Sunday, November 27, 2011

Deconstructing Pole Sana Mtwara

             The above is a famous video among the Korean volunteers in Tanzania. Although its original title is “Teachers of Mtwara,” in the process of hard drive to hard drive transmission, it became “Pole Sana Mtwara,” which roughly translates as “Pity You Mtwara.” Produced by KBS, a Korean television company, it depicts the challenging conditions faced by three Korean volunteers. It became famous for showing circumstances that were in stark contrast to the comfort enjoyed by most other Korean volunteers within and outside Tanzania.
             I personally saw this video while I was interviewing for this volunteer position. I was in a large hall with about two hundred applicants, and it was one of the many videos we saw before the actual interview. I had some idea on the relative comfort of Korean volunteers, so I did not think much about it. Months later, after passing the tests, interviews, and the training, I found out I will be dispatched to the very location shown on the video. I was a bit shocked, and slightly intimidated.
             I came, I lived, and I adapted. The video came up every so often in conversations, and was shown on numerous gatherings. During each of these showings, I began to see flaws in the video, little by little. As these flaws added up, the video did not seem genuine and was instead incredibly odd. So, with three months left on my service, having accumulated serious doubts over volunteerism and the aid industry, I decided to deconstruct the video. As a result, I have come to the following conclusion: the Korean government and the media are putting volunteers at the center stage in its campaign to sell a narrative in which heroic Koreans are sent to strange corners of the Earth to save the poor. In order to do accomplish this, the video conceives poverty as timeless, constructs a dramatic and narrow notion of poverty, and creates a story that strongly resonates with the Korean nationalist agenda. The first two of these actions depicts a very particular and stereotypical type of poverty, which my personal experience proves to be false. The last action completes the heroic narrative by placing the volunteers in the setting the video has created. While the video may delight KOICA bureaucrats, media producers, and volunteers who seek attention, it is a product that only reinforces false notions of poverty and the current state of KOICA volunteers.
             In this video, poverty is conceived as timeless. Nowhere in the video is there any mention of time, other than “Saturday,” which is non-specific. When I first saw the video, I tried to predict the year. Was it 1999? 2001? 2005? Then, when I downloaded the video file from a friend, I saw on the file name that it was made in 2007. Yet, had the file name mentioned any other year, it would make no difference. Videos can be made in 2011 using the exact same content, because for many producers and the audience alike, poverty is a constant state of hunger, thirst, desperateness, hopelessness, helplessness, despair, destruction, and most importantly, the lack of material goods. Among these conceptions, there is no place for time.
             This is evident in showing the dire state of public utilities, most notably in electricity and water. From the introduction, the video sets up a harsh setting by claiming that the volunteers are in a place that has “no electricity or water” (This part was omitted during the subtitle translation). It then depicts Mtwara as a place of poverty by mentioning that “there is no electricity during the day,” “without electricity it is hard to cook rice, and it cannot be stored in the refrigerator,” and how “even at times, the well gets dried up.” Poverty vis-à-vis technology is mentioned as well, as “it takes 10 minutes to open a window.” Such declarations may be true, but only for the year 2007. Based on my personal experiences, public utilities in both water and electricity have improved. The tap water has become both cleaner and consistent, while Mtwara boasts the most reliable electricity supply in Tanzania during this year of severe electricity cuts. Other improvements have happened as well, most notably the quality of Internet, evident by my recent upload of a 122MB video on YouTube. In discussing what poverty is, as done by this video, notions of change over time are ignored. While some may claim that the developments I have observed are rapid progresses in mere four years, I consider them to be ordinary evolutions in a society with moderate foundations of democracy and free-market capitalism. Some may also argue that I am asking too much from the video to discuss prospects of change. While this is valid, when looking at the larger picture of the media’s depiction of volunteers, there are few videos with the theme “volunteering in times of economic development,” which actually suits the majority.            
My second finding on this video is that the producers are constructing a dramatic view of poverty that has little basis from reality. This particular view not only includes the aforementioned timeless feature, but reinforces the narrow and stereotypical notion of poverty as the lack of material goods. This particular understanding of poverty is prevalent and dominant. Jeffrey Sachs and the Millennium Village best embody this idea as they believe that an introduction of material goods, such as buildings, tractors, etc. will alleviate the poverty at hand. The producers of this video have put forth considerable effort in creating poverty as a lack of material goods. When the classroom is first shown, the camera starts its shot with the absence of ceiling boards. In reality, other classes have ceiling boards, and its installation is not too expensive either. When talking about the second teacher, the narrator claims that “she is the only one with a soccer ball.” In reality, her school and my school hold regular soccer matches between teachers, and both are able to provide quality balls without much trouble. When talking about water, the narrator mentions that “even at times, the well dries up,” as if the villagers get their water from the well. In fact, the wells in Mtwara are not used to pump the groundwater, but instead used as large water tanks to store tap water when the supply is inconsistent. Finally, the video in depicting loneliness mentions that there are “no magazines, newspapers, or televisions.” This too is completely false.
