Thursday, December 18, 2014

I (Won't Be) Home for Christmas

When my partner moved here, we decided that it was too expensive to fly both of us back from Africa to spend the holidays with our families. Additionally, with combined family spread all over the US, it likely wouldn’t be the relaxing, snow-filled, memory-maker we imagined. As a signal to the new era of Us, we decided to stay here and explore South Africa as a couple. It will be the trip of a lifetime! We crowed. By September, the tickets were booked.

Now that it is upon us, though, I’m struggling. It just doesn’t feel the same. It’s 95 degrees. I’m dusty. And tired. Although the air gets more humid every day, the rains refuse to fall. My brown garden withers under the protracted heat. The idea of a crisp snowfall and a hearty fireplace feels alien and unattainably awesome. I am slathering on sunscreen and trying very hard not to sweat. We both hope that Capetown is cooler.

But then I remember my favorite quote by Thornton Wilder: “The test of an adventure is that when you're in the middle of it, you say to yourself "Oh now I've got myself into an awful mess; I wish I were sitting quietly at home. And the sign that something's wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were out having lots of adventure.”

Upon further reflection, I"m taking my discomfort as a sign that I’m doing something right. In the year of Tropical Christmas, I’m out having lots of adventure - even if feeling a tiny bit homesick. I'm grateful for the change and the discomfort. (That’s not to say there’s no Christmas cheer here at all. Unlike Bob Geldof’s idiotic song, yes they do know it’s Christmas here. With the largest evangelical Christian population in the world, it’s kind of a big deal.)

So, where ever you are this Christmas, remember that adventures happen in all forms. Being uncomfortable is good for you...and Santa will find you, wherever you are.

Here’s to an adventurous 2015!

Sunday, December 14, 2014


For the past few weeks judiciary civil servants across Malawi have been on strike. Their strike is in response to an approved 300% salary increase for parliamentarians, who rely on civil servants to fulfill their mandate to the electorate, but to whom the increase was conveniently not extended. This strike has crippled the court system, raised the prison population to critical levels, and left hundreds of families in limbo. Because the default of the police seems to be throwing people in jail first and asking questions later, it’s kind of a tough time to run amok of the law.

As far as I can tell the criminal justice system in Malawi works like this: When faced with an alleged crime, the police use jail as a holding pen while they investigate. Because it’s so easy to melt back into the populace (no street signs, variable contact information, fluid borders, etc), I can kind of understand wanting to hold suspects - if it wasn’t such a gross breach of due process. Bail, if allowed, is variable. If it is found that there is evidence, then there is a hearing in front of a magistrate, who decides if there is enough evidence to go to actual trial. In an efficient system, this might work itself out in a few hours; in Malawi, depending on how motivated and resource constrained the police are, it can take much longer.

Over dinner a few weeks ago, our host told us of his friend who had just been robbed. The suspects were apprehended, but claimed that the accuser was one of their gang trying to frame them.  Just to be on the safe side, the police threw the accuser in too, leaving to the courts to decide whether or not there was any validity to the charges. The police refused to set bail. Our host was going to go down the next day to see what he could do.

Now, I understand that it is hard and perhaps unfair to judge an entire judicial system based on just this anecdote. I also think it’s terribly cliché to write about corruption in developing country. We Westerners often treated it as a fait accompli, simultaneously revealing our jaded experiences and our condescension. As the #blacklivesmatter protests rock the States, we’d do well to scrutinize our own systems before casting aspersions on others.

However, I do know I’ve been stopped by the cops more than once and asked for a bribe (Madam, I am so thirsty…). I do know that the prisons here are overcrowded, and that vigilante mobs exist to fill the role of an inefficient and ineffective police unit (a robber was beat to death by one just outside our office). It’s frustrating and scary and hopeless all at the same time. And when I asked my friend how he was going to get the robbery victim out of jail, he just looked at me like I was an idiot. 

“More bail,” he deadpanned. 

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Problem with International Development…is Us

A friend of mine sent me this article a few weeks ago, and I’ve since seen it blow up all over my Facebook feed. Doing a blog post on such a rich and thorough article is daunting, but Michael Hobbes gets it so right on so many points, I can’t help but get on my little soapbox to echo them. 

1. The myth of Overhead. The cost of keeping the lights on (overhead) versus handing out the blankets (activity funds) has already been written about prolifically in the domestic non-profit sector (See here. Or all of here). It’s just as bad in the international scene. I’ve seen donors reject multi-million dollar proposals, on the grounds that they only want to see a 15% overhead. How does one run the activities without the means to pay a living wage to staff, or keep the lights on?  Mr. Hobbes says what I've always wanted to say to a donor: just because you say we shouldn't pay for it doesn't mean the need for it doesn't exist. We need toilet paper. We need printers. We need (like, reeeally need) HR Managers.

Instead, those roles and tasks become diffused throughout the organization until the staff are wearing so many hats they lose their heads. In my own working life, I’m a logistician, supply chain manager, low-level bookkeeper, financial manager, janitor, HR manager, GIS expert, chief operating officer, communication specialist, procurement manager, contracts manager  and, apparently, the only one who can refill a fuel card in less than 10 working days. 

2. The myth of scaling up. Man I hate that word, "scaling up" As in somehow, magically, what works in Malawi will work in rural Azerbaijan. Hobbes calls this the Paradigm of the Big Idea. Why are we so intent on finding a one-size fits all approach to saving the world? Is it easier than actually thinking broadly, creatively? I think we've duped ourselves into believing this.

Letting go of this myth that what works in one place will work in another makes space for innovation and creativity. It embraces this wild crazy patchwork-diverse world we live in.  It's scary and messy. Shouldn’t the “solution” to a complicated problem such as endemic global poverty be as equally confounding and similarly heartbreakingly intricate? Then let it be so. Acknowledging that it is half the battle.

3. Our expectations of international development are off. I’ve read many of the same books as Mr. Hobbes and thought many of the same downtrodden thoughts of international development. Why isn’t this working? Why are Malawians still so poor? What am I even doing here, messing around with these stupid fuel cards? 

Hobbes argues that development is happening - just not in the way we expect. Since 2008, Lilongwe has seen three and a half new, enormous shopping complexes erected. (Never mind that most people are still too poor to shop there, and they are mostly empty). Change will look like what it looks like. 

I realized that it was time to let go of the expectation that world hunger will fall away because we start giving fortified peanut butter instead of living wages; that we have a magic bullet to scale up; that someone will notice that there is fuel in all the cars. Letting go of this expectation has been tremendously thought-provoking, and a bit freeing (thus, why it took so long to write this post).

Hobbes ends this article with some of excellent advice:  

 “If we really want to fix development, we need to stop chasing after ideas the way we go on fad diets. Successful programs should be allowed to expand by degrees, not digits […] NGOs need to be free to invest in the kinds of systems and processes we’re always telling developing countries to put in place. And rich countries need to spend less time debating how to divide up the tiny sliver of our GDP we spend on development and more time figuring out how to leverage our vast economic and political power to let it happen on its own.”

