The Displaced Nation

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In this novel of displacement, water shapes the land, the country and people’s lives, almost beyond recognition

Ruth Hartley Collage

The Shaping of Water cover art; Ruth Hartley author portrait; Ruth Hartley’s painting of her father’s farm.

My guest today, Ruth Hartley, is a writer and an artist—but from the point of view of the Displaced Nation, she is something else as well: an expert on displacement.

Ruth has lived a life of displacement. She grew up in Africa, a continent that continues to have the world’s largest number of forcibly displaced peoples. She grew up on her father’s farm in Zimbabwe, which at that point was known as Rhodesia, at a time when struggles for independence in European-ruled African territories were spreading like a wave. As a young woman, she moved to South Africa to study art and then had to escape to England because of her political activities.

Ruth took refuge in London, where she married and started raising a family—but still felt the pull of her native Africa and chose to become an “expatriate economic migrant” in Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia). She lived with her husband and children in Zambia for 22 years, returning to the UK in 1994 to practice and teach art. Five years ago she set out on a long tour of Europe and Turkey. She now lives in Southern France.

Manzi ni moyo (water is life) —Chinyanja saying

Ruth recently published her first novel, The Shaping of Water, which, perhaps not surprisingly, reads like an ode, a kind of paean, to displacement. The action follows the progress of a decision by Rhodesia’s rulers to build a dam across the mighty Zambezi. They called it the Kariba Dam because the dam wall spans the narrowest and steepest of the gorges along the river, known locally as kariwa (a trap). Completed in 1959, the Kariba Dam created a vast man-made lake, Lake Kariba, in the Zambezi Valley. The lake displaced the river people, the Tonga, and forever changed the ecology of the region.

The book’s protagonists are a colonial couple, Margaret and Charles. They decide to build a lake-front cottage in Siavonga, a settlement that springs up to accommodate the displaced Tonga.

Ironically, although the ramshackle cottage sits in a spot that would never have existed had it not been for the building of the dam, which shaped the river in a new way, it is the one constant, a kind of retreat from the forces that displace practically everyone during the African liberation wars that ensue. Margaret and Charles use it as a place of sanctuary, and eventually two other couples come to do so as well: South African freedom fighters Marielise (Margaret’s niece) and Jo, and NGO worker Nick and his UK-raised African wife, Manda.

The cottage also provides a livelihood for Milimo, the son of a Tonga woman whose home was drowned by the lake. Margaret hires Milimo as gardener and caretaker for the property at the suggestion of Father Patrick, a missionary who worked in the Zambezi Valley before its shaping by water.

As a kind of review of the many layers of displacement in this novel, I offer this quote from the book, which I think also demonstrates Ruth’s lyrical style of storytelling:

Here near Kariba, ‘the trap’, in the middle of a wilderness, is a place called Siavonga, which is a name without meaning. It is a place that will be a town but a place that is not yet built. It is a place that is presently isolated by poor and inadequate roads and it is difficult to reach. It is in a country that is becoming another country, with another name. It is here that there is a plot where a contractor builds a cottage above a lake not yet filled with water. All this takes place in the newly created Central African Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland that will be no more in a few short years. Two of these countries will change into independent states with different names when that happens.

It is an exercise in madness and dreams, in magic and megalomania, and the Tonga people know it to be impossible.

And now I think it’s time to get to know Ruth a little better, and hear some more about her book as well as the other creative projects she is working on.

* * *

Hi, Ruth, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. I expect you will feel entirely at home here. I wonder, did you consciously set out to write a book exploring displacement?
Displacement is a good way of describing what happens in the story. Displacement can lead to new opportunities but it is also damaging. I deliberately structured the book so that it explored three main themes:

  • Damage to the environment.
  • Damage done for political reasons.
  • Damage that is personal, emotional and private. It includes damage done by racism and sexism and deals with both in subtle ways.

Though each of these themes gets its own part in the book, they are also interwoven. I passionately wanted to bring the issues of contemporary Africa to life in a truthful, but also empathetic and positive, way.

