Lost in translation: the alienation of the development worker
I’m writing this flying over Afghanistan, on my way back from India (blog flurry to follow). The air is extraordinarily clear, so that even from 30,000 feet, I can make out individual fields, clusters of mud-coloured houses, nestling among the serrated, snow-topped mountains and winding river courses. At the same time, I’m reading ‘Lost in Translation’, by Eva Hoffman, a stupendously thoughtful, observant study of the fragmented, alienated nature of immigrant identity (in her case, of a Polish Jew in Canada).
The combination brings home the deep fragmentation of what Robert Chambers calls rural development tourism’. Within the space of ten days, I have been a besuited presenter at an OECD forum, a besandaled interviewer in a Delhi slum, and a laughing Sahib visitor delighting in the dances and songs of girls in a village school run by a bearded sage in an Ashram. And now I’m looking down on what may be (for all I know – the aircraft map is rubbish) the battlegrounds of the Afghan war.
The result is a kind of spiritual/emotional vertigo, a high-speed zooming in and out in terms of scale and emotional landscape. Grappling now with the political economy, then with the life struggles of slum women trying to stop their men from drinking, next with the subtleties and hypocrisies of international networking. You try and stay open to them all, antennae at full receive, assimilating where you can, compartmentalizing where
you must. But I do wonder whether overall, it dulls the nerve endings, blunts the edges of the sensibilities, leaving you seeking refuge in the bland abstractions of development-speak.
It resembles Hoffman’s attempt to capture the fragmented consciousness of the immigrant, both in the negatives (the lack of any deep, unconscious sense of belonging) and the positives (the cross-fertilization of different worlds). We may not be immigrants, but we are increasingly all migrants, and there’s some overlap between the two conditions. It makes me wonder if a spell at Walden Pond, amid a single, slowly changing and unpeopled landscape might not be a spiritually healthier alternative. But in this connected age, such a deliberate decision to step outside the information stream feels highly unlikely – have they started marketing ‘only disconnect’ holidays yet, in the world’s remaining ‘no signal’ digital wilderness areas? Tell me when they start.