SO you might have noticed that there has not been much blogging recently. To be blunt, this blog has been having something of an existential crisis. You see, having a few somewhat nerdish tendencies, I spend a not insignificant amount of time reading blogs about politics, extremely geeky picture based blogs about Communism (www.cosmarxpolitan.tumblr.com) and international development. What to blog about follows trends that tear through these blogs like fashion trends across, well … an issue of cosmopolitan.
So what was I to do when a wave of highly critical blog posts came out about volunteers and workers blogging about their experiences in developing countries. In short, these posts argue that blogging about where you are and what you’re doing is a) mostly an excercise in “humbragging” – humble bragging. That is, where you’re bragging about all the cool shit you might be getting upto whilst still trying to sound humble and save-the-worldy, like a superman comic which after explaining how the hero has stuffed his enemies mouth with popcorn and buried him under the surface of the moon and ends with him wistfully casting his eyes to the side and saying, “oh, it’s nothing, it’s all in a days work”. Even worse, you could be glamourising the poverty of the people around you just to make yourself look cool.
Or b) Humiliating and degrading to the people you purport to be working to get out of the cycle of humiliation and degradation – a pale westerner sitting there at your laptop claiming some special knowledge of the culture of where you are, based on a few drumming sessions in the hostel bar and that time you got invited back for some Nsima by a local guy. Basically, it makes you not much better than a colonial officer sending letters home to his family about how he is “civilising the natives”.
First there was this post… http://stuffexpataidworkerslike.com/2011/04/11/44-blogging-for-the-folks-back-home/. A few choice quotes …
“When setting up a blog for the folks back home, you’ll want to make the title some clever variation of your name and the place where you are posted during this first overseas EAW-type job or experience” – Erm … guilty as charged?
“When blogging for the folks back home, the important thing is to prove you are blending in well with your new surroundings. You also want to reassure worried parents that you are fine and that yes, you are in Africa, but no, you’re not living in range of Somali pirates and that Ivory Coast is actually on the other side of the continent, so you’re not at risk from the conflict there (if anyone’s actually heard that there is a conflict there… if not, just skip over that, it will needlessly worry them)” – I’m pretty sure I’m guilty of this one, even if its subconsciously.”
But the most damning critique came from here – http://www.whydev.org/hey-aid-worker-its-not-about-you/ . In listing types of bloggers, “You have the development worker who blogs like she is a travel writer”, or “you have those unoriginally ironic “my life is tough” photos, posted from the poolside, with a cocktail and a laptop placed side-by-side on a table. Bonus points if there’s a sunset in the background. Usually, such a photo will be accompanied by a caption saying something along the lines of “my office for the afternoon” or “all in a day’s work.”
The question being posed was – what are you blogging for anyway? Are you blogging to raise awareness, show off your surroundings, or is it all just a (not so) elaborate grab for attention at the expense of the dignity and voice of others. All this when enhancing dignity and empowering people is supposed to be the name of the game.
So it’s with all this in mind the motivation to blog ground to a halt. There were some damning points to consider. Is it just about showing off? Or pretending to be a travel writer? How do the people, rich or poor, around me, feel about my blithe philosophising and pontificating on their traditions and customs? So in the spirit of participation and to assuage my self-doubt, I asked some of my friends how they felt about my blogging in this way.
Mary, our project officer, thought it was positively hilarious. On having pictures taken in mudhuts in a village, she said that “villagers would love to see their face on the computer”. After she read the post on religion, she was more interested in giving me a history lesson on Christianity in Malawi than chastising me for my half baked theories. (For her, the religion thing is basically just a result of history. People worship white Jesus because David Livingstone brought him here and he stopped the slave trade in Malawi. It’s just history).
Webster, one of the teachers at the school, also though nothing of it. He told me about how he went to Zambia and found himself writing down all of the things that were different about it – he could understand why someone might want to tell their friends about it. He did point out something interesting though – he said that a lot of people did not want their picture taken because they understood that white people have a tendency to bring fancy cameras, walk around taking pictures and then using those pictures to make money – (I assume by sending them into photojournalism competitions or newspapers. Or maybe they have seen more than a few Save The Children ads, in which desperately poor and miserable looking children are used to get your attention, sympathy and cash.) Apart from that though, most people find the idea that white people want to take their picture quite exciting – it’s a novelty more than anything else.
Nick, a student at the school and a pretty mean wood carver, also laughed at me for asking. He said he didn’t really mind people taking pictures of him or me writing about things I came across in Malawi. He thought it was good that I was telling people about poverty here.
So far, so positive. OK OK, you’re right – these people are my friends – it’s unlikely they are going to tell me about how my blog undermines their dignity just because I ask them about it straight up, but they certainly didn’t seem particularly put out by it either. They seemed to regard Mzungu blogging as either a curiosity Mzungu’s do, or a more elaborate form of status update – understandable, but essentially irrelevant.
My conclusion is that it’s probably OK to blog, as long as I don’t find myself committing the sins of humbragging, making unfounded assumptions about “the locals” and their needs and wants, or posting pictures of people in their most undignified and embarrassing moments. Most us tend to grow up in fairly limited environments. Painting a picture and expressing wonder and confusion at a world that is full of difference, variation and idiosyncrasy does not seem to me be something to be ashamed of, regardless of whether you are a traveller, oil executive or development worker.
The aim in this blog, I think, is to wonder, aloud, about how and why people adapt to their different situations, to apply a little bit of international development based thinking to it all, and to show some support for my pet belief that underneath all the cultural quirks and confusions, most people are basically the same, hoping to be listened to, and understood. In this, I may find that I am wrong, which is OK too.
Also, I’ve added a new section called “development chatter”, which will have more analytical stuff, book reviews and “articles” – There’s already something in there. Cool! Comments, discussion and criticisms encouraged. This may also include righteous indignation at the behaviour of governments and large corporations.
I do not apologise for this.