Writing about experiencing another culture, I find what I say often falls into familiar themes: stories about uncomfortable but endearing situations, stories that personify local people’s hardships, my thoughts about national challenges, overviews of the country or its history, and contrasts between life here and in the West (cue photos of trucks laden down with people, and buses with chickens and goats on the roof). Of course, none of these are bad things to write about, and they’re important in helping me – and hopefully my audience – get an interesting snapshot into life in another country or culture very different from our own, but they can range wildly from perceptive to facile.
The problem is, we human beings like to put complex and challenging ideas into simple, neat boxes that we can rationalize. That’s why I write the way I do. That’s why I put the photos up. But today I want to try and take a fundamentally different angle, one that is easy for me to overlook, forget or just not to properly understand: Liberia is just not that different from the West.
Liberia is just not that different from the West.
In reading that short phrase, perhaps a few thoughts come into your mind predicting the line that I’m about to take. Shared humanity? Profound moments I’ve had with locals? Or maybe a series of parallel comparisons. If something did come to mind, please pause for a moment while you recognize it – not for how accurate it might be, but just for what you thought.
You see, the unconscious assumptions we make, whether hopeful or cynical, are a critical part of shaping our perceptions of the world. Those assumptions are based on the things we’ve observed and assimilated, which is why we validate them, and why most arguments are only 10% in response to the actual situation, and 90% about the life baggage each person brought in with them.
I read a fascinating commentary the other day by Nigerian journalist Chibundu Onuzo (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/25/africa-arrogant-just-got-back), about Nigerians who find it difficult to return home from overseas and adjust to more difficult living conditions than they are used to. A good Liberian friend of mine told me openly that he could never live in a village because he would not be able to adjust to the hardship. None of this is surprising; what it illustrates is that any people group who experience a more comfortable and secure lifestyle will struggle to give it up.
Let me illustrate this point quite starkly. There’s an uncomfortable reality in Liberia’s history that the ‘civilised’ returned slaves who settled the country from the 19th century onwards oppressed the indigenous Liberians for many, many years. This simple fact makes it very difficult to claim that this system was a better alternative than colonisation might have been; we simply have to compare the quality of life for marginalized Liberians to, say, the quality of life for marginalized Malawians to see that it is untrue. Of course this throws out more counter-arguments about the fact that many of the settlers were historically ethnic Congolese; that their experiences of society under the slavery system in America shaped the way they behaved; and so on. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Liberia’s social and political history emerged this way. So why am I bringing up such a controversial topic?
The similarity starts where one group of people get an advantage over another, and feel threatened by the other. Why did apartheid emerge in South Africa? Many academics point out it degenerated through the Afrikaners’ fear for their survival as a minority group, combined with technological and weapon superiority, rather than an overt decision to set up an unspeakably racist system. Oppressive behaviour is an inherently human trait that is evident throughout history, and is tied to the oppressor’s perceived survival needs and comparative strengths and weaknesses rather than to their skin colour or origin. The baggage that we bring and the assumptions we make can dramatically alter how we behave in a situation.
“Before you talk about me, talk about yourself”
Let’s park history aside for the moment, and be a little more introspective. This month, the University of Liberia failed all of the 25,000 candidates in its entrance exams for their poor English and mathematics skills. The university says it’s time to be realistic; the West African Education Council confirms the university; but the students and the Minister of Education say it’s impossible that not a single candidate passed. I’ve met university graduates here who are illiterate, and many more who couldn’t critique a Dr Seuss book. How would we behave if it were our education system in this context?
High school classes here typically house up to 80 students each, almost 3 times above the maximum we would consider acceptable. Malnutrition causes 20% of infant deaths in Liberia according to UNICEF, and has a well-proven impact on cognitive development. A recent study (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/341/6149/976 ) shows that the mental exertion required to cope with poverty can drop up to 13 IQ points off a person’s capacity to handle complex logical tasks.
In all of the questions swirling around this situation I have not yet heard one person ask what results we, in the West, might produce if the tables were turned? What would our countries look like today, ten years after a bloody war, if people were simply too hungry to learn French or to solve complex equations? If we look in our own past; it turns out that most countries have had difficult histories. How easy it is for me to unconsciously believe that Liberia’s faults are somehow only of its own making, and to be patronizing because my own country is not experiencing these problems right now.
Working with AGENDA has been a really positive experience because I have seen an organization that has entirely home-grown and has no foreign involvement producing results that equal anything we could produce. I have been able to offer them relatively little as an organization, and have instead learnt and grown myself; which is the way it should be for an intern. Sure, their proofreading is not always great, and occasionally I question the objectivity of a conclusion, but their fundamentals are consistently high quality – and I would struggle to be objective too, if I were a Liberian and could see the extent of the work needed to get this country running for the benefit of all its people.
Liberia is not that different from the West. Liberians are not that different from New Zealanders, or Americans, or Scots, Brazilians, Tanzanians, Germans, Indians or Koreans. The problems they face here might be enhanced by their geographic, economic or historical circumstances, but they are not unique and they are certainly not all of their own making. If I have learned one lesson from Liberia, it’s that I have to genuinely engage with this country on equal terms, recognizing any unconscious prejudices or unintentionally demeaning attitudes. Here’s hoping that one day I might be able to help them out as much as they have helped me.