I was flicking absent mindedly through Facebook last weekend when I saw that Peg, my aunt, had replied to my comment about how I’d been getting on here. She wished me well and congratulated me for having made “real change”. In the middle of my downbeat assessments of the 9 week séjour, that benign and loving comment made me feel a little queasy. Really? Had I contributed to “real change” or just been a bit player in a movement that recouped nothing other than resent and empty gestures from those we pledged to help?
The truth is, I could easily spend an entire day responding to the more general questions surrounding a volunteering experience, and settle happily on the academic fence. I’m not going to do that – I’m going to do something that I rarely do, and answer a simple question firmly:
Was it all worth it?
Aha. That said, it’s not as if I could just leave it at that though, right?
It’s easy to look at a period of two months and write it off as inconsequential. By the time you really get used to living somewhere, the departure gate has been announced. True, but I think I’ve had a deep enough experience to begin to contemplate the aforementioned questions.
I’m well aware of how dangerous this territory is, but I’m going to go ahead and say it – many attitudes that are entrenched in the West are objectively better than the ones held here. I’d defend the right of a country or region to practice and protect its own culture to the death, but I think a line has to be drawn somewhere. There are many Beninian customs that should change. There can be a tendency for us to back off and worry about upsetting those we’re here to help and learn from due to the looming issue of ‘culture’, when what we’re actually promoting is both valuable and necessary. I fundamentally believe that the cultural position of women is better in England than it is in Benin, and I fundamentally believe that our attitudes towards sexual health are better. For those reasons I have no issue with ‘imposing’ the Western understandings of gender equality and sexual caution. That’s not to say that we’ve got it perfect, or that we don’t have major failings – everybody has a handful of glass ceiling/ institutional sexism or promiscuous yet unsafe acquaintance anecdotes to throw about – but that the West is simply in a better position. Clearly, therefore, some measure of contact should exist between the “rich foreigners” and the indigenous population, to put it in the blunt and disparaging terms that my argument invokes.
I simply don’t agree with the rampant cynicism that seems to have developed in the minds of those that have worked here for a considerable period of time – we can’t ever change anything, we don’t have any answers, there’s no point in staying – and I certainly don’t agree with their recommendation that the West leave Africa alone for a few decades. Admittedly, I’d probably be more jaded if I experienced the same frustrating impasses that my friends have, but I still think that their answer is wrong. Every country can benefit from the exchange of ideas. Even if the fact that we’re white makes the local inhabitants kick out reflexively at anything we say, and even if the majority of people put religious beliefs before the ideas of an earnest westerner, I’d continue to support the volontariat. I’d continue to support the ‘mission’. Maybe the manner in which we deliver our message has to change, but not the act of delivering a message itself. My coming here and initiating a project was worth it because we, collectively and collaboratively, promoted a necessary idea. I obviously can’t say that after lecturing 600 people for an hour we have succeeded in changing attitudes held for a lifetime about safe sex, but I can say that we took a worthwhile step in that direction. To imply that doing so was damaging is both unfair and harmful to those that participated in the project.
Thinking about it slightly differently, would it have been better for the country if I’d just pledged the £3000 that my trip has ended up costing (Flights, food and board, vaccines, disposable income) to the NGO that I worked for and stayed at home? Here, I’m not quite as sure. SNA may well have issues with financial efficiency (ahem!), but £3000 is a shit load of money here. Even if only half of it ended up going into field-work, it would still be a damn site more than the £160 I used for “Semaine Contre Le Sida”. A shrewd critic could say that what I was advocating previously was a hands off approach to development, and what is more hands off than anonymously empowering a local organization to enact change as it saw fit? With that money Mouta could have launched the project that he’s spent a year feverishly editing, and Djougou would have its ten new chicken coops. Such an argument is compelling. The answer, probably, is yes – it would have been better off.
In response I could discuss the secondary benefits of my very presence there for the NGO, the money-can’t-buy-credibility of being able to display a white man in the office, but I’m not going to. Put simply, on a selfish level, the cost was worth it because I benefited immensely. This was a two-way journey. I chose to use the money at my disposal to discover a developing country, to live without my readily available luxuries, to become a “traveler and not a tourist” as my Dad says, because I wanted a much more personal experience than just donating to a charity. How else could I smash the ridiculous misconceptions that we hold about life in Africa – the continent being a homogenous unit of poverty and mud huts – and how else could I find out who I really was, what I really thought about my life at home? Thinking about pledging money alone, I was reminded of those rich kids on campus that would drop a fiver into our actionaid collection bucket to get us to stop talking. We were so incredibly grateful for their generosity, but we knew that no one had learned anything.
I suppose a telling question is this: would I encourage others to do the same? Yes. Undoubtedly. I’ve changed so much here – operating entirely in a second language, independently responding to institutional inertia, having enough time to get through both the Infinite Jest and the Brothers karamazov, reflecting on my wasted time and potential in my second year of university, sticking to the grueling task of writing at least every other day, conditioning myself to get up at a reasonable time of day. Just before I left my friend Nathan told me to come back a new man. I’m not sure if I’m so much new as triple distilled.
So there we have it! I’ll end with something that would be vaguely poignant if you weren’t aware of LCD Soundsystem:
Benin, I love you, but I’ve finished for now.