I know you lived through many of the events that are depicted in this novel. To what extent is your work autobiographical fiction and to what extent historical fiction?
My novel is about entirely fictional characters living through actual and verifiable political and social events. I grew up in an intense political climate in Africa with a strong personal commitment to human rights. I did live through those events and have always made notes and collected newspaper articles and books throughout my life. But because I respect and love the individuals I knew in Africa I was careful to invent the people in my story. None of them is me either though like Margaret, I, too, am a gardener. The cottage, however, is real and the cottage guest book provided me with records of the weather and the lake levels.

“…all that I have left of my life, work, and friendships is stored on my computer” —Marielise

For me, the cottage assumed the role of the central character. You said it was real. Was it a place where you actually stayed?
If a cottage can be a character, then the one real and existing “character” in the novel apart from historical political figures is the “Cottage”. The book was in part, written as an elegy for a place I loved. Built before Zambian independence, the cottage belonged to a group of friends who were no longer resident in Zambia and my husband and I became its caretakers and at times its only guests. Here are some photos of how it looked:

TSOW cottage 001 (2)

The cottage in Zambia on Lake Kariba that Ruth Hartley and her family often visited. Photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

view from the cottage to the lake 001

The view from the cottage to Lake Kariba; photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

The steps leading down to Lake Kariba from the cottage; photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

The steps leading down to Lake Kariba from the cottage; photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

In 1975 I gave the owners a Visitor’s Book to record happy weekends spent there with friends. The book became my sole responsibility and I kept it as a log of the cottage and the lake from 1975 until 1994. It was finally returned to me after 2000 when the cottage was sold.

TSOW guestbook DN 001 (2)

The original Guest Book from the cottage, which Ruth inherited and used to inspire her novel. Photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

Looking at these materials makes me wonder: did you ever consider writing a memoir instead?
I wrote a fictionalized memoir called The Love and Wisdom Crimes in 1999 in which I was careful to protect people’s identities. It is about how I became politicized and fell in love when I lived in South Africa in 1965. Though I was told it is good and poetic, I had countless rejections because the African setting was not considered to be easily marketable. I have just completed a no-holds-barred memoir of the year that followed when I survived as a single mother in London. It is titled A Bad Girl in Search of Love.

Goodness, you are prolific! Can you describe your path to publishing The Shaping of Water?
At 70, I didn’t want to waste time or energy on rejections so I went for self-publication and self-promotion. I believe the market is moving this way in any case. I used Troubador Publishing because they offer a comprehensive printing and marketing package at a reasonable cost and with integrity. I don’t expect to recoup my investment but I will self-publish again. Hopefully it will be cheaper because of what I have learnt.

What kind of audience did you intend for the book?
I think that my audience is anyone who reads for pleasure and who also likes to make journeys of discovery into new worlds and ideas with believable and interesting characters.

“It’s not sensible—this—this racism!” —Margaret

I enjoyed reading the book because it gave me a feeling for contemporary African history, while also making me realize how little I actually know about Africa. I think I identified most strongly with Margaret and Charles. I felt bad that they saw a future Africa that would have a place for them, only to have that vision eradicated as the violence of the liberation wars escalated. It seemed to me that even if you wanted to do the right thing for Africa, after a while it was hard to know what the right thing was.
I have been thrilled to find readers who do not know Africa or its politics but who still have enjoyed the book and its characters. I didn’t intend this book as a lesson in African history, but I expect it would be good background material.

So what are you working on next and will you continue exploring some of these same themes?
I am working on two more novels. I am more than half way through writing The Tin Heart Gold Mine, a book that is set half in a fictional African country and half in London. The setting and the plot are quite different to The Shaping of Water, but the themes should be of universal interest. It is the story of Lara who begins in Africa as a wildlife artist and the lover of Oscar, an entrepreneur who owns a defunct gold mine and is also a political manipulator. Her journey takes her to London and a life with Tim (a journalist) and Adam, a child of doubtful paternity. She makes, owns and uses art that is troubling and troublesome.

