Western Identities


Laura Beresford  works for Restless Development and volunteered with us on International Citizen Service (ICS) last year. Here she reflects on the realisations and lessons learned around Western Identity in Zambia.  

Before I volunteered I often thought about what life in a rural Zambian community would be like. How will I cook when I can only make sandwiches? Will the children listen to me in school? What will my house be like? Will the other volunteers like me? WHAT ABOUT DIARRHOEA?

So I went about my placement trying to make friends, fit into the community, and be respectful and adherent to Zambia values and culture. Obviously I looked a little different, as one of the only Caucasians in the community, but I expected the children to touch my hair and for people to recognise me as a ‘volunteer’. What I didn’t realise until two days before I left placement was how much more my identity meant.  This became clear to me when a key stakeholder inadvertently boiled ‘me’ down to three categories….

Let me explain. I and my friend Natasha (also an international volunteer and Indian heritage) had gone to church for the final time before leaving placement, and Florence and Doris our Zambian counterparts were at home enjoying a well earned lie-in. Sitting at the back of the service we were suddenly called upon by Prince Gilbert, son of the community Chief, to do a short drama on HIV in light of International HIV Awareness Week. Natasha politely refused but the drama student in me said a big fat YES.

In the church garden Prince G outlined his idea to me and the rest of the all-male, Zambian cast: ‘Madam, you’re going to play a doctor’… a female doctor. Nice. BUT as the only white westerner I was aware of being a stereotype, I would be seen as the clinical professional trying to play ‘saviour’. We rearranged.

‘Actually, you’re the only girl, you’re going to be the village whore’, ahhh progressive. My character profile developed: ‘you’re an international volunteer who has come to work in the community, but we shouldn’t call you Laura because that’s too real and people will believe it….we’ll call you Natasha’ *Natasha still standing next to me* ‘and you are going to sleep with a man from the village and contract HIV. When you find out your diagnosis you decide that you don’t want to die alone, so before you leave for the UK you’re going to sleep with as many men as possible so that they will become HIV positive too’.

What it drew to my attention was something I hadn’t really, REALLY thought about before. I knew that as a visitor I was often seen as a gift-giver with light skin. But it highlighted something else important; as a westerner I was also 1) the domineering professional there to give (with or without permission) aid in various forms. 2) I was a leaver, a short term guest who would soon go back to my life of privilege and a new cycle of volunteers would replace me. 3) I was a loose European with ridiculous ideas, like rape not being the victim’s fault – that was another debate I had with Gilbert, I’ll save that for another day.

(Natasha with our neighbours; Albert, Mabn, Charles, and Angelina, ready for church)

The play ran in good humour and the audience seemed to understand – I certainly didn’t because it was all in Bemba and my job was to just say ’emquai’ (yes) to everything. Perhaps I should have protested at the concept more, but my main concern was simply getting the information across about HIV prevention with a stakeholder to whom the audience actually listened.

At this late stage in the programme I wasn’t sure how to respond and didn’t have time to rectify this…if this can even be rectified. Stereotypes are born from somewhere after all.

I reflected. Was there a time in the community where my presence and identity had a positive impact instead and I hadn’t realised?

I thought back to afternoons spent with the older girls from the boarding school. We would go and have lunch with them and stay after class to play cards and braid each other’s hair, and discussion often ended up on sex and relationships. It was here that maybe some of the most important interactions happened, both on a social and educational level, and one of the students said to us ‘We love it when you visit us. You’ve all integrated with us.’

(Afternoons at Ellensmere Boarding School)

Great, I thought. Here is an instance where the presence of our group and our actions had had a positive impact that broke the cycle of previous views and expectations.

So how can we move forward?

If I could give any volunteer a piece of advice, it would be this: don’t just think about how you perceive others and how they perceive you as an individual.

You’re a representative of something much bigger than just yourself and every move you make contributes to this notion. Maybe it was only one volunteer that didn’t integrate in the past – try not to be that volunteer.

Think about what it means to only give advice instead of asking for it. Think about what it means to start a romantic relationship with a local. Think about what it means to throw gifts and western luxuries around at every occasion. Think about whether you have been invited or if you invited yourself. Think about the level of hospitality you would offer the people you live with if they visited you at home.

Think about how one tiny action can make a world of difference to your bigger identity. All of our individual actions add up – make sure yours add up on the positive side.




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Western Identities

by wearerestless Reading time: 4 min