Mohamed Hussein ’17 is a CSE fellow who spent a month in Cuba as part of his Ambassador Corps assignment.
As part of Ambassador Corps’s (AC) first cohort, I had the pleasure of conducting a month-long research project on social entrepreneurship in Cuba. From the very first day, the island taught me to reconsider my assumptions and keep them in check. After a two-hour delay in the flight, I arrived in Havana at 4:00 pm and had to wait for more than three full hours before the luggage had arrived. This incident highlighted the polychronic nature of Cuban culture; time here is slow and thick, like viscid honey pouring down sulkily from an unattended jar.
Even before I arrived, the culture started humbling me in unexpected ways. While waiting in line for my flight, the woman ahead of me in line called my attention to the fact that I was the only person whose baggage was not wrapped in plastic. I asked why such wrapping was necessary. She laughed, explaining how, otherwise, some of my personal belongings might get ‘lost’ on their way to Havana. This showed me that the existing social capital is minimal between inhabitants of the island and their expat counterparts on the mainland.
The third initial lesson was my over-dependency on the internet and electronics. Since internet costs $10 an hour, I have kept my use to a minimum. It was quite hard to not know what is happening in the rest of the world and have very limited and little access to information. At first it was stressful; later, it just was.
After one week of living in Havana, I calmed down after my initial ‘spasmodic’ reaction. The city grew on me with its chaos and crowded buses that cost 5 cents. There is something oddly trancing about the feeling of solidarity aroused by melding into a desolate background with hundreds of people going about their lives. To a passerby, I was just another Cuban. This visual reality eased my life, encouraging strangers on the streets to open up to me, albeit my foreignness. These encounters allowed me to draw a more detailed image of Havana and life under a socialist regime. The stories I gathered interweave to form an intricate canvas that makes no sense. I see contradictions everywhere.
During the third week, my know-all attitude got me sick. Thinking that I would save money, I bought ingredients from local markets and started cooking. An eggplant, some chicken, onions, and carrots—nothing too fancy. The vegetables and fruits were 100% chemical-free (by product of necessity than environmentalism but that’s beside the point) so they tasted fresh. With these simple ingredients, I started making an Egyptian dish that I have perfected over the years. I ate to my heart’s content but got quite ill that night.
You see, even though the vegetables looked the same, they were variations of the same species, which changed some of their essential characteristics. The eggplant, for example, was too absorbent of the oil in which it was fried and the chicken’s muscular tissue needed longer to be cooked. My impulse to apply my culinary knowledge to a different context without adapting has resulted in a failure that harmed me. Instead, I gave money to my host mother, who prepared delicious food for me within a tight budget.
This incident has made me realize that the future of development for Cuba may have a very similar reality. Like me, idealistic international organizations may come in, ready to apply their skills and knowledge. They will want to get their hands dirty and do things themselves, distrusting the Cuban governmental agencies and existing structures. A better approach would be to find their ‘host mother,’ a local structure that do more than counsel them on culture. Cubans do not need skills and knowledge—their biggest asset is their human capital, since the government spends more than 10% of GDP on education, compared to US’s 5.2%. The island is in need of material support, the money to buy the ingredients that makes sense to them and their context, more than anything.