January 18, 2010

(1)When everything is foreign, nothing is strange and (2)Nobody knows anything

One of the weirdest things about going to Guinea was losing the ability to distinguish what was weird. Since there were so many new things to see and smell and eat and do; it was hard to tell the mundane from the truly bizarre. I felt emotionally monotone on a day to day basis but when I'd sit down to write a letter or pick up the phone to talk to people back home I would have a mental log jam of ideas. There was an overwhelming amount of context required for each story and so many stories to tell. I didn't even know where to start. I still don't know where to start. I guess my host family may be the best place to begin.

The Bah's were good people. They opened their home to me. They fed me and scolded me for coming home too late. They invited me to Ramadan prayer and diligently helped me with my French. They treated me with an incredible kindness and hospitality and I didn't realize how amazing it was until I left.

They took someone into their house who looked different and displayed an embarrassingly small understanding of social decorum. This someone lacked even the most basic ability to communicate. With infinite patience and good humor they polished my manners and language and sent me on my merry way. I wonder if I would have taken in a non-English-speaking-mildly-rude-strange-looking-person into my home. I doubt it. Guineans are great people.

It's because of part (1) that I am so frustrated with part (2). In the year preceding my departure to Guinea I read a handful of books about the development world. I had the thought that we had poverty and development on the run. It seemed as if these things were beginning to be solved as if they were a particularly complicated algebra problem.

Sachs writes that if the developed world were to commit .7% of their GDP to the developing world they would escape their "poverty traps." Easterly thinks Sachs is a grandstanding buffoon. Collier argues that smartly timed and targeted investments will lead countries slowly out of poverty. Bornstein writes about empowering locally minded social entrepreneurs.

Unsurprisingly they could all be right, they could all be wrong, or they could be a little bit of both. Even though they all argue with tremendous conviction, none of them (or any of us) really has any idea what's going on. There are too many moving parts.

I've really struggled with that since leaving the country, knowing that something needs to change but not knowing how to change it. I've read strong arguments for and against democracy or education or business development as the pathways out of poverty and now I've actually seen a small part of where those arguments come from and why. This drives me crazy. I like to believe that solutions to most problems are within the reach of our reason but I can't wade through the development morass and I'm skeptical of someone who says they can.

At times the difficulties facing the development world at large and particularly Guinea seem cyclical and overwhelming but occaisionaly good news trickles out and I'm reminded that even in tough times there's always hope for the future.

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