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Postcolonialism - See the world with different eyes!


postkolonialismus So what exactly is postcolonialism?

According to common definitions, colonialism means territorial occupation. In history, this occupation didn't respect the existing systems which were in place at the occupied territories, resulting in the eradication of not only existing local economic systems, but also of local systems of knowledge and education. As a consequence, colonialism does not only mean territorial occupation, but also occupation of the mind of the people who were colonialised.
This resulted in a binary division of the world: The oppressors and the oppressed. Even after the end of colonialism this mental dominance vs. mental oppression is noticable. This current, subsequence period, during which the hierarchization of the world is continuing, is called postcolonialism.
Sensitization for postcolonial ways of thinking should have the aim to reduce colonial power relations. The classic logic of pigeonholing the world must be questioned. Cultural valorization and devalorization as well as objectivization and stereotypical portrayal of people and situations of the global south that reinforce rassist stereotypes need to be questioned and analysed. Furthermore, the exploitation of the global south which has grown during hundreds of years up to the point that it became a tradition, needs to be stopped so that emancipated, mutual and reflected development can take place.
In this context, development should not be conducted as an unreflected continuation or imposement of the global norths'
norms and standards, but as a true integration of all perspectives.

Real-life examples of postcolonial thinking

It is a sensitive issue to analyse postcolonial ways of thinking, which requires the ability to reflect upon one's own behaviour. This may often cause discomfort. The idea is not to blame anyone, but to analyse the various perspectives of the involved parties and to raise awareness of the various points of views that can exist about certain situations and circumstances. Our perception is defined through its difference to someone else's perception. It it strongly influenced by our previous experiences, which means the way how we interprete new experiences depends on how we connect those experiences in our brain with past experiences and knowledge. This process is a very individual one, and even one person doesn't always perceive the same experience in the same way. This results in a very large complexity and amount of possible perceptions.
In continuation, we will give real-life examples to illustrate postcolonial ways of thinking and to give suggestions of how to deal with them.

Example 1

It is one of Laura's first days at her new host country where she stays with a host family. All of a sudden she decides to leave her host family, disregarding the fact that she has made agreements about her accommodation. She wants to change to a shared house, living with other volunteers who speak the language and where life is similar to a shared house at home. Laura is surprised that her host family doesn't seem happy about this. She comments the situation as follows: "I would have expected some more understanding for my decision. I am here as a volunteer and if I don't feel comfortable, I don't have to give any further explanations. I know that I made a quick decision, but I have to stay here for another two months and I have to feel comfortable."
Without doubt, Laura needs to feel comfortable at where she stays. However, her statement shows very clear patterns of postcolonial thinking. Laura puts her needs on top of everyone else's and reconfirms the retention of power by pointing out that she is at the host country as a volunteer, which means she is positioning herself as superior, whereas she sees the host family, representing the people from the global south, as an impersonal crowd. Laura perceives herself as an individual, whereas everyone else are "the others". She decides what is good and bad and defines the norm without considering the local circumstances in a reflected way. Through her words, she gives the impression that her stay has to be done only according to her conditions, which means she is imposing herself over the global south. As a representative of the global north, she is dictating how her stay has to be. Existing inequality is confirmed and continued.
This situation shows how stereotypes and power relations can be reinforced, which has a negative impact on equal development, which aims at stopping the hierarchization of the world. It should be the goal to reduce the power relations that result from colonialism. One way to reach this is to reflect upon ones own behaviour. Our country coordinators and our international team, who have a lot of real-life experience staying at other cultures, are there to support you. They may have found themselves in a situation similar to yours. Noone is born as a master, but they can help you on your learning process. It is essential be take responsibility for one's action and decisions. In our example, Laura decided to stay with a host family to be able to intensively get to know the local way of living. Once she realized that this is not as easy as she thought, she changed her mind. Please think about your motivation for your stay abroad and consider how much your time abroad can benefit your personal development, even if this means certain challenges.

Example 2

Ruth and Amelia have spent 8 weeks as volunteers at an animal conservation project. To make sure that the project donation that is paid to the project on their behalf by the organization that arranged their volunteer assignment, is used in a "way which makes sense", they decide what it has to be spent for. The project manager feels very uncomfortable about their decision, but accepts it, not to appear ungrateful.
Ruth and Amelia take a position of superiority as they decide what their project contribution has to be used for, even though they have only spent a few weeks at their host country and project. Their feeling to have the right to do so is based on historically grown colonial power relations according to which the global north decides what is allowed to develop. It doesn't matter to the global north whether this corresponds to the actual local needs. Furthermore, Ruth and Anne's behaviour implies that the global south is not able to make meaningful decisions what to use the money for. They depreciate local knowledge and skills. By accepting the girls' decision, the project manager's behaviour also demonstrates his internalized oppression resulting from the colonialization of the mind.
We don't doubt that Ruth and Amelia have positive intentions, but their behaviour shows how deeply rooted postcolonial behaviour can be. It is essential to question the consequences of one's intensions. Ruth and Amelia should have involved the project manager who has the right to decide how the money is used, as nobody knows better than the local people themselves what they need. Trust and assigning responsibility from the global north to the global south will reduce distance, domination and oppression.

