And I pray to God to have mercy upon us
And I pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself
I too much discuss
Too much explain
I guess I’m probably just like you. When someone tells me they’re writing a blog from Africa, part of me can’t wait to read it and part of me is, well, cringing.
I’m happy because I want to hear about their experiences, and, being a writer, I think words are a good way to communicate—a good way of keeping track of your life. More broadly, I think going to new places and seeing new things is a good thing to do.
But part of me cringes. This is partly because of anticipated guilt—I always begin with good intentions to read the blogs of friends and colleagues, but I always fall behind (if you are a friend or colleague who writes a blog, don’t worry—obviously I read YOURS).
Another reason I cringe has to do with something a colleague asked me recently. I had just returned from Zambia, where I’d spent a few weeks writing a piece on foreign aid, and she asked: “What makes you think you have the right to speak for them?”
By “them” maybe she meant Zambians, or maybe she meant poor Zambians, or maybe she was talking about the expat community. Who knows. I took her point, though. She was glad that I’d gone but the whole enterprise made her uncomfortable too, and I think it made her uncomfortable for the same reason lots of us in the global development business get uncomfortable from time to time: because our business is about telling other peoples’ stories, advocating for people we have never met, trying to make sense of places we are not from.
We understand the dilemmas. We know the potential for over-reaching, for forgetting the limits of what we can know, measure, quantify, explain. We worry, sometimes, that our own experiences and preconceptions—our own stories—get in the way of objectivity.
But each of our stories, is actually part of the story. And rather than Explain, I think what we try to do, each in our own way, is to describe, with as much honesty as we can muster, what we see in front of our eyes. We sort through the debris, we try to find meaning in the ambiguous heart of things.
Tonight I will board a plane bound for Dar es Salaam, where I will be based for the next six months to a year, writing stories about the people I meet—what they do, where they’re from, how they got to where they are, what they think about their work, what makes them laugh, what are their secret fears. And I’ll write about my own story too. Now this will probably get in the way of objectivity, but this blog isn’t going to try to answer any big questions about development or poverty or Africa. It will just be an attempt to tell stories. Like E.B. White said: Don't write a story about Man, write about a man."