Posted by: soultiger | 29 July 2014

Overcoming the Heart of Darkness

This reflection is a particularly difficult one to write, but it’s perhaps the most important take-away I carry back from Nigeria. The blog is a funny forum – an unpredictable and eerily permanent public space, and thus one that lends itself more to positive portrayals of self while sparing critiques for the external world. This essay, though, turns the mirror inward. I share in the hope of spreading awareness and inspiring reflection by others as well.

“We spent a lot of time talking about Africa, as we should. Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease…” It’s easy to chuckle at President Bush’s gaffe, but if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us (including me) have at one point or another made some slip that demonstrates our limited knowledge of the African continent, which is as big as the US, China, India, and Europe combined. Ultimately, such limited knowledge really isn’t that surprising, given that most of our exposure comes through dire news images of starvation and conflict. Neither those headlines nor mainstream education spends much time going into details of the myriad of African histories and cultures that thrived long before colonial cartographers put Africa on the map.

Of course, even those maps don’t always translate into knowledge these days. I’ve studied at multiple universities (including some of the top programs in the country) where word circulates about tough professors who require the dreaded Africa map quiz. How many US citizens can distinguish the location (let alone the history) of Mali from its neighbor Mauritania? (The Mali Empire, which emerged in the 13th century and lasted for almost 300 years, was a hub of trade, literature, and law.)

Manuscripts from the 14th to 16th centuries, preserved in Timbuktu

As Africa’s third-largest country, the Democratic Republic of Congo might be easier to locate, but I admit that it wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I learned basic but important facts about the DRC:

1 ) While the Congo was a Belgian colony, King Leopold II used the territory as essentially a massive forced labor camp in pursuit of a vast rubber fortune – resulting in the deaths of an estimated 10 million people.

2 ) The CIA orchestrated the assassination of the DRC’s first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, seven months after the country gained independence from Belgium.

3 ) Reverberations from the infamous 1996 Rwandan genocide pulled seven African nations into “The Great War of Africa.” This conflict, started in the late ‘90s and primarily fought on Congolese soil, had killed an estimated 3 million by 2002 (and total deaths from ongoing conflict possibly surpassing 5 million now ).

But I digress. The point here is actually that despite widespread relative ignorance of Africa’s myriad of cultures and histories, I’d wager we all have one or two images that quickly come to mind if asked, “What is Africa like?” Pause for a moment and consider: what are those images for you?

For me, it’s the final photo from this journalist’s poignant reflection on why he is finished photographing humanitarian crises – it’s a picture of a suit-clad man photographing an emaciated cow carcass with his iPad. And probably deep down somewhere, Africa is still linked in my psyche to Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer-winning image of a child in Sudan’s famine in 1993. (FYI, The Bang Bang Club documents the careers of Carter and three other photojournalists, simultaneously providing powerful insights into South African struggles at the end of apartheid.)

Just as I know those images are real, I also am aware that they are just one thread of truth in a much larger tapestry. I’ve heard the TED talks on Africa rising; I’ve seen the numbers showing how foreign aid to Africa has yielded mixed long-term results at best; I’ve been persuaded by Africans’ arguments that Africans themselves have the capacity and responsibility to lead on realizing a better, more sustainable future for their countries. I thought I was enlightened, that I was immune to the seductive white savior narratives of foreigners parachuting in to “fix” Africa.

Yet, one might argue that this is exactly the role that I went to Nigeria to fill, and I’m still not sure whether that role was primarily constructed for me or constructed in my head. What I am sure of, though, is that as I looked around the room at my 18 Nigerian colleagues on our first day of training, I had indeed slipped into the mindset that I was there to impart technical know-how to a less informed in-country team.

That morning, half the staff wore well-tailored African prints; the other half wore Western business casual. Some of the women wore headscarves. Almost everyone spoke in articulate but accented English, since the language commonly was not their first. I presented a PowerPoint providing context for our survey and some sample questions, and everyone listened attentively.

Then came the moment where everything shifted. One of the team leaders raised his hand and pointed to the survey question on the screen. “Isn’t that a leading question? It only asks if people would approve of the behavior – without saying ‘approve or disapprove’ you’re likely to get a biased response.” Skeptically, I turned to look at the question and saw that he was right – despite painstaking efforts to keep the survey questions clear and balanced, I’d clearly let this one slip through the cracks.

And that was just the beginning. Over the course of the next three days, the team devoted their full attention and best thinking to that questionnaire. They flagged questions that just wouldn’t resonate with Nigerians as written. We’d spend a full five or 10 minutes discussing the nuances of a phrase’s meaning (i.e. “your opinion matters” vs. “your opinion is considered”), with everyone invested in getting the question just right. Even when testing the survey for the third or fourth time, no one hesitated to point out inconsistencies in the survey’s logic or minute typos buried deep in the questionnaire’s penultimate section. Over and over again, the training proved to be an exercise in humility and a demonstration of the synergies that come from a cross-cultural partnership of equals.

