I came to Tanzania in order to right a wrong, fill in a gap, or replace one of the missing pieces of the development puzzle, if you will. I came because I have an expertise they desperately lack here (and almost everywhere else in Africa), driven by a strong sense of the closest you get to something sacred in my atheist world: The right of every human being, anywhere, to be enabled to improve his or her own life, to learn, to grow mentally and emotionally.
South African writer Rian Malan, in his excellent book ”My Traitor's Heart”, points out again and again that the casualties on the privileged side of social unrest is always the ”good people”: Doctors, nurses or social workers who take on the challenge of working in deprived environments, volunteers working on development projects, teachers who give up their cosy suburban lifestyles to bring education into the deepest, darkest corners of the social divide, scientists conducting research into alleviating the effects of the income-gap...
While I am not trying to argue that Tanzania is as unstable as South Africa was in the later half of the 20th century, or that I have sacrificed all my middleclass conveniences to teach math in a destitute environment, I still feel that I fall into the light end of the same category as those whites who lost their lives or were disabled in black violence while trying to counter the effects of the same Apartheid regime that the blacks thought they were fighting by indiscriminately attacking all non-black people they could get to, which sadly enough especially were those siding with the blacks, as most other whites wouldn’t dream of entering a township.
Neither am I trying to argue that this antagonism is a race thing, or an African thing. It is an income-gap thing. It exists in any country where the gap between rich and poor is so large the sense of being one people, of the same society, is lost to the obvious inequalities. No matter which colours are present on either side of the income-gap.
Like all do-gooders, I had naively thought that my good intentions were enough to protect me, to bring me at par with the locals. I had not anticipated that my white skin, which in Tanzania is associated with being rich (however right or wrong that assumption might be), would automatically mark me out as being on the “other side”, or that the resentment directed towards “the other side” would be as deep.
In South Africa, I met with one “black racist” in the clubhouse at the employee’s compound, a guy who literally told me to “fuck off back to Europe because Africa doesn’t need white people like you” and tried to make me leave the bar because of my inappropriate skin colour. At the time, I was living in a rather protected environment at the CSIR in Pretoria. I guess this matter is most easily demonstrated by the fact that the person who came to my help was the bartender, a dignified and delightful black man known as Johannes to whites and Masemula to blacks (part of the Apartheid oppression was disallowing blacks to have their own names, they were forced to take “white” names in order to get the passbooks all blacks had to carry). Masemula saw me, the white, as “one of us”. I was naively expecting to be met with the same attitude here in Tanzania.
Of course, it is not true that every black Tanzanian perceives me a an untouchable on the other side of the social divide. But it is the automatic response until I have proven myself in the sense that I am locally employed and earn a Tanzanian salary (+ a 50 % ex-pat allowance), pay taxes to the Tanzanian government and use the dala-dala (public mini-busses known as matatu’s in Kenya or taxi’s in South Africa) for transport. However, this isn’t even enough. Some Tanzanians feel contempt at my willingness to live like one of them and openly ridicule my stupidity in accepting such a low-paying job, and most of the rest of them just cannot understand that I do not have any other course of income.
It is a subtly hostile environment. The latest incident to prove this is that my cleaning lady stole my digital camera. Or if she didn’t steal it, she let in some third party who did. She comes to clean while I’m at work, so I have no idea what she’s actually doing when she’s in the house. This kind of incidents don’t just happen to whites, of course. It happens to anybody who’s perceived to have an advantage. And it alienates anybody who’s perceived to have an advantage.
I gave the cleaning lady a chance to return my camera. She didn’t, so I’ll have to report her to the police on Monday. One of my Tanzanian friends questioned her about it. She went into a long, passionate monologue that went something like this: “Oh, you’re black like me. You can understand me. This Mzungu is so difficult. She gives me such a hard time. I know her very well. She has so many friends. She likes to play around with many men. She drinks a lot… I’m sure one of her many friends who are in the house at all times took the camera.” Most of this is prejudice. Very common prejudice against white women, unfortunately.
Only 2 other people, 2 of my closest friends, have been in the house since the last time I used the camera, and they haven’t been alone, I’ve been with them at all times. I haven’t drunk any alcohol in the house since some time last year. I haven’t drunk any alcohol outside of the house more than 4 – 5 times this year. Most of my friends here are men, that is true, but most of them don’t enter the house. A lot of Tanzanians genuinely believe that men and women can’t be friends, which is why they perceive a woman with many male friends to be a woman who sleeps with many men.
