A key learning in my masters level ethics class was the relativity that perspective brings to the discussion. Sure we can say what is right and wrong, but it all depends on where you are standing. In field of international development this is a tenuous line that we walk. As always, I’ve been using my experiences in the field to reflect on the imposition on other cultures, and the equally challenging issue of using culture as an excuse to leave things as they are.
For example, we stopped the other day in Lubutu, DRC to grab some bananas and peanuts for lunch on the road to Walikale. At first there seems a scarcity of bananas by that time in the day, but we managed to find one market woman who had a pile of bananas.
These bananas, according to American standards, were about the ugliest ones you could manage to find. They were green as could be, and covered in dark brown bruises. Most muzungus, or foreigners, would have taken a pass on such bad looking bananas.
Break into one of these bananas and you’ll find a tastier banana than possible to find in a supermarket in the states, where beautifully engineered bananas now lack all real flavor of a banana. Flavorful and delectable, we plowed through all that the woman had to offer.
The next day, on our return back from Walikale to Kisangani, we stopped again at the same market for bananas and peanuts. In a chipper mood, after having spotted passion fruit to add to the lunch menu, I was taken aback by what I spotted next to our purchase of bananas.
Ironically, in the stall next to the bananas, was the skewered and practically charcoaled monkey, whose face was still screaming out in pain. If I wasn’t appalled enough by this, there were several more monkeys ready to be barbequed underneath the table. Later on the road we saw a group of kids holding up a monkey on a string for sale.
The man at the market stall clearly saw from my expression that I was not impressed by the monkey on a stick. His response was that it was a way to make money. For him and the kids on the road it was like finding a winning lotto ticket on the way home, there is no way they would pass that up.
While I certainly cannot condone the slaughter of wild game in Congo, I have also learned that I can’t expect otherwise. While I see the loss of wildlife as a detriment to the environment, they see it as a means of survival. Considering that the Congolese people cannot even protect themselves from massacres and the decimation of communities, it is unlikely that the monkeys and antelope will fair any better.
The monkey and the banana are the two ends of an extreme. The one being hard to swallow, literally – as it appeared you’d have to crew for days just to get it down, and the other being the folly of expecting that perfection on the outside means flavor on the inside.
There are also two lessons here. The first is to look carefully and remind oneself to try and reserve judgment and be open to new cultures.
The second is that once you’ve taken an adequate assessment of the situation, taking care to ask appropriate questions to a variety of people, you also can’t let cultural perspective be a crutch for allowing certain practices to occur.
While on the one side I’m against jumping into judgment to assist, for example, by providing agricultural assistance to “improve” the bananas in Congo; on the other you can’t stand back and say that the wildlife aren’t in need of protection.
There is a fine line in the “development” of the world. As aid workers, we tread this line each day, evaluating the banana and the monkey.