Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ties That Bind

"In European eyes, the lives of Africans appeared simple, carefree, and in harmony with nature, and Africans themselves child-like in their spontaneous, often naive responses. But when you looked a little way beneath the surface you saw that Africans lived like so many Gullivers, bound by innumerable threads of custom, ... Their behavior, and especially their relations with each other, recalled the complexity of some highly sophisticated, mannered society such as the court of Versailles in the 18th century." -Elspeth Huxley in The Mottled Lizard

The author lived in a different time and a different place — I wouldn't say that the lives of Tanzanians even appear simple, carefree and harmonious with nature. Still, the point is well taken that the native peoples have social relationships that are rich, complex, and constraining. Beyond the outward things such as the natural environment, the houses and foods and bicycles, the marketplaces, and the activities of daily life, I wonder about the interior lives of our colleagues, students and neighbors, lives which are so opaque to an outsider like me.

From conversations with them I get a sense not only of strong family ties but also of strong family obligations. In some cases it's quite understandable. For example, if several of your relatives pooled money together to pay your way through school and now you are holding a paying job as a result of your education, then you're going to feel that you owe them something and not just your gratitude. At other times I get an impression of a culture of dependency in which people will shamelessly ride the gravy train if they can get a ticket on it.

Regardless, those felt obligations and expectations exist. Could they be a factor in the prevalence and persistence of the corruption which exists at all levels of government? Because if on the one hand there are the constant, inexorable demands of extended family members to provide for them, and on the other the sense of civic duty and responsibility, of belonging to a country, is weak, then the temptations of acting unethically are going to be hard to resist.

[ I'm not making any excuses for the Tanzanians. They know the meanings of corruption and stealing. -Earl ]

Monday, June 6, 2011

Planting People, Not Things

After an entire year without electricity to run the student computer lab, it is operating again (thanks to newly installed solar panels funded by a German organization).

That's just one example of how unreliable the infrastructure, and the physical/mechanical environment in general, is in a place like Tanzania. With no warning the water or the power stops working. Doors fall off cars. Toilet seats crack into pieces. Book bindings disintegrate. Parts that should be interchangeable, aren't. It's frustrating.

[ And as soon as I started letting students use the computers again the donated systems started to break down. I've already lost six of them. There's always something. ]

Lately, though, I have been keeping in mind a quote attributed to Confucius: "If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of a hundred years, teach people."

So I try not to get overly annoyed with so many things being poorly made, wearing out quickly, breaking down, not being properly maintained, or whatever. Because what I'm really here for is to plant, that is, to cultivate, people. That's a long term project. Something that will take generations. -Earl