Sunday, 21 December 2008

Taking Stock

The first term is over! It is hard to believe that I have technically completed half of the masters. I leave for Liberia on the 25th to be with my better half and spend some time in my adopted home. I can't wait to get a break from my routine and enjoy some sunshine and warmth.  I will be carrying ten books with me as I have an essay due in the first week of the second term. At least my consolation is that I will be writing this essay on the beach. 

Ha! That's not true at all. Anyone who knows me, I don't do the beach. I do Mamba Point or my balcony overlooking the chaotic Randall Street. 

So what I learned and experienced so far that I may be able to summarise and share it? 

Firstly, I have had a hard time keeping up with my reading and coursework given the fact I missed the first three weeks of classes and lectures. It took me a while to orient myself and, get into a routine. I have been struggling to keep up with the sheer volume of reading that is required for each week. I have also been highly frustrated with the fact that our tutorials are only one-hour long. Furthermore, students are assigned presentations for each class which is code for summarising and regurgitating core reading which everyone has to do anyhow. That takes up 30 minutes of class and, then, we delve into half-baked discussions around that reading. Most times, the class tutor tries to keep the discussion centred but if that is not the case, we sit through class floating superficially above the text itself. I have been apalled by the quality of discussions sometimes.

I have been academically and intellectually challenged in every respect. I guess the challenge of being back at school is having to conceptualise, place into frameworks and theories things like 'war,' 'peace,' 'violence,' 'state,' 'aid,' 'NGOs,' 'historical legacy,' 'economy,' etc. How do we define them? What is the nature, origin of these notions? To think of these notions in an abstract sense, of course, allows us to deconstruct and analyse them. At the same time, it moves us far from reality, too. Moreover, the fact that everything I study here is unabashedly Eurocentric makes frustrated. 

One of my classmates and good friend who is from Latin America finds it amusing that I am making such a big deal about the Eurocentrism. She asks, why didn't you study in Africa or Asia, then? It's a great question and has been a big source of dilemma for me. The sad reality is that the best universities dealing with development issues are in Europe or the US; it only makes logical sense given that the development project is a colonial/post-colonial, followed by Cold War, preoccupation to begin with. My friend says that the universities in Latin America are not narrow-minded in this respect and give equal importance to thinking originating from other parts of the world. I guess now that I am here and, plan to return to Africa or Asia to work, I must actively seek out academic writing on the subjects I have studied. 

It is not just me who is frustrated with the lack of attention given to academic thought or voices originating from the so-called Third World. Quite a few other classmates I have met were surprised that the School of Oriental and African Studies ended up being so Eurocentric. But then again, as my friend says, why are you surprised? Moreover, SOAS is a colonial institution - it was an institution to train and educate administrators of the Empire.

It is not as if I do not have any access to other thought. I read Pakistani papers regularly and follow columns which are usually an excellent source of political opinion and thought. We do have a great press. I have my Eqbal Ahmed, Said, eternally Chomsky and must start to read Fanon, more of Samir Amin, etc. 

What I also pleasantly and wondrously discovered is my own thought! I realised that a lot of my blind and often confused grasp of history, experience, observations are not so blind and confused. I now recall a lot of discussions with my father who lectured us on American foreign policy, Vietnam, Algeria, Third World politics, the challenges of development, the failings of Third World governments, and, the need for investment in education and technology. Our future lay in our hands, it was just a matter of taking it.  I think a lot of these notions of the need for Third World governments and states to purse independent and responsible state-making stayed with me. 

I applied a lot of it to my experience in Liberia. I went there as a naive, wide-eyed, adventure-seeking Pakistani girl. Because it was Africa, post conflict Africa, I probably got sucked into my artificial, we-wanna-save UN/humanitarian professional environment. I did not bother to understand the country I was in - a sovereign country with a history, with a lot of tragedy but above all else, a real country with real people. It was only after spending the five years I have there along with my better half who started a company from scratch that I began to see Liberia. I quickly abandoned the blah-blah-blah of international organisation speak. I realised that Liberia has to come into its own finally and, really carve an identity and strategy of its own. I realised that a country so crippled and devastated by war cannot and will not recover on dole. That the huge challenges of creating infrastructure, health facilities, schools and universities can only be done by the state, a strong state. Liberia must carve a vision for itself independent of MDGs and multinationals. I even wrote an essay on this 'Musings on Nation Building' which I believe is my own dependency theory. 

I hope the next term is equally, if not more challenging.

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