Back around the time that I got too busy to regularly stop, reflect, and write, I came across a thoughtful post on aid work in Haiti by Quinn Zimmerman called “The Aid Bitchslap.” I cross-posted it, and then, coincidentally, I stopped blogging due to time constraints. So Quinn’s post has been on my homepage for a very long time. I’m trying to find the time and energy to blog again, but in the meantime, Quinn emailed to let me know he’d written a follow-up to that first post. He’s put some space between himself and his Haiti experience, and it’s a good reflection. Here’s a taste. You can read the rest on Quinn’s blog.
Category Archives: how did I get here?
Every now and then, I read something that hits me smack in the stomach. This cross-post is one of those. Originally on Quinn Zimmerman’s blog “These New Boots”, the post came over with an email commenting on “that moment where you get the aid bitchslap… when you cross from idealism to realism… [a] strange and ugly and enlightening process.”
Day 326: Questions and (No) Answers by Quinn Zimmerman
(cross-posted with his permission)
“It’s going to take a while before I can even make sense of all of this.” I’m talking to Paddy as we make our way down a dark street in Leogane, dodging motos and trying to avoid the mud. “It won’t happen here. It won’t happen until I’ve left.” He nods. He feels the same. Our time in Haiti isn’t over yet, we’ve both got a few months left, but we’re feeling the end now, and we’re feeling what it took to get here. We’re tired, and confused, and frustrated. We’re excited. We’re proud. We’re trying not to pass quick judgements, and we realize how hard that is to do.
Project Leogane is nearly over. Tomorrow marks the final week. April 27th work ends. April 28th we have the farewell party. April 30th the lease on our house is up, and people make their way to whatever is next. In my case, making my way isn’t too tricky, as I’ll be moving in to the base of my friend Jason, along with Paddy and Billy, where we’ll work for the next two months finishing up our obligations to GOAL and the partnership we have with them. We’ll also be mentoring our handover partner, the Haitian-American organization FHED (Foundation for Humanitarian Education & Development), who will be continuing our biosand filter program once we leave. Billy stays until the end of May. Paddy leaves the end of June. Alejandro and Diana will stay until May 15th to support our transition. I will stay until the end of July. I wasn’t the first to arrive here with All Hands, but I’ll be the last to go.
I know Haiti isn’t yet done for me, but the nature of how I’ve lived and worked here since July 2010 has changed many times, and this perhaps marks the most distinct change. Project Leogane, and All Hands Volunteers, my organization and identity in Haiti, is nearly over. The skeleton crew staying is very much that. We’ll no longer be part of the group. We’ll be the entirety of it. I’ve no problems with that. If I’m honest, I’m excited to see how it will play out, but it does get me thinking. Of what, I’m not so sure, or more accurately, I’m not so sure I can yet explain it in any coherent way. Too many things. So many things. Only through a total disconnect will I have the distance and time needed to sift through all of this, and I’ll have that before too long, but I still feel the urge to try and write about it, to mark it down in some way, although all recent attempts at doing so result in deleted entries, rambling and uncertain sentences that frustrated me but accurately reflect where my head is at these days. I honestly don’t know what to make of this place and this experience.
I do know this. I’m ready to go. Haiti, while still powerful in her effect on me, is beginning to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Going out into the monotonous, seemingly unchanging landscape of Leogane, which some of us have now taken to jokingly referring to as “post-apocalyptic”, is something I try and avoid unless in a state of mind sufficient enough to match whatever absurdity is going to come at me. My patience is near gone. I still feel for people. The empathy is there, but it’s become something different than it was before.
“Fuck you!” The shouts come pretty regularly these days, sometimes from kids, sometimes from adults, always directed at us for no other reason than the fact we are foreigners, that we are blans. I don’t know the people shouting. Sometimes we shout back, other times we shake our heads at the stupidity, sometimes we laugh, other times we stop the car, get out, and watch the guilty children run away, or the guilty adults eye us up. A few days ago it’s a group of guys playing football in the middle of the street. “Fuck you!” We pull over, not because of the comment, but because we’re at the chicken stand we were headed toward to buy some food. My patience is worn thin. We get out of the car a few paces from where the guys are. “Masisi! Masisi!” They’re calling us faggots. Really? Really? I don’t even know you. Fuck this. I hammer back at them. “You think we’re faggots? Is that what you think? I think you’re a bunch of uneducated, ignorant idiots. Instead of playing football in the street and telling blans you don’t know to go fuck themselves, why don’t you go to school? You’re young men. You’re not kids. Do something with your lives.” I want to keep going. I want to tell them they are pathetic. I want to tell them that you shouldn’t tell someone to go fuck themselves one day then come groveling to them the next asking for a job or money or food or a house. I want to tell them they are the problem with this fucked up country. I want to, but I don’t, because I know, despite the anger, that while they are ignorant, and they do deserve to get called on their shit, they don’t deserve to be shamed for their condition. Most people just play the hand they’re dealt. Few opt to really try and change their hand, let alone the deck. That’s not Haitian. That’s human. Haiti just happens to deal a pretty shit hand to most. I’d be a fool to place the entirety of the blame on them. They’re not the cause. They’re part of the effect.
