Book Review: ‘The Ringtone and the Drum’

At the risk of coming over all ‘Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like’, it’s hard to know how to talk about being a rich and privileged white person in a poor African country.  Liberal types like to accentuate the positive, and talk about the beauty of the landscapes and the smiling friendly people and the fact that – shock horror – people everywhere are, you know, kind of similar.  Others like to tell funny stories about the awfulness of it all, emphasise the strangeness and express a huge sigh of relief at coming home again.

There’s a fear, perhaps, of being judged by how you react to the experience, and the risks, of being patronising, being ignorant or crass, are all quite real.  One of the things I like most about Mark Weston’s book ‘The Ringtone and the Drum’ is the honesty of the emotional reactions to being a foreigner in a foreign – in every way – country.

It meant vexation at life’s unfairness and anger at those who had caused it to happen.  It meant a constant dilemma over how to respond.  It meant a realisation that the optimistic view of the world you had in middle-class England was a Panglossian delusion.  And, most of all, it meant guilt.  Guilt over your wealth, guilt when you refused to give, guilt that when you gave you did not give everything, and guilt that having had your fill of their destitution you could and one day would fly away to a magical world of comfort and security.

Mark has no delusions about what he’s doing there.  He’s an observer.  He tells people’s stories honestly, respectfully and without an agenda.  And he’s open about his own reactions – the difficulty of it all, the time wasted, the physical discomfort, and the emotional strain. In fact, he’s pretty self-revelatory on that front, in a way that I found immensely sympathetic.

And as always, talking to people, taking them seriously, and writing it down, gives you endlessly fascinating stories, and also offers a number of challenges to assumptions prevalent in the development business.  Two things stood out for me.  Possibly without thinking very much about it, there’s often an unthinking view that people’s lives are linear.  Once, in that horrible phrase ‘lifted out of poverty’, the assumption is that they won’t go back there – the road goes only one way.  The stories here show again and again how that’s not true.  The ways that people try to make a living for themselves, try, fail, try again, succeed, get knocked back, try again, are both heartening and depressing.

Also, once one is in the business of parcelling up complex processes into little projects, there’s perhaps a tendency to see people as representatives of different ‘types’.  Are you a ‘smallholder farmer’, or the owner of a ‘micro-enterprise’?  A disempowered woman or a freewheeling young man?  Someone, somewhere, has a research project or a development programme for you, if only you can fit yourself into the correct box.  Again, the stories here show how that’s a stupid way of thinking about people – as a nanosecond’s thought about our own lives should make quite obvious, and yet often doesn’t.

The ‘without an agenda’ bit of this book is sometimes problematic.  The reliance on immediate impressions and responses, without much in the way of an underlying argument or analysis, can be a bit deceptive. It sometimes slips into a slightly wistful tone, for example, when describing the rural areas that so many people have chosen to leave (to be fair, they talk about it this way themselves, too), and about the approach of modern life – talking, for example, of people being ‘shielded from Westernisation’ as if it were some approaching danger.  So it’s hard to understand why people, in their millions, leave behind a countryside that they, and Mark, often seem to think is easier and gentler than the poorly functioning cities that they end up in, and why they are so enthusiastic – as we all are – about the trappings of modernisation in the form of cars, phones and televisions. In a book which is all about change, this enthusiasm for it needs to be taken as seriously as the hardships it can involve.

(alert readers will notice that Mark Weston is also a contributor to Global Dashboard.  So you can discount this review on those grounds, if you want.  But we have never met, and I wouldn’t have been nice about the book just for that reason.)