What makes the environment so hostile is that it is impossible for friendship or genuine trust to grow across the gap between you and your domestic workers and guards or most other people you deal with in your everyday life, no matter if the gap is subjective or real, no matter if you’re a naïve idealist who has given up 80 % of her salary, reliable electricity and water supply, high quality free health services and a functioning administrative sector to fulfil a wish to contribute to the development and common good of their country. Every time you get a chance to catch a glimpse into the mind of your cleaning lady or your guard, what you see is resentment, envy, prejudice and a perception of you as something that belongs to a different world and to which an altogether different set of rules applies.
People like guards and cleaning ladies do not understand that I make a salary which is 14 – 15 times larger than theirs because I have a Master’s Degree in math. They honestly believe that I make this “huge” salary because I’m white. While I do not think that their salaries are fair, or reflect the actual value of their work, I do not think that it’s unfair that a person with a long tertiary education makes more money than a person with no education at all, either. However, a guard makes a salary so low that if he has to take 3 dala-dala’s to get to work (you pay Tsh 250 or around $0.2 each time you enter a dala-dala), his transport expenses make it impossible for him to afford having the job.
It’s election year this year and people rally for a higher minimum wage. Kikwete, the president, flew into a fit of rage on national television and told the rallying people that they were liars, that the state budget would crumble and disintegrate if their “unreasonable” demands were met, and that he didn’t need their votes anyway. His calculations were soon found out to be around 600 % off the real expense of increasing the minimum wage, of course. But how does he know that he doesn’t need people to vote for him to get re-elected? Well, the head of the national voting committee (responsible for counting the votes) is appointed by the CCM, his party…
While I was living in South Africa, many of my white friends held that blacks were whiners and wanted everything handed to them without having to work for it. My white friends were more well off, it’s true, but they were working very hard for it. At the time, I felt that I was listening to some left-over Apartheid propaganda coming from otherwise quite reasonable people, but I’m not so sure any more.
I’m not saying that black Africans are intrinsically lazy or uncritically demanding to have everything handed to them without wanting to contribute, but they’re living in conditions in which it is very hard to grow a sense of self-efficacy because you simply do not have that much of a chance to effect a change for the better in your own life. Illiteracy rates are high as a consequence of being unable to pay school fees, uniforms and leave your children’s potential labour and income-generating abilities un-used so that they can stay in school. And I am saying that you need a sense of self-efficacy to even start trying to improve your chances.
Leadership deficiency runs rampant, meaning that most of the money that were supposed to improve education, basic health, infrastructure and provide agricultural extension programmes to increase yield and protect the environment by preventing soil depletion end up in somebody’s pockets instead instead of being invested in the common good. Elections are fraud and most people don’t bother voting. They do not feel that their votes count or that their voices are heard, so who bother spending time and money on voting?
In addition, the international development assistance has been handled in a spirit of knowing better, meaning that projects have been imposed on communities without much attention being paid to creating a sense of local ownership or to making the beneficiaries understand why indeed those white people come here giving us bednets (irrigation, health clinics, …). At the same time, it is only recently that self-sustainability has entered the requirements for project-design, thus meaning that money have kept being poured in without being put to use enabling people to help themselves or keep running the projects after donor phase-out. This has created a situation in which people both become dependent on foreign aid and do not develop a sense of the need of being able to sustain themselves. Kenyan Nobel peace prize winner Wangari Maathai calls this a culture of dependence.
I think these three factors (lack of opportunities, bad leadership, culture of dependence) play a large role in making black Africans come across as whiners who do not want to do anything for themselves.
I can vaguely, but not completely, understand why living under such conditions make people develop a sense of resentment and antagonism towards those who do better instead of letting other people’s hard work and consequent successes inspire them to try to improve their own lives. I can not understand why it makes people think that cheating you, stealing from you, lying to you and trying to break up your friendships with other Tanzanians by incriminating them (to prevent them from getting a share of your alleged riches) is OK. I just can't understand it.
But it does make it that much harder for me to keep seeing the people I came to support in the first place as worthy of anybody's help. And it makes it that much harder to keep trying to befriend them, see how they live, understand them and develop a sense of their problems, worries and wishes.
I guess this is a contributing factor to the failure of so much well-intended development assistance, too. You cannot deal with the people you're there to help, so you become isolated from them, do not understand them and cannot communicate with them well. It becomes a deeply problematic situation to be in for all volunteers, too. You're there to help people out of a genuine belief in human dignity and equality, but the people you're there to help see you as something almost un-human, treat you with more or less well hidden antagonism, and you can never belong between them and get a realistic feel for them.