Firmly back in Copenhagen from Africa (for over a month…) and finally shirking the laziness that’s overcome me, I am now back to the task of blogging that my family (my only readers) reminded me that I should be. What’s that astute reader? Africa is a continent you say? Well, we went to Tanzania (that’s Sub-Saharan East Africa for those of you don’t quite know) where we were doing field work for one of the courses in our degree. We were in a medium-sized called Morogoro, about four hours west of Dar es Salaam, the largest city on the coast.
Essentially, we went there to learn in practice how to apply mixed-methods data collection in a research environment. (Still awake?) Since our ‘research environment’ is, well, the ‘developing world’, the pretext for the entire trip can seem problematic, which I recognize and think a lot about (especially as I decide if this career is exactly right for me). I was under no impression that what we were doing was anything meaningful or life-changing – it did feel a little like ‘research tourism’ at times – but it was good to get the experience of working with a group on a project in the field, which I don’t have a lot of experience with. The nice thing about our time in Morogoro was that it did not really feel like we were those so-called ‘voluntourists’ even though, by all accounts, we were.
The first days in Morogoro were quite nice. Since we arrived on a Saturday and Sunday was my birthday, I got to celebrate with Konyagi (local gin) and a whole lot of hiking (though not necessarily in that order). We went to a restaurant the night before – probably the best one we found in that city – and some of my friends let the owner know after midnight that it was my birthday, so I got a cupcake with a sparkler in it delivered to me at the bar. What more could a newly-minted 23-year old ask for on his first time in Africa?
Once the trip really started, it was two solid weeks of 10 hour days in the heat. I found it amazing how quickly I adapted. I, of course, knew that I took the reliability of certain services for granted, but you really do adapt to your circumstances quickly. We were not out in the middle of nowhere. We were privileged to be in a very comfortable setting with a lot of things you would expect anywhere else. The time there flew by, and it was indeed a meaningful experience and insight, however limited its scope and impact.
The research I was doing with my group was on a local form of Tanzanian music called Bongo Flava. Think, in essence, a mixture of rap and hip-hop with some reggae and R&B sometimes thrown in and a distinctly African flavor. The genre emerged in Tanzania, and it has become a sort-of form of national identity and consciousness. We were looking at what it meant to young people and how it had changed over time, and it was especially interesting to look at the music in the context of the ‘development state’ and its relationship to the country that produces it. Like I said, we weren’t changing the world.
While I wasn’t as comfortable doing anthropological research, I did like doing interviews and getting out in the field. I like finding the story, even if that story doesn’t quite make sense while you’re collecting it. We got a lot of interesting data points, a lot of which challenged our preconceptions and forced us to adapt our research. While I was not convinced our work was of consequence – it contributed to my feelings of being a ‘voluntourist’ – I did learn a lot from the process itself, which I guess was the most important part.
Highlights of the trip included: going to the mountainside ‘home’ of a famous local rapper, playing football (that’s soccer for the Yankees) with local Morogoroans (??), hiking up the Uluguru Mountains, running in the more rural areas, eating illegally-hunted impala (oops!), and managing to catch a safari (we really were tourists…). We finished the trip by taking a long break on the beaches of Zanzibar. For me and my inflated sense of self, I felt like going to Zanzibar at the end of a trip like that was somehow problematic, like it somehow affirmed the idea that I was the tourist that I was trying, for some reason, to convince myself that I am not. So, I embraced it, and it was amazing.
Zanzibar about lives up to expectations. It’s beautiful, distinctly African with Arabic influences. For sure, it’s touristy in many ways, but it doesn’t feel quite as touristy as other big vacation destinations do, especially in the capital of Stone Town. Stone Town is beautiful, and I regret not staying there more than a day.
It was a little bit eye-opening to travel through the middle of the island and see how real people live, to think that as you go from one coast to the next that there is so much in-between that no one is paying attention to. Even when in Paje, the beach we spent the last three days at, you didn’t have to travel farther than a kilometer away from the ocean to see what life was really like in the town.
Living on the beach for days on end like that, you really do get a sense of tunnel vision, a dream-like that what you are living is not really the reality. I guess it’s a problem of beach resorts in general and why I’m averse to them as a rule: the beach is lovely, but no one pays attention to what’s outside of it. What is outside of it, in the case of many of these island destinations, is something too uncomfortable for people to think about. Sometimes it feels icky, but then at a certain point you just have to enjoy your own life. You’re not going to change the world by existing somewhere for a few days, and there shouldn’t necessarily be an expectation that you would. The feeling doesn’t go away though.
