Day 76: A conversation with a Zimbabwean teenager

“The lights are out,” he says, gesturing to the stoplight at the intersection in front of us. The teenager in question is named Ashley. He and our taxi driver Freddie have just spent the better part of the afternoon as our tour guides of the Vumba Mountains, a range on the eastern side of Zimbabwe, practically on the border with Mozambique.

“They were out yesterday when we were walking around,” we respond. Then, our experience in Benin prompts us to ask a follow-up question: “Does this stoplight ever work?”

Ashley thinks for a second trying to recall either his memories of that particular intersection or the words in English.

“Yes,” he says. “I remember. Maybe when I was like five?”

I still trying to figure out Zimbabwe, but walking through the country, the capital, the other major cities, the small towns that border national parks, all of it, there’s a feeling that at some time, at some point, something was starting, but now, it’s stopped. A reaction that’s strongly in need of a second catalyst. A country that seems frozen in its development, almost all of which was developed in the previous millennium.

This feeling first hit me while I was walking through the streets of Bulawayo, the second largest city. In many ways, walking through the streets of Zimbabwe almost feels like walking through the streets of suburban America. But the suburban America of 1970: the fading paint, the industrial buildings, the notion of the strip mall as the ultimate destination for an area. At some point, it seems that the country decided that it had reached the point where it was going to stop trying, and it remains stuck at that moment.

This isn’t, like much of what I saw in Benin, aid gone wrong. This is development started by Zimbabweans, managed by the Zimbabwean government. Development that now passes the years counting the amount of time it has lain disarrayed and unused.

Driving out to the mountains, we passed block after block of empty industrial buildings. Businesses and enterprises that used to exist but don’t anymore. Later that night we had a conversation with another Zimbabwean, this one much older and much more affected by how the country had passed the previous fifteen years. We were comparing the country to our experience in Benin and told her that there was much more infrastructure here than there.

She tilted her head to the side and interrupted us. “There used to be,” she interjected. “But now.” She shook her head letting the end of the sentence fade into the past of a country that is declining rapidly from what it once was. “But now…”

No access pass

One of my students, Esther, was at my house today, checking out all the cards I have stuck on my wall that people have sent me since I moved here. She flipped through them absentmindedly before asking who had written the loopy cursive on an Easter card.

It was from my grandma. And I told her that.

Her response was an exclamation at the fact that my grandmother knew how to read and write.

I’ve met Esther’s grandmother before. She’s one of my favorite people in the village, and I always stop to talk to her when I see her. What never crossed my mind during these conversations was that this was the only way she knew how to communicate.

What I’ve learned more than anything here, and what I keep learning, is what I see as the norms in my life and see as inherent and natural are not actually universal. Things that I took for granted as given are not available for everyone. Books, toys, pens, food, health, education. These are all things that I have access to on a regular basis, but not everyone finds them as equally accessible. 

The domestication of wild plants and the truths of life

I’ve been reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which means my thoughts have been even more on development recently. But not on work that I am doing, but what laid the foundation thousands of the years ago that I am here and my neighbors are not in the United States.

(If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. It takes some concentration, but its scope is outstanding. That I am reading this book now had a direct effect on my appreciation of it. The question posed in the prologue is a question that I hear everyday: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”)

In Chapter 14, Diamond lays out a nice chart mapping the evolution of societies from bands to states. What struck me when I was reading it was how much the society in which I am currently living lands in characteristics that pertain to all four of the categories of societies he outlines.

Certainly, my village is part of the country of Benin. It relies on a central government to partition resources and enforce laws. But there are many times when if there is a choice between choosing the modern or traditional methods of an action, we go traditional. For example, there is no courthouse in my village. If there is a disagreement between citizens, they visit the King for a resolution. The government has no need to be informed of such things.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, as much as G,G,&S is the most successful explanation of worldwide human development of which I know, it also fails in some senses. It would be impossible to be able to tell all the truths of life and development around the world.

In some way, what I’m trying to do with this blog is tell the truths of life in Benin. (The judgment of my success or failure is up to you.) But even after I will live here for almost 27 months, this is an unattainable goal. I cannot know all the truths of Benin. Even Dave, who lives 5k away from me, is having a difference volunteer experience than I am. His truths of life in Benin are different than mine.

So, I guess that the only thing that you can do is try to find your truths. And realize how those truths will shape the person that you become. 

The strange dichotomy that is development

Things that I’ve noticed that seem to imply that sometimes, the priorities in development in my village need to reevaluated:

-Almost everyone I know has a cellphone. No one I know has running water.

-My neighbors have satellite television, but also feel that it is sanitary to shit on the side of the road.

-We have cars, but feel the need to put at least seven people in them at one time.

-People have built libraries and computer labs and health centers, but never bothered to educate the population that washing your hands involves more than just pouring water over them.

Now, I understand that I’m approaching this situation with the biased lens of my westernized experience, but as much as we’ve talked about needs v. wants and sustainability and creating projects that are not your projects, but community projects, it seems to me that something was off in the past.

And there is a lot that needs to be done. (Again looking at my situation from my westernized perspective) So the question does have to be where do you start? Is anything better than nothing?