Sketchy Border Crossings, Good Company, and Mini Revelations

This weekend I ventured to Livingstone, Zambia (home of Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world) with a couple other Piaf fellows for a little Southern Africa regional meetup. Amusingly enough, the time it took to travel there was about the same as the time we actually spent there. Some of the fellows and I drove down to Gaborone, Botswana from Joburg, and from there joined the Gaborone fellows on a 13 hour bus ride the rest of the way to Livingstone. My favorite part of it all was arriving at the Zambian border. Our bus was originally supposed to take us all the way to Livingstone but informed us at the last minute that it wouldn’t be going into Zambia due to riots in Lusaka or something, so instead, we get dropped off at the border. After 13 hours of quality time spent basically on top of our seat-mates and woken up periodically throughout the night from the bus honking loudly to scare the goats, donkeys, or cows of the road, or swerving suddenly to avoid hitting a cow right in the middle of the road (pretty sure we almost died at the moment), we groggily stumbled off the bus at 10 am and headed towards the ill-marked little office to get our visas stamped out of Botswana.  With grey skies and light downpour outside to complement the setting, we continued down a road hoping to find the Zambian border control and another bus to take us the rest of the way (as our bus basically decided to abandon us with no further guidance), and eventually came to a dead end where the road was cut off by a river. Turns out you have to take a ferry across to get to the border. After warding off several men trying to convince us to exchange money to pay the fee of boarding the ferry (yeah, they were lying), we got onto the plank of floating steel next to the trucks that loaded before us and finally made it to the other side where we then had to pay a $50 fee for the Zambian visa. With pockets full of dollars, kwachas, pula, and rand, whose conversion rates all started to blend together in my mind by the time we made it to the border (which only accepted dollars and pounds for some reason), it took quite some time to sort out all of our payments without giving in to the shady money exchange dealers swarming around us outside the door trying to rip us off in our moment of desperation. …I guess there’s not really much point to this story other than the amusing sketchiness of it all…I’ve never come closer to feeling like I was engaging in some kind of illegal border-crossing activity without actually doing anything wrong.

Rather than share the details of what we actually did in Livingstone, though (basically, just the normal touristy things one does in Livingstone), I feel compelled to share some of the mini revelations I’ve had over the course of these past few days, mainly from the discussions I’ve had with the other fellows and their personal experiences in their respective organizations and countries. After having now left the others and continued on to Lusaka on my own for a 2 day work-trip at the country office we have here, I think I’ve had some time for their words to settle more. In particular, the other night we talked about unexpected challenges vs. expectations that we had in the 3 or 4 months we’ve been here now. Throughout everyone’s response was some link to race dynamics, expat behavior towards locals, and combatting stereotypes towards Africa. In my own time in Joburg, I also saw the presence of these issues, but typically interpreted them with a critical, interested eye rather than feeling them as personal challenges to face on a daily basis. Perhaps it’s that I’ve created somewhat of a sheltered life for myself in Joburg with the people I’ve befriended and the places I spend the majority of my time, such that I don’t necessarily encounter all the incidences of racism or stereotypes and skewed perspectives between different cultural groups that I know is so common. I jokingly expressed to the group that there must be something wrong with me for not getting more offended by things that I know should be offending me; I still don’t know if it’s linked to my belief in the eventual establishment of unity on earth that leads me to not internalize all of the issues around me to such a strong degree or if it’s that I’m really not as critical as I should be of things that are so evident and horrible.

From this weekend and I think mostly as a result of hearing the experiences of the other fellows on these matters, I feel like some feelings have finally come to the surface though and made me realize that I am actually troubled by a lot of what I’ve encountered and there are some pretty messed up things that should evoke some kind of emotional response. One thing I’ve realized throughout all of this is that wealth makes me uncomfortable. And particularly in the cities where poverty is literally right beside it. While huge economic disparities would obviously bother most people who are able to see it so drastically displayed and is not something I just now have reflected on, it’s more that I keep finding myself in positions that feel hypocritical in a way. For instance, I just entered Lusaka a few hours ago, where I was picked up by a hotel shuttle bus filled with several business-looking older white men, and was taken to a hotel that costs over $100 a night, which is more than I think I’ve ever paid for a hotel. Perhaps part of my discomfort is due to guilt and pressure at the fact that I am here for these 2 days to basically create some visibility material on some of our operations in Zambia and hopefully write some success stories for our reports, which donors will see. While my bosses have not placed much pressure on me for this mission, and have been encouraging in my being able to go to the field (as was agreed upon as one of the terms of my fellowship), it’s mainly the fact that such a ridiculous large amount of money is going towards my mere 2 days of coming here to write some stories. I realize that the UN has plenty of money and is not going to lose it’s ability to feed more people due to the cost of my little trip, but I just hope that the end results of it are worth the cost for the organization.

