What does “Big Man” mean?

“He’s a Big Man,” explained J last week. “That’s why he expects everyone to listen to him. And you’re not giving him the respect he feels he deserves.”

This was an explanation that started to whisper at making sense, but I realized, stepping back, it didn’t really mean anything to me. I was trying to gain a better understanding of the deep frustration I’d been having on my Uganda project, with the person who’d been a nominal partner, but who was now refusing to sign an memorandum of understanding to continue the relationship we’d been operating under for two and a half years.

I blogged about this a couple of weeks ago, and I’m still trying to make sense of it. I’ve felt off kilter with this “partnership” since the beginning, from the moment I first arrived in Kampala in 2008 with an armload of donated laptops I’d laboriously dragged around the globe, feeding them one at a time through every security scanner I encountered. When I produced them in the Sheraton Kampala, brought for our Director and kids in the field, our Partner immediately commandeered them and had them handed out to the people in his head office in Kampala. “They’re for the people in the project,” I protested lamely, not wanting to be confrontational. “We’ll give them one,” he said. “This is very good, very good. We need computers.”

From the beginning, our interaction was off balance in this way. We’d hired him without meeting him, a recommendation from a friend of one of our then committee members. We’d been in crisis on the project as we tried to give it an initial frame of acccountability from pure chaos, and we needed an NGO partner on the ground. Somewhere between our original cobbled together MOU and my meeting him, the name of his NGO had changed, and he’d moved from running a large organization to one that seemed to consist mostly of decals on an old vehicle, letterhead and tshirts. For the first 18 months or so with mostly my hand on the tiller, I treated it as if this was okay. I kept finding myself at a loss, and looked to him for advice, took what he said about what was important at its word. Sometimes, I was befuddled — like when he asked the headmistress of our kids’ school if they performed a certain kind of initiation ritual with the girls that I later realized had inappropriate sexual connotations — but mostly, I tried to learn.

Within another year, the project had taken on more shape, with a clear strategy — deep support for a small group of kids, not shallow support for an ever-growing group — and somewhere along the way, our (my?) perspective shifted. A year after we’d decided to close enrollment, our Partner was still producing Recruitment Strategy documents. We were paying him the equivalent of a full time salary to manage the project, and under this “watch,” the Director he’d hired proved to have been fired from his previous post for corruption, and, we discovered, was pilfering from the project. The Director had added several kids to the project despite our clear direction that there would be no new kids, and had lost a kid by failing to give him money to come back to the project (and to school) after visiting his home village. There were rumours that the Director was using that kid’s tuition funds for his own kids. The kids talked about being hit and yelled at. They had confusing stories about the Director ordering them to stay put studying when the Partner arrived, and then the Partner yelling at them for failing to stand and honour him.

When we set out to fire the Director, we seared ourselves as in charge. Our Partner argued that the Director needed “another chance,” and then when we pointed out that he wasn’t exactly managing the project and we were not going to pay him that full time salary anymore, railed at us. “You accuse me of stealing beans and posho…This is not my fault.” “No one thinks you’re stealing,” we said, exasperated. “But we do think you’ve failed at keeping someone else from stealing. That is what managing this project MEANS. That’s what we PAY you for.”

**

I write all this down because I’m still trying to figure out what I/we could have done differently. There’s such a collision of worlds and cultures. I did not grant our Partner deference — that’s true. Because I felt he’d failed at the thing we were paying him for, and then he failed to understand what we were saying about his accountability. He treated us like funders of his project he needed to give superficial reports to, not as the arbiters and designers of a project we were asking him to support us on. He never seemed to get what we were trying to do, and his “advice” was often shallow and seemed irritatingly irrelevant. He never seemed to understand that we were volunteers, or to acknowledge that he understood that our funds were limited. He never tried to shave a cent off the budget, though we asked him for advice on this repeatedly. His major comment on our monthly report template was that our question “how are the relationships with local officials?” was deeply offensive to local officials. (He couldn’t explain why). He never directly answered the question “how much do you want to get paid to do X and Y,” bitterly complaining that we weren’t paying him what he deserved, and then he had our new Director try to put his original salary, then double that amount, into the budget. He never managed to produce any documentation proving that he’d been paying the payroll tax for the employees we fed him funds for every month. He moved one of his employees into our space without asking or telling us. He “gave” our new Director an aging vehicle then insisted we put its upkeep into the budget.

