I was walking back from the classrooms two weeks ago when I noticed a large group of students gathered behind Tumaini dormitory (the name means Hope). Being curious, I went over to find out what was going on. As I drew closer I could see that everyone was standing around a large pit that happens to be behind the dorm. Two of the non-teaching staff members where furiously digging at the side of the pit. “Snake! said one of the students, looking at my bewildered expression and pointing at the frantically digging men. “They want to kill it!” She herself was holding a large rock in her hands. I noticed many of the students holding rocks and sticks, apparently ready to defend themselves or join the fight against the big reptile. This would be the first snake I had yet to see in Tanzania. I wondered if it was poisonous and how it would react to these men collapsing its hiding place with sticks and shovels. I decided to stay with some apprehension, not wanting to be part of the scene of chaos I could see was coming if the snake, angry or terrified, decided to make a break for it.
A few minutes later there was a sudden commotion when a creature burst out of the pit, closely followed by the two staff members and many screams, stones and sticks. It had not been a snake after all, but a large monitor lizard and the poor thing was now running for its life. It tore off into the bush and I thought, well, that’s the last we’ll see of the lizard. I imagined everyone would quickly lose steam chasing it in the bushes. But to my surprise, everyone had murderous expressions on their faces and continued to hunt the lizard, hurling stones and sticks at it until they had it successfully cornered. By now I was wondering why anyone was bothering to chase it at all. It wasn’t a highly poisonous snake. I knew the girls were afraid of the lizards but that was no reason to try and kill it. Then another staff member, the school Matron, appeared. She held an enormous branch in her hands and screamed bloody murder as she tried to crush the lizard’s scull against a rock where someone had now flung it by its tail. There was a huge crowd by this point and lots of noise. The scene playing out before me reminded me of Lord of the Flies. I realized this was definitely the wrong lesson to teach these girls. We shouldn’t promote killing things just because we fear them. So I opened my mouth for the first time, yelling for people to stop and saying that the poor lizard wouldn’t hurt anyone, why were they trying to kill it? I was obviously the only person present who didn’t want the thing dead and everyone took two seconds to look at me with blank stares. The matron was yelling that they were VERY dangerous and that they eat chicken eggs. I had forgotten that she raised chickens nearby the school for an added source of income. But I felt angry. This was silly. The lizard wasn’t actually dangerous to humans and if it ate eggs it was only because it could easily gain entry into the chicken coop. Why didn’t they just make it more secure? By now the poor lizard was slowly dying of its many wounds. I spun on my heels and stormed off muttering about ignorance and stupidity under my breath. I think I shocked a lot of people who couldn’t understand why I had reacted so strongly to a lizard, but to me it was just cruel mob mentality.
I’ve thought about my actions quite a lot since then. The scene I caused in those five minutes had the potential to alienate me in the community in a way that I couldn’t foresee and erode the relationships I had worked so carefully to build with students and colleagues. For example, the matron avoided me for quite a while. No more dinner invitations to her house. I thought she was likely angry at me for openly disagreeing with her and acting rudely. I worried that I had deeply damaged a very good working relationship and friendship that we had developed. She later admitted that my reaction had made her feel ashamed. Thankfully we were able to have a frank conversation about it a few days ago and have smoothed things over.
I’ve also thought about the role that culture plays in events like this. I’ve been watching nature shows that preach how wonderful reptiles are and how many of them are endangered and require space and protection. In truth, would be more apt to try and take a picture of a lizard to savour the moment than anything else. My students and colleagues certainly wouldn’t have grown up with the same influences. And those eggs, insignificant as they might have seemed to me, were precious income and food on the table to the Matron. Perhaps money to fix the chicken coop was not within her means. Easier to kill the predator for free with blunt force trauma to the head. Still, I did hope that some of the students would have taken note. I hoped that someone would have asked themselves why this was really necessary.
Jonathan and I talked about this when he visited. It’s common that volunteers feel their values come into conflict with the values of those in their placement country. He suggested that the best thing to do was simply to strive to understand why you’re feeling upset and remember that one person can’t change the culture of a whole country. Sometimes you just have to walk away. It might not be worth jeopardizing your placement to stand up for personal values and principles that don’t apply in this context. If you have to do battle, pick those battles very carefully. .. .
Trying to control my gut reactions to things has been difficult and I can think of one other significant example, this time not involving animals but students. I was highly aware of my heart beating in my chest and feeling horrified the one day that students were being caned by a teacher because they were turning up late to assembly (only because they were finishing chores elsewhere that they would be punished for if left unfinished; a rock and hard place if you ask me). I don’t agree with hitting students but its part and parcel of most schools in Tanzania. I managed to keep calm that day, despite how I felt. I calmly stated my objections to the staff and hoped someone would listen. But I knew I couldn’t order them to stop.
So, if you were in my shoes, what would you have done?