By Aglaia Kempinski (Staff Writer)
Leon is a tour guide at the lodge where I camp in between village visits, and where I have stayed for the last two or three weeks (I shudder to think of the bill coming my way). When I am there, Leon comes to visit in the morning. First, he chases my fieldwork assistant out of her chair because he has a bad hip, and then moans about how he is getting old and fragile. Then he lights a cigarette and watches whatever happens. For him, it’s the first peaceful cigarette of the day since he somehow hides his smoking habit from his wife (which I doubt; she’s a smart cookie and probably has her reasons for letting him think she’s unaware of his tobacco consumption). But for me, his visits are a de-stressing, spirit-lifting stimulant because at some point, delightfully, Leon will always start dispensing words of wisdom (So far, my favourite was “Whenever you think everything is fine it’s probably only because you are unable to imagine just how [messed up] it is").
Let me interject here and say that I am taking a detour from the story line I embarked upon last time. Admittedly, there are still open questions regarding the things I have gotten myself into, and the like. But timing is everything. And the timing, as you will discover next time, is not quite right yet. I promise these cryptic words will make a great deal more boring sense soon. Just remember the heading.
Now, back to Leon. This particular morning, the wisdom flowing from Leon’s lips is “Money. Is. Evil.” That’s it. This might not sound very special, but it was advice that made my week. Of course he is right, money is evil. But in that particular moment it humorously articulated what, until the moment of writing this post, I considered the darkest side of fieldwork (nothing beats the cathartic effect of writing).
What I would like to talk about in this entry is something that I assume must happen a lot but is not talked about very much. Or at least I hope this happens to other people as well, and I am not the only idiot bothered by this issue.
People I engage with on a daily basis are, compared to me, extremely poor. One of the effects of that is that when any white person stops at the petrol station - which happens frequently due to tourism levels and NGO activities - someone will come to the car and ask for money. That in itself is already, of course, unpleasant. Of course I would like to give people something but giving something every time someone asks for it is not sustainable and not within my capacities. However, the issue does not stop at the petrol station. Truthfully, there is the distinct feeling that any step you make in the area, even if it is to assist someone, you end up paying for. Of course, you can attempt to explain that you are not a tourist and that you don’t come from a big organisation that has a lot of money to throw around. You can even show people your bank account to demonstrate how deeply you have already dug yourself into an overdraft, just in order to be able to come there. People will say they understand. But at the end of the day I am still driving a Land Cruiser and I still, admittedly, have a monthly income that most people here could not dream of making in a year. So people will ask. The problem is that there is always a sick child or a dying mother. It’s difficult to judge. Of course, if you can see there is a real need for help, you want to help. That is just natural. But you your head is also filled with stories about how any money is always only spent on alcohol here. It’s a very stressful judgment call, which you are constantly being asked to make.
My breaking point was almost reached when the other day I came out of the shower in the morning after a long, long week of people asking for money for numerous reasons. My hair in a towel, and half naked, I returned to my camp (on the lodge camp site) to find it surrounded by a group of 12 young men. I will not go into the details (we would be here all day) but they were asking for money. And before I had indulged in either my coffee or my cigarette. It was not a good moment. I did not know what to say. It seemed utterly, utterly pointless. No matter what I said, they would just nod and try again the next day. The isolating feeling of not being seen as a person, but rather being objectified into a bag of money, was pissing me off so much I would have cried, had I had the time.
If all this makes me sound bitter, it is because, frankly, part of me is. Yes, there are other things that are flipping annoying. For example, the interaction between genders. What would here (in Namibia) be considered very subtle flirting feels like a high-end personal affront if you are mostly used to the courting strategies of British men. Or living in the knowledge that the phrase “no problem” stands in no predictable correlation to reality whatsoever. But the issue of money is always present. And the feeling of constantly having to defend oneself whilst also wanting to help and not being able to judge which is the right action to take, is just one of those things that gnaw on your spirit and will get the better of you if you don’t somehow catch a break from it from time to time.
And this is exactly why I need Leon in the morning. With one sentence he diffused the situation. Not just because of the words, but because how he delivered them: not a lecture, but a joke with a hint of warning. Like Yoda. But it’s not a Yoda imitation, because Leon has not seen Star Wars. I, the guys who came to pick up the money, the fieldwork assistant – everybody gets the message and everybody has to laugh. Suddenly, because it is him saying it and not me, it is no longer this unassailable barrier between me and an entire ethnic group. It becomes the behaviour of a few thoughtless youths who were just told by a grownup that their actions were impolite. Suddenly this big, ever-present, gnawing issue becomes just a stupid thing everyone can laugh about.
Admittedly, those moments of clarity do not last very long. Just a few minutes later, a local guy who I do not know stops me and says “Hello, I wonder if you could help me with my project”. It all flares up again and I pull a face “Look, I don’t have any money, I’m a student…” etc etc etc. He just nods his head and turns around to leave. I, too, walk away but after a few steps I change my mind. I go after him and say “Hey, sorry about that. As I said I don’t have money but tell me about your project maybe I know someone.” It turns out he had heard I was involved with a community arts project and just wanted to know if he could help. He’s a painter. I have been looking for a painter for weeks.
As disheartening as it is to feel like one is constantly looked upon like nothing but a walking wallet, the following might be useful to remember if you find yourself in a similar situation: Yes, people ask for money. All the time. But it is not all the people. The question is why do they ask for money? What socio-economic circumstances have led to an atmosphere where white people are constantly targeted for random charity? Is it an oversaturation of NGOs? A leftover of colonialism? A consequence of a desperately unfair world economy? Whatever it is, asking the people at the disadvantaged side of the situation to change it is probably deeply unrealistic and neoliberal. On the other hand, giving each individual the benefit of the doubt and letting humour break down the barriers of hegemonised expectations is comparatively easy and an instant fix to your problem. Moreover, however, it’s quite likely that a further investigation into what has caused “the issue” will lead to the realisation that as outsiders coming in it is our moral duty to not be a prick and whine about all the poor people asking for money. Lesson learned. Hopefully.
So, this time was “Money is evil” and next time we will talk about why It Ain’t Necessarily So.
Until then, greetings from the bush and the bush-babies.
You can read Aglaia's previous field work diary here.