Amen, Mr. Hobbes. A-freakin’-men.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Monkey Business

Photo Courtesy of  Ice,
Dreamstime Stock Photo
My friend Kari called me Wednesday. She was in a village with her mobile clinic and a few community members brought her a baby vervet monkey. The mother had been killed. The baby, not more than a few weeks old, was helpless and hungry. Would she rescue it? Also, could she give them 2500 MWK (about $5) to help them keep it alive?  

Kari is a missionary and prone to helping. But she smelled a trap. In places where there a few ways to make money, exotic animal trafficking is a real and present danger. People will sell almost anything they think there is a market for. She called me, thinking I might know someone who worked in wildlife management who could advise her. I passed her the number for the Lilongwe Wildlife Center, Malawi’s only wildlife sanctuary.

The Wildlife Center told her that this kind of stuff happens all the time. Because they wanted money from her, it is likely that someone in the village purposefully killed the mother. Sure, she could bring back that one baby to their center, but by buying it she’d be playing into the very black market they were trying to stop. They told her,as hard as it was, to leave it in the village. When she tried to do so, the folks with the animal protested, saying they owed her 500 MWK (about $1) for ‘turning them in’. It was then she knew she was doing the right thing, even if not for that specific baby.

I told my regional director later about this, all the while cursing the stupid meanness of those villagers. He grew up in Zambia and owns a game farm in the northern part of that country. It’s one thing to read about animal trafficking from far away. It’s quite another to know that someone who wanted your money killed an innocent animal just to play on your sympathies. The duplicity and cruelness of it had my blood boiling. 

He cautioned me not to think too harshly of the people who did this – not because they weren’t stupid and mean - but because they were playing a zero-sum game. Killing wildlife for a quick buck is a short term fix for the long term problem of endemic poverty. Not excusing their behavior, he counseled me to think of it in context. If it went on this way, eventually no monkeys would be left. It was a far bigger tragedy than one baby monkey. And besides, he said, vervets make terrible pets.

I try to think about this in a way that doesn't make me sad, angry or depressed, but I don't get very far. I know this doesn't represent all of Malawi or Malawians, but it reveals another layer of cruelty that I don't often think about. As hard as it is for humans, life here for animals is equally abysmal. I see the bigger picture, but I still kind of wish Kari had a pet monkey right now.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

An Emergency

Sarah raps timidly on my office door. “Madam,” she whispers and waits for me to look up. “We have an emergency.”

I peer over my laptop screen. Slender and long-limbed, Sarah reminds me of a giraffe. Well over six feet tall, with a wide straight smile and elegant neck, she is easily the most beautiful administrative assistant in all of Lilongwe. Her movements are graceful, even as she traipses around the office, making too much noise in too high heels. I watch her slip into my office and slide the door closed. 

"It’s the Salima office, Madam.” She says, by way of explanation. I wait for her to continue, as I have learned to do. She takes a deep breath and steps closer to my desk. 

“It’s like,” she chews bit of her hair, then launches. “Beatrice is out until tomorrow and they only have one bank signatory and they might have guests today. Nancy called me, Alice is out today and the gas station has no fuel. She doesn’t know when either will return. So when she called she was afraid that it might be on, but it’s not on, so I told her that I would help her out.”

This is a typical day in my office: lots of context, but very little by way of actual explanation. I have no idea what she is talking about. The field office in Salima might be out of fuel, which happens frequently, preventing our project cars and motorbikes from getting out on the road. Salima office is a major hub to our project operations. Nancy, our office admin there, is often calling for help. The level of emergency this time around was difficult to gauge however, so I kept Sarah talking while I figured out what she meant.

“What can we do to help?
“Well, she wants us to do the buying here. They are almost out and-“

“Out of what?”

“Sugar.” She says it quietly, but no less urgent, pronouncing it "shu-ga"

I bite my cheeks, trying not to smile. Tea breaks are a big deal in this former British colony. Fuel can be tricky, but sugar? This is an emergency I can handle. “How much do they have left?”

“3 kgs, Madam.”

“Oh dear, only six and a half pounds to get through one day,” I sigh, fake exasperated, trying hard not to laugh. There are only about 10 in the Salima office at any given moment. They'd each have to eat themselves sick to be out of sugar by tomorrow. But still, out of respect for Sarah, I try not to laugh too hard. Another example of cultural perspectives and a decision that doesn't need to be kicked up to the director. I struggle, and try to find a way to make this a teachable moment. “Do you think they’ll make it?”

“I don’t know.” Said Sarah, not catching my sarcasm. “Nancy thinks the staff might be upset.”

“Something tells me they’re going to be fine,” I assured her. "But I'll leave the decision up to you if you'd like to drop everything to order more sugar for Salima." 

When I stopped by her desk a few hours later, she had decided that work was more important. Unsurprisingly, everyone in Salima lived.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

One Man's Trash...

Trash elephant - downtown Livingstone, Zambia
A friend of mine came for a visit during the entire month of June. As she settled into the house, the inevitable question arose around garbage: “Do you have recycling?”

“Yes,” I hesitated, “But not in the way you may think.”

In the west, we are now hardwired to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. But, the separation of tin cans and plastic and newspaper and soft cardboard that ends up in blue bins doesn’t exist here. What does exist is another, more interesting form, more along the "re-use" spectrum.

Malawians don't typically own a lot of stuff, so what they do have, they treasure. This includes trash. I’ve seen bottle tops wired together to make toys, baskets, plant holders, fridge magnets, trivets. I’ve seen pop cans slit open and hammered flat to make toy cars, notebook covers and house siding. Plastic bags can be woven together to make purses. Plastic bottles, in particular, are most treasured. As a side business, many Malawians make “thobwa” a sweet millet-based beer, or mlambe (baobob) juice, to sell, so these bottles are in high demand.

This type of recycling inevitably creates a weird dynamic for an American expat.  For one, you know without a doubt that your garbage is being gone through on a regular basis. How would your habits change if you knew without a doubt that someone (or perhaps even the whole neighborhood?) was going to see what you threw away? I bet you’d shred a lot more documents. You wrap those maxi pads extra thick. You waste less food.

Lifecycle of a sparkling water bottle: full, empty, and thobwa!
I’ve taken to leaving out bottles I know that my housekeeper will want to use in making thobwa. My gardener wanted to try a terrarium out of wine bottles, so I leave those to slowly become yard art. He also put together the chicken coop from cardboard boxes and plastic garbage bags. It looks kind of like hobo-town around here, but I think it's cool.

I also find myself not throwing things away because I either don’t want someone to find it, or I can’t bear to see that embarrassing thing show up somewhere else (old, hole-y underwear).

What remains is still too much (plastic bags, arg!) but overall, this reuse is kind of cool. It makes you aware of the value of things that we take for granted. The mish-mash of garbage toys and plastic lined thatch houses admittedly contributes to Malawi’s shabby feel, but it’s also a testament of ingenuity, its MacGyver-attitude. 

