The other day I asked an expat who’s been in Africa 20 years or more what made newcomers like me stand out. “People who’ve just arrived will refuse to let Africans carry their bags for them”, he said. “Once you’ve been here a while, you hand them over immediately.” Clearly I’ve been hanging out in the wrong places – no one ever offers to help me with my bags, though surprisingly a fellow passenger paid my bus fare yesterday (I accepted gracefully).
Actually, taking public transport or walking seems also to brand you as being new to the continent. Experienced mzungus tend to abandon any ambitions of mixing with the locals in favour of the more practical, cooler, and safer option of driving. Walking home from the office, stubbornly sweating in the afternoon heat, I half-envy, half-disdain their monster 4x4s swishing past and coating me in another layer of city dust. But apparently I give myself away above all in what I say. Most recently: I’ve been trying to find a photographer at work and had hoped to hire a local. A Kenyan-English resident I met here was highly sceptical I’d find anyone professional enough. She quoted her Dad: “When you come to Africa, you go through three phases: first phase, Africans can do no wrong; second, Africans can do no right; third, you don’t give a s**t either way”.
I hope she’s wrong, but fear she might be right. Many seasoned expats seem to have reached a stage of – let’s call it calm acceptance. The Dutch consultant who more or less said about his last contract: “the work was a total failure, but what can you do – I enjoyed myself”. The family friend who’d spent many years in Africa and told me: it’s a disaster, the people are lazy, it’ll never change. The many development workers on their third or fourth 4-year assignment in as many continents who haven’t attempted to learn the local language, and never will. The young European couple who haven’t got to know any of their neighbours because “Tanzanians can be a bit intense”.
Is that acceptance/distance the inevitable endpoint of living over here? And if so, is that a bad thing? Perhaps these are simply ways of dealing with difficulties and continuing with your work. Not taking failure too seriously/too personally. Accepting your limitations. Spending your free time with your family rather than trying to make friends with the locals.
Still, the idea that we’ll all end up “not giving a s**t” depresses me. I was heartened when I met a Dutch tropical disease specialist who’s clearly passionate about her work. Things often go wrong out here, she said – but seeing people die unnecessarily, even after more than a decade of this work, still shocks her deeply. People like her make me think that succumbing to cynicism is more about personality than anything else.
But then, what would I know – I’m still a naïve newcomer.