Before the end of May, I’d never been to a country like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I haven’t travelled enough to know whether there even are other countries like Congo. Each developed country that I’ve visited seems distinctive. Are Congo, Haiti, Kenya, or Afghanistan any more individually indistinguishable than Barbados, France, Greece, or the United States?
So I’ve trained myself not to refer to my “internship in Africa.” Africa spans more than thirty million square kilometers. I’m spending almost my entire internship in one city: Kananga. My classmates interning in Washington, DC don’t absurdly mention their internship in North America! Though I suppose perspective matters. You’ve heard of the White House. You probably haven’t heard of École Malandji.
École Malandji is the primary school across the road from the house where my three colleagues and I live. Early every morning hundreds of children sing and play in the schoolyard. It’s a harmonic ruckus. On days when there’s no school, roosters herald morning with gusto. Fellow iPhone users: it beats Marimba by a long shot. If we walk down the street to buy fresh beignets, the children shout, “Mutekete, mukete!” (“White man, white man!”) Sometimes even “Good morning!”
My three colleagues are researchers from Harvard University. Nathan is an economics professor, Sara is a PhD candidate, and Matthew is Nathan’s research assistant. Other members of the research team will join us here in July. Last summer, the team conducted a series of surveys and games with a sample of about two hundred Kananga residents. Their broad research question: “How do formal institutions affect internal cultural norms?” The tribes in Kananga have distinct histories of institutional development. The surveys and games help us to understand whether descendants from different tribes show differences in altruism, patience, risk aversion, and other views or beliefs.
This summer we’re expanding our sample and trying a few new activities. My job is to train and manage our Congolese investigators. Most are native Tshiluba speakers—important, because so are most of our survey respondents. The investigators all speak French too, so that’s the language we use to communicate. My Congolese colleagues are mostly curious, committed to their work, punctual, professional. And they’re an entirely heterogeneous group. My experience teaching and leading Congolese hasn’t been radically different from teaching and leading Americans or Canadians. This is a little contrary to what friends and mentors told me to expect.
There are cultural differences. Pedagogy revealed perhaps the most striking contrast. A few of the Congolese later told that me they’re more familiar with a didactic approach, whereas I prefer a participatory style. After everyone got to know one another, they engaged as enthusiastically as any group of Berkeley undergrads. I don’t mean to minimize the cultural distinctions. But in some contexts—a classroom, a workplace—they’re not always irreconcilable.
After the first round of training we began our initial screening survey. Then we’ll select a representative sample and conduct a more extensive survey. Later this summer, the Congolese investigators will guide respondents through the dictator game, the ultimatum game, and other activities. Wonky Internet connection willing, I’ll blog a few more updates over the next months.