“Be careful when you take taxis”, a grizzled old expat told me when I arrived on my first ever aid deployment, “they rig the fare meters.” I nodded obediently. “And careful at the shops,” he continued, “they’ll cheat you soon as look at you.” I nodded again. “In fact, it’s best you just don’t talk with anyone who isn’t grizzled, old, and an expat.”
He didn’t actually say the last sentence, but could well have done. Large numbers of development workers have a pervasive distrust of local services, institutions, and people. Sometimes cynicism is borne of experience. Often, however, paranoia borders on racism. I’m certainly not immune to this trend. However, two incidents from the last few months have made me think more critically about how we perceive others.
In Sierra Leone, I changed money with a random guy in the street. I foolishly failed to count my money properly, and didn’t notice that he had given me about thirty dollars too little. I was still completely oblivious to this back in the hotel room, when I heard a knock on the door and found the money-changer there, out of breath from having chased my taxi down the street. He apologised for the mistake and gave me the correct change.
In Kenya, I lent the security guard at my guesthouse about ten dollars. Security guards here, incidentally, work a 72 hour week for about a hundred dollars a month, which has certainly put my own complaints about being overworked and underpaid into perspective. We agreed that he would pay me back the money when I returned to Kenya. It was a few months before I arrived back, and the incident had completely passed out of my mind. It hadn’t passed from his; his eyes lit up when he saw me arrive back at the guesthouse, and he ran to pick up an envelope containing the repayment.
This made me realise that the times that I’ve unfairly assumed bad faith far outnumber the times that I’ve been innocently cheated. I think distrust and cynicism can act as a protective barrier, helping to cope with disorientating changes of environment and personnel. This may help keep many aid workers sane – but also contributes to their tendency to lock themselves up in compounds, seek out expat bars and isolate themselves from the world in which they work. So next time you take a taxi, trust the fare meter.
(Does anyone have any stories to add, positive or negative? Add a comment below.)