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. 

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