Save Nothing: A Pre-ramble

Author’s note: This page was entirely composed before leaving for Zambia. It is loooooong. You may want to take it in chunks or come back to it some day when I’m offering measly updates for weeks at a time.

What’s with the name?

I found it difficult to come up with a name with so many unknowns about my future experience. I hope “zambialog” is simple enough for people to find and remember. It is possible that I will change the name of the blog as time goes on, but the web ADDRESS will stay consistent. Basically, you can count on

Where am I?

The premise: February, 2017 through May, 2019 (if-all-goes-according-to-plan, knock-on-wood, what-have-you) I will be living in Zambia, working as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I will be working to support farmers in a program called “Linking Income, Food, and the Environment,” administered through the Zambian Forestry Department.

How did I get here?

Let me be honest, starting right now: the first time I remember actually thinking about the Peace Corps, a few years ago now, I had some issues with it. When I was an undergraduate student, I was a research assistant on an anthropology professor’s work about issues related to race and humanitarianism. Her field work was in Sierra Leone. A lot of the research involved reading about humanitarian projects, mostly in west Africa, with many pieces criticizing folks we often hear about as Good Guys. At one point I read an article that discussed the Peace Corps and dynamics of white saviorism. I recall uncomfortably glancing at my hands, illuminated by the laptop glow as I typed up a paragraph of notes and thinking ‘Well, gee. Never want to do that!’

Never say never. Five years later I am five days away from starting my Peace Corps orientation. Needless to say, my world has gotten messier in the past five years. … My friend Rachel recently offered me this advice: if you don’t want to be a white savior, then just don’t be. Just don’t approach people that way. It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. To what extent are our roles prescribed by larger histories and structures we are participating in?

So maybe my perspective on white saviorism has a few more shades of grey to it these days. Furthermore, I am relieved to find that it definitely seems like the Peace Corps is focused on responding to local needs and training volunteers to be aware of these dynamics these days. Plus, I am not heading into it out of fantasy lust for adventure or a vague desire to do some good in the world. I applied for Peace Corps specifying that I wanted to do something related to agriculture. Being in a Food Studies program for the past year and a half, I’ve gotten a great grounding in all kinds of criticisms of current food systems and attempts to alter them. And I’ve gotten to dabble in everything from brewing beer to cross breeding tomato varieties. I’ve definitely learned a lot about the current challenges facing various workers in agriculture/food processing/food service/food waste management/food policy/… in a place like Pennsylvania.

Why do this?

But then you hear murmurings about the importance of peasants. The contributions of smallholder farmers worldwide is pretty difficult to measure, but people who have a sense of the issues seem to think that they’re still way more significant than I would have guessed from my experience in the U.S., and yet I have so little idea what that work and those contexts look like. And it’s not just food systems – while we can talk about globalized systems (of food, water, oppression) in abstract terms, all I have is this faint nagging sense that these histories have shaped things pretty differently from place to place.

Then there’s the question of hunger. High-tech approaches for agriculture are often advocated for based on the continued presence of hunger worldwide and a growing population. This premise is fundamentally flawed, as hunger has a lengthy history as a political problem, not a resource or technological problem.* But furthermore it is troubling that discussions about ‘solutions’ that might address hunger often are dominated by researchers and business people who may have a limited range of perspectives. What are people’s experiences like growing up or parenting today experiencing crop failures and food shortages? What do discussions of relevant issues look like in some of these contexts? Of course it gets complicated. Zambia’s food systems are often more productive and resilient than those of its neighbors and like anywhere, I’m sure there’s a great diversity of experiences within any of these countries…I definitely don’t want to represent Zambia, or southern Africa, or subsaharan Africa, or Africa as merely a story of hunger and need. (More on the importance of telling a range of more complex stories later…)

So I guess at this point it’s good to acknowledge my own starting point of exposure to stories about Zambia. I pretty much had just two associations with Zambia before I found out I was placed there with Peace Corps: one was a piece of comedy that I found humorous, but of course is not necessarily a very nuanced representation. The other, though, was that Zambia has experience complicating expectations and narratives about hunger-stricken, aid-recipient desperation, since they refused to accept genetically modified food aid from the U.S. back in 2002. Hopefully I’ll meet some people who can challenge and develop and complicate the way I think about all this stuff. (And hopefully we’ll have some silly conversations in there too =).

Ultimately, then, my applying was mostly motivated by the opportunity to learn through being immersed in different food and political surroundings from those I’m familiar with. In Zambia I will be in a new cultural context, in a different climate**, with a high proportion of small, non-mechanized farms. It is a country that was still a colony when my parents were born and has been on the receiving end of US food aid and World Bank/IMF structural adjustment policies. Given that I believe in the power of “cognitive democracy,” I am drawn to interacting with and communicating with people who may have different experiences and perspectives from my own. And, I hope to learn a lot from the technical training and experience I will get with farming, specifically with agroforestry/trees, in this program. Wherever I am, I generally find it cool if people I am working with consider my presence positive and my work useful to them. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

So back in July the Peace Corps told me I was accepted and had 3 days to decide whether to go. The timing was a bit of a shock, especially since I wasn’t expecting to know until September. While it felt a bit like being pushed off a flying trapeze board, I realized that I had gotten myself up a serious ladder and to the edge of that board without turning back.

And then…

To make things messier…U.S. Politics right now… In recent months I have found myself questioning whether it is OK for me to not be here for these next two years. Ultimately, I don’t think there’s a definitive answer. I know that it is a tense time and important for anyone who can to physically show up politically. Given histories both recent and historic of failing, it feels important as ever that white people be available to put our bodies and resources and energy up against deeply rooted systems we benefit from (but with some conscientiousness of context and what our whiteness may signify, especially in spaces organized by people of color).