We get the chicken and drive away. One of the guys mimics punching us. I enjoy the five second fantasy of laying them all out in the street, although I know that will never come to pass. I’m not a fighter. We laugh it off, but not really. “This fucking place…” Every day. We allow ourselves some ignorance of our own, mocking the wannabe gangster culture the men in the street all had on display. “Oh you’re a gangster are you? You’re hardcore? You can’t even get food. So hardcore. So gangster.” We laugh, hard. I know the comment is off-color, but I also know I’m doing it to release. I’m aware when I’m allowing myself to mock a situation that shouldn’t be mocked, when I’m engaging something I’m actually against. I’m aware that I’m doing it more and more these days. I’m aware that, at the end of the day, I do it because it helps mask the underlying frustration and sense of overwhelm and guilt that comes with being a foreigner in Haiti.
We come home, tell some housemates about it. They tell us how people started throwing rocks at one of our roommates as he was getting a dance lesson on the roof from a local Haitian girl. They had to come inside and continue the lesson out of reach of the rocks. I get a phone call. My friend Jenny, a Haitian girl I’m close to and care for a lot, tells me her grandmother has died. Paddy and I go to visit her and her mother and sisters to offer our condolences. While I’m sitting with Jenny and her older sister Katia, Paddy is talking to their mother, Madam Michelle. It was her mother that has just passed away. We stay for twenty minutes then say goodbye.
“Fucking hell…” We’re in the car, Paddy looks tired. “What’s up man?” I ask him. “Madam Michelle was asking me for everything – my bed, my table, my mattress, anything I can give her once All Hands leaves.” I can see the frustration in his face. “Your mother just died. For fuck’s sake can you stop for just one minute and grieve?” It is endless. Today, here in my room, I hear a knock. Ornela, Madam Michelle’s youngest daughter, Jenny’s little sister, is at the door. “Qwen? Qwen?” “Hold on a sec sweetie.” I open the door and she’s there. We talk for a bit. She asks me a question. “Qwen, can you buy a painting from my mom? We need money to go to Jeremie.” Jeremie is where their grandmother lived. She’s talking about the funeral. My heart melts, but I’ve learned a long time ago that I have to draw a line. “I’m sorry sweetie, I don’t have money for that right now.” I hate myself for even saying it, but I know I’ve done a lot to help her family. Jenny is back in school because of me and some of my friends and family I reached out to. Seeing her finish high school is a personal goal of mine. I have to keep that in my sights and put blinders on for everything else. A week ago Jenny called me, she tells me Katia is really sick, that she has to go to the hospital. She asks me if I can pay for it. My heart hurts again, but I repeat the line I’ve learned to live by. “Sorry Jenny, I don’t have money for that right now.” “OK Qwen. It’s OK.” Jenny, eighteen and whip smart, knows me pretty well. She’s been on the receiving end of my anger when she tries to push the boundaries of my charity. She’s heard my rants on Haiti and the culture of dependence and expectance. She also knows I really care for her and her family. Still, the requests don’t stop. They won’t stop until I leave. Even then they won’t stop. Facebook chat post-Haiti often involves requests for money from people I know here.
Some things I have become clear on as a result of Haiti:
1. Good intentions aren’t enough.
2. Rose-colored glasses are bullshit.
3. The white savior industrial complex is real, demonstrated daily by feel good aid programs that probably don’t work, or feel good causes like Kony 2012 that generate plenty of buzz but don’t add up to much when people are actually supposed to do something.
4. You can’t help people who don’t want to help themselves.
5. True altruism is an incredibly rare thing. (See #3)
6. Little victories must be celebrated if you want to protect yourself from the crippling effects of the larger failure.
I came to Haiti very much guilty of believing good intentions were enough, and I certainly had the rose-colored glasses. I knew a bit about the idea of the white savior industrial complex, but didn’t know enough to realize I was playing right into it. I believed people inherently do want to improve their lot, and will work hard to see that happen. I also believed myself to be a fairly altruistic person. I’m not so sure about that any more. And while I never came here thinking I could “save Haiti” (an incredibly egotistical idea to begin with), I also didn’t realize the importance of allowing yourself to truly appreciate the small things before the big things break you down.
