I’ve been so energized here. I’ve been eating up the new culture, language and environment. I’ve been loving the food, the natural beauty, my host family… I’ve been making friends in the community… And I’ve been propelled by the challenge and excitement of it all. But I think I’ve also been running on adrenaline. In the last few weeks I’ve started to feel the gravity of this experience more deeply. To state the obvious, it’s really different here.
Living in a place like this and preparing for work like this has a lot of the same challenges as moving to any new unknown place: getting to know people, discovering your neighborhood and the other places around town, settling into a routine… but it’s got some wildly different aspects as well. And I’m just now starting to understand how challenging some of them are going to be.
Not having electricity has been a little inconvenient, but remarkably easy to work around. Bucket baths, frankly (and inexplicably), are still kind of fun. Walking 20+ minutes to training each day and night is no different than what I did in a number of places in the U.S. But the culture here is nothing like in the United States. I’m sure that at times it is going to excite me and remind me of why I came to this place, but at times it is really going to bum me out.
I don’t mean the kind of culture we all like to soak up when we go on vacation. I mean the kind of culture that defines a people: how they interact with one another; how they organize themselves socially, politically, economically; the values they live by, and the ones that happen as a result of both conscious and unconscious customs. The conscious ones are the ones I eat up, but the unconscious ones – put diplomatically – can take some getting used to.
Many Cameroonians are habitually late. For example. I’ve encountered this tendency before, in Africa, Jamaica, SE Asia and other places. But when you’re trying to get something done it can be insanely frustrating. We’re warned that when you plan to have a meeting or a class you have to remind people that you’ll be starting at American time, not Cameroonian time. Otherwise people will come in 30, 40, 90 minutes late. And people will usually show up late anyway.
I had the opportunity recently to sit in on a local tontine meeting – a community savings and loan group that pools and lends money among the members for business and social purposes (weddings, funerals, maladies). Even though the meeting started at the same time every month, people showed up throughout the entire meeting, requiring the money counters to go back and add the new arrivals’ savings and recalculate the totals. By the time I left and hour and half later people were still showing up.
I read an article in grad school by a guy named Lawrence Harrison that pissed a lot of people off, including me. (For the curious or extremely bored it’s called The Culture Club: Exploring the Central Liberal Truth). He says:
“Cultural Relativism… has permeated the social sciences, and largely because of it a widespread presumption today exists that all cultures and all religions must be regarded as of equal worth and are not to be the object of comparative value judgments. However, when it comes to the relationship between culture and human progress, I find compelling evidence that some cultures and some religions do better than others in promoting the goals of democratic politics, social justice and prosperity.”
“Africa’s post-colonial hopes have been replaced by despair in the wake of irresponsible, often tyrannical leadership and frequent civil wars. In the entire continent, only Botswana has approximated the optimistic scenario.”
OK then. So culture is a hindrance to the ‘right kind’ of development. Poor people are poor because their institutions are primitive. And Africa is the most pathetic failure of all.
How incredibly short-sighted and counterproductive, I thought. Take this notion of time. One shouldn’t reap and/or sow on the same calendar day every year. It’s necessary to factor in how much earlier or later the season may be changing, the amount of sun or rainfall, current crop maturity levels, etc. Isn’t Harrison being insensitive to the cultural and social value that a looser notion of time allows? Isn’t such a rigid ‘time is money’ mentality an example of what frustrates the so-called beneficiaries about much of the western world’s notion of development to begin with?
But as I read this paper again I have to give Harrison a little credit. I still don’t agree with his conclusions about culture being the biggest roadblock to development. There are many factors that influence various levels of development, including the metrics by which you measure it. But I have to admit that there are certain characteristics that make reaching goals extremely difficult.
Just on a practical level, if Jane promises to teach John how to plant a cornfield on Monday because on Tuesday she’s going away for a month and the planting season will have passed by the time she returns, John should show up. If he doesn’t because his notion of time is flexible or he doesn’t take Jane’s knowledge seriously because she’s a woman (another common cultural issue in Cameroon), John either doesn’t eat corn this year or he has to buy it from someone else. In this case, two aspects of John’s culture have unquestionably hurt him.
The challenge, I suppose, is identifying which aspects of culture are stalling a society from reaching its potential. This is an incredibly touchy subject among development practitioners and academics, and is the reason why the annual World Bank and IMF meetings look like the last scene in V for Vendetta. One thing I’m sure, though, is that such things have to be decided by the culture that is ready to act on its own behalf, not outside ones that want to help it ‘develop’.
As Harrison himself says, “Cultural change, like democracy and market economics, cannot be imposed from the outside, except in the most extraordinary circumstances… Progress is likely to endure only when it is driven chiefly from within. To be sure, the success stories underscore the importance of openness to the ideological, political, technological and institutional lessons learned by more “advanced” societies. (The quotes around ‘advanced’ are my own, not Harrison’s). But until a critical mass of awareness emerges in a society, external pressures for change are likely to be resisted.”
My own personal cliffhanger: What do I do if what my village says it really wants is different that what I think it really needs?