It has been a long couple of weeks of travel throughout Africa. On my way to Cameroon I was stranded over night in Cotonou, Benin, my connecting airline suddenly deciding to have a day of maintenance for their planes. In Cameroon I had to venture back and forth through the catacombs of the airport in order to secure a visa. To arrive in Gabon from Yaounde I had to fly through Lagos, Nigeria TWICE on the day after 150 people perished in a flight at that same airport. The frustrations and inefficiencies of the developing world can eat away at a foreigner if a high degree of patience and understanding is not exercised. Nevertheless, seeing different parts of Africa and the vast differences in culture and behavior has been eye opening. I now have a greater appreciation for the words of Ryszard Kapuscinki:
“The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa’. In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.”
Being back in Ouagadougou I feel relieved and I have a much greater appreciation for the distinct characteristics of this place and its people. Somehow this hot, dusty, impoverished country in the heart of West Africa is starting to feel like a home.
I thought I would take this opportunity to share some important thoughts that I have been having lately about international development – philosophizing about the field is often the only thing that keeps us going.
Those working in international development often love what they do, I certainly do. But my most recent spell of stress, exhaustion, and mysterious West African stomach sickness has really got me thinking about the work that we do and the expectations that surround it as a profession. Just a few months ago I never expected to find myself in Africa, but now here I am, in the thick of things, deep in the heat of the sub-Saharan sun. I can’t even really trace the pattern of events that led me to arrive here. Regardless, it has been within the last few weeks that I have come to the realization that I am now a full-fledged development worker, and I am grappling with how that actually feels.
A lot of others have written about why we work in aid & development, or on becoming an aid worker. These are all really great discussions that stimulate important thinking about the nature of aid and development and the people that are involved. A great article was written not long ago about living out our dreams, and about being cognizant of the moment when we finally achieve that dream, and how that moment feels. But even though working in aid and development is a dream for many, for others it is simply just a reality. And often, that reality is a harsh one.
Ultimately, foreign aid and development workers are living for long periods of their lives in foreign places that they have to become accustomed to – an incredibly difficult and often “uncomfortable” task in itself. Working in the field of international development can be incredibly tolling, both physically and mentally. The sicknesses and the daily malaria pills, the never ending travel and the inevitable culture shocks. Often, it is difficult to find peace of mind and an escape from ones work. The brainstorming and formulation of ideas never seem to end – how can I stop my mind from thinking about my work when my entire life revolves around it? Speaking generally, I am here to support the development of an impoverished African region, and I am reminded of this every day that I head out into the city streets.
I have realized that I am finally where I planned to be about four years ago when I took off traveling to gain experience in the developing world. Now I have a paid job, with a niche and a growing specialization that will keep me doing this work throughout my career. I have realized that the glamour of my dream was only partially real, that the transient life – life in an impoverished country – is no easy experience. I have come to realize that my closest of friends will be those who I meet wherever I go, or those who somehow take the time to maintain email communications with me once in a while. As I move on to the next project or next country, I move on in life and leave behind all the things that I have grown to cherish, the only consolation being the excitement of the next experience.
The point here is not to complain about the perils of life as an aid and development worker, but rather to explore the disconnect between the image of development work – the one that drives people’s dreams – and the reality of it. I often question my choices in life, we all do, but more often than not I think about what I am doing and I realize that I wouldn’t want it any other way.
This is a cross-post with Anthony’s own blog, Finding The Balance