More than that though, being here just makes me think about what it would actually be like to continue working in the field of international development, and particularly for a big multilateral organization that does pay for it’s officers to go on missions to impoverished countries and stay in nice hotels. It’s not that I necessarily see a problem with providing enough funding for employees to stay in comfortable hotels when they travel, and in fact, for many of them, I think it is important that the UN does provide such logistic arrangements in light of the difficulty of the work a lot of them do and especially the challenges they face in having to constantly move their families around or live in difficult environments. What bothers me is more related to perceptions and stereotypes that play into these kinds of accommodations – both those of the local people towards international development workers or expats and of expats towards locals. To a large extent, it just feels like my staying in this hotel or the groups of expats that stick together for the most part rather than befriending the local people (as seemed the case in Livingstone) just contribute to the divides and stereotypes that hinder the effectiveness of the work itself.

And within this context, I’ve found myself extremely resistant to being pushed into the stereotypes of expats or aid workers or Americans or even white people (despite not even being completely white), while at the same time engaging in things that essentially further these views. One of the most common stereotypes of Americans that I’ve heard many times is that all Americans are rich. You should see the surprise on people’s faces here when they learn that I’ve never owned a smartphone. And now, despite being a deeply indebted recent graduate with only a basic living stipend for the year, it feels weird and hypocritical to be staying in a fancy hotel or living in one of the wealthier (and whiter) areas of Joburg or being able to travel around Africa or simply saying that I work for the UN and having people comment on the high salaries that UN workers make. And the thing about a lot of these stereotypes that bothers me the most is when they are actually perceived in a positive manner —  the biggest, for instance, is the superiority that seems afforded to white people in a lot of places. One always thinks of racism in terms of someone oppressing someone else, but less often do people talk about the psychological effects that remain among the oppressed (something that Stephen Biko focused on with his Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa). This could not have been more apparent than when I had gone to a soccer game in Soweto, one of the townships in Joburg where the population is mostly black, and when my white friends where approached by tons of local soccer fans asking for pictures to be taken with them. One person even asked one of the girls to kiss their baby. It was literally like they were celebrities for no other reason than their skin color.

It still blows my mind that apartheid only ended less than 20 years ago and that so many people here literally lived in a time when racism was a key component of the country’s basic institutions and legal system. Change takes time, and changing laws won’t immediately change mindsets and attitudes that have been around for so long, and I’m starting to see more and more just how deep these attitudes go.

There’s so much more I want to say on the topic of race but I’ll save it for another post cuz I also want to mention the other mini revelation that has come about from these recent travels, and that is, my own stereotypes of Africa. Again, more instances of hypocrisy I keep uncomfortably finding myself in. Especially after just talking about the importance of people seeing Africa for what it is (a diverse continent) in my last post, I keep realizing just how much western media shapes our perceptions of places in Africa and how much it’s even influenced my own. Despite working in Joburg and acknowledging how different every single country is from each other, in the back of my mind I still had some preconceptions of what other countries would look like. For whatever reason, I still held on to the assumption that outside of South Africa, cities in Botswana or Zambia would look more like ones I lived in in Madagascar as opposed to Joburg. Low and behold, Botswana and Lusaka have tons of similarities to Joburg, and contain just as much economic diversity. As much as I hate all of the exoticized notions of Africa, which make it out to be a place that’s either war-torn and poor or full of beautiful landscapes with wild animals, my expectations seemed to conform to these views in a lot of ways when I found myself surprised at the relatable city settings before me. I don’t mean to imply that these places were exactly like Joburg or Chicago or any other city, but just that they were not some extreme polar opposite to what one would find in the U.S. either. It is the side of Africa that tourism agencies never promote and international media never cover, and yet it is what I think is one of the most important aspects for people to see. It’s not like the West doesn’t engage in the affairs of Africa in significant ways, and if it’s going to continue to do so, it only makes sense for the general population to have access to a better understanding of all the intricate facets that make up each country, and not just the natural disasters or political instability or death tolls due to starvation or fighting in various regions. The kind of coverage that dominates media now basically furthers the sense of “otherness” towards Africa as a whole, leading to skewed understandings of its people and forming the basis for the ways in which many Western countries often try to intervene.

In sum, I’ve become more uncomfortable with more things, and I think it’s a good thing.

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