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.