Author’s note: I don’t want this blog to be misconstrued into something disparaging against my study abroad program, but rather to highlight some of the downfalls to development work that can lead to burnout. Because of that, I will not name anyone specifically and this blog should serve as constructive criticism and nothing more. I am so grateful for having gone on my study abroad and to the donors who funded most of it. In light of that, I still want to share my story; this is all my thoughts and personal opinions.
This past summer I had the incredible opportunity to go Tanzania, Africa on study abroad. My group was there for six weeks, working in partnership with the University of Dar es Salaam and with the residents of the Maasai village of Naitolia, where we worked. I was part of a women and gender research team where we were allowed to go to different homes and interview men and women about their home life, responsibilities, and community participation.
That study abroad was the most incredible thing I have ever experienced in my life. It was also some of the most stressful, disheartening, and anxiety inducing six-weeks I have ever endured. I wanted to write this blog post and share my experience to everyone as both a cathartic experience for myself, and also to give you all an insight into development work that you may have experienced in your own life, or will experience. While my study abroad was a fairly innocuous introduction to development work, it nevertheless proved to be a test of will and conscience.
To start off, the program leader had absolutely no experience in development work. I am fairly certain that he was chosen to lead because he is from Kenya and he teaches Swahili and an IAH on East Africa. Whatever criteria he was deemed suitable to lead this study abroad by, I think it solely revolved around the fact that he is from East Africa and speaks Swahili. As we have learned in class, it takes a certain type of person to do development work, let alone lead a group. We have also learned that culture is almost impossible to define; it is unique to any given situation, and it deserve respect in every one of those situations. So, just because a person is from the same geographical region as where they are working, does not give them the right to speak on behalf of those people or make judgments on their culture. Trust me when I say there were MANY cringe-worthy comments made that still make me blush from embarrassment on his behalf.
It is very difficult, and ultimately disappointing, to try and explain to an adult leader why people from other cultures do things different from where he grew up. Just as the saying, “Any development is better than no development” is completely wrong and inappropriate, so is saying, “Any leader is a suitable leader”. Just because someone has leadership experience, does not mean they have the RIGHT leadership experience (*coughs* Trump), especially when it comes to doing development work (or the presidency).
The only reason myself and the other five students from MSU did not completely give up, is because we had an amazing graduate TA. She is studying anthropology and understands all of the nuances and respect that goes along with working among people from a different culture. It also didn’t hurt that the exchange rate meant that a beer cost less than $1. It should go without saying, but having a good and competent leader is essential to help keep yourself from becoming disheartened and emotionally drained. I highly suggest checking what experience your program leader has and even pseudo-interview them. Having a leader you respect and who is understanding of your anxieties is invaluable when doing development work.
The next issue I want to discuss is culture. As I’ve said, and we’ve discussed at length in class, culture is impossible to define and is different depending on what context you find yourself in. With that in mind, culture is a two-way street (no matter what side of the road your country drives on) and it’s not something to be embarrassed or judged for. This goes for when you are defending or explaining your own culture, and another culture, too. There is a difference between wanting to step outside of your own culture to better understand an experience, and feeling like you have to repress your culture because others choose to disregard it. I believe that every situation can be used as a learning experience, especially when people are coming from a different viewpoint, culture, and so forth. It is incredible how many vast and diverse cultures there are in the world, and taking the time to appreciate them can help you better understand your own. Even in the short amount of time that I have been in the humanitarian field, I have come to know that the best people are those who have the patience for empathy and compassion rather than apathy and blatant disregard. This notion was very apparent during my study abroad and led to myself, and the other MSU students, to become frustrated and angry. Again, it should go without saying that it is never okay to laugh at another group of people and their culture; make assumptions about what they want and need; or openly judge through disinterest. Basically, the point I am trying to make is that it is okay to defend your culture and still be sensitive to other cultural practices as well. Keeping silent and not sticking up for yourself and others becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of oppression. Even when no one listens or respects your opinions and defense, there is some comfort in knowing you tried to express yourself (and you can find comfort in Charles Wright’s “Express Yourself” music video because it is precious and endearing).
