N is for Neo-Colonialism, a photo reflection by Anne Rhett

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
What they fail to mention is that in some cases, as that of the Polaroid above, one word can be more than enough. One too many, even.

It all started at the Themi Secondary school LTP teacher workshop. Our history-themed alphabet project was going swimmingly. It was all click-flash, business-as-usual until letter “N” was upon us…

Suddenly, a bit of commotion arose from the teachers’ circle, in Kiswahili of course. Then came the wild gesticulation in my direction. Okay. Then there was ambush- I was dragged into the frame, flanked by two giggling Themi teachers.

I remained calm.

For better or worse, it appeared I was essential to this photo-but why, oh why? I glanced quickly at their list.

N is for…Nationalism?

Alright, Tanzanian Nationalism…I can get on board with that! I thought, embracing them with an enthusiasm I typically reserve for the Christmas card and flashing a megawatt grin to match.

But nationalism our “N” was not, something I discovered with sinking stomach during the labeling phase of the project, as I watched that N be followed by many highly unanticipated letters.

Turns out I had unwittingly situated myself in the center of the image intended to represent NEO-COLONIALISM. There I was, in all my fair-skinned, beaming glory—the newly minted posterchild for legacies of oppression, exploitation, self-service and condescension –all the things from which we volunteers try so hard to disassociate ourselves.

To all outside eyes, this would indicate a huge DukeEngage Academy FAIL. Chloe would not be happy about this, I thought.

Later on, when the photographer explained her understanding of neocolonialism, it was clear that she meant to convey none of the irony, none of the insult that I had mentally extracted. All she meant to do was depict the new, friendlier type of relationships that occur between native Africans and those of European descent.

But despite her innocent intentions, the glaring label- or mislabel- remained.

And the real kicker was this: In many ways, I was not sure how far from accurate the caption truly was.

Many times over the course of this trip I have wondered how our “service” appears to those we are “serving.” We interrupt normal school schedules to introduce our concepts, methods we are sure they will benefit from.

We criticize their way of doing things- their system of education is too rote, too regimented, not free, creative or process-oriented enough. And, despite the pains we take to emphasize our commitment to partnership, collaboration and enhancement, the subtext is always there: our way is better. They can learn from us.

I can only hope that the legacy we leave here will inspire 999 other words.

2 thoughts on “N is for Neo-Colonialism, a photo reflection by Anne Rhett

  1. This is a really interesting piece of writing. I have been studying the exact feelings you have described here visually in my illustration degree for 3 years. The Polaroid poses so many questions about the West and our continuing role in Africa that we all need to face up to. I’m glad i stumbled upon this post.

  2. Thank you you for this post…it raises so many interesting questions and I really appreciate your honesty and reflection.

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