"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


thinking it over

Professor Blattman has an interesting post about using incentives to get data on unique phenomena. In a manner of speaking:
"In Liberia, the guys at our local partner and survey organization swear that the best hunters have the power to change themselves to animals.

"Perhaps this is culturally insensitive of me, but I have a standing offer of $1000 cash to any of them if they can find one of these guys, bring him to me, and demonstrate. $2000 if I can film it."

While I've never been in a part of the developing world in which locals believe that people turn into animals (or, to be more precise, where anyone was willing to tell me that he or she believes that people turn into animals), I have heard something similar. About a decade ago, I briefly lived with a family in village near Kakamega, in western Kenya. My hosts were pretty well off for the area; both spouses had completed secondary school and the husband had employment in the formal sector. He had been a soccer star as a teenager, and the nuns at the nearby Catholic school had taken an interest in his success. They were still poor by any measure, but certainly well-educated and in many ways better off than their neighbors.

While I was learning to do things like carting polluted water up a very, very steep hill to the house and taking a chicken from the coop to the dinner table, we had plenty of time to discuss our respective cultures. One night, my host asked, "Do you have night-runners in America?" He went on to explain that there were people, normal people, who walked about during the day like the rest of us, but who at night ran through the villages as madmen. I'm not sure I ever fully understood what it was about, but it was clear that night-runners were something to be feared - and something not entirely of this world.

One of the best lessons I ever learned came from my undergraduate Greek history professor on the first day of class. "Do not," he admonished us, "assume that the ancient Greeks thought like you do." He went on to point out that the Greeks had a different understanding of the way the universe operates, ate a different diet, and lived in an entirely different context than that in which we post-modern Gen X-ers operated.

That professor was right, and not just about the Greeks. I learned from him that when studying phenomena in other cultures, it's never a good idea to assume that people operating in those contexts see the world in the same way that I do. That lesson has certainly informed my thinking about central Africa, where I've had to digest the fact that most of my interview subjects have entirely different ideas about the nature of individual identity, the laws of physics, and an unseen realm in which good and evil forces are constantly battling one another. (There's a reason that Western Pentecostal and charismatic religions are doing booming business in Africa these days. Their ideas about the spirit world fit in very well with the pre-existing cosmologies of many African cultures.)

Unfortunately, the idea that people in different cultures have different conceptions of the way the universe works often becomes an excuse for exoticizing people as "the other." That leads to stereotyped stories about those crazy ideas that Africans have. I mean, really. How can someone with a solid education and upbringing actually believe that his dead ancestors control the success of his business ventures or the amount of rain that falls in a year?

Even more unfortunately, this line of thinking often spills over into the policy sphere, where it takes on a nasty paternalistic tinge. Policy makers (and, more importantly, donors) assume that if the people they want to "help" have different understandings about the way the world works, that they can't necessarily be trusted to come up with solutions to their own problems. So we send in the experts to develop expensive programs that will circumvent this problem. After all, good development work can only be done by people who accept modern science and who understand that good hunting has very little to do with magic and everything to do with skill. Right?

Maybe. I mean, I don't believe that there's actually such a thing as a mysterious night-runner or a person who turns into an animal. And I'm not super-comfortable with the idea of handing over hundreds of thousands of grant dollars to someone who does.

But it's a mistake to assume that everyone thinks like I do. Our immediate inclination to dismiss foreign ideas makes some of our policy makers all too apt to dismiss the individual saying them as well, even when that individual has a far greater understanding of local contexts and what will work that an outsider can ever hope to attain. Ignoring people and communities who have that understanding almost always leads to bad policies and programs that don't work.


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