             Sins of omission have been committed in this construct of poverty. The video takes up considerable time in talking about what the volunteers do not have. Without any mention of their availability, the video implies that Mtwara is a remote village that suffers from the lack of basic products. In reality, however, materials can be bought to build a modern toilet and a kitchen, which has been done in the very house in the video. This construction ability, is not new, and was possible in 2007. When talking about electricity cuts, one of the volunteer says “when the electricity gets cut when I am showering in the bathroom outside, it is a bit dumbfounding.” At the same time, the video never mentions the bathroom situation of the other two volunteers, primarily because it does not fit into the producers’ construct of poverty. I have been to the other two houses, and they all have bathrooms. Finally, the largest omission is that when the camera crew came to tape the video, they probably landed in Mtwara by plane. Mtwara’s air route has been active for a while because the land route has not been reliable. While an airport in Mtwara is economically viable, it too does not fit into the video’s discussion on poverty.
             The most preposterous portion of the video, however, is the segment where Ms. Kwon, the second volunteer shown, goes on a walk to a nearby village. The narrator supposes himself as an authority on poverty as he details the village. He is somehow knowledgeable on their income (that the villagers live for less than a dollar a day), employment (most are farmers), education (many students do not attend primary schools, let alone secondary schools), and economy (in the village market, there are only coconuts and tomatoes).This last part is especially problematic because the coconut shown during this narration is a “dafu” rather than a “nazi.” The former is consumed for its fluids, much like an afternoon refreshment, while the latter is used in daily cooking, the image the producers expect when mentioning coconut. Furthermore, in any village in any country, more products are available than mere coconuts and tomatoes. The absurdity of this segment reaches the peak when the narrator says that the “[the village] has no crime, and the people are friendly to foreigners.” At this very moment, the local villager passing by puts his two fingers together, looks at the camera, and says “lete hela,” which means “give me money.” What is more is that Ms. Kwon, the volunteer teacher, replies “sawa, baadaye,” which means, “okay, later.” This brief encounter shows that Ms. Kwon is acting as a guide and translator for the media producers in their search for poverty. The audience can easily construe that this village is in fact not a place Ms. Kwon “goes for a walk or buys groceries.” Yet, this is of no concern as the purpose of this segment was solely the projection of a particular kind of poverty. The biggest problem is that upon watching, the audience does not get a better understanding of poverty. Rather, they only reinforce what they already associate with poverty, and conceive them as truths.  
The third and final conclusion is that this video, along with the Korean government aid agency KOICA, is part of an unsaid nationalist agenda. Its purpose is to glorify the notion of Korea by contrasting the plight of the poor and positing Korea as the hero. This video is in fact not much different than the self-promoting videos produced by KOICA, where young Koreans emerge at top of foggy hills holding children’s hands. These rather bizarre images even occupy the KOICA volunteer returnee’s career resource website. Although KOICA touts cooperation and partnership, they depict Koreans and non-Koreans as diametric opposites: Koreans as noble (an act once considered for saints only), self-sacrificing (giving up the comfortable lives in Korea, mentioning Schweitzer followed only by inaudible mumble), and generous (she is the only teacher with a soccer ball); and non-Koreans as poor (only sells tomatoes and coconuts), mystical (the volunteer has “learned a lot,” but there is no mention of the specificities for the fear that the mysticism disappears), and passive (there is no crime, and the people are friendly to foreigners). When these two are placed side by side, the former naturally becomes the hero that saves the latter.
Here, I use the term non-Koreans rather than Tanzanians, because to those with a nationalist agenda, the specificities of the other (non-Koreans) are of no concern. In this video, Korea is mentioned five times, Tanzania twice, and Africa thrice. For the producers, the idea of Africa triumphs the idea of Tanzania, as Africa is a homogenous other that encompasses more stereotypes of poverty than Tanzania. For them, there would have been no difference had Tanzania been replaced by Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia, Peru, etc. In this sense, poverty, along with being timeless as mentioned above, is space-less.
             What is unfortunate is that the critiques I have outlined here are rarely heard, and what is said in this video is the dominant narrative. Until today, I have heard little opposition to the video, and it took me two years to organize my thoughts against it. Indeed, the video is part of a larger ideology that continues to spread its associated problems: the construction of a false notion of poverty and the nationalist agenda. Last year, a Korean volunteer in Iringa was awarded a substantial grant to create a cooking class for her host institution. The media came, and of course her personal life had to be pictured as well. Unfortunately for the producers, she was living in a palatial house that cost $350 per month (Tanzania’s GDP per capita is $552 according the US State Department). Unsatisfied, the producers asked her to move some of her personal belongings to her colleague’s house, and act as if it is hers. She complied. In addition, in the same video, the producers wanted to have some shots of another volunteer in action, so despite being a school vacation, students were called upon for some acting. Regrettably, no one is stopping them. I had some trouble locating the full video online, but I managed to capture a couple of slides.

             The power of rhetoric combined with images is potent in influencing the audience’s mind. We only need a few minutes to list what we thought were true only because we saw it on TV. Viewers can easily conflate what they see in this carefully produced video with the reality of Mtwara. Anyone who has been a victim of gossip understands the dangers of a lie being regarded as truth. I remember when I was still training in Dar es Salaam, Dr. Nam showed us this video. Towards the end, Dr. Nam, being so compassionate, shed some tears, and remarked that they (the three teachers) are true volunteers. Dr. Nam, what you see is not what it is, and it is most definitely not worth your tears.