After the recent National Security Administration (NSA) scandal in the United States, people other than English teachers and lit majors started talking about Orwell. Sales of his classic 1984 skyrocketed.
Obama even referenced 1984‘s authoritarian Big Brother character in his defence of the program, reassuring everyone the program had not overstepped any lines, so that was a relief. (Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel might disagree with Obama on that point.)
While 1984 is certainly worth a read if you haven’t already read it, I also recommend Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days. After reading it, it’s clear why Orwell matters to aid workers.
The novel paints a dark picture of British colonialism in 1920s Burma. John Flory is a British timber merchant who befriends Dr. Veraswami, an Indian supporter of the British Empire. The doctor needs Flory’s help, as the magistrate of their district is plotting his downfall, and Veraswami’s membership into the all-white British Club is the only thing that can save him. As Flory decides what to do, the beautiful Elizabeth Lackersteen arrives from Paris, appearing to provide Flory an escape from his solitary life and the stresses of colonial life.
As a depiction of life in imperial Burma, the novel has nothing and everything to do with aid work. You should read it, but in case you don’t, here are eight relevant lessons from the novel. (Some spoilers.)
1. Our existence is full of competing tensions.
Flory has an uncomfortable relationship with British imperialism. On the one hand, he hates it and the racist attitudes it perpetuates. On the other hand, if it comes to an end, he’s out of a job.
Similarly, a good development worker should be working themselves out of a job, so there is an uneasy tension that as life improves for poor people there won’t be (or shouldn’t be) jobs for development workers.
Additionally, there is the tension that if the standard of living where we work improved to the standard of the places we come from, we wouldn’t be able to afford the comfortable lifestyles many of us enjoy. Gone would be our easy existence of eating out and drinking cheap beers, and of being able to afford spacious apartments and maids to clean them.
(For an interesting discussion of this issue, see this article on living well while doing good.)
2. Despite their choice to live in whichever country you find yourself, there are people who despise the nationals of that country.
Orwell describes a character who hates the Burmese, describing him as “one of those Englishmen – common, unfortunately – who should never be allowed to set foot in the East.”
You will meet people who should not be in the country you live, given their prejudice against the people who live there. It will be weird. You will be tempted to point out to such people that if the nationals are so terrible, an easy way to avoid them is to leave their country.
Don’t think the aid world is immune to these attitudes. A friend living in Cambodia recounts hearing an aid worker casually comment “we all know that if we leave the (Cambodian) child here (in Cambodia) with a foster family or whatever, they either going to be trafficked, or become maids.” Um. No, we don’t.
3. Getting involved with a national can be messy…
Flory takes a Burmese mistress and learns that disentangling himself from the relationship is more difficult than he had thought. Plus after being involved with him, the other villagers view her as damaged and she cannot find a husband to support her. It’s not a great situation.
Different cultural norms and various power dynamics make cross-cultural dating difficult, particularly if “dating” as a concept doesn’t really exist in one of the cultures. I know someone whose ex-girlfriend didn’t really understand the “ex” part of that title, and so she popped up in his home country long after he’d returned home. It was awkward.
4. … but sometimes it’s one of few dating options.
After various romantic encounters, including one with a guy who leaves town rather than pay his debts, a young British woman in the novel settles for marrying someone much older than her.
Having rigorously studied the topic at WhyDev, we can confirm that you may be able to sympathize with this predicament, particularly if you’re a woman.
5. Not having people around that you can talk to is detrimental to your mental health.
As is a common experience while living in a foreign country, Flory is sometimes stifled by his loneliness and feels there is no one who truly understands him.
This, combined with the stresses of work, can be a huge problem for aid workers. Make sure you are taking care of yourself and have a support network around you.
We’ve had some bright people write their thoughts on this topic and provide some resources on self-care, if this is something you’re struggling with.
6. Feeling torn between places is painful.
When you’ve shuttled between countries or just been away from your home country a while, it will probably mess with your head and your idea of “home.”
Flory describes the loneliness of not quite knowing where home is far better than I ever could:
“It is devilish to suffer from a pain that is all but nameless. Blessed are they who are stricken only with classifiable diseases! Blessed are the poor, the sick, the crossed in love, for at least other people know what is the matter with them and will listen to their belly-achings with sympathy. But who that has not suffered it understands the pain of exile?”
This feeling will be really hard to explain to those back home, some of whom may perceive your life to be nothing more than one big exotic vacation.
7. You will probably have an uneasy relationship with missionaries.
Granted, in Burmese Days the complaint about missionaries is that once they converted the Burmese, the Burmese Christians had the nerve to believe they were as good as the British.
Hopefully this won’t be your complaint, but it’s likely that your relationship with missionaries will be complicated. (Even if you’re religious. Maybe even more if you’re religious.)
8. Your life will be challenging, but it will also be good.
Orwell describes Flory’s life as being “a good life while one was young and need not think about the future or the past.”
What was true for a twenty-something timber merchant in 1920s Burma is true ninety years later for a twenty- or thirty-something aid worker in Kenya or Ecuador or Kosovo or Cambodia.
It’s a strange and sometimes frustrating life, but it’s also a good one.
What has literature taught you about aid work? Tell us in the comments below.