Example 3

Annika is volunteering at a street children project. After her first weeks she meets her local coordinator and tells her that she is very disappointed about her project. As a reason she states that the children aren't real street children. They are clean and have clothes.
Those children don't really need any help. She didn't expect her assignment to be like this.
Annika's experiences are characterised by postcolonial ways of thinking: She takes the binary division of the world for granted. The
global north provides help to the global south where the people in need live. The people from the global south are seen as living in a kind of romantized poverty that many from the global north want to get to know. But it should not be the motivation of a stay in the global south to discover exotic things, to confirm stereotypes or to sugarcoat poverty. Annika's ideas go against the basic idea that what needs to be done is a change of the status quo and not to administrate poverty. Annika also manifests her power position by deciding that help is not needed for the children she is supposed to volunteer with.
As mentioned in the beginning, postcolonial ways of thinking include devalorisation and pigeonholing. This is clearly shown in this
example. Annika classifies the life of children. She decides who are real and wrong street children. Which criteria does she use for this classification? Her conclusion comes from the stereotypical colonial image of how real street children have to look like. Such stereotypes must be removed. Aspects of life in countries of the global south are just as multifaceted as they are in the countries and societies of the global north.
It is important to learn as much as possible about your host country prior to your trip and to study global relations, social structures and history to get a more realistic idea about the local circumstances.

Example 4

Nelly is staying with a host family at her host country. The standard of the house and food is that of a middle class family of that country. After some weeks she finds out that there is cheaper accommodation and therefore she thinks she pays too much for her accommodation and meals. After all, she is at a developing country where everything must be cheap. And the family where she stays doesn't seem too poor and therefore doesn't really need the revenue from her rent.
Nelly has clear ideas about how much a family is allowed to earn and she takes for granted that at a so-called developing country everything has to be cheap. This attitude also demonstrates postcolonial thinking. Nele expects to live with a poor family, which reveals the idea that in the global south people are poor and in need and must rely on the support from the global north. Nelly as a representative of the global north decides what it means to be poor and from which point support is not needed any more. She does not respect the pricing decisions of the people from the global south. Also, her attitude implies that poverty should be sustained, as she doesn't see any necessity to further financially support the host family to improve their standard of living.
Sometimes you will find cheaper accommodation locally. However this is often the result from the fact that many foreign travellers or organizations have a similar attitude than Nelly, screwing down prices. The host families/accommodation providers often accept this, as it is still better for them to receive little than not to receive anything. (Comment: If the demand for rooms is bigger than the available number of rooms, the situation is different). This mentality to get everything "cheaply" should be rejected.

Please respect the pricing of local accommodation providers. In general, the host families can also make a living without the revenue from renting to foreigners. However, without the rent, few of them have the possibility to have more than the bare minimum to cover their living expenses and cannot afford any larger purchases or expenses that are not absolutely necessary for survival, such as travel expenses. If Nelly can afford such expenses, why doesn't she give her host family the right to afford the same?

Example 5

Ben is volunteering at a music academy in an African country. He is a passionate musician with a very good command of his instrument. After some weeks he concludes: I know that Africa isn't Europe. Anyway: There is nobody who can reach my level of European music. This is not advancing me at all in my musical skills. Also there isn't anyone who even grasps the basics of singing or who can properly accompany me on the piano. There is even only one piano which is good enough to make proper music!
Ben is surprised about the fact that the musicians at his host country have little knowledge about western music. This way of thinking is rooted on the assumption that western knowledge must be spread all over Africa. This clearly demonstrates his belief of superiority of western knowledge and his devalorisation of local knowledge, as promoted by colonialism; in our example, the devalorisation of local music, instruments, and the way how music is performed. Ben decides what is "proper" music - classifying European music as "proper" and African music as "improper". As a musically literate individual he should be open enough to acknowledge that African music styles and instruments have the same value than western music and deserve a space in the world of music. Respect for local knowledge, interest, ideas and thoughts are key for an exchange at eye level.
Are you now feeling bewildered about how to behave? You don't know what you can say and what you can't?

How can I find out what other persons perceive and how they feel? How do I deal with my own needs?
If you have such questions, the first step is done! You are ready to reflect upon your behaviour during your trip.

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