I first travelled to Sub-Saharan Africa in 1996 and came back with the sense of having been exposed to something unique and ‘different’ that no one around me would understand unless they too had journeyed there. The culture shock experienced in such circumstances has been overly documented: the panic attack in the over-stocked supermarket, the revulsion at the constant stream of niche-product calendar related advertising (it’s Easter! We must buy chocolate and lawn mowers!) etc etc. To my surprise, the people that understood my experience best (aside from my immigrant Asian neighbours, who smiled with recognition at my stories), were people who had been on the planet for a very long time. It was conversations with some of these people that took me out of my self-important bubble. Food security was a huge issue in Europe post-war. Cut off from its international suppliers, during WW2 the UK was just three weeks’ food supply away from starvation. Rationing continued into the 1950s. Clothes were worn until they wore out and then were patched and sewn. My older family members lived without the surfeit of plenty we mostly have now. And it took me until these conversations on my return from Africa to understand that this is how the world is, that we in the corpulent west inhabit the weird, unique, privileged blip in the way things usually are.
My great grandmother in 1903
In my work (and even outside work) I seem to get into conversations with well-meaning people who want to go and ‘help the Africans’. The altruistic motives are fine and should be nourished. But there is rarely an understanding that we can learn skills, perspectives and, yes, be helped by, people living in poverty and a different culture. When I look back over 13 years of working in international development I think of the huge gains in personal expectations I have made as an individual, besides hopefully contributing to long term change.
Jane in Kenya in 2007
-Jane Connolly, International Programs Director