Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Postcolonial, and Not About To Forget It.

I was chatting with a Maasai gentleman the other day, trying to get an idea of why it is that whenever I park anywhere with Maasai security guards I get service with a huge smile and the occasional marriage proposal*. We meandered through a couple of other cultural points of information and arrived at the conclusion that surely there cannot be two tribes more inclined to grand self-regard as ours. Of course we then had to warmly congratulate each other and indulged in some mutual admiration, as one does amongst proud Africans. Imagine that: proud Africans.

Until I left the continent as a young adult I didn't even realize that the world does not revolve around Africa in general and Tanzania in particular. Imagine taking that nshomile munno attitude to a country where most people can't identify your continent on a map let alone attempt to pronounce your last name. I have never learned how to cope with assumptions of African inferiority and don't intend to, though I can tell you some hair-straightening stories about the things that people say to you when you're are African and abroad. I could tell you some real eye-rollers about development partners too. It is largely because of these experiences that I don't like to talk racial politics too often or in too much detail on the blog.

However, I work in an industry where it is impossible to get through a day without at least thinking about intercultural encounters if you're not busy having them. You can imagine that for a left-leaning Africanist obsessed with the study of power, development is irresistible. Been learning a lot over the years, not much of which can easily be expressed on paper.

It was through this lens that I observed Prince Charles's recent visit to Tanzania- a former colony and now a Commonwealth member. That's going to be the subject of next week's article in The East African. Oh, I also had to find a way to work in my utter annoyance at David Cameron for his supremely useless statements on homosexuality in Africa**.
"If we get really candid about things, the development sector is only the 'nicest' part of international relations and it is not necessarily all that nice underneath the sloganeering and the fund-raising campaigns. There is a lot of good that gets done, don't get me wrong. But there is also a lot to be suspicious of, everything from tied aid to conditionalities to hidden extractive trade all the way down to the culture of 'international' vs. 'local' staff salaries and benefits which gives rise to a shady little practice called The African Discount. Development is a heavily hierarchical industry that requires constant vigilance because of the not-so-hidden power dynamics. The attitude of gratitude has no place in these relationships, it creates freakish circumstances. Why else would a British Prime Minister get it into his head that he can tell African countries how to legislate their sexual politics and hope to get away with it?"
*Apparently I look like a Maasai woman, a compliment I won't turn down. Had a cocky young Moran offer 30 cattle for me at the entrypoint to Ngorongoro a couple of years ago, and I turned him down. What was I thinking, right?

** Clearly David doesn't Get It. This is one of those conversations we're just going to have to handle ourselves and the more he "helps" the harder it will be to have sensible dialogue with Afrochauvinists and those with religion-based opinions.

PS: gossipy social media angle- there's a Royal Channel on Youtube. No, seriously. Anyways, they have already posted some footage from the Royals visit to TZ. Let's just say there is at least one incidence of public dancing on there. :)

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