Reflections on power and privilege

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It’s the Second Week Meeting in Mbarara, and the Project Workers are standing in a line in the middle of the room.

“Take a step forward for every time someone’s done your washing for you in the last two weeks.” A few PWs step forward.

“Take a step forward for every time someone’s cooked dinner for you.” This time all the PWs take several steps forward.

“Take a step back for every time you haven’t been offered a seat in a crowded room.” The PWs look around at each other expectantly. No one takes a step back.

We’re doing the ‘privilege walk’ – an exercise designed to make the PWs think about how much privilege they have here in Uganda and Kenya. For the last two weeks, they have been treated as honoured guests in their schools and communities. Partly it’s down to East African hospitality, but there’s also a special status that we enjoy here. And regardless of what countries our PWs come from or the colour of their skin, they all experience it the same – we are all treated as ‘muzungus’ here.

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Mbarara PWs discussing some of these issues at the Second Week Meeting.

Something like having your dinner cooked for you might seem fairly harmless, but these are only the tip of the privilege iceberg. Hidden below the water are some much more sinister and deep-seated beliefs. Once a Kenyan told me that we Europeans must be more intelligent than Africans, because we have developed faster. As a PW in Uganda, I was invited to speak on national TV about the use of social media in education. I have no experience that would qualify me to speak on this subject, but the producer wanted “a western perspective”. My opinions were taken as seriously as those of the national expert sitting next to me.

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Our partner schools treat our PWs with huge respect and hospitality.

What can we do about this? We have privilege, whether we like it or not, so perhaps the best we can do is try not to abuse it. Sometimes it’s pretty clear-cut – I hope our PWs wouldn’t use their status as ‘muzungus’ to get their hosts to do all their household chores for them. But sometimes there are grey areas. It’s fine if a teacher at your school cooks you dinner once or twice, but how many times does it take before it gets exploitative? What if you really want to do a particular project in your school, but your headteacher is reluctant? Is it OK to say, “This is how we do things in the UK?”, if you know that saying so will get your headteacher on board? Is this an abuse of privilege or a statement of fact? And is it justified if you believe it is for the ultimate good of your school?

 

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Coordinators are treated as honoured guests whenever we go on a school visit.

These are the tough questions our volunteers have to grapple with. There aren’t any easy answers – but making them aware of their privilege and encouraging discussion is a good place to start.


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Ellie is the 2016 Mbarara Project Manager. She was a Project Worker at Shuuku Vocational Secondary School in 2014 and coordinated in Kisii and Kakamega in 2015. She has recently graduated from Oxford where she studied Classics and hopes to start a masters at LSE in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies. This summer she hopes to learn to cook.