I still believe in helping people. I still believe my heart is in the right place. But I question myself more these days, and question what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. I question whether the work I’ve done here will really even make any difference. Is it even working? We’ll know that as we conduct final follow-ups over the next two months, now that production and installations are nearly finished. I’m wary though. Every biosand filter I’ve ever seen in Haiti that was not one of ours was broken and unused. Just today I went to get a sandwich and found four or five of them in front of the sandwich shop, all in various stages of malrepair, waiting to be turned to rubble and probably used to patch holes in the street. The problem is we’re giving people a “solution”. They tell us they want it, but it’s not of their own design. And yes, while I have spoken to families we’ve given filters to and heard from them they are getting sick less, and they no longer fear cholera, I also know of families that never used the filter to begin with, and only wanted to be in the program because their 100 gourdes contribution got them both the filter and a new Culligan bottle, which is worth 250 gourdes. Is that our mistake? Probably. Is there an easy work around to it? Not that I can think of. Asking for a contribution of more than 250 gourdes will guarantee that truly poor families will not be able to get a filter, and not providing a Culligan bottle (or any other safe water storage container) will result in families using open buckets instead, which we’ve tested and know 95% of the time result in re-contaminated water. It’s a small problem in the grand scheme of things, but it demonstrates the complexity of trying to “help” people.
If I were to do it all again, I wouldn’t design a solution. It isn’t my place to do that. What I’d do is try and be a useful resource for a group of people or a community that have a much better understanding of their problems than I do, and want to work together toward finding solutions. I wouldn’t come in as the guy with the answer. I’d come in as the guy willing to try and help them in any way possible as they find their own answer, and act as the bridge between that answer, and the money and resources needed to make it happen.
Or, perhaps if I really wanted to help, I wouldn’t ever come to Haiti to begin with. I’d keep my fight at home in the United States, rallying people to try and build awareness that places like Haiti suffer because of policies benefitting our government, our corporations, and ultimately, ourselves. Policies created by our politicians, sometimes with our consent (the Iraq War) and sometimes as a result of special interests (the Supreme Court’s campaign finance reform ruling), result in massive problems for other people in the world. Sometimes I wonder if that truly ever can be remedied.
Nature has a distinct element to it that is both brutal and undeniable: to be alive means to take care of you and yours before all else. There are rare exceptions to that rule, but they are just that – rare exceptions. The lioness doesn’t feel guilt when she brings down the days-old gazelle, despite knowing the gazelle could never hope to challenge her. Is it the same for us? We may all be part of the same species, but we’ve always cordoned ourselves off in distinct groups, be it religious, racial, or geopolitical, and time and again worked to improve our groups at the expense of other groups. We are not a peaceful species. We are not enlightened beings. And history has shown time and again that, like the lioness, we show no remorse or mercy when faced with a weaker opponent. I sometimes wonder what the Taino people, Haiti’s original inhabitants, were like. I’ll never be able to know. They were raped, murdered and enslaved to extinction at the hands of the Spanish. There are no more Tainos in the world.
Is it naive to believe we can ever change this part of being human? I’ve often wondered this. If we ever had a chance at change, now would be the beginning of it. The internet and advancements in communication and transportation have made the world a much smaller place. I’d like to think that will lead to a greater mutual understanding of the fact that we are all, indeed, human. It might, or it might not. I often think we will have to evolve to the point that the idea of religion is cast aside, that the idea of nation is cast aside, that the way we define ourselves (white, black, Christian, Muslim, American, Haitian) have to be abandoned. Without first accomplishing that, we will always have a way to cordon ourselves off from others, to group up, and to grow to believe that our group is the most important group. Those groups must be broken for us to advance.
It makes me think of something a friend of mine who works in Rwanda told me recently. She told me that the majority of Rwandan children today do not know if they are Tutsi or Hutu. Their parents do not tell them. She told me that it is illegal to ask someone if they are Tutsi or Hutu. She told me that all forms of personal identification no longer have the words “Tutsi” or “Hutu” on them. She also told me Rwanda is one of the more progressive and advanced countries she’s visited in Africa. That came at an incredibly high cost, but maybe that’s what it takes. The EU, flawed though it is, and in and of itself a group, was born out of the desire for integration that was the result of two devastating wars that killed entire generations of Europe’s people. I’d like to think we can learn enough from our history to be able to continue that process of integration without the prerequisite of mass suffering, but maybe that is indeed a prerequisite. If so, there’s certainly suffering enough to go around. The world’s groups are still devouring each other. The question is, if we do not feel we are affected by it, do we care enough to try and stop it? And, the skeptic in me asks, if we do care enough to try and stop it, why? What do we stand to gain? #5 – true altruism is an incredibly rare thing.
Indeed, a lot of questions, not a lot of answers, and a fair amount of pondering. If nothing else, Haiti has given me that, and that, ultimately, is a good thing. An engaged thinker is a humbled thinker. I do not yet claim to be either, but I aspire to be both.
See Quinn’s blog “These New Boots” for more.
This is a call for guest posts on the topic of aid worker identity. I’d like to pull in some links to existing posts or invite you (readers) to submit guest posts around your experiences as an aid or development worker in terms of identity while living and working ‘in the field’, particularly in relation to gender, ethnicity, sexuality, class or anything else that strikes you as important.
So, as an aid or development worker….
- How do you conceive of, negotiate and construct your identity when living and working in a community that is not your own?
- How do you make sense of your identity when facing the disparity in resources between you and the communities you’re living in?