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Just a Job

Last week, I caught an episode House Hunters International, a US-based show where they help expatriates find housing in a new city and country. An American woman was moving to Gaborone, Botswana, to train flight attendants. In a few sound bites, the show made it her sound like she was a martyr for moving Africa and helping lowly African women achieve their flight attendant dreams.

I get it. It’s reality TV. They’re going to be a little heavy-handed in finding an ‘angle’. But really? Training flight attendants in Africa is a self-less act? One wouldn’t move to the United States to work in human resources and be hailed a savior. That’s just …weird. Sometimes a job is just a job.

Yes, even in Africa.

If there’s one thing I wish more Americans (and American television) could come to know and express, it is this: Africa is many places, just like home. It has jobs and cars and malls and fashion shows and people with dreams and hopes and careers and (sometimes) internet connections. Painting it as only a place of depravity and famine that needs “help” does both geographies a disservice.

It’s the same thing with development. 

A while ago, I was complaining to my partner about a tough day at my job, when he interjected: “Yeah, but at the end of the day, don’t you feel like you’re Doing Good?” he asked. “It’s not like you’re pushing paper for a big insurance company or sub-prime mortgage lender.”

Sure, I say, but it’s all about the spin.  Big picture – yes, I help farmers get irrigation sites that work, slaughterhouses that aren’t gross, goats to rear and sell. But if that’s true, then selling insurance is about providing safety in an unsure world, and being a mortgage lender puts more people in homes. Although I appreciated his take, just because I work in development make paperwork any more fun.

I’m proud of my career, and what my company is trying to accomplish. I’m lucky to be in Africa where I can, at times, physically see the fruits of my paperwork labor helping someone else. But let’s not overstate the impact. At the end of the day – it is still a job. I'm no saint.
And that lady who moved to Gaberone, who eventually settled into a three-bedroom apartment for $700 ($700!) isn’t either.

*photo courtesy of*

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Tiniest Plane(s)

In late September, we took my mom to Victoria Falls. It's a twelve-hour drive from Lilongwe, so we decided to fly. We'd get there in two short flights : Lilongwe - Lusaka; Lusaka -Livingstone. In four hours, we'd be sipping cocktails by the falls.

What I didn't count on were the sizes the size of the planes. As it were, our options included a Cessna 208 Caravan (12 seater) and a relatively more manageable 18-seater (I think a British Aerospace Jetstream 32?). Both prop planes, both ridiculously tiny against the African sky. Because Lilongwe connects to nowhere directly, there were two flights there - and two flights back.

Normally I enjoy embarking/disembarking onto the tarmac. It's much better than those sterile walkways directly form the gate. But on both days (four flights) were blazingly hot - 95+ degrees. Walking out towards the plane almost made your shoes melt. Unlike larger airplanes, they did not keep the air on while on the ground, and it took an alarmingly long time once we took off.

Getting into the tin can.

Lucky for us, it was a full flight.

View from the back of the plane. Time to get to know your neighbor! 

The first flight was ok, but the flight to Livingstone was brutal. Although I felt this plane was safe, the heat and the wind made a wicked crossways bluster, that pushed us side to side. At times, it felt like we were swaying. As I spent the entire flight examining the bottom of my barf bag, I took no photos.

Our return flights were a bit better. The plane was so small that there wasn't even a door to the cockpit.

Me in anticipation of 95 degrees, no air, and being tossed about like a salad. I am clutching the laminated in flight flyer like a bible. It made a better fan than an instruction manual.

Landed! I was very happy that this portion of our travel was over. As in most things though, the journey and the destination go hand in hand. 

It was all worth it to see this view: Victoria Falls at dusk. Amazing!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ebola Coaster

Today, I am over being afraid of Ebola.

Oh, I’m still concerned. This disease is nothing to sniff at. But, my focus and fascination and fear of this disease ebbs and flows. Today (thankfully), I’m on a low tide. It’s been a real process digesting the news from at home and across Africa, like a rollercoaster with its own stages of isolation, fear, denial, anger and acceptance.  I call it: my Ebola-coaster.

Isolation: Oh Look At How Interesting That is Far, Far Away from Here
When it was just African news back in July, I was chatting with a Western doctor living in Malawi and asked him his opinion. “It’s fascinating,” he said, “If my wife let me, I’d volunteer in a minute.” Why? “Because there’s so little known about this disease; here is a firsthand chance.”
Seemed like a rather macabre reason, but the development crowd – especially the adrenaline junkie humanitarian types- are known to run towards a burning building rather than away. I was impressed by his professional curiosity, but gave ebola no further thought.

As the epidemic grew, so did my interest.  I don't work in the medical field (agriculture), but just through living in here Malawi, I have a small taste for what the hospitals are like. Electricity and supplies are intermittent even during the best of times.  Families must provide food, care and wash the patient during their stay. If there are no families, there is no food.

Rickety public medical systems are already stretched by everyday medical needs (malaria, AIDS, TB, even having a baby). (A staff member of mine had to go to four different hospitals just to find the proper vaccinations for her baby).

Ebola has effectively demolished what little care there was, causing more deaths through non-treatment than on its own. And while people are dying, economies are tottering, for no one is planting, weeding, harvesting, buying or selling.  I watched the news with a sinking feeling in my gut, knowing that the smoke from this fire would waft far and wide.   

One night over drinks, my public health friend predicted gravely, “Things are going to get worse before they get worse.”  

I soon found myself double checking the number of international flights into Lilongwe per day (Four)? How many come directly from West Africa? (None). Again, I work in agriculture. Not something where you find a lot of sick people. Still, my alarm swung wildly from day to day. Was it going to come to Malawi? It would never come to Malawi.  OH MY GOD WHAT IF IT COMES TO MALAWI? What will we do if all the flights book up, and the borders close, and we can’t get back home? (pantpantpant).

With a Side Of….Guilt
In the middle of all this, USAID put out a call for help and a few friends started volunteering on the front lines. Whoa, I thought, this is getting serious. I felt guilty. I’m a development professional, I should go, too. But, would I really? (And what would I do? Milk cows?). I felt the terror fly through my veins, then shame, knowing I could never, ever be that strong.  I thought of my friend, the doctor from July, and wondered if his wife had changed her mind.

Then it hit me: This epidemic isn’t about me, and how I feel.  It’s not about putting up walls and barriers, trying to run away from or drown out the cries for help.  This epidemic is about common human decency.

I am simply flooded with gratitude for those who can and have volunteered, who continue to run towards the epicenter, who lift dying mothers into taxis and into houses, all the while, putting themselves at risk. I am grateful, and I am ashamed of myself, because I know I could never do it. These people are the real heroes, and I pray for them.

Nowadays, I’m more angry about blind panic than anything else. America looks pretty silly right now. Never before have our xenophobia, racial overtones and fear of the “Other” been so much on display. Never before has our ignorance of Africa’s geography been so well highlighted. My fervent hope is that we’ll use this fear to get educated.

While midterm elections swirl and politicians debate what kind barriers we should put up, I keep thinking: This is not about America.  I know that America is a big, messy, complicated place. Gnashing our horrible teeth and roaring our horrible roars and debating our horrible debates is part of who we are. But this epidemic is about doing what is decent for the global public health, even when it’s hard. Even when we’re terrified. 