I enjoyed looking at some of your art on your author site. I look forward to reading your book about an African wildlife artist. What’s your other novel about?
I have plans for another novel titled Hannah’s Housekeeping. Hannah is a mature woman who has seen the world and had many lovers. She runs a B&B but though Hannah cleans up the dirt in her house, her husband is missing and she doesn’t know if she can keep death from her door…

Sounds tantalizing! Finally, are there any pieces of advice you could impart to other international creatives?
I am an artist and writer who was effectively prevented from writing and painting for a good part of my adult life though I did teach and work in support of artists for many years. I learnt that it is important and essential to make art and to write, though very few artists and writers make a living from their art or get much recognition for it. Creative people, however reclusive, need an audience and to communicate.

How about lessons for other wannabe novelists?
It is important to write well and that takes practice and humility and many, many redrafts. I am always anxious about what my readers think even when I know I have written a good book. My readers matter to me so I have to keep on improving my craft as a writer.

Thank you, Ruth, for being with us today and for sharing some more of the story behind The Shaping of Water. On your Web site you describe yourself as a compulsive storyteller. I think we got a feeling for this today as well.

* * *

So, readers, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Ruth? To learn more the Kariba Dam and the experiences that inspired the story Ruth tells in her novel, please watch this short video interview with Ruth and also be sure to visit her author’s site.

And if you think you’d like to read Ruth’s novel (we highly recommend it as a Christmas read!), Ruth has kindly arranged for Displaced Nation readers to get a 50 percent discount when ordering a paperback copy at the Troubadour site (enter the code: HARTLEY).

You can also buy the book in a Kindle format, not only from Troubadour but also from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Expats, here’s how to enrich your lives in 2013: Choose a mentor or a muse!

Expats and other world adventurers, let me guess. You have you spent the past week making resolutions about

  • staying positive about your new life in Country X;
  • indulging in less of the local stodge;
  • giving up the smoking habit that no one is nagging you about now that you’re so far away from home;
  • and/or taking advantage of travel opportunities within the region that may never come your way again

— while also knowing full well that at some point in the not-distant future, you’ll end up stuffing your face with marshmallows (metaphorically speaking).

Never mind, it happens to the best of us, as psychologist Walter Mischel — he of the marshmallow experimentrecently told Abby Hunstman of the Huffington Post. Apparently, it has something to do with the way impulses work in the brain. The key is to trick the brain by coming up with strategies to avoid the marshmallow or treat it as something else.

Today I’d like to propose something I found to be one of the most effective strategies for turning away from the marshmallows you’ve discovered in your new home abroad or, for more veteran expats, turning these marshmallows into something new and exotic. My advice is to find a mentor or a muse in your adopted land — someone who can teach you something new, or who inspires you by their example to try new things…

Trust me, if you choose the right mentor +/or muse, benefits like the following will soon accrue:

1) More exotic looks — and a book deal.

Back when I lived abroad, first in England and then in Japan, I was always studying other women for style and beauty tips. I made a muse of everyone from Princess Diana (I could hardly help it as her image was being constantly thrust in front of me) to the stewardesses I encountered on All Nippon Airways. Have you ever seen the film Fear and Trembling, based on the autobiographical novel of that name, by the oft-displaced Amélie Nothomb? On ANA flights, I behaved a little like the film’s young Belgian protagonist, Amélie, who secretly adulates her supervisor Miss Fubuki. I simply couldn’t believe the world contained such attractive women…

The pay-off came upon my repatriation to the US. With such a wide array of fashion and beauty influences, I’d begun to resemble Countess Olenska in The Age of Innocence — with my Laura Ashley dresses, hair ornaments, strings of (real) pearls, and habit of bowing to everyone.

Is it any wonder my (Japanese) husband-to-be nicknamed me the Duchess? (Better than being the sheltered May Welland, surely?)

My one regret is that I didn’t parlay these style tips into a best-seller — unlike Jennifer Scott, one of the authors who was featured on TDN this past year. While studying in Paris, Scott was in a mentoring relationship with Madame Chic and Madame Bohemienne. (The former was the matriarch in her host family; the latter, in her boyfriend’s host family.) Mme C & Mme B took her under their wing and taught her everything she knows about personal style, preparation of food, home decor, entertaining, make-up, you name it…and is now imparting to others in her Simon & Schuster-published book.

2) More memorable dinner parties.

