Saturday, November 10, 2007

Struggles in Community Development

So, my personal struggles are getting tedious to write about (updates will be included, however), but they have lead me to think a lot about why I’m here, and the type of work I want to do in the future, which is to help communities grow and give more opportunities to the people who live there. My friend Cole gave a training on funding, and drew a very convoluted chart about the funding bottlenecks which keeps money from getting to the people it is supposed to serve. Basically, everyone takes a cut, or it gets diverted somewhere, sometimes understandably, sometimes to line someone’s pocket. So, there is tons of money out there, but it rarely reaches its destination.

As I’m finding, the picture is even more complicated than this. All the systems designed to develop communities are composed of people and their egos, backgrounds, biases, and agendas, and people will say that they are interested in serving the community, but the reality is often different. This isn’t limited to Africa, of course. Anyone who has done organizational development in the States can attest that many, if not most, of process improvement projects get lost in political in-fighting, hidden agendas, and power struggles. When you thrown that in a cross-cultural environment, you get lots of frustration, and if you’re reading any other Peace Corps blogs, you will find frustration abounds. I think that volunteers come in with their ideals, which slowly (or quickly) get whittled down to reality, and you just hope that this reality gives you something to work with.

I’m still a little obsessed with working on projects that have some possibility of lasting impact, something that lasts beyond my stay here. This is probably the first thing that should get whittled down, but, as mentioned above, my ego is directly involved. After all, why be here at all if you can’t make a difference?

And that is the question of the year, or two years, as the case may be. My answer is that if I’m not involved in the struggle somehow, I feel like something is missing in my life. So the goal is to tolerate the frustration, learn how to get myself out of the way, and let go of attachment to the results. After all, there is only so much I can control.

Fortunately, I have gotten many opportunities to practice these skills lately. I have finally gotten a place of my own (yay!), but it’s basically a bare room with a bed, table, two chairs, and all my stuff, which has grown exponentially since I left the States. Anyone who knows my personal organizational skills can predict that not having shelves, closets, counters, or cupboards does not lead to a tidy room for me. There is still plenty of drama at work which has caused so much frustration with me, Rita (my supervisor) and Lulu (my co-worker) that we have been unable to do the work that we all enjoy so much. We have been locked out of our office for three days because the couple that is living there is taking over the whole house (our office takes up one room), while ironically accusing my organization of doing the same thing. The day-to-day drama is an interesting study of power struggles (hence my thoughts about community development), psychopathology, race relations in South Africa, miscommunication, and the roller-coaster of trying to do the right thing in a situation and seriously wanting to kick people in the shins. I keep thinking that things will turn out fine, but then things keep getting worse. I am eternally grateful for yoga, meditation, friends and family, and the fact I have gone through similar things before.

I have also been reading the Taoist I Ching, which is, for those who don’t know, the Chinese Book of Changes, strategies on keeping your cool as chaos erupts all around you. It almost seems like it should be called The Tao of Development because it’s chock full of advice like wait for the right time, develop yourself before you develop others, be cautious when the ego tries to take control of affairs (which it will often do), and let yourself have fun. Of course it’s written in an esoteric language, so it doesn’t actually say “have fun” but the essence is the same. Mostly, it’s about patience, which is the most needed attribute in development.

One other lesson in patience: internet connection. I have been planning all this time to use my laptop and cellphone to connect to the net, and thus keep in near constant contact. Other volunteers do this with some success, so why can’t I? I did my research, but not near enough. My cellphone from America was supposed to work in SA according to T-Mobile, but did not. My laptop is a Mac, and I knew that Macs aren’t popular here, but still, I didn’t think I’d have a problem. And I wouldn’t, if my Bluetooth worked. Which is doesn’t. So, three phones later, that plan is out. And what about internet cafés, you ask, found in every part of the globe? The internet café in Bushbuckridge is now closed permanently (didn’t pay their bills), and there is one dial-up computer that charges outrageous prices for their super-slow service. Even thinking about going there stresses me out, so it looks like I’ll go to Hazyview every other week to update my blog and send email. It’s funny, with everything that I have to get depressed about, this is the most tiresome. And last time I was in Africa, the net barely existed outside of the Department of Defense, and somehow I survived. But now, I have dreams of trying to connect to the internet, and getting thwarted at every turn. Just like real life!