should be taken as results of an horrendous recent history of white domination.
So, once again, understanding where my work fits into all this poses a complicated response whose answer I am yet to ascertain. Through the failures of my work I continue to question national and macro-level implications to reevaluate what the hell I should be doing. And it is overwhelming to say the least and sometimes it is, quite frankly, paralyzing. Sometimes I feel like I should just forget the greater context I am working in, and concentrate on individual challenges that I am faced with. But my own counterargument is that by ignoring this macro-level realities I not only run the risk of carrying out doomed interventions, but I am withholding valuable information from my counterparts who in other circumstances would not have access to this knowledge.
In regards to my acceptance within the community, there is actually some positive news to report. My stubbornness regarding a submission to a livelihood of evasion and isolation is finally starting to produce dividends. Now when I walk by high schools instead of hearing deafening yells of “Lekgowa!” (white person) I now hear my Pedi name “Moloto!”, which I consider to be a radical improvement. Instead of having to withstand unrelenting guffaws at my mere presence, people are now starting to recognize me with either a wave of a hand or a greeting. Although at times it is difficult to separate the personal from the greater social-political-historical context of race relations, I am starting to be more forgiving when I am met with shock and something reminiscent of small-scale hysteria. Making real friends is still a ways away because of apprehension on both sides and the absence of bridges towards connections and camaraderie, but I am hopeful that the process will materialize sometime in the future. As for now, my infrequent meetings with my Peace Corps comrades will have to suffice, but I must admit that spending weeks on end with no one in your presence to speak to candidly is both heavy and taxing. A fellow volunteer of mine put it well when she said that we must all have some masochist tendencies to put up with our lot here.
So life moves on, winter comes and goes, and the difficulties of everyday life are spotted with flashes of potential within the community and occasional weekends of American frivolity (which I am yet to decide are healthy or not), but I’ll take it for the time being.
For those of you who are averse to my sometimes-dismal theses I must respectfully ask your apology and forward you to less sobering blogs regarding puppies, Hannah Montana, weekends in Santa Barbara and other feel-good topics.
I miss you all like I miss flush toilets.