Our group was not entirely innocent and did not handle all situations with the most grace and care. Speaking for myself, there were times when I could have tried harder to understand the Tanzanian students or explained American culture better, or at least that which I understand of it. There were other instances when I failed to remember that I had limited freedom because I was in a different country and that I am a mzungu, meaning white/western/tourist, and that I am a female student, and that there are certain preconceived notions and stereotypes that are associated with those demographics. Most of the false perceptions that are perpetuated about American culture come from media outlets (rap and hip-hop music videos) and sensational news stories (E-News). We were there to represent MSU to the best of our personal demographic capabilities. This is where some of my own hypocrisy came in, because most of the information that I had about Tanzania was from my own academic research and news stories that I had read. We did have some cultural sensitivity training before and during our study abroad, but this amounted to a total time of several days. Just as it is impossible to define culture, it is impossible to have sufficient cultural information on every aspect of a country. It is important to remember this, and save yourself from making assumptions based on another person’s perception of their own culture and other cultures within a given community. This statement is where a lot of my frustration and anger stemmed from. We were given training, but some of the things we were taught were either inaccurate or inappropriate for certain settings. I eventually figured out to come up with my own way to navigate different cultural circumstances and to incorporate what I was taught only when it was applicable. This seems glaringly obvious now for what I should have done, but at the time it seemed right, and it was easy to put my trust in what the program leaders were telling us.
While reading the Dawes (2007) book the biggest concept I identified with was burnout. While I by no means experienced it to the extent that others have, it was still something that I did not foresee happening. When I moved back to East Lansing for this school year I developed really bad anxiety that still persists. I have always been an over thinker, but I have never felt as constantly anxious as I have since I returned from Tanzania. I never went to the doctor or anything, so this is my self-diagnosis. I’m pretty sure the anxiety is a sort of burnout from the study abroad. The first few weeks back in school were actually quite horrible; I had this intense fear that I was going to be attacked and I never felt safe when I was home in my apartment.
These weren’t necessarily leftover feelings from my trip, but every day we were there, something would happen and the other shoe would drop, so to speak. Actually, it was more like an anvil falling on my head like in one of the old Saturday morning Looney Tunes cartoons. Things would go from bad to worse, to okay, to excruciating, all within a day, and every day. I think coming from that constant state of stress, worry, and confinement, and having seen and lived through certain things, just culminated into this feeling of…inadequacy and hopelessness. I feel like my time on that study abroad didn’t amount to anything and I’m terrified that I somehow inflicted more harm than good (an example of my overthinking but it has potential for reality). I honestly think this is what I have struggled with the most and what has led to a lot of my anxiety. This is anxiety about what happened after we left and trying not to feel disheartened about my chosen line of work. I have tried to overcome these feelings mainly through running, reading, Netflix & chilled wine, and other such outlets. Honestly, the biggest help has been talking through the whole experience with those who went on the study abroad, too. There is comfort in knowing that there is another person who wholly understands where you’re coming from and can empathize with you. My last bit of “advice” is to try and build a genuine relationship with those you work with. They don’t necessarily need to be your new bff, although it’s an added bonus if they are, but having someone you can commiserate with, be able to talk about your new found bodily functions with, and share joy (or some konyagi) with, will help immensely with keeping your sanity.
My time on study abroad is something I will never forget. I am so grateful for the relationships I built, the people I met, the opportunities I was afforded, and the knowledge I gained. There will always be positives and negatives with development work, and remembering to take the good with the bad is a lesson I hope to never forget. Some of the most valuable knowledge I gained was how not to do development work, and to always stick up for myself and others, even when it seems like it’s in vain – especially when it’s vain. Please, trust me when I say you’ll regret the chances you didn’t take to speak up (okay, I guess I had one more piece of advice to give).