I am continuing with the theme of activism because I am having so many awakenings on my own path, and I feel like someone else out there would benefit from some of my introspections.
In my previous piece, I positioned activism within the rubric of money and monetisation. I asked if activism should take on a professional and financial value, or whether this corrupts what it is meant to be. At the same time, I played my own devil’s advocate and asked how the activist is supposed to survive if activism does not provide for his or her financial needs.
It is such a complex issue I am still thinking through for myself and trying to come to a point of peace about.
One comment in the feedback to my article really stood out for me and made me think more deeply. Asks babs; “… exposing young people to aspects of life without their consent. Is this really fair, and are we curtailing their personal choices by so doing?”
That question struck such a deep chord with me that I had to unpack it immediately.
You see, in my last article I mentioned how I got into activism; not by choice, but by way of a prescriptive internship programme. And I dare say that this is the way many young Zimbabweans find their way into the development field which has erroneously and rather simplistically become equated with activism; not really sure if they are passionate about the cause, not articulate or overtly expressive about a stance on issues, heavily under pressure to complete their degree programmes and thereafter, under more pressure to get a job and start helping with family needs.
I remember meeting a young woman last year who was keen to work with an arts and culture company that was offering the possibility of an internship. It was quite self-evident that arts and culture was not where her real passions lay as she spoke exuberantly about women’s rights and development issues. She had fire in her eyes for social justice and yet had come to a point of deep desperation for something to do that even working as an administrative assistant at this arts company was better than risking failing her degree for having had lack of industrial attachment, a prerequisite for some local university courses.
While she didn’t get the placement in the end (she was even trying to get a placement at a financial bank after some time) I don’t doubt that whatever she ended up doing killed some, if not all, of her fire.
I would have taken her in but for the fact of my own lack of resources; no office space, no budget line for a stipend and no clear vision of what Her Zimbabwe was, and what it would need, at that point in time. The girl did not even have regular access to a computer, so we were literally at square one.
What irony to find a girl passionate about women’s rights locked out of the system when others sat idling about, trying to milk the system for all its worth.
I understand that these are not situations peculiar to Zimbabwe. Many people the world over are out on good fortune. And the privilege of working a job that one loves remains just that – a privilege. For the majority of the masses, selling their souls, or at least compromising their ambitions for a pay cheque, is standard fare.
I think, however, that in Zimbabwe the situation is out of hand.
We are an economy that has largely been buoyed by the ability of NGOs to thrive amid the urgent humanitarian crises in our nation. Within an imbalanced terrain where the private sector is on the wane and unemployment rates remain perilously high, it is no wonder that many young people feel more guaranteed of a job if they study social sciences. In the mid-1990s it was en vogue to do a diploma or degree in HIV Management. In the early to mid 2000s, people were jostling to get into Population Studies programmes. Today, NGOs are abuzz with employees who have studied, or are studying, Development Studies.
I will not point the finger at others on this because my UK-sponsored Masters Degree is in Development Studies. My first choice of degree was International Communication, but my scholarship programme chose to send another student to my preferred university (where I would have studied the said course) to study some special branch of medicine I can no longer remember. And so they offered me my second choice, Development Studies, at another university. While this institution was higher in prestige and academic track record, I still came away somewhat disappointed.
I haven’t regretted the choice since because ironically, it was my studies that cemented my belief in the fact that the current structure of development work is deeply flawed. I had frank western lecturers who weren’t afraid to deconstruct aid, donor dependency, gender and women in development discourse, multi-lateral and bi-lateral institutions and agencies, neo-liberalism, neo-colonialism, capitalism, elite capture… and the list goes on!
We debated, vented, questioned, queried, introspected and became far more conscious of our roles in the greater scheme of development work. It felt as though our lecturers were giving us that last chance to really think about whether we wanted to enter the system… and urging us that if we did, we at least represent the change that is needed, knowing well that the most important change remains ideological.
One thing that also struck me about my degree course was how African and Asian our department was. Of all my regular course classmates, I recall about five or so Brits, two Americans, and a few other Europeans (but from the ‘PIGS’ group of ‘developing’ economies – Italy and Greece particularly). The rest of us, about 75% of the enrollment, were from Asia and Africa.
