Isn't it wonderful when someone puts into words something that you know but can't explain. That's exactly my feeling from watching Eliza Anyangwe of the Guardian interviewing Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina. They discuss aid, power and the politics of development in Africa (video link)
In her introduction Eliza refers to the feeling that many people have about being "displeased with how Africa is portrayed." I know what she means - though I feel that "displeased" is a somewhat mild word to choose. I have felt bewildered, confused, powerless and angry about the disconnect between things as they seem to me in the places I know in Nigeria and "how Africa is portrayed". I've also got increasingly cynical about "aid' and "development", delivered in what I've come to see as a top-down, tick-box culture - but I won't go on about that. Binyavanga Wainaina explains it with a humorous light touch and far more credibility. I'll simply relate the video to my experience.
My experience since 2001
When I first went to Nigeria, early in 2001, it was for the funeral of a friend - a Nigerian friend, who lived in London, Peter Adetunji Oyawale. Except for what Peter had told me, I was very ignorant about "development". I didn't know much about Africa either - beyond David Attenborough programmes and TV "disaster" news. My first impressions were a mixture of amazement and recognition.
When I got back to London I wondered what I should do next. I was a returning traveller, now loaded with information. I had learned to hold my assumptions about Africa lightly. I had a video recording of the funeral. I had formed personal connections, some of which were to develop into deep friendships.
At the funeral some people in Peter's home area of Oke-Ogun had said they were committed to continuing his work, and it seemed they expected me to be helping. I had no idea if the words they spoke were genuine or just the emotion of the moment. Later I realised that while some of the people had a genuine connection to Peter's vision, some of the words were probably simple opportunism, based on the mistaken impression that Peter's project was fully funded and supported by a well established NGO. I knew too little for that idea to occur to me at the time.
I had been given precious gifts of information and connection. I had been admitted to a world that was completely outside my previous experience. Given the circumstances of Peter's death and my closeness to his widow and children, I felt some kind of responsibility towards realising his vision for "African Welfare and Development" starting with "Oke-Ogun Community Development Agenda 2000 plus". I would do what I could.
I had little to offer except that, living in London, I had cheap, reliable, 24/7 broadband access. That was something no-one had in Oke-Ogun. It made sense to find all the research and political touch-points that I could connect with in order to support Peter's project. After all, even though I had few resources of my own, there was the "development community" over here. Surely as someone who lived in the UK, I could help my new friends, through the work of DFID (Department for International Development) and researchers in university departments, and all that kind of thing. I just needed to connect.
I started to learn all I could about "development". I needed to understand about policies, good practice, and whatever was relevant.
I also needed to return to Nigeria for "reality checks" to keep me up to date with progress on the project and to help me understand what support I could give. There were no mobile phones in Nigeria when my involvement began. Only one person in Peter's huge network in Nigeria had a personal phone (a landline) and that was because he was a businessman based in a city. Opportunities to exchange emails with my contacts in rural Nigeria were rare and precious.
I was trying to build connections and make sense of it all.
I had been drawn to Peter's project because of our shared interests in education and ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) so I also started to investigate current thinking on ICT for Education (ICT4Ed) and ICT for Development (ICT4D). I went to the Internet and I went to events in London. I asked questions. I joined in online discussions. I kept going back to Nigeria on "working holidays" to keep in contact with Peter's project (and subsequently with John Dada's work with Fantsuam Foundation).
My first flight to Nigeria in 2001 was the start of a tremendous learning journey. The more I studied "development" etc and the more I learned about realities in non-elite Nigeria, the greater the disconnect seemed between me and "the professionals". Ironically, as mobile phone coverage has increased the disconnect has simply altered, not decreased.
Gradually I gave up trying to connect actively with the "development community" and the academics (although I still lurk on the edges trying to understand their perspectives). I turned to experimenting with ways to make reality visible. I also explored aspects of learning and teaching through online collaboration - especially UK-Africa. I came to believe in the importance of connection, communication, free-flowing information, personal relationships based on mutual respect, and a willingness to learn.
Effective development can't be achieved through fixed, tidy, top-down, target-driven, tick lists. It has to be more responsive. It's about people, and inter-related needs, and local knowledge.
"Development" isn't just about Africa either. It seems to me that we need the best possible "rubbing of minds" to face the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century, locally and globally, in Africa, in the UK and worldwide.
I'm curious and I'm trying to make sense of things. However, I'm an accidental pioneer of 21st century communication and collaboration between the UK and Africa, and I lack a "professional voice". Here in the Eliza Anyangwe and Binyavanga Wainaina video I've found people with reputations who are speaking words I want people to hear about the "disconnect" situation as I find it.