While all the above emotions still linger, my partner and I recently made up a plan. Luckily, we are close friends with some people at the Center for Disease control here and can take our cues from them (“When his family goes, we go,” says Kevin).  **EDIT: It also helps that Malawi is over 3200 miles from the closest country with ebola. Folks in London are closer).***The ride isn’t over, but I am getting educated, and I am getting over myself.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Work and Culture

Part of my job is giving out government grants. I read proposals, rank them with our team, conduct site visits and pull together all the paperwork (to ensure we’re not giving money to terrorists). There are a ridiculous number of hoops to jump through to get one of these out the door, but I’ve spent the better part of the year getting the system nailed down. I’ve done 13 grants this year, ranging from $100 - $38,000, each requiring about 25 pages of paperwork (no matter what the size).

Recently, I went to see a guy who applied for a grant in Nkhotakota (about three hours from Lilongwe). He owns an agro-vet supply store, filled with chemicals, seed, farming tools, and animal vaccinations. It’s in our project area, deals with vet supplies, and buys seed from my organization’s farmer groups. He’s a good candidate, and I wanted to talk to him about the in’s and out outs of what it means to get a grant from us and what he needs to do (the hoop jumping doesn’t end with me, unfortunately…)

The guy had waited for me, but I was late. I’d been visiting with our admin team, who often need a bit of guidance and direction. In addition to heading up the grants department, I’m also head of Operations and Administration, which means whenever the lights go out, fuel goes missing, guards don’t show up for work or basically someone want to complain, I get involved. It’s frustrating, but I’ve built up a pretty good team. They just need some personal attention and management from time to time.

So, I was late. By the time I got over there, the business owner had left for a funeral. I had no idea whose funeral it was, why he was there or what his role was. It could have been his mother, it could have been his neighbor’s mother. He didn’t tell me he had a funeral to go to; I didn’t tell him I was running late.

When someone in your neighborhood dies in Malawi, you are absolutely required to give a bit of money and conduct visitation, even if you have to take off of work.  In our office, this sometimes causes a problem because four of our staff live in the same neighborhood. If someone dies in their part of town, it basically shuts down our office. However, one apparently faces severe social stigma if this isn’t done. So, I was surprised that he had waited for me.

My colleague offered to go get him, but I was unsure. I find it kind of nice that the whole community is socially obliged to mark someone’s passing and I didn’t want to get him socially ostracized because I was late. As development professionals, we’re told to be as culturally aware as possible. I try- I really do- but I'm learning that this dogma has limits. In this situation, I could come back later (but not too much later, as we still had to drive back to Lilongwe). Further, I didn’t know how long this funeral would take (they often go all day). I hemmed and hawed. I felt guilty for taking the time to help my staff while this guy waited. I should've called.

And then I remembered: I was there to interview him for a $10,000 grant. I was giving money to him. Why did I have to feel guilty? He should've called! If he wanted the money, he would come. Full stop. I didn’t think that taking 20 minutes away from a funeral for $10,000 would cause him too much social stigma.  

Apparently, he didn’t think so either, because he arrived 15 minutes later.

We made it through the interview, but these observations stayed with me as I drove away. It’s important to be culturally sensitive, sure. But why had I so quickly allowed myself to be led into ambiguous and guilt-ridden ether over it? It doesn’t hurt to have my own hard line (which, in this case, turned out to be exactly the right thing). In fact, without doing so, I lose respect for myself. I’m sure others do, too.

It was a banner revelation, and one that feels just a little bit naughty: I didn’t have to constantly bow to culture just because. Not that I’m going to start demanding my own way all the time. We both certainly could’ve communicated better.  But, I also have a right to get my stuff done, too.  I won’t feel guilty or nervous over having those needs. I’ll continue to struggle and learn how to accomplish that is a culture that is not my own, but I will no longer feel bad. 

Monday, September 08, 2014


Recently, my wonderful boyfriend has upended his life and moved to Malawi. It’s fun to see the country I’ve grown to know and love through his new, fresh perspective. However, he’s pointed out to me more than once that the way me and my friends give directions is frustrating to a newbie and well, slightly nuts.  It’s not our fault, really. In a country with few street signs, it’s better to give approximations and landmarks.  You say things like:

“It’s in the Game Complex, in the little part that turns into a faux mall. You know, back where the shoe store is.”

Helpfully, Lilongwe is broken up into neighborhoods (Areas) that are numbered. Unhelpfully, they follow no chronological order, so Area 10 is next to Area 43. Area 18 abuts area 25. After asking lots and lots of questions, you generally get to figure it out. But, you’re never really sure where one Area ends and the other begins (I still have no idea where the Area 3/9 demarcation is). So again, you fall back on:

“It’s across the bridge in Area 2, half way up the street to the mosque, on the right hand side.”

There is also a reliance on lesser known landmarks, such as the CCAP Church in Area 12, or Maula filling station in Area 3. How one is supposed to know the names of these places? Your guess is as good as mine. And to further the fun, their names periodically change under new management. There is a filling station in between my work and home that I have always known as Bisnowati. Only recently was it pointed out to me that the name changed four years ago to Mantino. I don’t know anyone who calls in Mantino filling station, but by FoodWorths, the name of the grocery store tucked within.

Even if I remembered to refer to it as FoodWorths (NOT Bisnowati) this was unhelpful when describing it to my boyfriend. He only remembers it as “along Embassy row”.  I had no idea what Embassy row was, until he pointed out to me that the American Embassy was next door. (Does one Embassy make a row? I dunno, but there was the start of this post…)

He does have a point. Without common reference points, it is frustrating to the outsider. It’s alienating. I recognize that it’s mad to refer to something by its proximity to something you’ve never heard of, or even by its former name.  A friend who had been asking for directions to an Easter potluck got told to “take a right where the old man stands during mango season”.  I thought this was hilarious. How many old men stand by the side of the road?! “And, I haven’t even been here for mango season yet!,” she cried.

It doesn’t mean to be exclusive, but it is. It doesn’t mean to sound nuts, but it does. For the uninitiated, it’s complete rubbish. But for those in the know, it’s like being a part of a secret club. Once you start having the same reference points as those around you, it gets easier. And then, the day you figure out where Medeterraneo (the old Augusto’s) has moved to in Area 10 and can find it in the dark without getting lost, you feel like you’ve uncovered an Easter egg.  

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Rest of the Story: Malawi Elections 2014

On May 20th, Malawi went to the polls for its fifth ever democratic elections. However, for the first time they would vote on three levels – local, parliament and presidential. It was my first time witnessing an election overseas, and it was incredible. First, I found it amusing that among the candidates for president were:
                a) the current president,
                b) the former president’s brother,
                c) the other former president’s son, and
                d) an unknown pastor.
This gives you an idea the small pool of the intellectual elite and politically connected families in the country. There was lots of speculation in the run up to the big day, lots of preparation of 'security plans' and phone trees, speculation of rest or unrest. The only thing that happened was the day before voting, a rumor circulated in Lilongwe that some ballots were “pre-checked” for the current President, Joyce Banda, so a District Commissioner’s office that had these alleged ballots was vandalized. 

