11.1.2008

I believe I have been capacitated.

I just spent two days interacting with various NGO types, who spoke a language that I honestly did not understand. It was so well choreographed, so scripted, so learned, so efficient, and, frankly, so distancing.

I do not speak this language. I have my own jargon. And I kept wondering how my jargon translated into their jargon, how my approach to activism—as narrative and through narrative—functioned alongside “capacity building,” “empowerment,” and “action points.” Part of my task was to get a group of sincere, hardworking, very committed activists thinking creatively about their work, both in relation to the communities and constituencies they serve and also to the policy makers, members of parliament, religious authorities, and local community leaders they want to reach.

This is difficult. But, I also think, increasingly necessary. For, in getting scripted, it’s very easy to already have lost an audience. Empowerment sounds great! But what does it mean? Fighting against Gender Violence is a wonderful aim, but what does it mean? Phrased another way, what is the affective labor of NGO-speak? How can work based on caring—at least for the particular group I was speaking to—create and maintain an ongoing language of care, even when presenting facts and figures and thinking about “capacity building”?

I ask these questions because so-called NGO-speak is so closely related to government bureaucratic talk. IDP? What is that? Negative Ethnicity? What creature is that? What does it feed on? National Reconciliation? I can barely spell Reconciliation and the computer waved me with a red flag!

I return increasingly to the challenge and promise of Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language, whose affective pull seems even more urgent to me now, as we develop more and more elaborate languages that allow us to look at horrible pictures and speak of “collateral damages” and “little accidents.”

I am not naïve enough to believe that a kind of “raw” language will move us differently, shake some or most of us out of complacency. Nor am I naïve enough to believe that funding agencies will respond to NGO that do not use specific kinds of languages. Additionally, I do not believe that NGO use the same language when soliciting funds and when engaging with communities at risk.

I do think, however, there’s a danger that NGO-speak, like all other technical languages, risks alienating even its best practitioners, let alone funding agencies and communities at risk. How do we inject the passion and urgency of what we do into the reports we write, the conferences we attend, the agencies we solicit? How do we give faces to causes?

So, I left this workshop with more questions than answers, knowing that these highly trained professionals—there were at least 5 lawyers there—have been to grant-writing workshops, have mastered the intricacies of getting money, believe in their causes, and, sometimes, groan at the sentences they have to produce.

There was, of course, a queer component to the workshop, and this was lovely. To the extent that the audience was receptive, that I spoke to or with most of the men, that the very distinguished Bishop in attendance told me we come from the same metaphorical “village” and did not consign me to hell, that, all in all, it was lovely and welcoming and I discovered queer Kenyans exist! It’s not an internet myth!

In this sense, I was capacitated.