I consider myself an observer. I love people-watching, often develop random anthropological assessments while at parties, and in general like observing and learning about human behavior. Sometimes I am encouraged or inspired, other times appalled. And sometimes the world seems to slow around me and I see the complete absurdity or hypocrisy of a situation that so many people – myself, even – can look at day in and day out and be so numb to find it completely normal. People say many terrible things have become “normalized” in post/conflict countries – children given drugs and guns to kill over some ideological excuse for freedom, women gang raped, mothers dying because a simple blood transfusion during a complication while giving birth is kilometers and hours away. People say that Africans find these things “normal” and “acceptable” because they happen often and apathy builds, the bright-eyed doctor who joins the public hospital to save lives gets scolded when he tries to help a poor patient, branded as the irresponsible clinician who will endanger the meager salaries of all. An atmosphere where there is never enough to go around teaches one to self-censure, turn a blind eye, se débrouiller or “get by” to manage with what little is there. It’s an act of survival, but also a terrible loss of potential change.
And yet, as an American with strong African roots, I see how the West also turns a blind eye to survive, to pretend that things are not as bad as they seem or to insist that all our efforts to “help” are in fact doing so. On se débrouille, we hold a mentality that nations are more developed or in some way better off than they were in the 1960s, when “Kinshasa la belle” was a bright and bustling city with modern architecture and flowering plants rather than the brown and decaying sprawl that exists today. Aesthetics may not matter, although there are other ways to spot the hypocrisy.
Take yesterday, for example. We were on our way home (back to the hotel) after a day’s work of analyzing data, discussing maternal health trends, and otherwise being comfortable in an air-conditioned conference room with red and white table cloths, imported fruit juices, coffee, croissants, and lunch served to us by either too young or too old men in sharp black suits and ties who rarely spoke or smiled. As we drove through the streets of Kinshasa, traffic picked up to become even more crowded than usual, and we slowed to a standstill, our brilliantly white United Nations van standing out among a sea of sagging and barely surviving cars. As we slowed, time seemed to just stop. We waited. And as never before, I noticed a small child leading a blind older woman (a mother, perhaps?), navigating the waters to open windows and asking for money. Another older man, eyes closed, weaving through cars with one hand on his cane and the other in the grasp of a young boy. Going up to windows to beg, coming to our window, that was tightly closed.
I recognize that these things happen the world over, and I think, just as I do in New York City, that giving out of pity to a begging stranger is not particularly better than not giving (although note that Islamic traditions require giving – only – once a day to the poor), but what struck me was this: when we finally arrived at the hotel, I see Aung San Suu Kyi accepting her Nobel Peace Prize on the television and speaking to an Oslo audience about human rights. Human rights, in a beautiful auditorium filled with well-dressed people, like the beautiful paintings hanging in our hotel reception area, like the plasma television on the wall, like the red and white cloths draping the tables in our conference room. And I mean no disrespect to Aung San Suu Kuyi as she certainly has been in less auspicious places to deserve her award, although I wonder if she isn’t saying the wrong message to the wrong audience. I wonder if human rights isn’t more about getting dirty and fighting and taking in those blind mothers and fathers and scraping together the funds for their children to be in school. There’s something twisted and ugly that I felt about human rights at that moment. That the glamorous work is a farce, and that it’s actually the work of the Kinois people, the act of the cars sagging and surviving, the revolution behind the concept of se débrouiller that is the real human right. And that all those shiny vehicles and beautifully dressed rooms need to simply get out of the way.