On Power Dynamics

Meetings are a good place to observe power dynamics, particularly since I don’t understand much of what’s being said.

This thought came to me while sitting outside Bukoba’s nicest hotel, waiting for World Vision Tanzania representatives. Sunday (my boss) and I had come to town for a meeting with them at 9:30am. However, when we arrived at the office, nobody was there – they had gone for a year-end meeting up at the Walk Guard hotel. I don’t know where the fault lay for the miscommunication, but we went up to the hotel to give them our reports, bringing us to sitting outside, waiting.

The word that came to mind was marginalized. Now, maybe that feeling was only partially accurate, since Sunday is a well-respected businessman and I am, well, white. But he doesn’t speak English and is computer illiterate, and I was dressed in sandals and carrying a backpack. The feeling was magnified when we were pulled in to the room during tea break. At every seat there was a laptop and a slide show was being projected onto a screen at the front. They had dismissed us before we even walked in the door, but Sunday tried his best to adhere to the formal process of greetings and introductions. Upon asking them to explain a call for proposals to me, the two men looked pityingly in his direction and said, “they just think that you have arrived with some money, but that’s not true is it”. And proceeded to tell Sunday that I was still learning and perhaps later I could be of some financial assistance. Out of politeness I did not say, “perhaps you could explain the grant to me and I could be of some assistance now”. We were shuttled off immediately and the two men rushed to their tea. We, of course, were not invited to share it.

A meeting I attended yesterday allowed me to get a different picture. It was a quarterly meeting of KALIDEA, a larger organisation on the same model as KAVIPE. Some of our CBO’s also belong to KALIDEA, and Mkinga, the livestock officer, spends much of his time on their animals. It was an honour to be invited, I soon learned. Let me set the stage: me and Joseph (another VSO) at the head table along with the Muleba District government vet, and three Board members of KALIDEA. The rest of the room was filled with Division representatives and extension officers. I was the only woman in the room and the youngest person by at least 20 years. The meeting went on for four hours while representatives read aloud every word of their quarterly reports, and discussed pressing issues like stolen livestock and insubordinate splinter groups. The meeting finished with the government vet reaming out Mkinga publicly for insufficient rabies control in the area (!!).

Although the meeting was extremely formal, and a rather shocking representation of the old boys’ club, we managed to make some concessions. When I introduced myself (in English with Joseph translating – this was no time for bumbling along in Kiswahili… I am called Margaret, I come from Canada, my work is a livestock advisor… *shudder*) I smiled, explained exactly what I was doing here and for how long, and said, “I admit, I am quite young,” and received a gratifying, and somewhat embarrassed guffaw from the men. In turn, the Chair greeted me, his last sentence being “and you can help us out with gender!”, prompting an equally humble laugh from me. We had managed to clear the two elephants in the room, which is more than I can say for the World Vision fiasco. From this meeting, I hope I gained some respect. I certainly gained many an invitation to visit other Divisions and to meet the players in the government ag offices: this good. I exist.

Now comes my admission that I am more comfortable in a room full of older, well-educated male farmers and extension officers than I am in a meeting of KAVIPE stakeholders; poorer, the baseline of the population, less educated. My worldview differs from both groups, but the latter is removed by another degree. So my challenge evolves: how do I engage the farmers that really need to be heard? The ones who have little power, and as such, are so much harder to communicate with? How can I avoid marginalizing them as Sunday and I were in Bukoba? How do I help make them exist?

When I went to the equivalent KAVIPE meeting a few weeks ago, the attendees were at least of mixed gender; the age thing is another can of beans altogether, as hierarchal cultures can be somewhat unreceptive to youth. I was expected to give flowery greetings, make light of my marital status and whether I had any children, and summarize every village and type of farm I had visited thus far – all in Kiswahili. The reports handed in were all handwritten, not typed, and the presence of our Chair, Sunday, did not elicit the same deference as did KALIDEA’s. Toward the end of the meeting, one of the farmers stood up and began to rant to the audience about the need for a change of attitude, the need for hard work, the need to take opportunities like VSO volunteers and run with them. The need for innovation and movement forward before the entire place stagnates.

So my relative discomfort retreats. If people like that are part of KAVIPE, the stakeholders are accessible. Instead of wishing I was speaking English and theorizing about improvements to the local systems with government employees, I can latch on to the people who create grassroots momentum.

I am currently writing a proposal for a workshop to do a rough organisational assessment of KAVIPE with some of the key stakeholders. I hope to learn how to communicate and identify with them more than the old boys’ club. KAVIPE has access to the people who hold the key to change around here, I think. But I will make nice with the government boys too. I will be needing their support, it doesn’t hurt to debate theory from time to time, and it doesn’t hurt to show a young female face in the midst of their institutionalized ways.

*I have a video of this that I will share when I can upload larger files!

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