Having been returned to Copenhagen for some time now and filed our report for the course, I now think a lot about these issues as I look for internships and consider why this is my field of interest. Is it self-serving? Is it rooted in some idea of the world that – whatever its intentions – is bad in some way? I consistently run up against this idea of, What do I personally hope to achieve by working in this field? And, moreover, How can I find an internship that is in some way meaningful, for something in the world but also for me?
This problem seems especially acute in the ‘business of development, but it’s a problem of internships more generally. Internships, regardless of the setting, are a flawed way of giving someone the skills they need to enter a field. Everyone wants to find a first job filled with meaningful experiences and opportunities and growth experiences, but too often you end up just doing whatever your supervisor thought of for you to do that morning. They know that they can employ you for free, and they, therefore, don’t feel immense pressure to make your job of consequence. While I would like finding a small NGO to be enough, I don’t know if it is given all the things I need to balance.
I feel like, in some sense, that feeling of uselessness might be amplified if I’m doing an internship in a ‘developing’ country, or for a ‘development’ organization. I’m trying to minimize that by looking out for reputable organizations that are not as involved in the ‘voluntourism’ that I have mentioned before. Last week, I was applying to jobs, and I found one at an NGO in India that seemed almost too good to be true. It was. One review of the organization on Glassdoor, for instance, said that: “The organization allows many university interns to come and work who may just be interested in a certificate for internship and not be self-motivated to work.” Another said that:
“It also suffers from the fact that no one stays around for 3-4 months – a year is the absolute maximum, and most people are completely burnt out by that time. The organization is mostly run by international interns, and each of them is encouraged to create a brand new project. If everyone were staying for a year or two, this would be fine, but since most interns are there for such a short time, the vast majority of projects are started and then dropped after a few months when it is time for the intern to leave. While this one of the lowest cost ways to get to intern in India, if you actually want to do some good and not wonder at the end if there was any point in you being there, then you should instead look at another, more professional NGO”
Ouch. While this is just one review, I think it speaks to one problem of getting started in this field, and why a lot of people get pushed towards the private sector. Most often the organizations you are getting involved with are hard to verify, and especially if you are looking at non-profits it’s hard to find internship schemes, even if they are doing important work. I sometimes feeling like I’m out of my depth with these more formal internships with their thousands of applicants who all have more relevant items on their CV besides their academic credentials. I’m sure I will find something that fits, but I hope it’s the right balance.
In other life news, I have determined that I was going to run out of money by June and decided that it would be appropriate to get a second part-time job. Curse those Europeans who can work for 10 hours a week and then receive an additional EUR 500 a month to offset their living expenses while their students. What a sensible idea! So, I found a job at a local Michelin-starred restaurant (little fancy for my tastes, but hey, money!) and it seems nice. The staffing isn’t quite structured like it was in the restaurant I was at before, but I think I can say I’m a server, though in a more assistant capacity. It’s different, that’s for sure, but the pay is good.
Finding the job this week makes me think more about how little of the city I’ve actually seen. I have my favorite bars and spots, but the general unaffordability of the city for a student – especially a non-European student – makes sampling its countless amazing restaurants and cocktail bars hard to justify. Maybe now that I have a little money coming in and the weather’s nicer I’ll be able to go out and explore like I would like to. I certainly won’t be eating at my restaurant though! (At 1200kr for the wine-less menu, it’s supposedly a ‘steal’ by Copenhagen Michelin standards.) In this vein, I spent my break between the field course and our current block of classes trying to stay in shape, visiting new parts of Copenhagen, working a lot, applying to jobs for the Fall, and generally trying to figure my life out.
It was a little boring, but by all accounts, well-needed. I’m glad to be back to a schedule again. I wished at some points that I made plans and traveled somewhere, but after all the travel I did last month and my dwindling resources, it seemed like the smart decision to stay put. I’m still keen to travel to Spain and North Africa sometime in the near-ish future, so I know that my traveling days aren’t behind me, especially if I can save up some money.
What else is new? Well, I’m having a little bit of a quarter-life crisis, depending on the day. I can’t quite figure out a rhythm to life as a grad student (maybe the job will help). I’m far ahead of where I wanted to be at 23 but also far behind. I’m wishing to the moon and back that I used my early summers in school more productively towards getting internships and job experience. I kind of want to move to the Pacific Northwest. I don’t know what I’m going to do this summer, let alone this Fall. The months are finally flying by like they do when you’re a proper adult. In other words, I have no idea what will happen in the next twelve months. I’ll keep you updated on life as it progresses.
Here’s a dumb picture of me with a giraffe,