As mentioned in a previous post, I adopted actress and Indian cookbook writer Madhur Jaffrey as my muse shortly after settling down in the UK. I was (still am) madly in love with her, her cookbooks, even her writing style.

And her recipes do me proud to this day.

Right before Christmas I threw a dinner party for 10 featuring beef cooked in yogurt and black pepper, black cod in a coriander marinade, and several of her vegetable dishes.

It was divine — if I say so myself! To be fair, the guests liked it, too…

3) Improved language skills.

Now the ideal mentor for an adult seeking to pick up a new foreign language is a boyfriend or girlfriend in the local culture — preferably one with gobs of patience. The Japanese have the perfect expression for it: iki jibiki, or walking dictionary.

Just one caveat: If you’re as language challenged as Tony James Slater, it could prove a headache and, ultimately, a heartache.

Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained…

(Married people, you might want to give up on this goal. I’m serious…)

4) A fondness for angels who dance on pinheads.

After seeing the film Lost in Translation, I became an advocate for expats giving themselves intellectual challenges. Really, there’s no excuse for ennui of the sort displayed by Scarlett Johansson character, in a well-traveled life.

It was while living in the UK as a grad student that I discovered the extraordinary scholar-writer Marina Warner, who remains an inspiration to this day. Warner, who grew up in Brussels and Cambridge and was educated at convent school and Oxford University, is best known for her books on feminism and myth.

After reading her book Monuments and Maidens, I could never look at a statue in the same way again!

In her person, too, she is something of a goddess. Though I’d encountered women of formidable intellect before, I found her more appealing than most, I think because she wears her learning lightly and has an ethereal presence, like one of the original Muses.

Booker prizewinner Julian Barnes has written of her “incandescent intelligence and Apulian beauty” (she is half Italian, half English). The one time I met her — I asked her to sign my copy of her Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, The Lost Father — I could see what he meant.

I was gobsmacked.

Major girl crush!

(Don’t have a girl crush? Get one! It will enrich your life immeasurably.)

5) Greater powers of mindfulness — and a book deal.

Third Culture Kid Maria Konnikova was born in Moscow but grew up and was educated in the US. She has started the new year by putting out a book with Viking entitled Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Who would guess that a young Russian-born woman would use Conan Doyle’s fictional creations, Holmes and Watson, as her muses? But, as she explains in a recent article in Slate, she has learned everything she knows about the art of mindfulness from that master British sleuth:

Mindfulness allows Holmes to observe those details that most of us don’t even realize we don’t see.

So moved is she by Holmes’s example — and so frustrated by her own, much more limited observational powers — Konnikova does the boldest of all thought experiments: she gives up the Internet…

So does her physiological and emotional well-being improve as a result? Does her mind stop wandering away from the present? Does she become happier? I won’t give it away lest you would like to make Konnikova this year’s muse and invest in her book. Hint: If you do, we may not see you here for a while. 😦

6) The confidence to travel on your own.

We expats tend to be a little less intrepid than the average global wanderer: we’re a little too attached to our creature comforts and may need a kick to become more adventuresome. But even avid travelers sometimes lose their courage, as Amy Baker recently reported in a post for Vagabondish. She recounts the first time she met a Swedish solo traveler in Morocco, who had lived on her own in Zimbabwe for 10 years. This Swede is now her friend — and muse:

She was level-headed, organized and fiercely independent — all characteristics that I aim to embody as a female traveler.

With this “fearless Swedish warrior woman” in mind, Amy started venturing out on her lonesome — and hasn’t looked back.

* * *

Readers, the above is not intended as an exhaustive list as I’m hoping you can contribute your own experiences with mentors and muses abroad: What do you do to avoid the “marshmallows” of the (too?) well-traveled life? Who have you met that has inspired you to new creative, intellectual, or travel heights? Please let us know in the comments. In the meantime, I wish you a happy, healthy — and most of all, intellectually stimulating — new year!

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts.