I asked our new Director, who our Partner had paid exactly 1/8 of what we were paying him as an *extra* salary, whether these difficulties were because I was a woman. “No, he hasn’t had trouble with powerful women before,” he mused. Our Director had no real insight, just a deep need to smooth things over, caught in the middle. The interactions were always bumpy, but we kept being told we needed the Partner, as an employer, as a legal structure, as a level of accountability rather than handing our money straight into the hands of our employees.

The clash happened, of course, the moment that we needed something from our Partner — to sign an MOU acknowledging the existing relationship long enough for us to transition out of our relationship with our umbrella charity. Without it, our umbrella wouldn’t release anymore of our funds. He refused to sign, refused to engage with me directly on any question, and repeatedly made his case that he should be paid the full time salary he’d originally demanded. To do, essentially, nothing. Recycling worn defenses to the accusations of theft we’d never made, reminded us again that he bought a television for the project because he understood what kids needed better than we did. (He didn’t acknowledge that old director had actually stolen that television under his watch). “I give advice all the time,” he said. “We can’t pay you for that,” we responded, “and our project can’t afford another salary.”

After J — a Canadian Ugandan — called him a “Big Man,” I tried to understand this term better. My reading has been shallow and tentative, but as far as I can discern, it tends to be a term for post-colonial leaders who mimic the power of tribal leaders, who tend to consolidate power by creating strife in the seams, who tend, in country leader roles, to outstay their welcomes in fairly dictatorial terms.

Even venturing into this explanation makes me feel racist, like a muzungu trying to make meaning through a convenient lens that positions me as inherently superior. But that realization feels equally limp. I do know that even though I’ve taught people how to do contracting with clients, I failed miserably at contracting with this Partner — because direct questions and assertions, what I know how to do, didn’t work. He ignored questions, responded to long emails full of questions with a simple “OK” (which, in retrospect, seems to have meant “I have now heard your bullshit” rather than agreement). My attempt to anticipate and articulate his perspective and to invite him to understand mine didn’t work. Over time, I created a sheaf of emails with my attempts to assert that I understood that he felt discounted, that we valued his support for the kids, that we all had the kids at the centre, and that our pot was not endless, that our donors are not interested in adding layers of administration. Calling him a layer of administration was clearly a misfire. And failing to give him deference was a misfire. Judging from the amount of time he kept telling us to spend with local officials, I think I was supposed to invite him into long, Important meetings, listen carefully to what he had to say, write draft after draft of formal documents with the appearance, at least, of listening to him. With one week a year on the ground, with every possible one of these hours crammed with understanding the needs of the kids, loving them, I had no patience for that.

As I parse this, I recognize that I failed to honour and follow what others told me was necessary in Africa — ritual, long meetings, deference to the people with status. These conversations feel useless to me, made me restless and anxious to get to “the real work,” especially when it was clear that what people wanted were things that I was never, ever going to grant — not just with this man, but with other local officials who lined up to try to persuade us to pay for the beautification of the local town, to intervene on their behalf with a Canadian agency I have no contacts in, to support other projects. This directness is my style, and it half works, when it’s backed by genuine friendship and caring for people (our Director, our Social Worker, the kids). It doesn’t work when we need something more. And I’m left again, one foot in the drifting boat and one on the dock, legs stretching out, wondering how to use this to help the kids develop skills that straddle where they live and where they might be going. And I struggle to even know how to form a question that doesn’t Impose a View From the West on a culture that operates differently… even as I can clearly see fusing Euro/North American perspectives and African ways of doing things means the kids are going to need to understand more than one perspective. How do I do that without implying that mine is the “right” one?

My friend Liz suggested a few months ago that I should document what I’ve learned on this project to demonstrate to others that they could maybe do something similar. The more I try to write things down, the more it seems that we’re just lucky any of it comes together ever, at all.

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