Power Structures in Zambia

Vali  is one of our former students, a Development Instructor trained at One World Institute Norway. He was part of Team March 2013, and in his Project Period he volunteered in a teacher training college from Zambia (Mkushi College of Education). While being in Zambia, he struggled with certain questions that most of our volunteers face in their projects: how to help without doing more harm than good? This is important and relevant for anyone who wants to go volunteering in a developing country.

The College of Education is placed 10 km away from Mkushi on a red dust road cutting through the high grass called by the locals “bush”. The local people are mostly farmers, so corn fields replace the bush here and there. As your car bumps across a river you see more trees and bush, corn fields, a few houses, directions signs for three churches and one school. And then there is the sign board for Mkushi College of Education.

Have you ever wondered how the people in Zambia see us, the Europeans, or simply white people as they call us? It’s strange to be called European or even muzungu – meaning white face in Bemba, one of the local languages. However, we are also generalizing and stereotyping Africa. Most of the time we use this term to refer to 55 countries with thousands of distinct tribe ethnicities and languages. I heard many people who visited just one single country on this huge continent talking of how much they know about AFRICA.

So the feeling I get is that people here – in Mkushi, Central Province, Zambia – think that we, the white people, are more knowledgeable and we can, and should show them what and how to do. Europe is the model of development and civilization Zambia should follow. I get this idea speaking with students, hearing from staff, and from a delegation from the Ministry of Education of Zambia. Other DIs (Development Instructors) confirmed they felt the same way. One DI had a struggle to stop people from calling him “boss”, for example. The rural communities expect the “rich” muzungu will give them money, or chicken, or mosquito nets, or whatever.

We reinforced the perception of a paradise-western-world by showing pictures of towering skyscrapers shining in the night, by telling stories about cities, cars, planes, entertainment. People here know little or nothing about the historic and present injustice perpetuated by the western governments. They are unaware of the dark side of foreign aid when it creates dependency and strengthens colonial power structures. Just like everyone in the world, they don’t see how the western societies, obsessed with development, became blind to real human needs.

No, in this part of Africa, Europe is the model of righteousness. I can see the students here comparing Zambia with Europe – with the romantic image they have about Europe – and this creates a feeling of lacking and being inadequate. “We think we’ve got to look to Europe for standards, to America for help and development”.

It can be so after 60 years of British rule. After the Christian missionaries thoroughly indoctrinated 87% of the population, they even pray to a white God. Now the British are still here, the Christian churches outnumber schools a few times over, and there is a wealth of active foreign aid organizations.

DAPP (Development Aid from People to People) is doing a lot of work here. And yet DAPP is run by one Danish woman – the country manager – and everyone else is Zambian. I could see while visiting the DAPP office in Lusaka, and while living at the NHQ in Ndola, that people are really working. Here at the college I can see bright, hardworking and open minded students who will do a lot of good in the communities where they will be teachers.

I dislike this mindset that we can come here and tell people what and how to do. Unless you manage to transfer some capacity building skills, the change is not meaningful or sustainable. But it will enforce the wrong power balance which places the white foreigner providing aid above the local people. Sure, there are a lot of things we can share with the people here, and we are doing this every day. But I believe it is important to step lightly. Develop the abilities of the students we work with in a way which builds confidence in themselves. How to help without enforcing the wrong power balance? How to make people look away from the western “model” and look into themselves, to their own resources and strengths? They should be proud of who they are.

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