Monday, May 17, 2010

Goodbyes and Culture Clashes

And I'm back in Monrovia again. I said goodbye to my site yesterday morning, and spent the next 11 hours in a Dramamine-induced stupor, which was marginally preferable to the alternative – the intense carsickness provoked by extended travel in sideways-facing Land Cruiser seats on unpaved roads.

In the end, it was not particularly hard to say goodbye to my home for the last nine months. Saturday started off well, as I gave away the majority of my things to my neighbors. It was gratifying to see how much they appreciated the few T-shirts and pens and pencils that I wanted to unload, and it was nice to be doing something – for once – that was win-win, instead of lose-lose. They were happy because they got a bunch of stuff, and I was happy because I got to get rid of a lot of stuff that I wouldn't really use in the US anyway. “See? I'm a GOOD person!” I thought to myself. “I give clothes to poor people! I give school supplies to children!” And I tried to forget about my failures as a cross-cultural communicator and my failures as a teacher: the complaining students, the frustration and anger that I often immaturely failed to hide, my fears that some Liberians' accusations of racism were truer than I'd like to admit (albeit in an unconscious and unwilling form).

But in any case, the good feelings lasted about 30 seconds. That is about how long it took for all of the people who didn't receive anything to show up at my door and start demanding I give them something. Even when I closed the door and the windows, they continued to shout through the curtains.

And so I was reminded that nothing about development work is ever simple. Some of the screaming, demanding children outside my window were actually from the family to which I had bequeathed most of my things. I had given everything to one of the two wives with instructions to share them with the other wife and all of the children, but realized later that she had distributed most of the things to her own children and not the children of the other wife. By doing my “good deed,” I may actually have created more problems by inducing friction within the family – friction that might even end in violence, knowing the domestic abuse history of the family.

In the car on the way to Monrovia, I distracted myself from the discomfort of the ride by eavesdropping on some interesting political discussions between other (Liberian) passengers. One man in particular had a lot to say about Liberian politics and culture. He kept coming back to the assertion that Liberian culture is being eroded by Westernization, that Liberia is losing touch with its roots. The man had some really interesting opinions, some of them very insightful, and some of them not quite logical. At one point, he denounced another Liberian for stinginess because that Liberian had failed to bring back gifts to share after a recent trip to America, saying “This is our CULTURE! We EXPECT you to bring things back for us!”

Glaring contradiction and all (how can you be upset when someone fails to bring you gifts from the culture you are criticizing as destroying your own?), I think this illustrates a really difficult and fundamental issue in Liberia and other developing countries. We like to believe that we can have our cake and eat it too, that culture can be perfectly preserved while technological and societal advancement continues. But “preserving culture” by nature involves the maintenance of a status quo, while “progress” involves change. It is a source of frustration for Western aid workers that some Liberians seem to want to take advantage of the fruits of Western culture without being “stained” by Westernization. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to have it both ways. Sometimes sacrifices must be made in the name of progress, and often in the developing world that means giving up certain cultural beliefs and practices.

Of course, that is easy for me to say. I’m not being asked to give anything up, and it is my Western culture that is responsible for the outright (through the colonialism of the past) and more subtle and insidious (through the domination of world markets and media today) destruction of the traditional African way of life. Still, I think that those who wish to “preserve” culture fail to take into account the changeable nature of culture. Culture is always adapting, and to oppose change for the sake of “maintaining a connection to one’s roots” is opposing a natural and inevitable progression. I think that anyone who has spent time in a modern African city such as Nairobi can agree that African culture can maintain its integrity even as it changes. Nairobi is a far cry from traditional Kenyan village life, yes . . . but it is also a distinctly African city, in its own right.

In any case, I think that part of me wanted a nice, neat little goodbye, a happy scene in which I bid farewell to Zwedru and the people of Zwedru express their heartfelt thanks for my generosity. But just as the relationship between Western and Liberian culture in general is complex and ethically nuanced, my own relationship with my Liberian neighbors could never be that straightforward.

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