Saturday, May 30, 2015

Tit for Tat

Last week, for one day – and one day only - the Government of Malawi charged $160 to American citizens for visitor visas on arrival. Normally, a 30-day visa is free and a 60-day extension the equivalent of $10. It supposedly was meant to mirror the amount that Malawians have to pay to get into America, but it appeared literally overnight. All the flights arriving that day were met with this new requirement and, finding no provisions to help them fulfill it (stocked ATMs, cashboxes, change), were left to deal with painfully long queues, confusion and frustration. Welcome to Malawi!

It was rescinded the next day.

Not speaking much Chichewa and never listening to the Malawi Broadcast Company station, if there was an announcement, it’s not surprising that I didn’t hear it. When I asked at the American consulate, I was told it came as a surprise to them as well, and they were not consulted on the amount.  Even if they had been, the roll out seemed unnecessarily speedy and confusing.  The only thing I saw in the news was a few days later.

Bizarre roll out aside, a few other countries structure their visa fees in this tit-for-tat manner. Certainly it’s very politically popular, and given the amount of development folk that jet in and out, seems to be a viable revenue stream. I do think Malawi ought to have a (minimal) visa fee, like its neighbors. But what point is really being made here: is this visa fee meant to change US policy towards Malawi? Elevate their status as a country worth paying to get to?

All it appears to do is make getting to this corner of the world even harder, a further dis-incentive to well paying tourists. It seems unlikely to change the way Americans view Malawi, and if they exempt everyone on government travel (as stated in the news link) they’re not even going to get that much money. Worst of all, the madcap way it was implemented does nothing to dispel the stereotype of the disorganized African nation. Status: denied.

As sympathetic as I am towards high visa fees for Africans to America, this kind of retaliatory policy-makes siding with Malawi here really hard. I’m only left shaking my head, like I have on so many other things here I just don’t understand. I’m glad I wasn’t traveling last week!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

How to Talk About Africa Without Sounding Like a Jerk

“Oh, you’re moving to Africa?,” mused the hairdresser, pronouncing it ‘Eh-free-ka,’ “Where are you going to live?” she snapped her gum thoughtfully, comb dangling mid-weave, “I mean, are you, like, gonna hafta live in a mud hut?”

Talkin' 'Bout Africa
I peered at her from under my tinfoil, keeping my tone as even as I could. “Um…I’m going to live in a house.” I was embarrassed by my obvious response. She seemed like a nice lady, here in the middle of the upper Midwest, making conversation on a normal, sunny Saturday morning. Sure, it was a silly question, but I could see she was just making conversation. I didn’t feel like cracking her mind wide open and pouring in my panoply of African facts.

I just wanted a touch up on my highlights.

“Oh.” The hairdresser blushed, realizing her underlying assumption. The conversation dropped.

The ignorance of Americans in regards to all things Africa is well documented. Ms. Hairdresser didn’t know a thing about Africa because, quite simply, she doesn’t need to. I’m not excusing wanton ignorance, but if you have no context or previous thought to a subject, it’s easy to say something that sounds ignorant, especially when just making small talk.

I’d love for this to change. I’d love for Africa to matter to Americans the way it does at the end the John Cusack disaster movie, 2012, where they land their arc in South Africa after the entire world is flooded. I’d love for our schools to teach the richness of African geography, history, art and literature. I’d love for Americans to stop being unnecessarily afraid of what G.W Bush called it “a nation that suffers incredible diseases.” (pssst – 54 nations actually and not that many diseases).

They only way this is going to change is if we find a way to share personal experiences, spark interest, and make Africa come alive for Americans outside of news stories and savior complexes. Sometimes there are openings for this, sometimes there are not. I don’t want to be that smug party bore who stands on her soapbox, lecturing about how the Tuaregs are a Berber people in Mali and not some Volkswagon SUV (because really, it’s a cool name regardless). But, I do want to help people stop sound so ridiculously ignorant.

The way that I see it is that talking about Africa has two parts. It starts with curiosity, and involves right-sized information.

