The content of this post was written mostly while I was still in Botswana, reflecting my sentiments in attempting the impossible task of comprehensively processing or conclusively summarizing my experience as my 8 months overseas came to an end. I also apologize for its lengthiness, but again, filtering through 8 months of life is no easy task, and I promise you it is worth the read.
Perhaps one of the most eye-opening experiences and moments of cognisance came early on in my 8 months, when we went on one of our harrowing driving adventures with our coworkers to be shown notable places in Shakawe. On the way I got to see a whole other side of Shakawe that I had not yet seen just from walking back and forth down the one and only main road every day: it was what my coworkers referred to as the “village”, and a village it was - a very quaint community, with people and families out and about and full of life, going about their lives. Our noisy truck bumping along the makeshift roads between the little clusters of huts and fences, getting stuck numerous times in the sand, seemed to be disturbing the normal daily activity of all the people who stopped what they were doing and stared as we jounced by.
I felt at once both humbled and extremely out of place. My initial thought was that this is more or less what I was picturing when I knew I would be going to a town in rural Botswana. Fortunately or unfortunately for the perpetuation of the stereotypes, the image of “rural Africa” that many people, including myself, have in their head is exactly what I witnessed. Except that instead of feeling like there were things wrong with the scenario and that I needed to do something to help these impoverished people, I was in awe - impressed with the way these people lived, the simplicity of their lives, people living and working together, the fact that things seemed to be working and life carried on as it had for many decades before, the feeling of community and harmony, and of course, the contentedness.
This made me question my role in development. Seeing all these people that are supposedly poor and living in substandard conditions, as a development practitioner should I not want to do something to remedy the situation and improve these people’s lives? If I can drive by this village and not be deeply moved to take action, what is it then that I am setting out to do? Who am I trying to help? Is my help even needed? What does “helping” mean? And what, then, is the purpose of the entire field of development?
Taking a step back, here are some of the things I learned and observed while living and working in Shakawe that may serve to answer these questions.
- People are so much richer than we think. Yes, all of Shakawe is not living in abject poverty and Botswana as a whole is fairly well-off, but the images we often see portraying life in rural villages usually don’t tell the full story. You see the huts, some with their cracked walls and sagging thatch roofs, and assume the people inside are poor. But this is not always the case, at least not in Shakawe. Most people have access to water and electricity, and everyone walks around with a cell phone, if not two or three. There is an established infrastructure and set of institutions and processes. Whether through the formal or informal economy, people are earning an income and contributing to supporting themselves and their families. But the richness also comes from the quality of interactions among people in the community and the ability to be happy or to find light in any situation.
- No matter how different people or societies may appear and no matter how confusing adapting to another culture may seem, I found that there are more similarities than there are differences between life in Botswana and life in Canada. I constantly struggled to define what it was that made Botswana different from Canada, but every time I would find myself picking out just as many similarities as differences. There are the obvious differences, like the landscapes and the languages and the appearance of processes (or seeming lack thereof), but beneath the surface things are really the same, because at the core of it, people are people. We all have the same desires for our lives. We all have the same basic needs. We all have families. We all belong in a community. We all play, grow, learn, share, and feel emotions.
- People have incredible capacities for innovation and coming up with solutions to help themselves. This could be in terms of working collectively for the greater good of the community, coming up with small businesses to help earn an alternate source of income, or even coming up with creative ways to fix something that is broken or substitute for a material that is not available. It is in our nature not just to make do with what we have, but to make the most of it.
- Not everything needs changing and I am not the one who needs to change everything. Yes, others may need help, and morally one might feel obligated to help others to be able to live a happy life with opportunities and free from vulnerabilities, but maybe my help or that of other foreigners is not the best answer. Ideas of what doesn’t work or what needs fixing are often largely based on external perceptions, which can overlook or misjudge the real issues, and make incorrect assumptions about things that might actually work within the context.
- But most of all, it seems the Batswana are most suited to helping themselves “do their own development”. I do not feel like I am needed to do development in Botswana. I am not denouncing the entire purpose of the development field and the aims of reducing inequalities and improving lives of my fellow people; rather I am putting trust in the capacities of others; those who have the knowledge, skills and resources relevant within the cultural context to better be able to come up with appropriate solutions than I am able to do.
To back up some of these statements, I will provide a little bit of context to the nature of development in Botswana.
Generally, the Batswana people are content with the way things are and how things work in their country. In a conversation I had with a 14-year-old girl from Shakawe, she emphasized her contentment with her country and said what she likes about Botswana is that it is peaceful and everyone lives equally. There is a sense of resourcefulness, and a desire to live together in harmony, working with each other to improve the situation for everyone. Identifying and solving their own problems as they see fit gives them a sense of pride and ownership.