It always perplexed African and Asian peers in other departments just how racially and geographically dominant we were in our department for they found themselves always in the minority in comparison to western student ratios.
But it makes eerily simple sense.
As Africans and Asians coming from countries with heavy NGO and government influences, we have it imbibed into our way of thinking that development work is the elixir to our problems, and the gateway to financial security. And also, the flawed way in which western altruism is often constructed is such that a scholarship sponsor usually only feels assured that their funds are being used ‘responsibly’ if the recipient studies a narrow range of programmes which fit with a prescriptive notion of saving one’s country from itself, while at the same time not providing much challenge to the status quo, or trying to birth new paradigms.
What do they say about religion being the opium of the masses? Well, think of education and a good, solid, conservative development job in the same light, and you will get the drift.
I can laugh at this reductive thinking sometimes. But at other times, it makes me miserable for it is the inertia of most development work that is keeping innovation stuck in a docile lull. Effectively, the more development workers we are churning out, the more longevity we are providing for our workshop and Powerpoint activism (a contentious point, I know, as development work is much broader than I depict it).
And also, the more one becomes immersed in this paradigm of work, the harder it becomes to think otherwise. So yes, you may note the flaws of it all, but if you have never been exposed to another way of thinking about things, you don’t even have the vocabulary or real world experience of something else to even articulate yourself, or your concerns.
One of the reasons why I got out of full-time employment in the HIV and AIDS sector was because it wasn’t really me. Yes, I learnt a lot from my work, met a lot of great people, got to work on some amazing projects. But at the end of the day, it didn’t fit my character right. I despised rehashing stale statistics every time I wrote an article; “According to the latest findings from XYZ, sub-Saharan Africa remains the hotbed/ epicentre/ breeding ground of the global pandemic, etc etc”. I got so tired of writing the word ‘epicentre’ all the time that I had to get creative and find other ways of saying it… HIV and AIDS was generally becoming a hackneyed subject with the public anyway, so one had to call on imaginative sources constantly.
I didn’t much enjoy giving presentations because a quick skim of my audience usually revealed that I was talking to less than half of the people in a room(can you blame them though, since I was almost always with the same people at different events; I was telling them things they already knew!). It frustrated me that when we went away for workshops, participants organised themselves into taskforces and steering committees to carry work forward, only to fall silent afterwards and never bother to actually implement their great ideas. And then there was all the jargon – MARPs, MIPA, GIPA, MSMs, PLHIV, PrEP, PEP, OIs – which made it all too easy to sometimes forget that these acronyms referred to real human beings!
It didn’t sit right with me. And now that I order my interest in HIV work in a very different way, I don’t feel that I can earn a regular living from what felt, to me, like personal exploitation of a circumstance.
But how many of us actually have that luxury to change tack? To sit down and reflect and say, “This is not the best use of who I am, so I am changing direction.”? How many of us have the financial cushion to even imagine that? The gall to walk away? And since I know that that isn’t easy – or even wise sometimes to do – what is it exactly that I am asking anyone who reads this to do?
Well, I am asking you to take a step back from your work and evaluate it and your position within it. It’s easy to see only what you want to see. And believe me, selective perception is sometimes necessary, or else you will suffer a nervous breakdown trying to understand this world of contradictions.
I don’t expect you to quit your job, abandon your studies, or decide to live on nothing more than passion. That is naïve and irresponsible, given our present economic climate.
And more importantly, I do not wish to appear as though I am trashing in development work and saying that it’s of no benefit. I am not. I am simply positioning it within the context that it has grown. More power to you if you are doing the work that you really want to be doing and creating crucial impact in people’s lives.
Regardless of which side of the fence you sit, I hope by writing this that we begin to feel more open to give more honest accounts and representations of who we are, and the work we do. And I mean for those accounts and representations to be given first to oneself. When we are honest with ourselves, we begin to get somewhere. When we become conscious of our circumstances, we become aware that we can change them.
Maybe today, we can only change them by just acknowledging that they exist. Maybe tomorrow, we can change them in bigger ways we never knew possible.
But we must be conscious as activists, practitioners and implementers… lest we become a part of the living dead.