- How are aspects of your identity as an aid worker viewed by the local community as compared to your home community, for example how are aspects of gender, sexuality, class and ethnicity identities viewed ‘here’ as opposed to ‘there?”
Selected blog or opinion pieces submitted will be posted here on Shotgun Shack as a series of guest posts. You are free to post using a pseudonym/ anonymously or using your real name. If you’d like to share your experiences but not post them publicly that is also fine – you can send me a private email with your experiences and indicate that you do not wish to go public on the blog.
These submissions would be used as part of research for a PhD that Kaisa Wilson is working on at Edinburgh University. Kaisa contacted me via Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like and said some of the SEAWL posts are quite helpful in pulling in more nuanced and qualitative aspects of aid worker identity. She asked if I could invite some posts on the above topic for my blog via the network of folks that read SEAWL.
In terms of Kaisa’s research, any submissions would be used for the PhD research and /or any articles or conferences that might come out of that. Kaisa would not include any details that could potentially identify those who are submitting and anonymity will be preserved. Submissions (either by blog post or if you decide to send something by email and don’t wish for it to be published) would be added to interviews that Kaisa is conducting to form part of the body of research.
If you would like to participate, please cut and paste the following paragraph on to the bottom of your blog post to indicate that you consent to Kaisa using it for her PhD:
By pasting this paragraph below my posting I am indicating that (1) I agree to my posting being used for the purposes of this PhD; (2) questions about my participation in this study have been answered satisfactorily; (3) I am willing to take part in this study.
If you have any questions or want to send in a submission for this little project, please email me at shotgunshackblog[at]gmail.com Alternately, you can contact Kaisa directly at kaisawilson[at]gmail.com. If you would like a copy of the final research results, Kaisa will make them available to you.
Thanks and hope to see a few submissions or links to existing post on aid worker identity! I think this is a super interesting topic and one that can generate some good discussion and thinking.
Originally written by the Meat Puppets and covered on Nirvana’s Unplugged, this song was not written about aid and development at all of course, but I like metaphors, and Cobain perfectly captures the self-loathing aid worker’s angst.
Many a hand has scaled the grand old face of the plateau
Some belonged to strangers, some to folks you know
Holy ghosts and talk show hosts are planted in the sand
To beautify the foothills, and shake the many hands
Nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop
And an illustrated book about birds
See a lot up there but don’t be scared
Who needs action when you got words
Finished with the mop then you can stop
And look at what you’ve done
The plateau’s clean, no dirt to be seen
And the work it was fun
Nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop
And an illustrated book about birds
See a lot up there but don’t be scared
Who needs action when you got words
Many a hand began to scan around for the next plateau
Some say it was Greenland, and some say Mexico
Others decided it was nowhere except for where they stood
But those were all just guesses, wouldn’t help you if they could
(wherein @giantpandinha ends her relationship with Development and posts her open letter here….)
By the time you read this letter I will be gone. We have been together a total of five years, with a long separation in the middle when I nearly eloped with social anthropology…. In our first stormy year, I was the “local hire” expat on a bicycle. The other four, I have been based at headquarters, where the biggest crises seem to revolve around lack of milk for tea.
I studied you, Development, at university, never really imagining myself working for an INGO. I was always more interested in culture, history, the lived experience of people coming out of colonialism than in “you,” the economic development part. Okay, so I was interested in human rights, but that was an indulgence – I always perceived that the rights obsession has its own perverse consequences in certain contexts.
I have been lucky in the two jobs I had – both allowed me to dodge the massive compliance edifices being constructed around me. These jobs allowed me to make other friends, they were not the jealous types.
In my last job, at an organization majority funded by individual supporters, people gave to us for who we were. Something I thought could free our hands to focus on the causes of poverty and to avoid what I have seen in many agencies. You know, the ones more dependent on government monies hence spend so much time bean-counting and measuring that they are unable to work with the people closest to the reality on the ground… the ones that treat development like a massive Rube Goldberg machine, where you put some inputs in, a series of technical and scientific interventions are applied… et voilà. People are pulled out of poverty, and “sustainably,” at that.
Thanks to Andrew Nastios, I learned that this approach is actually more Ford and McNamara than Rube Goldberg. That the reason “development” feels so bankrupt to me is that all of its tools, its systems, its approaches emanate from the managerial thinking that gave the world the car culture, and that made the Pentagon so powerful.
In my latest post, I worked in an environment of total cognitive dissonance. Where the language was of solidarity, of partnership, but in our day-to-day we tangled with massive compliance systems. Forcing them on social movements and NGOs in the Americas, Africa and Asia. All of these systems totally overdone, considering the level of trust our supporters had in our work. Obviously we needed strategy and to know partners were doing good work – but systems balloon and mushroom out of control. Even those creating them recognized their Frankenstein(s).
I was one of the only people given the slack to actually get to know our partners without jamming their words into required tools and reporting forms. I often wondered why people did not express greater envy about my job – the fact they did not was worrying in and of itself.