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12 NOMADS OF CHRISTMAS: Karen van der Zee, Dutch/American expat in Moldova (8/12)

Current home: Chișinău, Moldova
Past overseas locations: Kenya, Ghana, Indonesia, Palestine, Ghana (again), Armenia, Moldova. (For years I was also an expat in the USA, my husband’s home country, and have dual — Dutch and American — citizenship.)
Cyberspace coordinates: Life in the Expat Lane — Foreign Fun in Exotic Places (blog) and @missfootloose (Twitter handle)
Recent posts: “Life Abroad: Of Red Undies, Sugary Pigs, and Freezing Waters” (December 31, 2011); “Expat Foodie: What to Do with Goose Fat?” (December 27, 2011); “Expat Life: Holiday Greetings from Afar” (December 26, 2011)

Where are you spending the holidays this year?
In Moldova. It will be the first time ever that my husband and I will not be spending it with the rest of our family.

What do you most like doing during the holidays?
Besides spending time with family, I enjoy decorating and cooking. This year I will cook dinner for expat friends who are also not going home. We can cry on each other’s shoulders, or perhaps just have a good time.

Will you be on or offline?
The computer will be on. We may be able to Skype.

Are you sending any cards?
I send only a few snailmail paper cards. Mostly I write short personal emails, using in part a few paragraphs of prepared text, but no newsletters. Newsletters never seem to quite fit for everybody the same way.

What’s the thing you most look forward to eating?
I wish I had something exotic to tell you about here, but actually, I just love having a good Christmas dinner and some decadent dessert. Normally I don’t eat much sugary food.

Can you recommend any good books other expats or “internationals” might enjoy?
Two works of nonfiction:

1) The Last Resort: A Memoir of Mischief and Mayhem on a Family Farm in Africa, by Douglas Rogers (Crown, 2009): A tragic-comic account of the author’s (white) parents’ life in Zimbabwe in the last 15 years and the trials and tribulations of running and holding on to their resort while all around them farms of white owners are being stolen and the country is falling apart. Great read.

2) Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris, by Sarah Turnbull (Gotham, 2003): An Australian journalist falls in love with a Frenchman, moves to Paris, and culture shock ensues. I always enjoy culture shock stories, and Paris is a great setting for culture shock.

And one novel:

Finding Nouf, by Zoë Ferraris (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008): A murder mystery set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with Saudi Arabian characters. I love this book because it offers an intimate look into the culture and lives of men and women in the very closed society of the Kingdom. Fascinating.

If you could travel anywhere for the holidays, where would it be?
I must be a terrible bore, but spending the holidays anonymously with strangers in some exotic place doesn’t appeal to me. However, I would love to live in the highlands of Bali!

What famous person do you think it would be fun to spend New Year’s Eve with?
What a fun question! Let me think. How about New Year’s Eve with Whoopi Goldberg? Why? Well, she’s unconventional, creative, fun, and loves to hang loose. What else do you need in a person to have some fun?

What’s been your most displaced holiday experience?
When we lived in Indonesia with our two young daughters. It was difficult to create a Christmas atmosphere in the sweltering tropics because we were used to a cold Christmas in the northern hemisphere. The year after that, while still living in Indonesia, we visited friends in Australia over the holidays. It was better, but still, it was summer there. It just wasn’t quite right!

How about the least displaced experience — when you’ve felt the true joy of the season?
I honestly cannot pick just one. I’ve had so many Christmasses and they’ve always been good one way or another.

How do you feel when the holidays are over?
Usually it’s a bit of a drag to take down the tree and pack up all the decorations and the house looks so bare and boring, but then I get busy and get on with life. I do not go into a major funk or depression, fortunately.

In the past, we would be returning from the US to wherever we were living, in the tropics or elsewhere, and that sort of took care of the transition to normal life.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love said to me:
EIGHT WHOOPHIS WHOOPING,
SEVEN SKIERS A-PARTYING,
SIX SPOUSES TRAILING,
FIVE GOOOOOOOFY EXPATS.
FOUR ENGLISH CHEESES,
THREE DECENT WHISKIES,
TWO CANDY BOXES,
& AN IRISHMAN IN A PALM TREE!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s featured nomad (9/12) in our 12 Nomads of Christmas series.

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RANDOM NOMAD: Jennifer Lentfer, International Aid Consultant, Writer & Blogger

Born in: Bruning, Nebraska USA
Passports: 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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