How does a monkey eat cheese?

Cultural sensitivity is a big thing when working in conservation – knowing when to cover your shoulders, who to speak to first, how to behave in various situations, what to expect from certain people, knowing when you’ve just been insulted – however it doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of some NGO’s who allegedly have the utmost respect for local culture and identity.

 

You will notice that a lot of conservation NGO’s employ foreign, generally white, staff to fill the higher ranks.  They also tend to prefer foreign whites over local, ‘home grown’ whites, and have no qualms about literally interpreting “keep it in the family” with regard to employment.

This leads to problems.  Lack of local support.  Lack of respect from staff.  Low work motivation.  Increased workplace politics.  Problems with government.  Reduced likelihood of work permit issuance.  Legal ramifications.

Take this amusing example:

A conservation project manager (would it excuse them if I said they were Dutch?), apparently approached a very senior police officer conducting speed trapping in a National Park in Zambia.  Bwana Senior Police Officer happened to be eating a hunk cheese like an apple; Dutchie observed this and allegedly blurted out:

“Why are you eating cheese like a monkey?”

Naturally, being African and high ranking, the insult was taken to heart and I believe the District Commissioner was called about the monkey-business, along with others of similar persuasion/position.  Anyway, this person (and their significant other who also happens to work for the same project) have had their contracts cut short due to “lack of funding”, which is what this particular organisation blames for just about everything, probably would try to blame Trump’s presidency on “lack of funding” if they weren’t pro-Trump.  I digress.

I don’t have any evidence, or gossip, that suggests that the two incidents are connected but it seems a bit too odd to be a coincidence.

This person had, until taking this job, been to Zambia once before (for the job interview) and South Africa once (I think, maybe somewhere else too) and no experience in conservation whatsoever; they did however have a Dutch police force background.  Had they gained some experience in Africa to see that, sure we have a sense of humour but never say anything that could be taken the wrong way to someone senior to you, this would not have happened.  Had they spent some time at lower levels of management to become accustomed to the people and the way things are done here, this would not have happened.  Had a Zambian been employed for this job, or even 2 Zambians together, this would not have happened.  Had someone from another African nation been hired, this would not have happened.  But, as is increasingly obvious, this particular organisation has not had a chance to accept this yet and is once again a bit of a laughing stock within the conservation community because of the incredulity of this situation (and previous ones of course).

Another, slightly less important but epidemic, culturally ignorant mistake of conservation folk is disregard for appropriate attire.  The “booty short” in rural Africa is anything above the knee; the revealing top is uncovered shoulders.  It’s annoying but necessary to understand.

Without some grounding in how to deal with indigenous peoples, some experience of how things really work in Africa and various amounts of patience, tolerance and resilience, one will likely not make it very far in conservation in Africa.  This certainly does not mean the people who do make it are polite, genuine, gentile, etc. (quite a lot are prejudice towards almost everything), it just means that we know what the system expects of us – and what we can expect from the system.

Of course, there are the bad-apple-Africans in the mix too!  Some will be “When-We’s” wishing for the days of white dominance and lawlessness to return, others will be the offspring of such people; you may be subjected to arrogant Rhodesians (because they still call themselves that) or those who are completely useless city-slickers from the likes of Jozi and CT.

Perhaps you will find yourself meeting a gentleman that manages a very nice conservation base camp, who seems to be respected not only by the staff he manages but also by colleagues and local community members.  Then you might hear stories about tempers being lost, something about fists or pushing (the details were sketchy), maybe something about the Chief demanding he removed from the chiefdom because he will not tolerate that kind of behaviour.  When you subsequently learn that this potential situation happened, not only months ago, but more than once, you wonder why such a person has not been sacked.  Naturally, this resulted in a lot of lost respect and tolerance for the project by the local communities.

If in doubt though, refrain from insinuating anyone is stupid or unintelligent, do not ever compare anyone to an ape – great or otherwise – unless you too wish to solicit an audience with your local District Commissioner (conveniently right before the money runs out), and do try your best not to play at fisticuffs with your colleagues/staff.

 

Disclaimer: I have used words such as “apparently”, “might”, “perhaps” and “allegedly”, and phrases such as “I believe”, “potential situation” and “I don’t have any evidence to suggest…”; I do not mention names of people, places or organisations involved in this story.  This means accusing me of defamation is not a possibility: you’d have to prove this is all false and being upset would only prove it’s all true.

 

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