Against this backdrop, I was involved in trying to create a responsive, light monitoring and evaluation system that would “protect” the work we did on the crucial stuff that Duflo and co. cannot “randomize” – campaigning, policy influencing and social change. A worthy thing, and I feel almost like I am betraying those I have worked with on this by quitting now.
But our leadership does not really get what is at stake. Even in my relatively enlightened corner of the aid business, people are busy just simply being busy. Defending their little corner. Stuck building systems that are not for people but for abstracted automatons.
Our leaders are not serious about scanning the horizon, about admitting that the public is right to scrutinize aid. I hear none of the kind of serious soul-searching that the moment requires.
We repeat transcendent values like dignity and justice as mantras yet we are blinded by bureaucracy and relentless self-interest. We keep running into the breach and doing the work that governments must do for their own citizens. As much as Dambisa Moyo annoys me, why can’t we set a date for when this should be over? What would it look like if INGO staff actually dedicated themselves to the sensible cliché of “putting themselves out of a job”?
People all over the world want to feel good, or even maybe just more ok. Even though most know humanity is screwed in the long run, people yearn to go where the energy is. Yet INGOs keep appealing to them with the same negative images, and collecting cold data for their institutional donor patrons. Individuals, and I would venture even taxpayers, do not need experts to spew evaluation data at them. They want to feel a stake in what is generative, what is life affirming. Statistics have a role, but their role is a backstop. People in the US and Europe want to support others in their struggles to make things better, and they want to see the connections between here and there.
In the end, the truth is that I feel very exhausted. And hurt. How is that possible? I am not hurt because of a failure of leadership per se, or a lack of vision in the sector. (I am more than aware of my borderline pathological disdain for authority, which I done my best to keep in check.)
What hurts is being there. Taking this daily battering of double-speak, seeing my peers stripped of illusions slowly becoming jaded, mercenary aid worker hacks. Or seeing them simply jump ship to do the same thing elsewhere, like a change of scenery will make everything better. Or even worse, seeing them bury their heads in the sand.
Oh, Development, no amount of earnest critique, satire, or wounded camaraderie can save our relationship now.
So while I am disappointed in you – I tried so hard to make it work – I am not bitter. In spite of this hurt, I remember back through the last couple of years. You introduced me to amazing people. Some of these mutual friends we can keep. (That is if you do not make a voodoo doll of me after reading this letter.)
I am going to be starting some projects with like-minded friends, that are not about the same old patron-client relationship, repackaged in managerial logic and dragged out for post-colonial generation after generation. These projects are about trying to link people of good will, with energy that does not come from a knee-jerk guilt reaction.
If I fail, great, but I have failed as a human and not a cog in a lop-sided machine.
It’s hot outside, the air still and heavy. I walk into the little bar at the small, localish hotel where I’m staying. It’s late morning after a late night out with my local co-workers in a small yet lively town in the interior of a country in Africa. Coffee in one hand, I’m in search of a big bottle of water to take back to my room. I hear… White woman…. I know you want to talk the white woman… She’s saying it loud on purpose to get my attention.
I turn around. They are sitting in the lounge area. She has a round face, large round eyes, dark skin and long braids. He is skinny, balding, his white skin weathered and freckled. She’s wearing a loose green and yellow patterned traditional dress. He’s in jeans and a t-shirt. They are both nice looking. I smile – this is the kind of town where it’s not out of the ordinary for people to strike up conversations with each other.
As I’m focusing in on the two of them, my local colleague raises her head over the sofa back at the booth next to them to say good morning. I hadn’t seen her as I came in. She’s there enjoying the air-conditioning.
I step back from the bar to greet everyone, forgetting about the water. Come, come, sit, the woman says, motioning her hands to the lounge seat next to her. He want to talk you. The man is smiling, nodding. I motion for my colleague to join us. The table has a few empty beer bottles on it and a very full ashtray. Dolly Parton is streaming out of the speaker above us.
They want to know where I’m from and what I’m doing there. My spoken French is barely passable. Their English is slightly better than passable. We explain ourselves in a mix of both.
I say I work for a development organization.To develop what? they ask. I don’t even know how to answer. Sometimes I’m not so sure we are developing anything, really. I’m having a crisis of purpose lately. My co-worker steps in to save the day. She explains our work. They kind of get it, but not really.
I am a professional hunter, he says. I am here with my wife.
If I am really your wife, she interjects.
He continues…. I have been in the bush for 8 months. You are the first white woman I’m seeing for so long time. There are no white woman here. Why are you here?
Yes she interjects; he is very excited. He really want to see a white woman. He’s been in the bush for so long time without seeing one. He’s only with black people like me. He want to talk you very much. I’m sorry my English is not so good. You see even he, he never talk English but he is so happy to see a white woman. He is talking so much English. You see him? Yes, so happy to see a white woman.
I try to figure out their relationship. Why is she joking about being his wife?
They light cigarette after cigarette. They order another round of beers and invite us to drink with them. We decline — beer right after coffee without food seems like a bad idea, especially after a night of plentiful African Guinness and whiskey.
