Balance: an ex-pat story

I’m many things in Mwanza. I’m a Western Heads East intern. I’m a Western student. I’m a student from Canada. I’m a Canadian. I’m a white girl. I’m a mzungu. I’m also an ex-patriate, which just means that I’m not in my home country. I was told that it would be nice to get in touch with the ex-pat community in Mwanza before I came, as it would help us interns get integrated, give us more contacts on the ground, and give us the chance to branch out into other support systems and friendship circles.

So I found myself at a pool party on Saturday night.

The party itself was hosted by three people that are native to Mwanza. For a small gathering, there was an incredible array of people. Our hosts and a few others grew up in Mwanza, although they have all travelled outside of Tanzania for school or business. They are all part of the wealthier portion of Mwanza city. Mixed in was an array of development and NGO workers, interns, students home for the summer, individuals in business, and I’m sure many others that I didn’t have the chance to get to know. There was a young woman from Ireland working with street kids, a German who has worked in different African countries installing power grids in rural communities, a British girl who had travelled more than most people do in their lives by the time she was fourteen, a very drunk South African, an 18-year-old Tanzanian who is already in medical school, and a myriad of others.

People were pushed into the pool. There was more smoking than I cared to see. I was definitely out of my element, and it showed. But I met some new people and am glad that I went. I’m not sure if this is the case across the map, but in Mwanza the ex-pat community tends to dig its claws into new meat pretty quickly. Numbers have been exchanged and I expect to see many of these individuals again.

I always knew that the disparity in African countries between the rich and poor tended to be more pronounced than one is used to in a country like Canada. That’s something that I’ve studied and theorized on in class; post-colonial agendas in African countries especially tended towards top-down industrialization approaches, methods that have helped the ruling class and foreign investors, but have done very little for the masses that still live in systemic poverty, in many cases. This inequality is something that I believe grassroots movements and organizations – such as the ones we’re working for this summer – have done much to alleviate.

It’s another thing to see the disparity in front of your eyes, though. It’s another thing to go to a party at a huge house on a huge lot with a pool and sauna open for anyone with an invite to use, when you know that you passed quite a few street kids (the product of systemic poverty, among other issues) on the way to said house. This is the oxymoron I was faced with. I’m an intern volunteering for an organization that works with poor women. I was mingling with other development workers the whole night. What were we doing there?

These realizations went along with a similar thread of thought that Iris, Nuri, Samira, and I have been discussing this past weekend, now that we’ve hit the two-week mark. While three months seems like a long time, looking at the projects ahead of us we’re worried we’ll only make a small dent, if any impact at all. Iris and I especially have discussed this at length; we’re worried that this will turn into a voluntourism experience, which we both feel are ineffective and potentially detrimental. We’re unsure if we’ll see any real results from our projects at all, and feel bad that we haven’t actually started any work aside from some preliminary meetings to discuss what it is we will be accomplishing. And what we should be accomplishing is still a little unclear, despite all of the preliminary meetings.

What if three months isn’t enough? I’m really worried about this.

While sitting at Capripoint, watching the sun go down and trying not to swallow any bugs, Samira said that we probably won’t see any real outcome to our work here. I really needed to hear that. We talked it all over, hashed out our feelings, and were reminded that we’ll work for three months and do our best, and our work will ultimately contribute to a greater project and vision that won’t necessarily by realized in a short three months. That doesn’t mean that anything we do is ineffective.

I decided to intern with Western Heads East because of this fact. Sitting in the meeting room at Western International for my interview, being asked about my views on voluntourism, I said that exact same thing. I wanted to go because I’d be pursuing lasting, structural, grassroots change that has been happening before I landed in Mwanza and will continue to happen after I leave. It’s one thing to say it in an interview when you’re hoping to be selected for an internship, however. It’s another thing to be sitting on a rock looking at all of Mwanza, loving it, but not being able to ignore that little voice that asks why you’re even here.

I got home last night to an email from my mom telling me that everyone at church was praying for me and my work here. I cried when I read that. Later on, an old co-worker emailed me to say that the staff at the bookstore were thinking of me and lifting me up in prayer. The timing was all so perfect.

So while I navigate the ex-pat community, balance work-life and down-time, work towards something I may never see or understand, and figure out the ethics of development work, I’ll know that there are people in my corner. People in Mwanza, people halfway across the world. And also a God that knows why I’ve been placed here. I am so thankful for that.

And that knowledge certainly helps me balance it all.

One thought on “Balance: an ex-pat story

  1. Amara

    I would love to see pictures of you at this pool party… I realize that is not the point of the post but I think it would be pretty hilarious.

    I am glad after the last post that you seem more at peace with your place. I live in Canada, suburbs Canada, I just don’t have the daily understanding of the wealth disparity, especially to the degree it is in Africa.

    To be honest I don’t know what to say to being afraid of not being useful other than, keeping conscious of this possibility is the best measure to combat it. Instead of deluding yourself into thinking that at the end of 3 months you will have magically changed lives, you are constantly looking around observing and amassing information. Taking time to assess the situation is necessary to be fully effective, you’ll get into it, knowing you, you’ll make sure of it.


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