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*