Discussions under the Mango Tree – part 1

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Hospice had been working in Djougou for 5 years, and Pierre for 7 months. Both spoke from a position of institutional experience in vastly different fields of work – Pierre in healthcare, Hospice in construction.

We started with a topic of which I’d long been aware, being Western and exposed to stereotypes re Africa – but one that I had convinced myself had been thankfully unrealized.

When I’d been doing my tiny amount with ActionAid last year, convincing myself that by pledging one hour a term I qualified as a good and just person, I tried to get students to contribute a pound or so to the DEC crisis appeal. Drought had decimated the nation and it needed international assistance. ActionAid was sending money over to pay for water pumps or something. In truth I didn’t know what was going to happen to the money other than the fact that it was going some entity within a country that was in need. That was, I told myself, enough justification to demand money from others. Most people would willingly pledge any loose change they had jangling around their pockets, but some would question why they should pay up when:

“it will just go into the pockets of the corrupt leaders over there”

How small minded, I thought. How incredibly western to be so disparaging. Not every organisation in Africa is corrupt! How dare they suggest as much?

Coming over to Benin 6 weeks ago, I carried the same opinions in my mind. Utmost faith in the honesty of the populace – how could a liberal being such as myself think differently? I was coming over to work with an NGO that was nobly functioning in an environment desperately lacking in funding. I even said the same in my blog here! Herculean successes, I believe was the term.

It hurt me to hear what Pierre went on to say:

“You know, Christy, I’ve worked here for a while now. I was the same as you. I came here to find the exception. I mean, for fucks sake, I work in the public sector. In a hospital! People that work there should be driven by the classic save-the-world feeling right? Doctors and nurses get out of bed at the crack of dawn and work for hours and hours, often for very little, dealing with the stresses of turning down those families that can’t afford life saving medicine and the toils of telling families that can afford it that they simply don’t have any anti-biotics left. You don’t get into that line of work without a considerable humanitarian drive, do you? And to be clear, I’ll say this – the doctors are honorable people. They work hard.

“But they don’t comprise the entire body of people that work there. Higher up, when you start playing with the bureaucracy, you meet the rotten elements. People start getting richer and stop being quite so worthy. There’s a practice that everyone is required to follow here called ‘Suivre les documents’. Suivre les documents! Haha!” Here he stopped and looked at everyone incredulously. Only Hospice seemed to understand what was funny. He chuckled into his warm beer.

Pierre turned back to Nina and I.

“Ah. Hmm. ‘Suivre les documents’ is a farce! A ridiculous practice! Basically, it’s a donation to ensure that any documents I want to get signed are read quickly. I’ll give 20 quid to the member of the police or whoever I need to read my work, and they’ll speed up the process. That in itself isn’t a crime as it can be put down as an institutional expense. Ridiculous, yes, but necessary.  The problem comes when that policeman decides to log that they’ve received only a tenner and they pocket the rest. At that point it becomes a bribe by any other name! Obviously, you don’t have to go through that ordeal, but who wants to wait a month for something that can be done in a day?

“Open your eyes, Christy. That stuff happens all over the country. It happens in my hospital, it happens in construction, and it sure as fuck happens in your NGO. That, Sanni…he’s a cheat. There, I’ve said it. He’s a blackguard”

(Ok, he didn’t say blackguard, but it’s a great word. I just hope it doesn’t have any racist connotations.)

Nina seemed rather incensed by such an accusation, but owing to her kindness refused to make a big deal of it.

“Oh… I always thought of him as passionate. An idealist. Maybe too idealistic! He works every single day… why do you think he cheats?”

Here Hospice took up the conversation. He was sat back in his chair, a sigh on his lips. His right elbow was resting on the table, the hand resting by the right hand side of his mouth. He started talking by motioning his right hand towards us in a kind of backwards claw.

“I’ll ask you one question, Nina. What’s the deal with his leg?”

“Well, he’s disabled. Permanently. You only have to look at him to tell. His left leg is shorter than the other”

“True, true.”

“And he can’t walk without his crutch”

Hospice shook his head vehemently.

