Sunday, 27 November 2016

The muck and mire of expat lives

About a week ago, I crossed a make-shift bridge which collapsed and I fell into an extremely questionable swamp. It was one of the most uncomfortable and wretched moments for me.

This happened during a Saturday HASH walk which I was already initially planning on boycotting but somehow found myself agreeing to join Haresh and my friends. 

I've not been on many HASH walks but most of them involved going through humble communities, even poor ones. The one before this last one involved going through congested slums, walking right past peoples' homes, through tight lanes, past peoples' lives which because of lack of space, extends beyond four walls. What are you supposed to do when you walk past trash, ram shackle homes, children playing near garbage, intolerable garbage rotting outside homes, and communities which are living without solid walls and roofs, without dependable electricity and water and, are probably experiencing theft and even armed robbery that we read and hear about? Should you look away? Smile unapologetically? Ignore it? Shrug it off? 

What should you do when you go across a shaky and wobbly bridge used by community members? Think it's an "African adventure" and use it for an Instagram moment? 

These past few times, I felt the walks were very intrusive, disrespectful and, I failed to see what was the purpose of going through such congested slum communities? We surely were not stopping to say hello, do any meaningful social work, so what was the point? 

I felt embarrassed that I was face to face with such poor living conditions and, I was there merely as a passer by. Sure, I would greet people on the way and but really, what was I doing there, walking past? 

Does poverty provide a scenic walk for expatriate aid, development workers who ironically live in luxury compounds in Monrovia, a far cry from how ordinary Liberians live, but in whose name billions of dollars has been poured in to help and save them? I guess it does.

I noticed a couple of other walkers seemed to think on the same lines as me but most people were happy to just get some good old exercise. 

I observed the walks and runs ended in the same jolly crude singing, joking about all the shit and mud they had been through, and thinking of the most embarrassing sexual innuendos for names for new comers to the group. 

I was simply not very comfortable in this seemingly careless and rather obnoxious walking style. Nevertheless, I found myself giving another shot to this HASH walk for Haresh's sake, our dog Bijli and Kavita who loves walking. 

This last Saturday, we walked through an especially vulnerable community spread across a very swampy area of town. There was mud everywhere and, we carefully followed a trail set across this mud and swamps. A passer by offered to help me across a single plank over a wide section of a swamp. After a couple of steps, the plank cracked in two and, we both fell into this extremely dirty swamp. The hare (the person who has set the trail and leads the walk) jumped in behind me and, the ones in the front helped me out. 

I was completely overwhelmed and, disgusted. I felt I had fallen into sewage, a gutter. The community member who was trying to help me himself fell into this filth and, I was overcome with embarrassment. I apologised over and over and, I'm sure his mobile phone was damaged.  I walked in a daze and, was met with people from the same community. A few them were extremely concerned and offered to get me new clothes. Another fellow holding his daughter in arms smiled and said "Welcome to Africa." I could only smile.

I felt angry and embarrassed and, also grateful for my friend and hare Kelly who didn't even pause for a second and jumped right into the swamp to help me out. I felt grateful to the community members who were so generous with helping me, offering to get me new clothes and, then dumped a couple of buckets of water on me, hauled from the well. 

I felt like an ignorant expatriate who I so self righteously claim I am not. I am too serious to pass through the most vulnerable societies who live in ram shackle homes in swamps that regularly get washed away in the rainy season, fending for themselves. I am too serious to pass through all this for fun unless I am actually going to do anything about it. I can't take it lightly. I am too serious. Even if I am not saving anyone, let me at least be embarrassed about inequality and injustice  in my own private corner at home. 

I was extremely angry at myself and at the situation and, felt I had doomed myself. I was so vocal about the insensitivity of these forays and, had myself fallen into a dirty swamp while trying to cross a flimsy bridge. I felt like an noisy tea kettle at best. 

After the incident, Haresh and I walked until we met the other group who Kavita happened to be with because she had been far ahead the whole time, helped by other friends in the walking group. I silently walked back to the car, with Haresh, Kavita and another friend behind me. Was it a walk of shame or what?

I lashed out at Haresh once when I realised my phone (it had been in my pocket) was full of mud and water, wanting to blame him but then quietened myself until we got home and, I scrubbed myself with Dettol and soap. I was itching  all over and, wondered what kind of filth was all over me. 

I haven't shared my thoughts with the Monrovia HASH group and, wonder whether it is useful even to do so.

This incident re-emphasised the idea in me that most folks I meet in the aid business are quite an uncritical lot. Despite being agents of change, I feel many of these folks don't challenge the status quo, don't question the impact (if any) of their work, don't see the obvious inequality, don't question the high living standards they enjoy themselves in a poor country like Liberia, why nothing is changing much,  and, don't really seem to be transformed by the place or work they do in any noticeable manner. Do folks not see the acute inequality and, feel embarrassed? Who cannot but be transformed by that realisation. One can't even have a decent, invigorating conversation! In fact, one is often confronted by racist remarks. 

The mud and filth I felt on my body was also the muck and mire of a very unjust and unequal world where, despite such advancements in science, technology and socialist ideology, people live in very abject conditions. 

1 comment:

  1. le sigh. let's chat. had dinner w/a woman from ohio whom my mom met at church and i'll share this w/ her. she was in liberia for a couple of years--zorzor and then kakata. she'd have a lot to say a/b this. hmm, maybe it's time to revive my dev chicks project that you STILL owe me a piece on.