Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Little Luxuries

The following is an excerpt from a New York Times article called “Broken, Not Bound, by an Intimate Tie” by Mara Gordon.  Her article is actually a love story, but this is the part I found most comparable to my experiences in Africa:

I grouped the expatriates in East Africa into three categories: the ex-colonials, residually racist types who ran exploitative businesses and drank heavily; the religious missionaries; and the aid workers, many of whom also drank heavily but had convinced themselves they were saving the world. I was in the last group.

We aid workers represented an enclave of economic theory in a sea of actual poverty, the kind that led to daily power failures and perpetually flooded roads. But it was unbecoming of our liberal upbringings to acknowledge just how much Africa made us long for first-world conveniences.

First, it’s easy to drink a lot while working in Africa.  Not only is alcohol super cheap, but there also isn’t a lot to do.  Almost everyone drinks, so refusing a beer at lunch makes me the weirdo of the group.

Second, no one wants to admit how much we love our Global North lifestyles… but we do.  I can go for days without showering (yes I’m gross) and don’t mind bucket showers – but I do LOVE toilets.  I also like clean floors, washing machines, and street signs (all of which I may have to live without for the next few months).

On the flip side, I HATE mosquitoes.  I also dislike being reliant on other people for transportation, trying to understand accents over the telephone, and not being able to eat fresh vegetables.

I wish I was better at effectively communicating the ups and downs of development work.  It’s so much fun, but it’s also exhausting.

It took me a couple weeks to find my feet in Joburg.  I spent a lot of time bored and alone before I got a vehicle, learned to drive, established maps in my head, and made friends.

Today, as I walk through the pouring rain, still in dirty sweatpants because my luggage hasn’t arrived yet, I remind myself that the first few days are the hardest.  Soon I’ll have some friends to talk to and places to hang out.  I’ll go for runs in the morning in areas that I recognize.  I’ll even know where to buy groceries so that I can cook my own food.

In Joburg, the other interns and I joked about “little victories.”  Sometimes it only takes something as small as a banana that’s only half brown and mushy to make your day feel wonderful.


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