“No. Not true! He can walk properly” His spite coursed through his words. “I’ve seen him, here under the Mango trees. He can walk if he wants to. You’d have to look hard to tell that he has a limp. But he doesn’t. He keeps his crutch close and uses it whenever anyone’s watching. I’ll ask another question – how did the disability occur?”

“Well, he broke his leg in a motorcyle accident…I think?

“Yes, he did. But that was over a year ago”

“Well, things take a long time to heal, and seen as…”

She stopped short.

“Aha! Seen as we’re in Africa, you were going to say? No, no. We may be slightly behind economically, but we can heal a fracture in 3 months just lie in the West. Sanni chose to reject medical treatment and go for a traditional recovery that would take years and leave him permanently disfigured. Just like he chooses to keep his crutch by him at all times even though he doesn’t need it. See what I’m getting at?”

Pierre joined in.

“And another thing. I get that I’m being hard on him, and my contempt is thinly veiled. But whatever. The projects that SNA, and Sanni launches – and I’m sorry to say, your ‘project’ too – aren’t things that are built for Benin. They’re projects that look attractive to the west, and western financers. In essence that’s all he cares about. Not Benin, not Djougou and-

-fuck think about his apparent commitment to women’s rights! Haha, what a joke! Two wives and he treats the second one like a trophy when he’s in a good mood, and like dirt when he’s not. She’s not his equal. Haha! He doesn’t care for anything other than receiving money and skimping some off for himself. An honorable idealist?! Haha!”

I decided to jump in there. I kind of thought that they were being slightly too one sided.

“I get where you’re coming from. Sanni is playing a part to receive funding. It’s out and out deception – eliciting sympathy for his ‘condition’, well aware that this will elicit sympathy for the NGO as a whole. On top of that, his projects are launched not with the express aim of helping people, but of attracting investment. Everything is done in the name of finance. Both his means and his methods subvert the very noble nature of an NGO. Even without concrete examples, I’m willing to accept that that might be the case. I’ve seen how he works, and I wouldn’t put such conduct past him.

“But I put this to you – is it really possible to discredit the results of his projects because of apparently unethical processes in the planning stages? Who are we to declare that his conduct is even unethical? It’s no secret that without money it’s impossible to do anything here. Nina knows that, I know that. It’s pressingly obvious that SNA knows that.

“Take one of SNA’s largest projects that has just come to a close, PMLS 2. That was a project launched in tandem with an organization in Cotonou, and SNA won the bid to be the partner in the North of Benin. According to you, SNA won the bid because the contractors felt sorry for the disabled boss and because it promised to launch projects that were appealing to the West. Lets take that as the starting point. At the end of the project, 1000 villagers had been tested for Aids. That’s a concrete fact. Granted, the project had séances in which condoms were distrbuted and 200 villagers watched a white boy put a condom on a phallus, which could validly be labeled useless photo opportunities. After all, you can’t change the habits of a lifetime in an hour. But to test 1000 people – that is something concrete. That is a result that is undoubtedly in the interest of the population of Djougou. Who cares if it took a lying leader that cares only about ensuring the survival of his precious NGO to realize such actions? They were realized.

“Therefore, I say to you –isn’t playing the game that you find so abhorrent just the cost of survival here?”

Hospice replied:

“And in terms of the accusations that he takes money from each project for himself?”

“I’m not in a position to say. For that, I’d need concrete evidence.”

“Hmm. Ok. I understand what you’re saying, but I completely disagree. The ends never justify the means. There are plenty of NGOs that work hard in a respectable manner, launching projects that are of actual benefit for the population, and they’re always overlooked.”

Pierre was struggling to light a match in the dark, constantly striking it against the box.

He laughed, the cigarette in his mouth dangling precariously over the table.

“Two things there friend. One – didn’t we agree that corruption was everywhere? Where are these so called respectable NGOs? And two – the ends never justify the means? Haha, I remember you saying that there had never been a better African than Gadaffi!.

“That’s…different. Hmm. Shall we move onto that?”

Yes, I said. I believed we should

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