To the ‘empire on which the sun never sets’,
It is I, Abieyuwa Akenzua, writing to you again but this time out of sheer frustration and incandescent with rage. Today, the first of October, marks forty-nine years of independence of our colonial ‘masters’ and the forty-ninth day our ‘progressive’ and ‘experienced’ Edward Williams was hired to and I quote ‘steer W4H in the right direction’. As explained in my previous letter on the lack of gender diversity in W4H, Women for Health is an organisation aimed to improve the capacity and number of female health workers in Lagos, Nigeria whilst contributing to gender equality and women’s empowerment in different communities.
But why am I frustrated you ask dear Commonwealth of Nations?
Let us return to Edward Williams’ first day at W4H and I will pleasingly elaborate. It was a luminous day in Lagos and as our team of twenty-one gathered in the isi awọ room. Williams began the meeting by giving a twenty-five minute monologue of all that needed to change within the organisation. Adaego, my only other female colleague, incessantly whispered throughout the meeting that she could not understand his way of speaking as he had a strong Welsh accent. But you see I understood and the sentiment was clear. The inherent inability of his local counterparts and the funds and competence his whiteness would bring was why dear Williams was hired. Throughout his monologue which he coined ‘change will come’ he spoke of our inadequacy to contribute to gender equality and women’s empowerment.
He spoke of our lack of information!
He spoke of our lack of capabilities!
He spoke of our lack of transparency!
Miedide was throughout the meeting worried I would raise my voice and interrupt the young man with very little experience in Nigeria. But you see I did not want to seem the ‘angry black woman’ once again and so I remained as I was. Aside from his worrying, Miedide just as I and my fellow colleagues saw his prejudices. This does not only infuriate us but also local masterminds who often have brief imaginary glints of how life could be if the international development community could understand that a young and inexperienced European is not more competent than we are.
But how could I expect this from you, dear Commonwealth of Nations?
After you so generously granted us our independence and then even offered us a helping hand? And how you have been helping us! Williams certainly knows – he undoubtedly explains it to his family, when they ask him why they had to move all the way down here. That he has to help empowering ethnic groups of women in local communities, for they cannot empower themselves. He has to help us understand what W4H really needs, for we lack the data to find out ourselves. He has to help us write funding proposals, for our own language or our English simply is not good enough.
We have been granted independence, or at least so it seems. Now it turns out it is not our nation that for forty-nine years has been aided to develop, rather it is once again the white man’s exploitation of the South. Am I really surprised, you ask? I suppose it is foolish of me, but I must say your disguise has certainly improved. For is it not your policy, inviting ‘locals’ to participate in meetings and discussions? Granted, they are paid a fraction of those who had to endure the arduous pain of travelling by plane from the comfort of their spacious homes, but at least their voice is being heard.
Unfortunately, as Adaego confirmed on Williams first day, their English is not always up to speed and so as many other instances they are excluded from the development discourse. Yet their presence will show nicely in the photos of the necessary report going back to the Headquarters. But if someone would actually listen and hear what the ‘locals’ have to say, one might hear that we are capable.
Will it ever end, you ask? Well then, what about poor Williams’ job? And all those others, speaking in conference rooms about the poor who need to be empowered? Who sleep happily each night, knowing they contribute to the sustainable development of the world, whatever that might mean. How will they fulfill their purpose of saving the world, if they cannot be paid to do so? Take a job in the capitalist world of commercial industry? The horror! They work for the good guys.
Meanwhile, I listen daily to the ‘experienced’ and ‘progressive’ Edward Williams, for he has made me understand. He speaks of changing the world, but he means a world that is not his. It is easy to want to change the other, but dear Commonwealth of Nations, will you ever change yourself?
Written by Suad Gowdan & Paula de Beer on the lecture on Decolonizing Development by Naomi van Stapele & Gerald Kweri