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Zoë Gross is a first-year PhD student in Women & Gender Studies at the University of Toronto. Originally from Beresford, Manitoba Zoë grew up surrounded by local activists, international development workers, and visitors from East Africa and South America. Involved in politics and activism from a young age, Zoë was a student leader in high school and continues to do so in university. Both the Brandon University Students’ Union and the Marquis Project, a local grassroots development education organization, offered opportunities for advocacy work and social justice programming.
Although Zoë’s connection with East Africa was already well established through her previous years of volunteer work, she first travelled to the region for three months in 2005 as a volunteer with local development partner TSAEE (the Tanzanian Society for Agricultural Education and Extension), located in Ukiriguru, Tanzania. Zoë worked with rural youth and women who were concerned with issues of governance and political participation in the national election that took place that year. Zoë returned to East Africa in 2010, this time to live in Nairobi, Kenya for six months to work with the Federation of Women Groups, a local organization that was working on increasing women’s knowledge of and participation in the vote for a new constitution.
Zoë’s time and experiences in East Africa moulded her MA project, which she completed in Women’s & Gender Studies at Carleton University in June 2013. Her thesis, titled “Constructing Whiteness and Locating Power in East Africa: Desirability and Status of ‘Others’ with Access,” was awarded the University Medal for Outstanding Graduate Work.
When Zoë travelled to East Africa for the first time, she was immediately struck by the ferocity of attention that she, and the few other white women that she encountered, received from local men. Men hung out of public transportation buses calling out that she should ‘have their children.’ Co-workers confided their love after only a morning of working together. Friends would send love notes after only knowing her a few short days. This experience continued into Zoë’s experiences in Nairobi and the feeling of being pursued like a trophy that one could ‘win’ and show off to friends and family was unsettling. Over time, though, Zoë built some close friendships with a few local black East African men who told her stories of how their lives had changed since they became friends: they had begun to be admired by their friends and family and were now often recognized as a more important part of the community than they were before. Some were stopped on the street and asked, “Where did you get that mzungu [white person or foreigner in Swahili]? How can I get one?” as if it was as straight forward as picking one up at the supermarket. They were given “congratulations” as they walked to work and were told that they were “set for life.” Zoë was sought out as a source of expert knowledge of the world, as a coveted friend and confidante, as a source of gifts, cash and financial support for school fees or entrepreneurial endeavours, as a potential intimate partner who could act as a boost or catalyst to higher social and economic standing locally, or as a ticket out, a way to get to the West. After returning home, Zoë started wondering: why exactly do people in East Africa think that white women have money? Do white women have money and the access that they are assumed to hold? What is it about these women that shaped them into something to be attained, as objects to be collected? How did this understanding affect friendships and intimate relationships in the region?
It was these questions that led Zoë to conduct primary research for her MA thesis in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania for four months in summer 2012, interviewing nineteen black Kenyan and Tanzanian men and white Western women in development work. Zoë partnered with Twaweza Communications in Nairobi and worked under the mentorship of Dr. Kimani Njogu. Dr. Rose Shayo acted as supervisor and liaison to the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam.Ultimately, Zoë’s thesis work examined the ways in which white Western women working in international development in Kenya and Tanzania are understood to be desirable to black East African men because of their perceived access to finances, social status, and an idealized Western lifestyle. The thesis, in conceptualizing white Western women in international development as privileged ‘Others’ with access – those marked by difference and yet invested in power – inverts traditional academic understandings of racialization and examines ‘difference’ in this context as not essentially based in marginalization and subordination.
Zoë is now turning her attention to her proposed dissertation research, tentatively titled “Performing Canadian ‘Goodness’ in East Africa: Racial and Sexual Morality in International Development,” will seek to interrogate the construction of this hegemonic Canadian national narrative, particularly within understanding of sexual and racial danger and morality, and its performance through acts of ‘doing good’ in the form of development and foreign aid. While conducting interviews the understanding emerged that, compared to people of other Western countries, Canadians are considered to be moral, virtuous and “good wazungu” (white people or sometimes simply foreigner in Swahili). The narrative of Canada as a nation of do-gooders seemingly displaces a continuing legacy of colonial relations both within and outside its national borders. The key questions this work engages with include: (1) How is the metanarrative of Canada’s image as a leader of global goodness maintained through public rhetoric, particularly through institutions responsible for development and aid? (2) How does this understanding shape the personal narratives of identity, perception and consciousness of Canadians working in development in East Africa? (3) How does the construction of goodness begin to unravel at the micro level through a challenging of normative moral understandings of race and sexuality while overseas? Ultimately, Zoë wants to continue to interrogate her interests in race, whiteness, and sexuality in international development work, particularly as it is framed within the transnational relationship between East Africa and Canada.
Zoë holds a SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier CGS Doctoral Scholarship, which is worth $105,000 over three years. Zoë’s MA work was completed with the generous financial assistance from SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier CGS Master’s Scholarship and the SSHRC CGS Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement.
Zoë is under the supervisorial direction of Dr. Marieme Lo and Dr. M. Jacqui Alexander and is a Teaching Assistant for Dr. S. Trimble.
Zoë graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Women & Gender Studies (Honours) and Conflict Resolution Studies (four-year) from the University of Winnipeg in June 2011. Zoë was awarded a Gold Medal in WGS and a Silver Medal for the Faculty of Arts Honours graduates. Zoë also holds a BA from Brandon University, completed in June 2007, with a three-year degree in English and a minor in Political Science.
Zoë has presented her research at the Women’s and Gender Studies et Recherches Féministes at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (June 2013) and twice at the Joint Chair in Women’s & Gender Studies Student Conference on Gender-Culture-Society at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa (April 2013 & March 2012).