Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Reflections on traveling to Africa for work

Writing about the countries I visit in Africa is so much harder than other places I have been. First off, my visits are pretty packed with Princeton in Africa partner site visits, time with current and past Fellows and trying to keep up with emails and Princeton in Africa work from the US versus trips to the various tourist sites. What that tends to mean is that I don’t have a lot of extra time to sit back and think about what I am seeing. Usually when I travel for pleasure, I try to read both fiction and non-fiction books about the country I am traveling in. I try to read the local paper every day and get a sense about the current state of affairs of the country I’m in. Unfortunately on my work trips I don’t always get a chance to do this. Traveling to 3 or 5 countries in 5 weeks each year usually means I hardly know what is really going on and instead just get a chance to dig deep into a particular issue by hearing one of my Fellows daily experiences at work or visiting an organization that Princeton in Africa partners with. I’ve gotten to learn lots about the treatment of HIV, particularly in youth, issues in Africa education in a few countries, issues concerning drought and successful strategies to handle it like building rainwater harvesting systems or developing better local solutions for filtering existing water sources and I’ve certainly gotten to hear a lot about humanitarian aid and food security.

I enjoy learning about these things immensely and it fills my head with endless topics to read more about, but I miss not getting to understand the political realities and histories of each country. In my job, I have Fellows in 18 countries this year. My head is full trying to keep up with the ones who have issues that I have to care about. Will our Fellows have to be evacuated from Uganda (no) or Cote D’Ivoire (yes)? That means I don’t have as much time to learn about the historical effects the Cold War has had on Ethiopia, or all of Africa for that matter. I don’t get to get a full on the ground feeling of what good governance means and why it has been so hard to achieve in Africa. I know it’s really important to think more broadly about history and how Africa got to this point and what things have prevented it from developing and feel ashamed to not be able to soak enough in when I travel to begin to find answers.

In just one issue, slavery, I have been able to experience a lot in my travels. I have been to Benin, Ghana, Senegal and Kenya and seen slave ports and informative museums. It has been eye opening and really sparked more research and thinking on the topic. But what I have seen only shows how little I know and how diverse the issues are. Benin’s slaves went to Cuba, Haiti and Brazil and had a very different experience from Ghana’s that went to the US. I have opened a can of worms that shows me I can’t begin to understand the full story until I understand US slavery vs West Indian slavery. No matter how I try I can’t even begin to fathom what losing 13-25 million men and women in their prime did to Africa’ s development back then. And then when you add in the idea that Africans were selling Africans which meant Africans were increasing the intra-area infighting when other parts of the world were making economic integration between neighboring communities

And then... How come so few people talk about the affects of the Cold War on Africa? The US and USSR were busy propping up bad leaders to suit our development versus Africa's. Those bad leaders still are wreaking havoc.

Once again, experiential learning has opened my eyes and my brain to so much more than my head could ever absorb but left me with more questions than I can possibly have time to answer. Might be time to quit my job and travel at a leisurely educational pace again…. Work really gets in the way… Just kidding.

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