By Taylor Akin, KF9, Togo
In the months of preparation leading up to my Kiva Fellowship in Lomé, Togo I have had plenty of opportunity to practice my take on the taxicab test – a concise explanation of Kiva’s mission and the work of a Kiva Fellow. Upon completing my training at Kiva Headquarters in San Francisco, I felt confident in my ability to accurately explain Kiva’s approach to microfinance to a relatively neutral audience. More often than not, I encountered the disinterested but common eyes-glazed-over look immediately following the words “non-profit.” To be sure, anyone who has ever gone to the developing world to do anything other than build schools has faced this problem.
While we learned the many ways in which to defend Kiva, there was one area where our taxicab test fell short: defending our host countries. It had not really occurred to me that I would be put in the position of having to justify a five-month trip to the continent of Africa. Yet, I rarely got beyond “I’m going to Togo” before being hit with a surprising amount of ignorance, miseducation, and prejudice.
At first, the most common responses seemed innocent enough. They generally fell along the lines of cautionary warnings like “be careful,” “watch out for the lions,” and “it’s not safe there like it is here.” At other times, comedy was the vessel through which this prejudice was revealed. One co-worker recently asked me when I leave “for the jungle to visit Tarzan” despite my repeated explanations that I’ll be based in a bustling capital city. Finally, there are the truly shocking remarks. About a week ago, a co-worker warned me to “be careful in Africa because the people there are like animals, not real men.”
I was horrified. And worst of all, I was rendered speechless. As a student of International Development Studies, I spent the last four years learning to take the African continent’s diversity of history, language, politics, and culture for granted. I had also learned to question colonial accounts of these diverse nations and expose any hidden biases. Yet, this prejudice encountered in my workplace was nowhere near subtle. Instead, it was so blatant that I had no idea how to even begin to respond.
To be sure, the prejudiced comments I encountered are certainly not limited to Africa. Before embarking on an independent trip to Ecuador 3 years ago, one friend of the family deemed it fit to summarize my 6-week experience as nothing more than “squatting in a bush.” Even my family in England is quick to label the entire North American continent as having one identity.
Yet, the ignorance towards Africa has certainly been astounding. Most commonly, Africa is reduced and homogenized into a single geographic region where specificities do not exist. As a result, my trip to Togo is consistently referred to as my trip to “Africa.” (Nevermind the fact that this one continent is home to 57 independent countries!) Moreover, this homogenization is often coupled with a negative descriptor – poor, underdeveloped, dangerous, tribal, etc.
Africa is somehow…different.
While these comments may primarily reflect the specific views of a few colleagues, this single story of Africa – one of danger and underdevelopment – persists in a broader context. In her lecture on Ted.com, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie discusses this concept of the single story in greater detail. She argues that we are consistently exposed to many versions of one single story that is meant to serve as an accurate description of the entire continent. While this story may take several shapes (an AIDS orphan on an infomercial, a tyrant dictator on the news, or an imprisoned diamond-miner in a Leonardo DiCaprio movie), the overaching theme is always one of sadness, turmoil, death, and struggle. As Adichie clarifies, many interpretations of this single story are true, but they do not tell the wholestory. As an alternative, we need to be exposed to a variety of African stories – good and bad and all true.
Despite these frustrations, I try to stay positive. I do my best to focus on the few co-workers who will listen long enough for me to explain microfinance, and the friends who are genuinely interested in the work I will be doing. Sometimes, all it takes is the simple response “Oh! That sounds cool” to brighten my day. While I’ve certainly had to alter the taxicab-test to incorporate a justification of travelling to West Africa, it has definitely given me some perspective. It is important to remember that my audience will rarely be neutral. Instead, many people have very strong opinions about what it means to be poor, how banks should work, and what Africa is like. The preparation for this Fellowship alone has presented me with challenges both intellectual and emotional, yet I look forward to the experiences I will have once I truly am in “Africa.”
Taylor Akin is a member of KF9 who will be working with Women and Associations for Gain both Economic and Social (WAGES) in Lomé, Togo. To lend to a WAGES entrepreneur, click here. To learn more about WAGES, please click here./>