Despite the rumor, Tuesday the 20th dawned clear and crisp. In my area of Lilongwe, the polling station opened on time (6am) and by the time I went to work (7:45), my gardener, Dan, and his entire family, had already been to vote and returned with purple fingers. So far so good.

However, some polling stations in Blantyre and other areas didn’t have the correct materials (pens, ballot papers, plastic ballot boxes) so they didn’t open on time. In fact, some didn’t open at all. Long queues snaked throughout the village and people waited patiently, and then, not so patiently. A few (maybe 8?) polling stations were trashed. News of this rippled through the expat community via texts and emails as “There’s unrest in Blantyre. Stay home.” As a result, the Malawi Electoral commission (MEC) extended voting into Wednesday, and then into Thursday.

My offices, like many others, were closed that day. We let everyone work from home so they could go vote. It wasn’t a national holiday, but it felt like it, as the streets were subdued. After taking out some security money, filling my gas tank and finding my passport, I went over to a friend’s house to watch it all unfold. My day was spent checking emails, the local Malawi Broadcasting channel and watching movies. 

The next day I awoke to an email from my boyfriend with a link to an Al Jazeera headline – Riots Mar Malawian Elections. Riots? You mean the polling station unrest? I found that more than a little odd. Yes, there was some damage, but there were 4500 polling stations overall. This happened in only a few. While I realize that even a few is a bit of an anomaly in the West, was it overall unsafe? No. 

Everything was still unfolding, so our offices decided to open – even if everyone huddled around their radios to hear the latest unofficial results. Of the four major presidential candidates, the president was in a distant third. By Friday, the former president’s brother and the unknown pastor were in a statistical dead heat. The Malawi Electoral Commission had eight days to announce the winner. It felt like the 2000 US Presidential elections all over again.

And then things got interesting.

On Saturday, President Banda got on the radio and unhelpfully announced that by Constitutional authority, she was declaring the elections null and void. New elections, on ALL levels, would take place in ninety days. She declared that she would not run again.

I thought this was hilarious. What constitution would allow for the current President – or any President for that matter – the ability to nullify elections? What would prevent them from exercising this right when they didn’t win? Seemed like an egregious overreach of power. Luckily, the courts thought the same thing. Even more luckily, the constitution doesn’t actually say that. Again, this was picked up by the international media.

The situation over the weekend was stable, but tense. The streets were quiet, but rumors of riots still circulated. Apparently some shops were smashed in the Old Town Area 2 of Lilongwe, and in some of the outlying neighborhoods. The tension was palpable, but strangely, my life went on as normal. I went back home. Avoiding Area 2, I nipped out to the local grocery store, got money from the ATM and filled my gas tank – just in case I had to make a break for the border.

I’ve never encountered a situation like this; where you don’t really know what’s happening. Danger could be lurking right around the corner, or not at all. It was interesting to see what different policies organizations had. For almost all companies, it was business as usual. Embassies and the UN were kept on high alert and told to stay home. A few friends were booked rooms by their organizations at the nicest hotels in town for extra security. The US Embassy issued a statement to all Americans that we should avoid demonstrations which, for the most part, never materialized. I stayed with friends and then, eventually moved home.

It was so odd, being on High Alert, but not knowing for what. I felt a little bit like a lobster in water, not knowing if it was suddenly getting hotter. The mind game was intense, but also, strangely easy to forget. The sun kept shining, the world kept rolling. My toilet needed fixing; the electrician had to come rewire my refrigerator socket. I ran out of milk.  My organization kept monitoring the situation but by the following Monday, we were basically back to work as normal. 

That same Monday, MEC filed a request to have their 8 day requirement extended to 30-days for a manual recount. Apparently, while votes are counted by hand at the polling station, they are aggregated at the district level. These aggregates were then fed into the MEC system. There were allegations of tampering at a few of the District level stations with the tallies. While this may be true, a friend of mine who was an EU election monitor mentioned that they weren’t using calculators to tabulate the results at many polls, so it could just as likely have been mathematical errors over anything else.

There were a few more protests, most notably one in the city of Mangochi on Friday where an opposition party demanded a recount, burned tires and one unfortunate person was shot and killed. However, we’ll never know what a recount would bring because, as it turns out, the MEC request for an extension was denied (or rather, never really responded to as the judge in the matter recused himself). They were forced to announce their results late Friday evening, May 30th.  With 36% of the vote, the winner is 74 year old Peter Mutharika, brother to the former President Bingu Mutharika, who died unexpectedly in April 2012. The new President was sworn in on Saturday, with his official inauguration the following Monday, nearly two weeks from election-day.  For us in the United States, this is a quick turnaround, but for Malawi – what a ride!

Despite all the tension and not-knowing, I’m glad I was here to witness how another country handles elections. I walked away impressed with the integrity of the Electoral Commission, who despite it all, kept cool, calm and collected. Their announcements were always very measured, while the local media tended towards the incendiary. I was impressed on how educated everyone seemed to regarding the Constitution, what was allowed, what laws meant and didn’t mean. The level of engagement was exciting. I was even impressed that Joyce Banda, despite throwing a few curve-balls in the beginning, handed over power peacefully.

The international media, for the most part, kept reporting on what Joyce Banda was doing, even though she was sidelined early on (both by her clear lagging in the polls, and by the Judicial branch). There seemed to be a perception from the outside that all was in chaos. While it was messy, it could’ve been worse. For me, the most interesting part was how the international media kept reporting in broad strokes, instead of any hard hitting detail. But then, as a friend reminded me, Malawi was lucky to be in the international media at all, even if it was slightly misinformed.

As Paul Harvey used to say: 

And now you know…the rest of the story!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Farmers’ Market

Every last Saturday of the month, a farmers' market pops up in Lilongwe at one of the Safari lodges. The lodge is nestled in a quiet knoll of Lilongwe, tucked down a bumpy dirt path through a copse that opens to a clean, grass filled meadow. The lodge boasts a pool, and a bar, and nice restaurant onsite.

During the Saturdays in question, there’s always a brunch buffet on the veranda, which opens into the meadow area where booths are set up, carnival style. If the buffet isn’t your thing, there are usually some school fundraising booths making pancakes or sausage rolls. Booths range from the usual Farmer’s Market fare - fresh produce, home-made salsa, hummus and jam - to knitted scarves, beautifully carved wood furniture and locally made handicrafts. 

All in all, it makes for a nice festive Saturday morning (or, as my college roommate would say “beats a poke in the eye with a dirty stick.”) It’s all very well-organized, booths are spaced out evenly, and you’ll likely have a leisurely chat with some of the vendors about their organic products and run into a few people you know. After a few Saturdays, you tend to note the same vendors, the same scarves and the same handicrafts, but hey, that happens anywhere.

I generally go if I'm around, because it’s something to do (and there is a particular vendor that makes really great homemade hummus.)

