Friday, January 4, 2008

What I learned in Zanzibar of all places

Christmas in Kalomo

I must admit, I felt a bit guilty about taking a vacation over the Christmas break. It didn’t feel a whole lot like Christmas here, and most Zambians don’t do anything very special around this time anyways – refer to my travel buddy Ka-Hay’s excellent blog post about this (I was lucky enough to see this Zambian Santa in the flesh!) It’s not that people don’t want to do anything special or go anywhere special, it’s that they simply cannot afford to do so.

I had wanted to spend some quality Christmas fun-time with my host family before I went on my trip. But try as I might to tactfully probe about the family’s plans for Christmas, I was met with ambivalent responses. And I can see why. Having something as simple as a nice Christmas meal is an extreme luxury that this family of 15+ doesn’t have the means for. Feeling that the holiday season was going to pass unnoticed but wanting to do something special, I decided to throw a party for the family. I enlisted the help of my host sisters to organize a meal of their choice, and all it took was $50 to feed the family to the gills!

No nshima tonight: Fried chicken, macaroni,
boiled potatoes, coleslaw, scones, popcorn, and pop...
mmm, mmm, carb-a-licious!

After the meal, I surprised them all with a gift courtesy of my parents in Canada: some printed photographs I had taken of the farm, a box of Belgian chocolates, calendars with scenes from Canada, and loads of Canada flag pins and tattoos. The gift from my parents was a REAL treat for my family, so on behalf of all of them, thank you Amma and Appa for your thoughtfulness.

It was a great surprise!

We had a great time eating, laughing, dancing…mostly laughing at me dancing. I am incredibly grateful to this family for taking me in and making me feel at home. So I couldn’t help but feel bad that I would be heading off to Zanzibar the next day, a place many of them will never get the chance to visit. I was also worried that an indulgent vacation would snap me out of a reality I’ve been working so hard to try and understand.

I know, I know, I can’t let the guilt get to me. Guilt of that kind will only paralyze me and undermine the work I’m trying to do here. And while I’m here to learn and understand, I believe there is opportunity to do just that almost anywhere. So I bid farewell to my host family and headed off to Zanzibar in search of some sand, sun, and revelations!

The magicalness of Zanzibar

We started our journey to the magical and mysterious island of Zanzibar quite fittingly on the train from Zambia to Dar es Salaam. That train ride was…sigh…wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. I don’t think I can fully articulate how amazingly wonderful it was. So here are some pics that unfortunately don’t do it justice.

Note: I failed to photograph the unicorns I saw, but I can assure you that there were many ;)

I hadn’t done a lot of research on Zanzibar before I left but was more than happy to explore it with no expectations. Situated off the coast of Tanzania, it is a beautiful island filled with the influences of its African, Arab, and Asian neighbours. Although it is a haven for tourists from around the world, it has preserved its old world charm, and I immediately fell in love.

Beaches smeaches, it’s all about the people.

After exploring Stone Town for a couple days, we headed to the amazing beaches of the North Coast for some serious relaxing (like we weren’t doing enough of that already…did I mention how wonderful the train was??) The blindingly white beaches and pristine turquoise waters did not disappoint. But surprisingly, that’s not what made this trip so memorable.

I'm not trying to make you all jealous...really

As the blazing sun started to set one night, we started up an impromptu volleyball game on the beach. Within no time, we had attracted a motley crew of tourists, locals, and children to join what became a competitive tourney for the coveted King’s Court. There’s nothing like a little sport to bring people together.

After the game and a well deserved shower (to get the sand out of my ears), we joined our fellow teammates for some drinks on the beach. This was not your ordinary group of tourists. These people hailed from all over the world, but they are all working in Africa on development and relief in some capacity or another…humanitarian work in Darfur, education in Tanzania and South Africa, with the UN in Liberia…

…‘the humanitarian international, a trans-national elite of relief workers, civil servants, academics and others’ which has grown to be a powerful and controversial force in defining approaches to emergency intervention

– Alex de Waal quoted in Michael Edwards’ “Future Positive”

Others that don’t necessarily fit with the above definition but are no less important in describing the global influences in Africa are those that work in the private sector for multinational corporations and the like. These people are quickly realizing that Africa’s market potential should not be underestimated.

Ask anyone where they were from and what they do and you’d invariably get a response that starts with, “Well, it’s a little complicated…” Born in one place, raised in another, and working all over, these people are multicultural and multilingual, intelligent and experienced, thoughtful and convention-defying. Unfortunately, development workers, particularly ex-pats, don’t have the best of reputations over here (hence the ‘controversial’ part of de Waal’s quote), but these people didn’t fit the stereotype.

Our conversations were spirited and diverse, covering topics including development, economics, politics, conflict, culture, and human behaviour. What blew me away about these people were not their breadth and depth of experience (which was, of course, impressive) but their insightful and compassionate musings about the world in which they work...or I should say “we” work. They are thinking about “what’s possible”, as Ka-Hay likes to put it, instead of what’s impossible. Optimistic and earnest, these people gave me a snap-shot into a global community that is thinking about the world in a new and exciting way.

The stories they shared highlighted two very important things to me:

1) I have A LOT to learn. Being here only 5 months so far makes me a relative newby who has only scratched the surface of development work. It seems my understanding of international development deepens exponentially with each day that I am here. While this is all well and good, my goal now is to focus and formalize this learning from feeling into critical thinking.

2) Although I have a lot to learn, I have an incredible opportunity to learn perhaps some of the most important things from where I’m currently positioned with EWB and CARE – field realities. Staying connected to these realities is so very important. What’s really happening on the ground? What incentives really drive people to “develop”? Why is “development” really not working? These are the questions I ask myself all the time.

And so, the learning curve continues on…onwards and upwards.

What a vacation should be.

Any glorious beach vacation leaves people feeling well rested and relaxed. But this one has left me completely reinvigorated, ready to get back into field, talk to farmers, ask my burning questions, and test my development hypotheses. And it’s taken me full circle as I’m also very excited to get back to my host family. It seems within the last month or so that I’ve been welcomed even further into the family than I was before – I thought I was in, but now I’m really in. And that feels great. The guilt is gone, and I’m looking forward to getting to know them even better and allowing them to get to know me.

Driving this sense of reinvigoration is the encouraging knowledge that there are people the world over thinking about big ideas and acting to create big change. And I’m not just talking about the folks I met in Zanzibar, I include all of you in this group of people – your thoughtful and heartfelt responses to my blog posts and emails inspire me to write more and push me to think harder. I never ever get the sense that I’m in this alone, and I’d like to thank all of you for that.

I can’t believe it is January, a point that kept dawning on me on my long non-train-ugly-bus-misadventure back to Zambia. But the 30+ hour journey back did nothing to diminish my energy, I’m gung-ho ready and pumped to rock out the new year, and I hope you all are too!

Thulasy :)

PS: Credit should be given to Ka-Hay and her mad photography skills for the beautiful pics!