The people here, the white people, they don’t talk to him, she says. They are his own people but they don’t like him.
They don’t like me because I live in the bush. I’m born in Africa, he says, I have more than 40 years and I lived only 11 years in France. My father was also in Africa — more than 40 years.
She tells about an embassy party where they were ignored. She says she drank beers and then asked them ‘why you don’t talk my husband? You don’t like that he is living with me? You don’t like that he is in the bush with people like me? You don’t like blacks?’ She drank their free alcohol and ate their food. She drank beers for him. She drank for their 2 children who are French citizens. She drank for herself. They did not ask us to come back.
I’ve never met a hunter. I’ve only seen fat, red-cheeked Afrikaaners and safari-geared Americans on planes and made assumptions that they were aggressive, blood thirsty, giant-portions-of-meat-eating, racist colonizers. It’s strange to talk with someone who identifies as a hunter, to feel my assumptions shifting and not matching up.
My colleague asks what they do with the animals that they kill. He says their clients hunt for sport. They take home their trophies — sometimes horns, sometimes cranium, sometimes the entire head and chest for mounting, sometimes the whole body for the taxidermist.
We eat the rest. We eat every kind of meat, the woman tells us.
She even eats her cousin, the man says. Baboons. She pinches the hair on his arm. The baboon is your cousin, not mine.
He lists the animals they hunt off on his fingers — elephants, lions, leopards, water buffalo, different kinds of antelope. Animals that I thought were not to be hunted. Animals I can’t imagine ever wanting to kill. He says endangered animals don’t exist and that extinction is a plot by the people at the WWF. There are many many lions in Africa. The WWF just wants to make money. This story that the animals are disappearing is for television, for Europeans and Americans.
The woman tells us that like him, she is also a foreigner. She is not native to this country. She and the man met in another country where he lived for several years.
I ask if they left because of conflict in that country. Bah, he says, the conflict is also for television. On television the conflict is a big thing, you see it and you think it’s so bad. In the bush we don’t see it. We have a happy life in the bush. There you are just living every day. The next day you wake up and do it again. You are just hunting, eating, drinking beer and fucking every day. People don’t have any worries.
Me, she says, I don’t worry anybody can come to bother me in the bush. It’s like a game for me. I’m not afraid. Because in my country… in my country, she says… . She holds out one arm in front of her and puts the other index finger to her forehead. The rebels. They came. We were going away, we were leaving but they stop us. The corners of her smile bob up and down. Her eyes turn red and fill with tears that spill over down her cheeks.
Kalashnikovs, he says, nodding at her, dragging on his cigarette, taking another sip of beer, getting up to go to the bathroom.
I put my hands like this, up. I went to my knees. I tell them… I told them they are free to take everything. But they stay like this. She puts the imaginary Kalashnikov to her head again. She apologizes over and over for crying. She wipes the tears away with the flat of her hand but they keep falling. Her smile is a grimace. Above our heads, Dolly Parton launches into Jolene.
For me it is hard. We were three sisters. They… she puts her fists to her hips and makes a thrusting motion. They do this very hard. She tries to smile again. Sorry. Sorry.
You know when the war finished, they kill so many rebels. They put the bodies in the river. They told people don’t drink the water in the river. But me, I drink. I want to drink. I want to drink them. I want to take a knife to kill them but I can’t. So I drink. I want to cut them. I want to cut it off. To put it here, here in their mouth. But I can’t. I can’t. So I drink the water to know that they are finished. Me, I drink them.
He comes back from the bathroom. She blinks the moment away and smiles at him, pats him gently on the knee. They order more beers. The conversation comes back from the very dark place. She says he loves her because he stays with her through everything. He supports her. When he sees women he likes, he tells her and she looks the woman over too and agrees, or not.
Like you, she says, he has been so long without seeing a white woman. You see him, you see his body? He is like this, he is like a fish on sand. She flops her hand around on the sofa palm up, palm down, palm up, palm down, uncontrollably. He is talking so much, you see he doesn’t let you speak. He want to tell you his whole story. Here he doesn’t see white women. The white people here they don’t talk him.
He talks about hunting, his anti-poacher and his hunting chief. They are like his brothers. There is no hierarchy. They hunt together, they eat together, they celebrate together. In the bush life is simple, people are happy. We are happy, he says. Me and my wife.
If I am really your wife, she says.
They tell us we should go to the bush with them. You will like it, they say. It’s very nice. They ask for my cell phone number but I don’t have my work number memorized. They invite us to lunch but we decline. My colleague is tired of the “white people food’ the hotel serves and wants to go to a place around the corner. I can tell she is not so impressed with these people either and wants to get away from them, back to her comfort zone. I’m feeling sticky and sweaty. I tell them I’ll go to shower and on the way out to lunch, I’ll stop in and give them my phone number so we can see about going to their place later in the week.
You are leaving? she asks. Have we disappointed you?
No, no, I just want to bathe, I say. She laughs at me. Why?
