Tomorrow Morning I Will Not Wake Up on the African Continent

It’s been a quiet few weeks for me: no lengthy, geeky rants have been going up here, though I’m still spewing them forth in conversation. The main reason for this is that I’ve been preparing to leave my post in Zanzibar to take up a job in the greyer pastures of England – personal and professional reasons – and so have been incredibly busy. Today I put in my last day at work, and will be flying out in a few hours. I’ve lived in Africa (mainly Eastern and Southern) for six years, so this feels like the end of an era. I very rarely write anything personal on Aid Thoughts, but I couldn’t let the occasion pass without some reflections on what have been the most important and transformative years of my life.

There’s a lot that I will not miss about living in this part of the world: frequent power cuts, fuel shortages, political shenanigans and repression; smug and culturally insensitive foreigners (aid workers, diplomats, businesspeople and tourists are all sometimes to be found here – I also make occasional inadvertent trips to this territory), mzungu prices, distance from friends and family, the lack of anonymity. But I don’t want to dwell on those things just now. I would rather think about the things I love and will miss about life here.

I will miss the constant obstacles, challenges, fights, compromises, small victories and major changes that come when working in a developing country Government here. There is no such thing as a simple task in Government: a photocopy could take an hour of begging or a day spent searching for the magical combination of a machine, electricity, printer toner and paper in one place. It’s like playing civil service bingo. A research paper might take two months to clear the over-worked and underpaid Director’s desk; a brilliant policy might need fighting for six months before it finally gets some traction. It can be frustrating, but when you finally start seeing all these small things coalesce into something bigger, you begin to thrive on the little challenges.

I will miss the incredible sense of achievement from tangible change: getting all the aid to the country reported on the budget for the first time, or seeing our PFM ratings improve because of the work we’re doing, or publishing the first data analysis on aid that we’ve ever had in-country. In most development assistance that takes place at central level (the kind I do, not often in the field), there’s a nagging feeling that whatever good you and your colleagues are doing, it might not actually change anything for the poor or it might be a drop in an ocean of massive problems which for whatever reasons you cannot affect. But with every tangible change you’re helping untangle a web of constraints – and that gives serious job satisfaction.

I will miss more than anything else my colleagues: people who work for terrible salaries, with frequently awful management structures, constrained by missing technical skills and faced by enormous logisitical, political, social and economic problems – but often still stick it out for long hours, working their hardest and doing their best to make as much of a change as they can. Neither they nor I can say we’ve succeeded in everything we did, nor that we never decided that some battles were too hard to fight for the moment and retreated. But it’s incredibly humbling when you’re still in the office at two am, trying to get a document printed before its deadline, and it suddenly strikes you that the person standing next to you is doing this for less than $150 a month.

I will also miss the friendliness, communal spirit and frequent recourse to laughter that characterizes most of the places where I’ve worked. I gave a leaving speech in my best (still not nearly good enough) Swahili the other day and telling the stories about things that my colleagues had done and said had us all in tears of laughter: when my huge and terrifying office-mate came with me when I was buying a car to intimidate the seller and ensure I got a fair price; the time another colleague took advantage of the Ministry’s generator to do a week’s worth of ironing before sitting down to work; when two secretaries spent an hour writing out a list of phrases in Swahili I should learn were I to ask a Zanzibari girl to marry me (it went sadly unused). People laugh a lot here, with both strangers and friends, and I will miss that immensely.

Given that I’m moving to England, I’ll probably also miss the sun. For about ten months a year.

I hope I’ll come back to work in Africa in the future, and I hope that some of what I’ve done with my colleagues will be sustained and contribute in some way to the improvement of the countries I’ve worked in. I’ve learnt a lot about how the world works in the last six years – about how policy, research and the best intentions can get tangled up in the messy realities of complicated places. I hope I’ve been able express some of these lessons in my work and on this blog.

I hope to resume blogging and ranting at length in the coming weeks.

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