Researcher, Mother and traveler

Something on research colonialism: een heitje voor een karweitje

Living and working as a researcher, or simply as a person, in a culture different from your own upbringing can present unique challenges. Navigating the cultural standards, norms, and values of a new environment while staying true to your own principles, which may also be influenced by your religion, can be a complex endeavor. Reflecting on my experiences, particularly in Tanzania, sheds light on the intricacies of cultural adaptation and the dynamics of international collaboration in research settings.

Shortly after embarking on my new job in Tanzania in 2010, I eagerly participated in a bioethics training during my first week. The training, led by experienced clinical research associates from the Netherlands and Uganda, proved to be enlightening, covering topics ranging from basic organizational skills, like putting a paper in a punched pocket, to profound ethical principles such as ‘do no harm’. However, what caught me off guard was the expectation to accept a training allowance at the end of the week. Despite my reluctance, I was informed it was non-negotiable, sparking my initial perplexity about this cultural practice.

Months later, a seasoned Dutch colleague, who had previously worked in Tanzania during the 1980s, visited Moshi. Seeking guidance, I discussed the issue of training allowances with her, intrigued by her perspective. She contextualized the practice within the historical legacy of colonialism, referring to it as ‘een heitje voor een karweitje’ (an odd job for a small amount of money). While I struggled to equate receiving knowledge with a mere odd job, her insights shed light on the socio-economic dynamics at play in Tanzanian culture.

As time passed, I came to understand the significance of these allowances as a means to bridge the gap in salaries, which are notably lower in Tanzania compared to Western countries and even other East African Countries. This financial disparity often leads international collaborators to impose their own salary structures on local staff, exacerbating inequalities within research institutes. And one way to do so is paying allowances for all types of ‘heitjes’. However, I remain steadfast in my belief that this approach is unsustainable and perpetuates a form of neo-colonialism in research.

Conversations with mentors and colleagues in Tanzania have revealed the historical roots of Tanzania’s low salary structures, stemming from the socialist era where goods were affordable, and salaries remained low to ensure accessibility for all. However, as the economy evolved and goods became more expensive, salary adjustments failed to keep pace, perpetuating a cycle of financial disparity.

While acknowledging my position as a ‘third-culture researcher’, situated between two worlds, I advocate for a sustainable approach to salary structures that prioritizes local empowerment and equitable collaboration. It is imperative that we, as researchers and collaborators, critically examine our practices and challenge systemic inequalities to foster genuine partnerships in pursuit of knowledge by not imposing Western structures on existing systems, but rather improving local systems. Only through collective reflection and action can we transcend the legacies of colonialism and build a more equitable future for research endeavors worldwide.