The thing that just slays me though, is that up the street there is an actual farmers' market, filled with actual farmers that occurs every day, rain or shine (not just on the last Saturday of the month). It’s loud, dusty, jumbled and right off the highway, overlooking a trash-filled stream. Park your car there, and you’ll be immediately surrounded by hawkers with peddling homemade mops, windshield shiner, and DVDs (ahem, none of them organic).

Walk into the maze of ramshackle vendor stalls and it’s like being sucked into a living organism.  More often than not, I’m swarmed by vendors shouting out their wares, asking what I'm looking for. They either run off and try to find it or, ignoring my shopping list, continue to wave whatever random produce they have to sell. This hassling and hustling is all done while keeping an eye on my purse, squeezing tomatoes, looking for bugs on the cauliflower and testing the pineapples for ripeness (or over-ripeness). Once I’ve found what I’m looking for, next is trying to negotiate a fair price while calculating my desire for the good balanced with its quality. I’ve had some interesting conversations with Malawians in this market, witnessed the ebb and flow of what is seasonally available, and learned about the global fruit trade (much of it comes up from South Africa; I suspect it “falls off a truck” somewhere).

It’s equally fun, but in a much, much different way.

I find it interesting that the two markets could be so close together in proximity and intent, but so far apart in execution. There are obviously many types of marketplaces (Let’s hear it for malls! I am a child of the 80’s after all). But it serves as a reminder to me that we Americans have taken the idea of a marketplace – the very soul of trade – and spun it so far that for most of us, it exists merely as an abstract or virtual concept. We've reduced this age old transaction to the click of a mouse by the aseptic glow of machine that will never know our true desires.

In truth I’ve probably been to the Saturday Farmers' market more times than the other, but I find the local one more exhilarating (and exhausting). Every time I visit that market, I plunge myself into the heart of commerce; jostle, barter and bumble until I emerge, victorious, with something I needed that I did not have before. I've not only purchased my good, I have won it. Now that's shopping!

Monday, May 05, 2014

Customer Service, Malawian Style

Today was one of those days; the kind that can only be ameliorated by meeting a good friend directly after work for a stiff drink.  My friend Elizabeth and I decide on a pub, and show up around 5:30. We can’t decide if it’s open or not, as it’s still early for the dinner crowd, but the light is on and the doors are open. We briefly discuss going to the lively bar next door, but commit ourselves to trying something new and seat ourselves at the empty bar.  There was some movement at the back, so we were reasonably assured that the place was staffed.

Sure enough, soon a short, worried looking Malawian barman scurries over.

“I’m sorry, we have no change.” No pleasantries,no hello. Just: We have no change.

“Huh?” I muster. Then it sinks in. “Uh, yeah, that’s ok,” I say. “We’re just here for a drink.”

He looks at me like I’ve got two heads. “But we have no change,” He insists.

“That’s all right, perhaps we have the exact amount.” I smile at him like he’s a small child and  grab my purse, not knowing what exact notes I might be lurking at the bottom.

A strange look passes his face. He tries again.  “But, the manager has all the change, and he is not here.” He looks very uncomfortable.

Elizabeth and I exchange glances, trying not to laugh. His distress over our possible overpayment is thoughtful…and unnecessary. Any other barman would take our money and pocket the difference. It's sweet, but it looks like we’re going to have to do some serious work to get this guy over onto our side. We’ve committed ourselves to this bar, there is no backing down now. The full bar glows like Brigadoon before us. After a beat, Elizabeth proposes an ingenious idea. “How about we order and perhaps by the time the manager gets here there will be change?”

Sadly, this only confuses the poor chap even more. He is clearly in distress. Why won’t these pushy white women go away? Can’t we see that he’s trying to help us but that there is NO CHANGE? He pauses for a moment before mustering his own solution.

“How about you go next door?”

We laugh. Perhaps he’s right, but once plopped down on the bar stool, I’m too tired to move. Plus, now I’m here for the challenge of getting this guy to serve us. Doesn’t he want our money? After much cajoling, we finally get him to give us a menu, where we see the usual: whiskey, gin, vodka, soda water, tonic and sprite or coke. We decide on a gin and tonic.

Magically, Elizabeth has exact change.

The gentleman is visibly relieved…until five minutes later. He comes back with a grave look on his face.
“Madams,” he intones, “We have no tonic.”

“You’re kidding!” Incredulous, I peer behind the bar. “Let me back there, I’ll help you look.” I’m halfway scrambling over the counter, desperate for a buzz, when he pulls out three mixers from the tepid refrigerator. He can make us a gin and sprite, gin and ginger ale or gin and soda water, but no gin and tonic.

“Bloody hell,” mumbles Elizabeth, and I start laughing. It seems we have committed ourselves to an insane asylum. Game as ever, she looks at me and sighs: “Gin and ginger ale?”

“Blech.” I was desperate, but not that desperate.  “I’ll do a vodka and soda.”

Another long conversation ensues wherein Elizabeth tries to ascertain the price for the imported vodka (to ensure we have correct change), we finally get our drinks. They have the largest single pour of vodka I’ve ever seen, but at this point, I feel like I kind of earned it. 

Later, the manager comes in (with change!). He’s a lovely guy, and the staff clearly adore him. Shortly thereafter, a complimentary basket of deliciously buttered popcorn appears. We left a nice tip for hassling the poor guy so much, but still had to laugh. Such a strange juxtaposition from the market guys who will try to get you to pay for anything! At least I can say, he was very thoughtful about our finances, even if he wasn’t the world’s best businessman. No wonder why the bar was empty!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Riding the Wave

How long does it take for a place to feel like home?

I’ve been asking myself this a lot lately. As it turns out, carving a life somewhere takes time and constant effort.  This may not come as a profound thought to most, but for me – the inveterate extrovert – I’ve always been able to set up a fun community with lots of activities fairly quickly. While this is a component of settling in, I’m always surprised at how hard it is to get that feeling of True Home.  For me, I think this takes about a year, or as one friend put it “Until you come back from a trip and the airport doesn’t feel weird.”

These things shift, of course. They go in waves. Turns out, culture shock doesn’t just apply when you’re moving from Minneapolis to Malawi, but also Saint Paul to Saint Louis Park (just across the river).  The classic culture shock “wave” has five parts. First there’s the Honeymoon stage (yay! I’m finally here!), then the dip (Oh dear, what did I get myself into?), the Initial Adjustment (Ok, this isn’t so bad), the Jaded Comparison/Isolation Period (Things would never be like this where I’m from, Everything Here is Stupid) and finally Acceptance (This is my life now!).

It’s not rocket science, but I didn’t factor in two things: 
1) the distorting effect of Facebook; 
2)   the cycle never really ends;

There are many reasons to dislike Facebook, not the least of which I’ve discovered is the FOMO effect (Fear Of Missing Out). Being able to see what your friends and family are doing, how much fun they’re having in all your old haunts doesn’t help with homesickness. In fact, I think it is actually detrimental to your new life (unless you start copiously adding new friends and begin your own rampant posts…neither are really my style.) Being on Facebook means I can get a quick fix of home any time I want, which is fun (atleast I'm up to date) but sometimes leaves me feeling lonelier more often than is really true, even when I’m having a good time myself. (I say this knowing I’m going to post this article on Facebook…). It leaves me wondering if the culture shock “wave” shouldn’t be updated to include mini waves whenever you log in.

