I got there, and I saw this woman standing completely naked washing her dress in the river. I was appalled. But then a few days later, I realized it was because she only has one dress, so she didn’t have anything to wear while washing it. – American woman wearing a red polo featuring a “Teen Mission International” logo with a gold cross
Other middle-aged white woman: Incredible
First woman: It just made me realize, we Westerners are so unsatisfied. We have more than anyone in the world yet we can’t find satisfaction. This mission was life-changing, it made me realize the best way to serve the Lord. All we need to do is give them supplies – you know the women, they’re really good at sewing.
Second woman: I know, they’re so talented, really talented. If only they were educated. In Malawi we were focusing on education and we provided Bible sessions for two weeks in three villages.
First woman (nodding enthusiastically): You know if they have tin for their huts, and if they have food, they’re happy.
I overheard this conversation on the plane ride back from my practicum in Ethiopia, where I was working on a program evaluation in Sudanese refugee camps. I realized that, apart from not wearing a red polo, I blended right in with the crowd of missionaries. I had a sudden urge to punch open the window and jump off the plane. What was it about this conversation and their “missions” that made me so angry?
The refugee camps were better looking than I had expected. Mud huts are set up in perfect dynamic blocks, surrounded by neat straw fences with a few holes here and there for small children to stick there heads through to yell and wave at the white land cruisers trundling past. Women walk by carrying packages labeled “World Food Program” on their heads while babies wearing Pepsi shirts with no bottoms cling to their legs and backs. Men sit in circles in the “culture center” talking all morning, and often end up lying down, a bottle of homemade liquor in hand, later in the afternoon. The fact that few people have livelihoods makes the atmosphere dramatically stagnant. Though people are active, it feels like a place to pass time.
It’s strange to be in a community almost completely functioning on handouts. It was even more unsettling to be associated with that aid. USAID, UKAID, UNHCR, UNFPA and WFP signs litter the camp. Do they see me and think I’m the face behind the signs? Is that why they so warmly greeted me? One day we were walking to the camp coffee stall when a woman I had never seen before suddenly appeared and started crying with a smile, hugging me while saying thank you, thank you in Arabic. It was awkward and I felt guilty for receiving her greeting.
During our training for data collectors, we talked about reflexivity for our project to interview Sudanese refugees about gender-based violence.
We conceptualized the fact that what the interviewer looks like and represents influences the data and interaction. The IRC had selected translators who are Muslim and from the bordering communities, and one was a refugee herself. The researchers were Ethiopian but none were Muslim and all were highly educated in Addis Ababa. We therefore had three levels of “foreignness” in the room: translators who were not refugees, educated Ethiopian women, and an American. I was not interviewing for this project, with good reason. One researcher pointed out that if I were to interview, the girls might alter their answers to make them seem more needy, with the idea being that if I heard their need they might get further assistance.
In one of my courses at Mailman, a professor described this phenomenon as “the aid game.” Local people, especially those in emergency settings living on aid, know the game and they play it well. They know agencies and what their interests are, and they sometimes put on an act for agency representatives in a way that might continue or increase assistance. While the people are indeed in need and their actions justified, this fosters a relationship that is artificial and lacks transparency. When the khaki-vested white person shows up in the white land cruiser, the people show both their gratitude and their continuing problems. It’s the humanitarian song and dance.
The reason the women on the plane made me angry is that I felt like they were objectifying Africans. They were shaping the people into vehicles for serving the Lord, and they were taking on the authority to label the people’s needs. I don’t doubt that humanitarian aid workers do this too; I’m sure I’m guilty, or will be guilty, of it as well. Not only is this objectifying, but it is also othering. Their dialogue creates an “us” and a “them.” The more I work abroad the more I see it, and it prevents true relationships from being formed. It reproduces the idea that we live in two separate worlds separated by a precarious bridge.
The “two separate worlds” situation is created by two sides: the people playing “the game” and the people labeling the people playing the game with their definition of vulnerability. I’m not blaming local people for playing the game; they’re being strategic. And I’m not blaming missionaries—we’re all susceptible to this type of satisfaction. What I struggled with during my practicum is that sometimes the dialogue (between local people and foreigners, and between foreigners) makes interactions feel fake, like some sort of rehearsed play. It hampers collaboration. It highlights our differences, and it separates us.
And ultimately, I’m not sure what anyone could do about it. One thing that made me feel better while working on this project was that the work was set up collaboratively, and I was able to make real, lasting friendships with the Ethiopians I worked with. And the project was strong in that, to the extent possible, it employed the people closest to the problem.
Another answer is to live in a place for a very long time and work on relationship building. But home is home, and skin, clothes, language and assets have political and historical meanings. So unfortunately, this is an ongoing struggle that I, as I begin on this career path, am grappling with.