Every African country I have worked in has its own term for white people – muzungu in Kenya, poomwe in Sierra Leone or khawarja in Sudan. The white woman or man is christened with this title that to some extent carries heavy historical baggage and certain expectations with it.
I started my career as a humanitarian worker in Sudan. A year out of university, after a brief interlude teaching English, I volunteered for an aid agency. Despite being no more committed or able than my Sudanese colleagues, I found myself rising rapidly through the ranks. After a few months, I was put in charge of a team of sanitation engineers, and within a year I was logistics manager leapfrogging a dozen national staff and in charge of a £1m budget.
The rationale for my promotion was that, as a non-national, I would be immune from participating in corruption that national staff may be vulnerable to; an unfortunate assumption of assuming the worst of national staff. So, having originally set off with ideals about creating global equality, I found myself in a scene often depicted in sepia colonial photos – white people in management seated at the front and Africans around the edges in junior roles.
Personally, the impact was more subtle. I would find myself becoming testy with people twice my age or complaining about the tardiness of a cleaner. I was dimly aware of a gulf opening up between how I said I wanted the world to be and the conditions I heartily accepted. I had become a typically entitled white person.
This uncomfortable taboo is rarely discussed among socially progressive NGO workers. As aid workers, we assure ourselves that we are “here to help” the people in our host countries. We call it a “post” or an “assignment”, as if we’re on a special secret mission, and forget that we’re guests. By seeing ourselves as the helpers, we often forget that the work we’re doing is more nuanced and complicated than an easy moral black-and-white.
As a liberal progressive humanitarian worker, I entered the profession wanting to make the world less unfair, but found myself asking: can you be the beneficiary of a profoundly unequal society and it not affect you? What can one do about this? Those I know who have never let it affect them and have truly become part of the societies they work in have been missionaries and priests.
Despite the iffy associations with the Catholic clergy and history of justifying colonialism, these Italians, Ugandans, Irish and Polish priests have been the happiest and most adjusted white people I have met in Africa. They are completely at one with the community in which they live, with no expectation of ever leaving.
Things have changed over the intervening years. Decades of humanitarian and development operations in Africa and Asia have seen national staff progress through organisations. Now it is far more common to meet NGO field office directors from Kenya and India. However, since most INGOs are based and fundraise in Europe or the US, it is perhaps inevitable that the bulk of senior managers originate from there. The aid industry is not even a century old and the coming decades may well see the power balance change.
The Bangladeshi international NGO BRAC (formerly Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) is a hopeful example of a truly southern-originated NGO that has become global. This is hopefully the future of the aid industry. The topic of inequality gets much airtime these days and the general public are often invited to see aid workers as part of the 99%. What I learned years ago was that inequality corrupts the individual unconsciously. When inequality is combined with race, it corrupts more profoundly.
When I think back to my crass behaviour I feel more embarrassment than self-loathing. We are all susceptible to being formed by the power dynamics around us. I hope that I have learned in the years since to be more aware, respectful and willing to highlight this challenge to others.