Which brings me to my last point: the “wave” is misleading. It’s not one wave over the course of a year or six months or however long it takes you to feel Acceptance. It’s many little waves, sometimes all in the same day (and sometimes in the minute or two you’re looking at Facebook). Instead of length, I think we should talk about frequency, intensity. You may reach the Acceptance phase, but even within it, there are moments where you want to go back to your previous life. There are even moments where you can still feel isolated. I believe that this adjustment never really ends, it only shallows out.

Given the constant rotation of expatriates on two- three- or four year contracts, the feeling of permanent settlement in Malawi remains elusive. I’ve been here 10 months now, and many of my first round friends are moving on (meaning, I’m going to have to start networking for Saturday night plans again). However, I can tell that the culture shock wave has mellowed somewhat and I’ve come to a sink a little deeper into this life.

The secret, I’ve come to realize, is to hang on when those waves come. Keep busy, keep going. I know I’m making progress because I recently returned from another trip abroad, and arrived back not with trepidation, but curiosity. The airport no longer gave rise to anxiety and anticipation (helped out by the fact that I now have my Temporary Employment permit). Malawi has tipped the scales. It is now more familiar than foreign, more friendly that foe, more homey that homely.

It's about time!

Sunday, March 02, 2014


This morning, I told my friend Premila over our mosaic projects that I was having serious questions about what I was doing here in Malawi. As I watch all my friends on Facebook having first (and second…and third) kids, I’m sitting here, at 34 with a great guy waiting for me back home. What was I doing? What am I getting out of this experience except exposure to malaria and frustration? And having the occasional naked guy running loose in front of my house?

Of course, I know the answer to this, otherwise I wouldn’t be here: I’m here for the experience of living in Africa, helping others, career advancement, adventure and the ability to pad my savings. I’m here because it means I’ve committed myself fully to my career goals; I’ve resisted convention; I’ve overcome the trap of the cube walls. I get to see a baboon run on the roof of the lake cabin. I get to feel proud about doing something hard. I get, in some small way, to help farmers. It means, it means…so much.

But Premila added another one to the mix, one that I had tangentially identified but hadn’t really grasped.

Time, she said, this place gives you time.

What? Time is what I don’t have, I exclaimed. Did you not hear the part about me being 34 and childless? I’m wasting the twilight of my childbearing years gluing glass shards to a plywood board.

She laughed, and then elaborated. In America, we are so busy, we don’t have any space to enjoy what we have. When I was living in Michigan, she said, it was all my husband and I could do to get our daughter to and from daycare, take her home, wash her, feed her, and put her to bed. We never had any energy just to _be_ with her. Here in Malawi, we have a live in nanny. Suddenly, all those things are gone. We enjoy the best parts of each other.

Also, she continued, there is too much to do in America. What is there to do in Malawi?  There are limited amounts of things to drag my daughter to (birthday parties, dance lessons, etc). As a result, we stay home and watch movies or play board games. You know, Quality Time.

I thought about myself. Since coming here, what have I done? Learned rugby. Taken a painting class. Attended home-made costume parties. Watched several sunrises. Learned how to make hummus. Listen to innumerable TED talks. Looking back at that list, it sounds like I’m at summer camp.

Of course, I could do any and all of those things in America, but I don’t. Premila was right. With more distractions at my disposal, I would usual wile away a Saturday afternoon being “productive”, e.g running errands, cleaning house and watching TV. I still do those things here, but they somehow don’t take as long.

We don’t do well with extra time in America. I think it makes us nervous. I remember when I first experience the abundance of time in the United States; it was terrifying. I was a freshman in college, and had just gone from the highly structured high school to the optional class going liberal arts curriculum. Without distraction, my mind picked at silly anxieties until they bled. What if I failed? What if I got the freshman 15? What if my parents died? What if I ran out of money? As that first summer post freshman year inched closer, I dreaded the void of long summer days with nothing to “do”. Frantically, I filled my time working two jobs. Even surrounded by co-workers (and roommate in a studio apartment) the summer passed slowly in an endless chatter of anxiety and loneliness.

Fast forward to the first time summer I spent in Malawi; it was much the same. One of the last weekends, I had absolutely nothing to do for two whole days, and no car. I felt that old familiar dread of time yawning endlessly before me. I knew that if I didn’t keep my mind distracted, the beast would come around and pick at the scabs of old worries, some of which by that time had hardened into full on scars.

I ended up sitting by the pool from 10 am to 6pm, reading an entire book. I remember wanting to stop, but there was nothing else I should’ve (could’ve) been doing, and the book was humorous, so I just kept going. At the end of the day, I felt like I binged on a giant chocolate cake. It felt both disgusting, scary….and a tiny bit glorious. 

I felt (and still feel) the drive to be constantly productive. Given big spaces of time, yes, I still do get nervous (probably why I hadn’t thought of time until Premila mentioned it.) But I’ve discovered that extra time is nothing to be frightened about. With practice, I can guide my mind away from silly anxieties. They will always lurk, especially here in Malawi, but I can live with them.  With practice, I can perhaps truly grasp this Time as a gift, instead of something to be waded through. I’m certain that I will never have this space again. God grant me the ability to play around with it, enjoy it, productive or not. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Poverty Safari

Last week, this blog post article about voluntourism started making the rounds on Facebook. In a very short post, the blogger suggests that sometimes volunteers to a foreign country (aka “voluntourist”) don’t end up doing a lot of “helping.” She asks Westerners, especially white folk, to examine any underlying assumptions and motives of going to a developing nation.  There’s nothing wrong with that; a little introspection is good for everyone.

Then, as happens in the blogosphere, another post popped up. This author pointed out that we don’t need to discourage Western people in caring about other parts of the world. Instead of calling out the problems, we should come up with solutions that keep people hopeful, interested, engaged. Great post, but then, no solutions are offered. I can see why: because it’s hard.

Admittedly, voluntourism is not my favorite thing, mostly because I feel it sometimes fetishizes poverty as something to ‘experience’ (and then go on safari).  Being honest, I did one of these tours myself when I was first getting started. I wanted to see Africa, but was too afraid to go alone. I strongly believe the model of the organization with whom I traveled, so I’m hopeful we did do some good. But I make no pretense: I got a whole lot more out of the experience than the village did.