I’m sweaty, I tell her. I’m not dressed. Look, I’m wearing my pajamas under my skirt. I only came down for coffee. She eyes me a bit differently. Oh, she says. Me, I want to see the change when you return.
I feel self-conscious now but I go to shower anyway.
I come back and they look me up and down. They comment on my clothing. My freckles. My shoes. They say I am beautiful. He looks happy. She drags on her cigarette and swigs her beer. She says his body is too excited. He is a fish out of water. She makes the flopping motion with her hand again. She doesn’t look so happy.
I’ve written down my name and number on a scrap of paper. I’m intrigued by the idea of going to ‘the bush’ with them. They are so much more interesting than my job at the moment. I can tell my local colleague is not interested at all. She doesn’t trust them. She likes things that are above-board. Things that are straight forward and familiar and respectable. Things that she knows.
We go Thursday he says. My driver will bring you. You come to see the animals. How can you come so far and you are only working, without seeing animals? There you will see them very close. It’s very nice.
Yes, come, she says. It’s beautiful. You will like it. We are so happy there.
My colleague says we need to leave to go to lunch. She says we will be in touch with them later on, but I can already tell she will make sure it never happens.
I give the woman the piece of paper with my name and number. She looks at it. She asks my name again. She raises her eyebrows and laughs. In my language, this means… She makes a circle with her hands and rests them on her thighs, in front of her groin. It is the meaning for this. For clitoris.
He laughs, takes a drag from his cigarette and another sip of beer. They look at each other. That is good, he says, nodding. That is good for me. I spend so long without seeing a white woman.
I made my first trip home to the Midwest after I’d lived out of the US for about 2 years. I wasn’t yet an ‘expat aid worker‘ but I had married a ‘local’. My husband and I lived minimally, surviving on his salary. Neither of us was on the front lines by any means, but the war in his country had only recently ended and things were still on edge, so we lived a bit on edge too.
This trip home was a classic example of so-called ‘reverse culture shock.’ Before my 2 years in my husband’s country, I’d been on the West Coast for almost 5 years. So being back in my mid-sized, middle class, Midwestern home town was a trip. People were big. They shopped in bulk. They ate large portions. They drove everywhere. They loved the mall, super-sized stores and fast food restaurants. The women had big hair, summer tans and gold jewelry. The fruit at the supermarket was big and fake looking. When you got it home, it was flavorless. Buildings were closed up, air-conditioned, sterile. The houses were sided or nicely painted, the lawns square and manicured. Streets were wide with multiple lanes. People drove shiny new cars and minivans. I felt a bit like I’d stepped into the Black Hole Sun video….
On the one hand, sleeping under a down comforter in a chilled, quiet room with venetian blinds drawn meant I didn’t wake up with the sunrise and the roosters, and that was nice. My feet didn’t get dusty when I walked around outside. There was a washing machine, a dryer and a dishwasher. There were no mosquitoes or roaches or any other bugs in the house. The streets weren’t jammed with buses and cars beeping, revving engines or blowing out clouds of black smoke. I could watch old episodes of my favorite childhood shows on Nickelodeon, and they weren’t even dubbed. My mom made my favorite meals. You could drink water from the faucet. There was an abundance of cheese, real butter, green salads, and the chocolate didn’t taste like flavored wax. I didn’t worry about being assaulted — or worse.
On the other hand, I felt like a stranger.
I remember my mother complaining about how my younger brother was wrecking the house and didn’t care. The house didn’t look wrecked to me at all. It looked just how it had always looked, and it was about a thousand times nicer than where I lived with my husband. “Come in here and look at this!” she said. “He put a hole in the carpet.”
We were having a conversation about a hole in the carpet?
I followed her into the room where the hole was. “It’s right here….” She scanned the floor for the hole. She couldn’t find it. She knelt down and ran her hand along the carpet, feeling for the hole. “Ah! Here it is. Look at this!” I looked at the small tear in the carpet and made what I hoped were appropriate comments. I felt closed and distant. I was angry at her for complaining. Did she have any idea that most people in the world didn’t even have carpet? And she was upset over a small hole?
I couldn’t relate my mom, or anyone else really. I didn’t know where to start when they asked what it was like where I lived. Most people had no idea where the country I lived in was located, what language was spoken there, or that there had been a war there that they were funding with their tax dollars. My grandmother wanted to know if we had toilet paper over there. It took too much effort to explain and contextualize. My self-righteousness ran high.
One of my best friends from college came out from the West Coast to see me for a few days. She at least knew her geography, wars, history and US foreign policy. But it took us awhile to find some common ground. I had my young child with me. I wasn’t as hip as I used to be. She talked about how she didn’t have her dream job yet, that it was hard for people our age to get going on a career. She talked about her aspirations to be something or someone special. I tried to find a way to relate, but it was hard. Where I lived most people didn’t have big career dreams and aspirations, they felt lucky to have some kind of income.