Practicing the Survey (again)

Still, I hadn’t really learned my lesson. Toward the end of the week, we had a meeting with a government official who consulted on the side for large-scale survey operations like ours (that kind of moonlighting is acceptable in Nigeria). His consulting office was in a nondescript concrete building with dusty tiles and faded paint on the outdoor staircases. We sat down at a cramped table in his narrow office, where the only decoration on the tired blue walls was a large flat screen TV playing on mute, which I assiduously tried to ignore as we got down to business.

I quickly assessed our partner across the table – his embroidered skullcap, his dark weathered face, and the tall stack of papers on his desk that looked as if they had followed him out of the last century. Again, the assessment happened subconsciously even before we exchanged business cards and words of greeting. As we began talking, this assessment manifested itself as a latent skepticism of the man’s intentions – did he really have our survey’s best interest in mind, or was his advice for more extensive evaluations geared toward maximizing business for himself?

Ultimately, the truth will out – in this case, a solid knowledge of statistics just can’t be faked. As we together wrestled with the project’s unique sampling challenges, our respect for each other grew along with the depth of conversation. Soon, it became clear that through this exchange we were overcoming his preconceptions of us (fly-by-night development consultants with more interest in ticking boxes then realizing sustainable change), just as he was overcoming my preconceptions of him. It was our mutual skepticism of common household sampling techniques that won us both over, I think. He’d become jaded by too many organizations coming to him and wanting cheap and easy sampling strategies without showing proper concern that their sample might be biased.

“These organizations ask me what the minimum sample size is that they need for their study. You want a minimum sample size? Two. Everything else is about standard errors.” He went on to lament the preponderance of bad statistics out there: “At certain times data are more dangerous than guns…” Truest words I’d heard all week.

If I’m honest with myself, these experiences in Nigeria are far from the first time that my unconscious preconceptions about others haven’t conformed to reality – even when I possess conscious prior knowledge and a professed open-mindedness that would suggest otherwise.

Take, for example, a female voice welcoming passengers on board the airplane – and the sinking feeling that comes with realizing that the woman is not the stewardess but rather the pilot. Or the tall blonde woman with the tight shirt and short skirt who’s explaining advanced math – and having to stifle that small voice of doubt questioning whether she really knows what she’s talking about. I myself am a woman – and a female scientist at that – and my unconscious self still reacts based on gender stereotypes.

Common narratives of prejudice, fear, and power are so insidious that they somehow permeate the deepest fibers of one’s being, subtly reshaping how we perceive the capabilities and limitations of other groups as well as our own. I can’t point to any particular moment on TV, or in the news, or in my social circles that has influenced my preconceptions of “women” or “Africans” more than any other – it’s a subtle accumulation of messaging that builds false narratives so gradually we don’t realize it’s happening until the consequences stare us in the face.

So what do we do? For me, this trip to Nigeria was a reminder of how important it is to keep an open mind – to be open to those experiences which may call our assumptions into question. As a woman, I can do math, and I can be a strong leader – and knowing that my subconscious self may be inclined to believe otherwise allows me to more actively reclaim these narratives as my own.

Similarly, I can now actively integrate more robust perspectives and understandings of Nigeria into that mental image of “what is Africa like”. Yes, poverty and corruption and conflict exist, but Nigeria is also a place of economic opportunity and entrepreneurship, as touted by the Forbes Africa magazine I read on the flight from Lagos to Abuja. It is a place with a growing middle class, as I was reminded when my program manager picked me up in his wife’s shiny new Honda Accord – borrowed for the day so that he could help take the kids to school. And the region is a hub of high fashion and gradually changing the gender norms, as dramatized in the trendy web series An African City.

On a personal level, an increased awareness of my own preconceptions creates greater space for cultural exchange, creative synergies, and human connection. I can still share my knowledge, but with a humility that comes from knowing that I’m not the one who knows it all – and thus, I can keep learning too. On the last evening before our survey team departed, we celebrated the week of hard work with food, music, and fun. Yes, I was able to help one colleague learn to ride a bicycle and other colleagues to master basic swim strokes (a reminder of how lucky we are to have ready access to swimming pools here in the US). But I, too, had much to learn that evening, including some passable Nigerian dance steps and a much better table tennis technique. In the latter case, a colleague (who earlier had asked how he could get a Masters degree in health education in the US) gave me patient encouragement without being patronizing as we hit the ball back and forth in the steamy sunset: “Yes, that’s it, that’s it… Now try this… That’s it…”

Team celebrating a productive week

Maybe what this is about is having the curiosity and courage to dig deeper, to have more meaningful conversations even if they reveal personal blind spots or challenge one’s fundamental understanding of the world. It’s about realizing – after a full week together – that the petite, soft-spoken team member wearing hijab has a Masters degree in statistics and can talk data-speak with the best of them. Or about discovering that the computer programmer in his mid-20s hasn’t seen his sister in years because she now lives in Chicago and his visa application to go visit ($100 just to apply) was rejected. Or about simply taking the time to learn that around here, it’s considered impolite when you meet someone to not make eye contact, smile, and say, “How are you?”

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