The truth is, most people (ahem; me) are just muddling through the best way they know how, learning as they go. Those that have an interest in going to far flung places also have a lot of airplane time to feel guilty about our ‘efficacy’ (as well as our ‘carbon footprint’). In keeping with that spirit, I’m throwing my own blogpost into the mix. Here are my suggested “solutions” or rather “muddlings”:

Recognize the limits of volunteering: Let’s be frank - volunteering (free labor) even at home can be a hit or miss experience for both the volunteerer and the voluntaker. Speaking as someone who is a lifelong volunteer (at home and abroad) and has spent significant time managing them (at home and abroad) – it can suck, for a lot of different reasons.  Poor communication, poor planning, poor expectation setting on all sides – oftentimes leads a person to walk away feeling underutilized, baffled and perhaps, a little hurt. I once spent five gorgeous Monday evenings during the spring, sitting at a table in the children’s library, trying to get kids to sign up for the summer reading program. SNORE. I also once had a team of bee keeping volunteers in East Timor yell at me because there had been an assassination attempt on the President during their trip and they had to be in lockdown. Eek. Throw jet lag, dengue fever and cultural differences into the mix and you’ve got a (bee’s) nest.

Realize that You are not the Center of the Universe: I stumbled across this lesson as a young manager, inserting myself into situations where I thought I was responsible for everything, that I had to DO something about everything RIGHT NOW. Unfortunately, it came off as hubris (I was actually told this by my boss. It was humiliating. She was right.) So goes the same in volunteering overseas. I became a better manager when I restrained a bit longer from sending emails, listened a bit more, and stepped back from the equation. I found out that – 9 times out of 10 –what was required of me was not what I would’ve initially guessed.

The first blogger hit the nail on the head when she wrote “…My presence is not the godsend I was coached by non-profits, documentaries, and service programs to believe it would be.”  I found this interesting, in one part the idea of being “coached” to be a godsend, and the other, the choice to believe it. I feel like we would all do well to pick a different choice.

I know, I know. You are a very special unicorn.  You care so much that you flew ALL THE WAY TO AFRICA to help these people. But to others – especially in a temporary assignment – you may be one of fifty volunteers they see that month. Here in Malawi, when I ride my bike around town, kids run after me yelling “Give me money!” Their context is that foreign people are walking cash machines. Nothing takes more wind out of your helpful sales than that. The communities that one enters will be there long after you vanish. The people and social fabric will continue. You are merely a thread. If you remove ego and realize this, then volunteering becomes just an act of living, of service, of being human. 

It’s a lot easier than trying to “save” a community all on your own, don’t you think?

Be realistic and give yourself a break. It’s not all on You. When I was one of those voluntourists, I can tell you I didn’t do a whole lot but chase kids around a yard and mix cement. I spent ten years feel terrible that I didn’t do it “better” or have "more impact". But the face of the matter is, you'll never know what impact you actually have on a person. It has taken me much longer to realize that the bigger picture:  Its fine to be a unicorn in your own mind, but don’t be an ass to everyone else.

Get Frustrated: Even those with special skill sets – doctors, nurses, engineers, art history majors – they feel frustrated and useless from time to time. I can’t say that I love it when I get frustrated, but I know in some ways it’s a good sign: it means I still care.  Fail. Get up. Try again. Do better.

Don’t Give Up: Development is personal. Start with yourself. Start with your sphere, and what you know about. Hold a door open for someone, give money in the [insert your favorite organizations here]. Bake cookies and give them away. Don’t yell at that jerk driver that cut you off. In fact, don’t be that jerk. Fail. Get up. Try again. Do better.

Consider giving money to the Professionals:  There are any number of wonderful western and non-western based organizations that aim to assist in the developing world. It’s worth pointing out though, we don’t always get it right, either. In fact, I’m embarrassed by some of the things I’ve heard of (World Toilet Day (which is actually kind of funny), the Million T-shirt campaign, or any of these). But there have been some truly awesome things too (the Ushahidi platform, the Grameen Bank). Money counts as helping, too.

That's all I have. Time for more muddling.

PS It’s not my intent to side step the race conversation started in the first blog. However, much like the second blogger, I felt like the race piece was tangential to the basic message: being privileged doesn’t make you a more qualified “helper.” There are oh so many things to say about this, but in a nutshell: take stock of your biases, and get on with being the best person you can be today. Right now.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


There’s a fine balance to things here, on so many levels.  The idea of Security has most recently been on my mind.  If you believe the talk amongst the expat world, there are gangs of roving thugs with machetes, sticks and rabid dogs just waiting to scale your fence every evening as you slumber.  Seems over the top, and yet, it’s not entirely untrue. A gang of thugs did just rob a man outside my office Wednesday morning and a vigilante mob formed, stoning one of the robbers to death. A crowd gathered to see the body. A naked man was roaming outside my gate the other night; I had to call the security company to haul him away.

I remember coming here as an intern and having the Embassy warn us about packs of wild dogs that roamed the city. You shouldn’t walk at dusk, they warned, you’ll definitely get bit. And yet, the sunshine and the beautiful air – it is irresistible. I walk nearly every night or early morning around my neighborhood, and have yet to get bit. Instead, I’ve gotten to breathe in the frangipani, stretch my legs and release my body from the front of a computer screen. This bit of glory is probably the best part of my day; should I pack up my mental health on the chance that a dog will find me tasty?

It’s good to be aware that these things happen, but I find myself wondering how far is too far - and at what expense? Because this is the first African country I’ve lived by myself in, and most of my life and living situation here is new, everything seems risky. I’m unsure what’s overreacting and what’s…just being cautious.

The unknown is hard, but listening to expat regale stories of kidnappings and snakes in pianos, just feeds my paranoia. I know they are just trying to offer helpful advice (ahem, don’t get a piano), but mostly it comes off as alarmist. My old roommate and I used to call over the top fear-mongering the “Fox News Effect”. As in, the local news segments that started with “What You Don’t Know About Your Shower Could Kill You.” I often walked away from those news shows feeling like ignorance was bliss. Luckily, there’s always someone around who wants to tell you what could kill you. Normally, I’d have enough context to know which to be concerned about, and which to turn off. But here, I don’t have enough experience yet.  

In the meantime, every day I’m pulled between a state of fear to fairly calm. I try to be smart, while not letting the paranoia run my life. I’ve updated my electric fence, gotten a dog, a night guard, put up more yard lights. Most nights, it works – it calms me enough to get me to sleep. Other nights, I’m up every two hours, listening for the naked dude at my gate (and not in a good way), or dreaming of venomous piano keys.

Recently – and I knew it would – my circuits overloaded with anxiety. I was sitting out another power cut, chewing my cuticles over what thing would crawl over my walls now that the electric fence was off, hating the dread in the pit of my stomach.  As the sun set, I watched in fear as the shadows elongated across my porch. A long evening stretched before me, and I mentally began to tick off the places and friends with whom I could seek refuge.

Suddenly, I was sick of feeling this way. I like my house and didn’t want to leave. I realized that I was the only one making myself feel this way, listening to the Fox News of my mind.  Yes, the lights were out, but I had flashlights, water, food. My dog for company. My guard at the gate. I was safe, but making myself feel miserable. By this time, I should know it’s an unrealistic expectation that the lights will stay on all the time. Why was I wasting energy cursing the darkness? 

I got up. Sunset had turned to dusk. A quiet golden light was sifting through the garden. The shadows were still there, but punctuated by the last dying light of day. Enough, I muttered. I opened my gate, stepped out into the road, and headed out for a late evening walk.