It was her first time in the Midwest and she was culturally shocked too. Things mostly just made her laugh in dismay. She found the Midwest ‘scary’ and Republican. We had often gone vintage clothing shopping in college, so we took a day trip away from my home town out to some smaller rural towns to check out the thrift stores. They normally sat on desolate Main Streets alongside little diners, variety stores, quirky craft boutiques and secondhand bookshops. She took black and white photos of the 1950s style storefronts, the old-fashioned signs for ice cream and hot dogs, and the church signboards with crooked or missing white letters that urged sinners to come in and be saved. We ate French fries and grilled cheeses and drank lemonade at one of the diners. A friendly old man in a baseball hat and overalls tipped his hat and held the door open for us, chatting us up in his slightly Southern accent.
After I got back home to my husband, my friend sent me some cassettes of her favorite bands, things she knew I’d like. She explained in the enclosed letter that one of the bands was fronted by Courtney Love, the wife of the lead singer from Nirvana. The band was called Hole.
I was excited to have some new music from an old friend. I popped Hole into the cassette player. Teenage Whore… Babydoll… Garbadge Man… It sounded harsh and ugly to me. My husband made faces. ‘Why are you listening to that?’ I pressed stop, annoyed at him, yet I couldn’t explain why I was listening to it. I wanted to defend myself, my college friend and Hole, but I had nothing to say.
For the next several weeks, when he was out of the house, I listened to Hole over and over, trying to learn to like it, trying to hang on to bits of my old self.
I took my first big plane ride when I was about 10. The trip was pretty exciting. I went to see my 2 aunts who lived on the West Coast at the time. We spent the first part of the trip in Northern California and then drove to Southern California. On the way out, I met my first vegetarian. She was sitting next to me on the plane and had long, straight brown hair and wore nice silver jewelry. She told me her cat was also vegetarian, which both surprised and confused me.
My N. California aunt lived in a tiny house out in the woods, quilted, drove a pick up truck and was a volunteer EMS attendant. She had a giant sheep dog and some kind of woven wall hanging that she had made out of the hair collected in the dog’s hairbrush. My mother had allowed me to take the family camera with me, warning that I only had 24 photos to take during the trip, and that I needed to conserve them for the whole week. My N. California aunt, however, said snap away. Experiences only happen once, and you can always buy more film. In Southern California, I got my first glimpse of palm trees and freeways and personalized license plates. My S. California aunt drew out my horoscope for me, using the rainbow of Bic markers that she kept hooked in a row on the outside pocket of her big purse.
Since then I’ve spent a fair share of my waking and sleeping hours sitting on planes, traveling to new places and experiences.
The first few minutes of getting on the plane are always a gamble. There are any number of things you might be in for during that long haul. You might get 8 hours of uninterrupted thinking, sleeping, reading, music listening and film watching, or you might get a do-gooder, someone with bad breath, or an unruly child. There is always the dim hope that the person who ends up next to you might be interesting and attractive.
Once, on the way to Nigeria, I was sitting there in the middle row of seats, checking out the people streaming in on the right-hand side of the plane, deciding who I hoped would sit next to me. While I was distracting myself with that, a Nigerian guy slipped into the seat next to me from the left. He was decked out in a baseball hat, mini dreads and two fancy phones. And he was hot. He immediately started in, using his phone as a prop to strike up a conversation.
In a bizarre time capsule, we spent the plane ride talking, holding hands, drinking plane wine and watching movies together. I kept hoping my colleague, seated a few rows ahead of us, wouldn’t wake up from her Ambien and wine-induced slumber and notice. I wondered what the hell I was doing. The plane landed early morning and we exchanged numbers. He promised he’d call me later in the week. I said it would be difficult to see him as I’d be out of the city. We went to baggage claim and he hugged me goodbye, a bit intensely. My colleague gave me a strange look, raising her eyebrows. Argh.
He called me a couple times in Nigeria but I couldn’t really talk. Months later on Christmas Eve at an extended family gathering in the Midwest, with relatives I barely ever see, my phone rang and I let it go to voice mail. I checked it later, but didn’t call him back.
What happens on the plane stays on the plane.
When my grandparents on my father’s side were alive, we would spend our Thanksgivings at their house. It was a traditional affair with turkey, dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes, green peas, cranberries, homemade rolls, wine, mince meat pie, pumpkin pie and the like.
My grandfather would stand at the head of the table ready to carve the turkey, first saying grace. He would start off with Oh Heavenly Father we thank you for…. Then he’d mention our family, our togetherness, health, community, yearly achievements, etc. Then he would go into the traditional prayer: Bless this food to our use, us to thy service, and make us ever mindful of the needs of others.
But he would always end it with his own personal tongue in cheek. Instead of saying: “And make us ever mindful of the needs of others” he’d get a wry smile on his face, glance around at us all, raise a knowing eyebrow, nod and say: “And make us ever needful of the minds of others.” Every year, we’d wait for that, we’d let out a good laugh, and we’d get down to the business of stuffing ourselves to more laughter and conversation.
I think both versions are words to live by. (and I really miss my grandparents!)