Born in: Bruning, Nebraska USA
Countries, states, cities lived in: Zimbabwe (Mutare & Harare): 1999 & 2002-04; Michigan (Detroit): 1999-2000; Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh): 2000-2002; Namibia (Windhoek): a few months in 2001; Malawi (Lilongwe): 2004-05; California (Santa Cruz): 2005-10; Washington, DC: two weeks ago-present.
Cyberspace coordinates: How Matters | Aid effectiveness is not what we do, but HOW we do it (blog); @intldogooder (Twitter handle)
What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
I grew up on a pig farm in Bruning, Nebraska, population 248. The graduating class of my secondary school had 16 people. Every time the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is uttered, I think “If only they really knew…” Thinking back, there were two very important teachers, one in high school, and another at university, who were extremely influential in shaping and expanding my world view. And my parents certainly raised me to cultivate a curiosity about life. This, along with my insatiable, youthful desire to get as far away from Nebraska as possible, was a combustible mix that shaped my career and life path.
Is anyone else in your family a “displaced” person?
I was the first person in my family to go or live abroad. I don’t think I even knew anyone who had been to Africa before my first trip abroad, at age 19.
Describe the moment when you felt most displaced.
On the bustling Nelson Mandela Avenue in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2003. I always hated driving to city centre, but a colleague and I had to go to the immigration office to update our work permits. When we came out of the office, our car was blocked by another on the street. So we just got into the car and waited.
Eventually a man came up my driver’s side window and tapped on the glass. Not knowing him, I rolled the window down a couple of inches. This seemed to anger him and he walked away to talk to another man, a companion of his, who started yelling out to walkers-by that this white woman [me] would not roll down my window — I must think Africans are “stinky,” on and on… Luckily people didn’t engage him. There was a dynamic going on that I didn’t understand — apparently, I had parked in the man’s space, and he felt justified in scolding and harassing me for that.
After a few more minutes, the original man came back to my window, pulled out his wallet and his War Veterans identification card, placed it up against the glass and menacingly dragged it across. And then it made sense. The card, along with the man’s demeanor, indicated that he was probably one of the veterans of Zimbabwe’s war for independence, who’d been recruited by the Mugabe government for help in brutally suppressing opposition demonstrations, in murdering and torturing opposition leaders, and in seizing land on behalf of the government elite.
Eventually, the man had had enough with me. He motioned for the car behind me to move, and I backed out and drove away very quickly.
Obviously, my experience that day was nothing compared to the very real and severe political violence and torture experienced then and now by Zimbabwe’s opposition supporters. If I felt displaced, imagine how black and white Zimbabweans felt who were violently displaced from their lands on behalf of so-called fast-track land resettlement. And on another level, my experience was nothing compared to the everyday torments of living in a country where in a sense everyone (war veterans included) has been displaced from a state of personal dignity and safety, through subtle yet deliberate expressions of power.
Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
Also in Zimbabwe — when talking with a group of local leaders in 2008. We were sharing stories about the issues women face in their struggles to raise families and improve their communities. One woman shared a brilliant story of triumph from being a physically and emotionally abused wife to now owning her own hairdressing business. She cried as she bravely told us about her life, and many others shared her tears.
Because I was there as a visitor, I was expected to respond (through a translator), and I took a chance in trying to break the tension and make the moment a bit lighter. I told her that I could tell she was a hairdresser because her plaits [braids] looked so perfect.
After the pause in which the translator shared what I had said, the room erupted in laughter. We were all reminded, no matter where we were from, of the sweetness of laughter through tears.
You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of your adopted countries into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
I had quite the African basket collection going for a while until they were stolen from my storage unit in Santa Cruz. That’s all the thieves got since I was in the process of moving at the time. Their house probably looks really cool now.
You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
Peanut butter vegetable stew is what I crave — from Zimbabwe. Let me know which of these recipes you fancy:
You may add one word or expression from the countries you’ve lived in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
Zvakaoma. This is a phrase in Shona that means, “it’s tough” or “it’s difficult.” It also roughly translates to “shucks” in English or “c’est la vie” in French. It was a phrase I heard often in Zimbabwe because of the severe economic downturn and the unavailability of basic commodities and cash during my time there. To my ears, it was a very compassionate phrase. Zvakaoma — I lament with you; I feel your frustration and pain. Sometimes a well-timed zvakaoma can get you through your day.
This month we are looking into “philanthropic displacement” — when people travel or become expats on behalf of helping others less fortunate than themselves. Do you have a role model you look up to when engaged in this kind of travel — whose words of advice you remember when you find yourself in a difficult situation?
Great question — one that we aid workers should always be asking themselves as well, because how we go about developing our role or calling can have an impact on our effectiveness as helpers. Helping is hard. Unfortunately, there aren’t any simple solutions to aiding the poor.
Having worked in international aid and philanthropy for over a decade, I’ve come to admire the people who have managed not to totally lose their idealism and commitment to the work. So many aid workers become jaded and cynical — I can’t help but wonder if this hinders their effectiveness in the field.
In addition, I really look up to the leaders of local nonprofits and grassroots organizations in the countries where I’ve worked. I’ve had the privilege of working with over three hundred such groups in southern and eastern Africa during my career. Most were linked to local churches, schools, or clinics though some were also independent. They extend support and services into areas that are not reached sufficiently by government or international agencies.
The web of local initiatives in the developing world is still largely undocumented, unrecognized and under-resourced. WiserEarth.org conservatively estimates there well may be over a million such groups around the world! In my experience, these local leaders are there for kids, families and communities, whether funding or support from outsiders is available or not. Watching them and their persistence keeps me going.
Voluntourism is said to be the fastest growing segment of the travel industry (itself one of the world’s fastest growing industries). Do you think this kind of travel can help the uninitiated understand the problems our planet is facing?
Aid workers easily get frustrated when we see harm being done by well-meaning but naive tourists. Though if we are honest, that is how many of us got our start in this work. A great article by writer J.B. MacKinnon, entitled “The Dark Side of Volunteer Tourism,” provides a reality check. He wrote:
First, nothing is likely to stop the increase in person-to-person contact between people of the richer nations and people of the poorer. Second, there is much to be gained on both sides from this exchange. Third, those gains will be made through a series of small, personal, humbling errors.
To anyone considering voluntourism, I can recommend PEPY Tours in Cambodia. It’s doing voluntourism responsibly, thoughtfully, and respectfully — and has a great blog to follow, Lessons I Learned.
In general, I’d advise volun-tourists to ask critical questions of whatever project or trip in which they’re involved. Link the big issues to what you’re trying to do locally. It’s important to be curious about the root causes of poverty and vulnerability and what is needed for long-term change. Commit yourself to this learning process and never stop asking the deeper questions, whether it’s your first trip abroad or you’ve been working “in the field” for decades.
It’s also vital to recognize that every community has important non-monetary assets. When we come from a perspective of “we have so much, they have so little,” it’s easy to miss this. So the question becomes: “Who are the local leaders who are already doing great work who need the resources I have to offer?”
Finally, don’t let your good work become all about you. Place local people’s efforts before your own, in order to foster ownership and sustainability. Remember that whatever you do will always be secondary to the relationships you build.
Readers — yay or nay for letting Jennifer Lentfer into The Displaced Nation? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Jennifer — find amusing.)
img: From corn to cassava — Jennifer Lentfer talking with farmer and local leader Jones Pilo in Zomba, Malawi (2007).
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, who is hoping that Oliver’s visit back to Milton Keynes doesn’t result in any surprise guests (Sandra, for instance!) at their first Thanksgiving. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)
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