What to do…

So, yep- call me a hypocrite. Maybe I am a spineless jerk who just wants to justify biking around eating mangoes in the sun for two years. (That’s all Peace Corps is, right?)  I am not looking for comfort that I’ve made the “right” decision or can be forgiven for my absence. And yeah, I should probably stop taking myself too seriously… But I will share some thoughts because it is helpful for me to think this through and consider things out loud. Maybe it will start some productive conversations– please share your thoughts.

  • I can still do some things. Being physically absent doesn’t have to mean being completely politically inactive. I can be donating to organizations and emailing reps and signing petitions… And, yes, I am on top of my absentee ballot. It’s not ideal, but something.
  • Two years is not forever. To be honest, this moment in the U.S. feels especially tumultuous and critical… but we also have to think about the looooong haul, and there will be plenty to show up for in 2019 and beyond.
  • I’m not running away. Part of what has drawn me into this is the fact that every mess and every social issue that I care about: none of it is neatly contained within the borders of a single country. I am not going to solve any of these things with a blog or my presence in one community for a couple years, but one has to face these issues somewhere. So, some messy threads to consider:

I want to break open this last part a bit more, because I for one have felt generally lacking in depth of my awareness of U.S. foreign policy, across presidencies. The single thing I’ve read in the past couple months that has stuck with me most is Teju Cole’s 2012 essay “The White Savior Industrial Complex”. There’s too many good lines to quote — it’s not that long, just read the whole thing. But I’ll just put this paragraph here:

Let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy. To do this would be to give up the illusion that the sentimental need to “make a difference” trumps all other considerations. What innocent heroes don’t always understand is that they play a useful role for people who have much more cynical motives. The White Savior Industrial Complex is a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage. We can participate in the economic destruction of Haiti over long years, but when the earthquake strikes it feels good to send $10 each to the rescue fund. I have no opposition, in principle, to such donations (I frequently make them myself), but we must do such things only with awareness of what else is involved. If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.

An un-education

Recently I was chatting with one of my favorite eight-year-olds between cheesy mouthfuls of homemade pizza. She asked me why the U.S. sends people to all these places in the Peace Corps. I wasn’t exactly sure what she was getting at with her question, but I started describing ideas of cultural exchange and trying to talk about the kinds of projects that Peace Corps volunteers support, carefully avoiding choosing words that implied dynamics of saviorism. But, impatient, she interrupted and said “Wait, so do they do it because the U.S. is so great that anyone else in the world would be lucky just to have someone so good like us to help them out and learn from?” I took a deep breath. Talk about a leading question, little one.

I tried to address some of the bigger issues. “Well,” I said – “No. Even though the U.S., as a country, is very wealthy in certain ways, I think it’s important to think about how we’ve come to be that way.” In retrospect I should have started with slavery first, but I guess I wanted to ease into this =\. “For example, while there have been a lot of wars in the last 100 years that have really hurt other countries, the U.S. has managed to make it so that none of that has happened within our country.” “OH,” she said, “You mean because we’re so peaceful…” “Ummmmmm NO.” A few sentences into trying to explain U.S. militarism, foreign policy, and how people in other places sometimes see our country as a bully, she started melting down on me. “BUT I’M NOT A BULLY!!! I WANT TO LIFT PEOPLE UP.” (I told this story to a friend who noted that unlearning all of these ideas about our nation and ourselves is a painful thing to face, even at age eight.)

We went on to talk about how governments and countries are usually a mix of good and bad things, how what they do doesn’t necessarily reflect each individual in them. I said, “but if you ask me, one of the best things about the U.S. is that we’ve always agreed that we have to be allowed to criticize the bad things. Because if you want to improve at anything, you have to be able to think about what you’ve done wrong and hear criticism from other people.”

Fresher under pressure

A few weeks ago I mentioned to a grocery customer I was ringing up that I was leaving soon for the Peace Corps. She stopped doing everything she was in the middle of, looked me in the eyes and just said “THANK YOU.” I winced. “WHERE ARE YOU GOING, IS IT AFRICA???” “uhhhh, yeah well I’ll be in Zambia.” She clasped her hands together, looked up towards the ceiling, and said “YES. Thank you. Well that’s something good.”

To everyone reading this, including myself, my request is this: if at any time, while you are reading this blog or simply daydreaming about my activities you find yourself inspired with feelgood vibes, step back. As Teju Cole points out, there is nothing wrong with participating in the feelgood stuff, but that alone is not enough. We cannot ignore when we are speaking out of both sides of our mouth. Ask what injustice your government is committing right now in the name of your protection, or the ‘greatest good,’ or simply because it is convenient to them and no one is stopping it. Share what you find. Then, as my young friend has demonstrated, feel like these actions reflect on you personally. Save nothing in your willingness to act accordingly. To reference Cole again, let the unbearable pressures build, until these problematic systems can be reborn.

*As Raj Patel puts it, “There’s more than enough food on earth today to feed the world one and a half times over. The reason people go hungry is because of the way we distribute food through the market, as private property, and the people who starve are simply too poor to be able to afford it. If there were fewer people in the world but the way we distributed food remained the same, the poor would still go hungry” (p. 94).

**Most of Zambia has a humid subtropical climate, similar to the Southeast US. There is also some tropical savanna which is more like the Everglades/Florida Keys. Confession: until a few days ago I did not realize that you could have a ‘subtropical’ climate while still being within the tropical belt, as Zambia is. Learning is good.