Field Notes: On the "culture" of development

“If you want to change the world, you should be an example yourself,” he said while we chatted after my observation of his electrical skills lab. I, the quiet observer, was content to sit in the corner and take my notes like a fly on the wall – observing, but not participating. After all, that’s what the monitoring in monitoring and evaluation sort of means isn’t it?

“Someone said if you don’t talk to a guest you are wrong.” That was the statement he used to start to what would become our conversation. He spoke in proverbs and made me want to listen. Daniel was his name and as he sat across the room from me plying away at electrical wire and explaining his love for both science and music, I couldn’t help but reflect on the many differences and similarities between us. Life experiences that took place continents away yet still led us both to that moment in that room.

I came to international development through a love of travel which almost seems ignorant to say. Maybe it is ignorant to say, but it is still the truth. I always knew the world was bigger than my own backyard. I always believed in “service.” I was constantly told I’d be a good teacher. So there you have it – a Master of Science in International Educational Development. Funny enough, the more I study the rest of the world, the more I realize how deep the problems are at home. How development should not be something the Global North gets to impose on the Global South. How the Global North needs to develop as well.

Daniel wants to be a rapper, produce music and have his own record label. My accent intrigued him and as I said I was from the United States of America, he remarked that his brain had to process so fast for him to speak in English to me. I told him his English was good and he told me that only English is spoken in school. I wished I knew a language other than Spanish, that I knew a language of the continent from which my ancestors came, that I could speak the Zulu or isiXhosa so often spoken to me before a person realized I wasn't from here even though I look the part. Language is deeply tied up in his rapper with a record label dreams too. Dreams wrapped up in becoming an artist who garners the respect of his favorite rapper Eminem while also having the business acumen of Jay-Z. “If you rap in English you’re a sell out. But, rapping in Sotho limits my target market." Target market that if you hadn't yet guessed is not just the individuals in his township or even Johannesburg.

In someways, Daniel and I are both at a crossroads. "You need capital to do music," he said. "People don't want responsibility," he remarked after telling me that his friends also love music but never had the idea of creating a record label. Seemingly trapped in a world that wants him to be one thing, stresses the importance of English and school. Science. But what about his first love?

"The nature of the consequence depends on the nature of the decision made." He was talking about his personal plans yet somehow jolted me to a broader attention with this statement. All summer, year really, I believe I've been operating in my truth. Development is contested. It's complicated. It's harried and situated in so much stuff. Colonialism. Imperialism. Capitalism. Functionalism. Isms, development is situated in -isms. Travel too. Yet, navigating them, hopefully for some type of "good" while also complicated, contested, and harried for me feels like my truth. And as much as I try to resist those -isms and their resulting systems, the very fact that I got to come to South Africa this summer is a result of them. I struggle with my place in development because I struggle with my place in those systems.

If consequences depend on decisions, then I hope both development, travelers and the travel industry alike, as well as, all who believe in "global citizenship" will start making better ones. Like letting Blacks in a country that's 80% Black occupy leadership roles within organizations. Like being careful of the words we use to describe a place and people because everywhere is someone's home and everyone is someone's family. Like doing our best to minimize distances between facilitator and facilitated so that maybe some developing actually happens in this process of development.

I'm still conflicted about who I am to be coming into a country and context that's not my own under the guise of working to improve or study anything. Still trying to figure out where I think I have the right to engage. "If you don't talk to a guest you are wrong." In the moment that Daniel spoke to me, bridged our gap, I'd like to think he made me something other than a guest. The particulars of what I became exactly though?  Can't be sure.

I had to go conduct another interview. We said our goodbyes and I thanked Daniel for talking with me, to which he asked the most important question of all. "So, do you have tacos?," in America that is. Daniel had never seen one before. He wanted to know if my life in America looked like what he saw on TV and heard about in all the songs and rhymes he listened to. Leaving me to reflect on the notion that how culture spreads, is just as important and interesting as the fact that it spreads too.

Gabrielle HickmonComment