On curiosity, I find it a little like fishing. You cannot capture the imagination of someone that isn’t interested in the first place; you must wait for them to approach the boat. So, that’s a big NO starting off a story by hiking up your khaki pants, throwing your scarf around your shoulder, adjusting your pith helmet and puffing “Well when I was in Africa…”

If it’s not central to the topic at hand, the idea of being in Africa can sometimes be distracting and off-putting. It looms large in the American psyche as a horrific Terra Incognito, and therefore, why would anyone go there? No matter if you were there by your shoestrings, it sounds exotic. Proceed with caution, warm up the audience first, and use this phrase sparingly (and for goddsakes, put the pith helmet away...)

On the other hand, if people are interested, right-sizing the information for the moment is crucial.  Small talk with my hairdresser? Not the place to launch into a mud hut discussion, but I might mention that hairdressing is a wildly popular career. I once saw a barbershop called Tupac’s Alive! and the Princess Diana Everything Is in Order Salon.

More open ended questions with close friends, I might press the envelope. Before moving here, I invited a bunch of friends at a dinner party to come visit. One of them told me that she was interested, but probably wouldn’t come. “Why’s that?” I probed. “Oh, well,” she flustered, “You know, diseases and all that.” Then she paused, “Actually, I don’t really know. It’s just a feeling I have, from all the things I’ve heard.”

That. That right there is an invitation.

The African continent needs to be removed from the Pity Pedestal, and normalized in American conversation. The only way for this to happen is to share stories and experiences, become that person who has travelled there and lived, and isn’t a bore to talk to about it. Once, a guy I’d met online said to me: “You’re much more party fun than I thought you’d be. I kind of thought you’d stand around talking about AIDs orphans all evening.”

That’s one of my favorite compliments (perhaps to the detriment of AIDs orphans).

Maybe after all this, you think I still sound like a jerk. That’s ok. Sharing news and information is not about being smug, or preachy, or keeping information from people because they are too ignorant to understand. It’s about being authentic, right-sized, and approachable. It’s about sharing something you love. It’s about changing perceptions in others that were once - blessedly, luckily - changed in yourself.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Head, Heart, Hands, Health

Logo courtesy of
Growing up on the farm, I couldn’t wait to escape. Our house was situated in the middle of an endless gravel road, stretching from one end of the earth to the other - no stops. I was adrift in flat sea of wheat, corn and soybean fields, broken only by the occasional shelterbelt. It seemed to me that everything interesting happened “out there” – off the farm, in the city, in another state, across the world. I used to gaze at the world map in our basement, wondering when (and if) I’d get to see it all.

As a club for farm kids, 4-H was part of the fabric of our lives. Like our parents before us, my siblings and I attended meetings, worked on our projects, went to the county fair and wrote records. It was just something we did; I never dreamed it would be the vehicle of my first trip abroad.

Traditionally, most people think of 4-H as a youth group that focused on showing livestock and learning about agriculture in rural America. Those aspects are still there, but it has evolved into so much more - including internationally. Where my parents showed cattle, my siblings and I focused on collecting insects, practicing demonstrations, fashion revue (sewing and modeling our own clothes) and public speaking.

Thanks to my parents encouragement and lots of practice, when I was seventeen I won a statewide 
4-H public speaking contest. Due to a generous co-sponsorship by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Twin Cities, the grand prize was a 10-day study tour of Israel. I don’t remember the topic of my speech, but I do remember driving home across the prairie, feeling elated. I finally got a peek at the rest of that map.

4-H is so much more than an agricultural organization for farm kids; it is a vehicle for learning valuable life skills.  Every time I go on a job interview, I channel all those years being grilled by State fair judges. In my work and civic life, I draw upon years of running 4-H meetings (and my mom forcing us to use Roberts Rules of Order). But most importantly, 4-H gave me that first glimpse across the shelterbelt, that first step off the middle of the gravel road and into the direction of my career helping farmers overseas.  Thanks to 4-H, I’m not looking at the map anymore; I’m on it.

For more information about 4-H overseas, check out:

Sunday, May 03, 2015

This Week I'm Thinking About...