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.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Five Random Things about Malawi

  • The national football (soccer) game is called the Flames. A new stadium is being built for them in Lilongwe.
  •  The entire country is about the size of Pennsylvania. It feels much smaller.
  •  Potholes seem to get fixed at night, presumably for the least amount of traffic disruption. I’ve only once seen a pothole squad during the day, and it was in the rain (?). No ideas.
  • When there is a funeral or traffic disruption, branches are placed across one part of the road as a warning to slowdown.
  •  A hyena was recently spotted in the poshest neighborhood of Lilongwe. A hyena!~ In a city~!

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Development As Personal

It’s hungry season here in Malawi. The crops are in the ground, giving the land a lush, green atmosphere that it didn't have in the dry season. The maize is looking good, getting quite tall in some places, in others not yet knee high. Everything has the appearance of abundance, but it’s not quite there.  It’s a few months yet to maturity, and you can’t eat appearances.

A few Malawian colleagues were telling me that people often come round to the gates this time of year and ask for food or money. My guard/gardener Dan, who lives on my rented property with his wife and son, tells me some people have been by our house, but haven't seen anything yet. I’m always being asked for money or favors, so things haven’t changed from my perspective.  But I know this time of year, it’s there.

So, it came as no surprise when Dan approached me a few days ago and said he had a few things to chat with me about. When we eventually sat down, he straight out asked if I would give his parents and his in-laws parents each a loan - about $130 (50,000 MWK) each – to buy fertilizer (14,000 MWK or $30/ bag) and get them through the hungry season.

He would give them the money himself, he explained, but he was going to use the small savings we’d started together for him as a way to pay for his school fees. Now, this is an extraordinarily UN-Malawian thing to do, placing himself over his family. It’s also the smart long term choice, in a country where most decisions are immediate at best. We discussed this for a while, and eventually came to the issue of a raise.  When I inherited the house, I also inherited their salaries – about $130/month cumulative. I felt really weird about this at first, but it's actually in line with the national minimum wage standard (that is, ridiculously low).  We agreed on a three month probation period before I would commit to changing anything, and January was the end.

I fundamentally believe that the best kind of development is on the personal level – individuals helping out individuals. Big aid programs have their place, but to overuse a phrase - development is complicated. The simplest way I can think of to help another person is to be a good boss, a good employer, a good friend, or even a kind stranger. This is what makes up the world. In the end, that's all that ever has.

But, in a country where the needs are so great, where does it end? It’s impossible to hand out coins and cookies to everyone. I'd soon have masses at my gate. Now, for those closest to me - Dan and Dorothy -I’ve set up mechanisms: a savings account with matching amount every month, payment of medical expenses for them and their child, free electricity and water, seeds for the garden, chickens. But if you try to do that for everyone, you’ll not only run out of stuff but you’ll also be quickly overwhelmed and burned out. So, where do I draw the line? Aren't his parents part of the "family" too?

The hardest – the absolute hardest part for me being here – is living in the terminally gray unknown. I have no idea where that line is, and I'll be darned if that bugger doesn't also shift around depending on the situation. Being an expatriate, I can afford things that most people here can’t, so I always feel I fall on the much too conservative end of that line. As a friend put it, there will always be a whiff of Expatriate Guilt about my life here. What I struggle with is balancing short term needs with investment in longer term choices and what I think is "right".  Ultimately, only I know the line that keeps me sleeping comfortably at night, and it changes with each raging debate.

In ruminating over this situation, I realized that while Dan was choosing himself over his parents and in-laws (a good thing), he was also transferring that responsibility to me.  Also, I knew there was little possibility of them paying me back, as loans often turn in to “gifts”. I didn’t want my relationship with Dan to sour over an unpaid bill by his in-laws. Even if he couldn’t see it, I could. I had make a distinction that was good for all of us, even at the risk of alienating the people who come into my house daily, and keep watch at my gate.

Although I feel that development is personal, ultimately, I turned down his request for a loan. Instead, I gave him and Dorothy at 25% raise.

This post has taken me days to write, as I sort through the layers of conflicting feelings, trying to put my finger on exactly this grey blob of emotion. Often, that's all I have - just a blob of feeling, that takes unpacking, examining, challenging. I am left wondering what others would've done, if there was a "right" answer here. The only conclusion I can draw is that the longer I stay here, the more my internal compass of what is right and what is wrong is challenged. For whatever reason, I always feel like I come up short, but I am slowly, painfully turning into a truer version of myself.