Aparna in Mozambique

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

T Minus 5 Months and Counting!

July 18, 2007

T minus 5 months and counting…

Another month has gone by and I have officially been in Blantyre for 6 months! I’ve never been abroad for this long so it is a significant milestone for me. Lately, my life is so completely normal here that I haven’t even noticed the time passing. To me, that is the sign of settling into a place and getting to know the dos and don’ts as well as just beginning to live normally. And I just realized that I only have 5 months left so I have to make the most of my time or else it’ll be gone before I even know it.

What I’ve been up to…

Sadly, I really have not done much since my brother left in terms of adventures. For the past six weeks, I have just been in classes full time and now I have off for 6 weeks. By off, I mean that I have to be working on my 2 case studies, practical assignment and my research. So, it is going to be a busy month but I am finally going to get to put some of my coursework into practice, which is really exciting for me. And I only have 3 more classes at the end of August and I am done with my coursework, which is simply unbelievable to me. When I started this program, I had no way of seeing that I could actually finish in a year. I was just taking things day by day and seeing what the next step was. Now that I am nearly through with courses, I have to begin to focus on the finishing touches.

My biggest living news is that Donna has left. Yes, she has gone back to Northern Ireland and we are missing her here already! But, the links she has given me with her school, church, and friends are irreplaceable and I will miss her hyper sense of humor and ever willingness to eat an entire bar of chocolate if necessary. In terms of service, Donna and I did the workshops for the children on tooth brushing and hand washing and they loved it! We sang some songs on how we love to wash our hands and brush our teeth and learned and demonstrated counting strategies for brushing teeth and washing our hands, including all the little crevices where germs love to hide. Thank you letters and photos are on their way; I am just waiting for the pictures from a friend so they are on their way! With Rotary, I haven’t been able to be as active as I would have liked. This week, I have another Rotary scholar visiting from South Africa and we are going to the Rotary lunch on Thursday. Christopher and I met in Texas at our regional scholar orientation and we are so happy to be able to meet up more than a year later! That’s Rotary for you! I am still working to help start up a Rotaract club at the College of Medicine so we will see how that works out. In addition, because of the great amount of donations I received I am working with a colleague at the Palliative Care Association of Malawi (PACAM) to design a nutrition project for home based care patients in Ndirande (in the same are where the children’s school is).

As I said, my life has been extremely normal. I have been working on getting resettled into my flat without Donna, which has basically meant learning to cook for one and to cook just the right amount because I don’t have a refrigerator. In terms of social life, I occasionally eat out, sometimes watch movies at friends places, go to Rotary events, listen to the BBC, read, go to church and bible study with friends, and my favorite, go for coffee or tea at one of several places in town. That is really pretty much it. Half of my time in Malawi, I probably spend in a car stuck behind a huge freight truck, but well, that’s traffic when you only have one lane major roads.

The many reflections of this month…

As I said, this month has been very normal and I haven’t had many great encounters to spur some creative thoughts. There are a couple of subjects however, that I’ve been thinking about, but haven’t finished thinking about so are incomplete thoughts, so I figured that I could do a compilation this month with several reflections and get feedback on all of them. Here we go…

Cars of Malawi and the president’s wife’s funeral….

Several weeks ago, the honorable Madame Ethel Mutharika, wife of the President of Malawi, Bingu wa Mutharika, passed away from cancer. It was quite a sad event, but for the week the town shut down. There were numerous brigades of cars, streets shut down, crowds rushed to Sanjika palace to view the body, and thousands flocked to Thyolo where she was buried. I agree that it was touching to see the outpouring of emotions towards the first lady. Indeed, she did a lot for the poor in Malawi. But, what I don’t understand is the mourning process here. It seemed to go on for weeks. And even more striking, hundreds of heads of state came from all over Africa to attend the funeral. Most of these diplomats were hosted at the most exclusive hotels in Blantyre (Ryall’s, Mount Soche, and Victoria). They all had personal cars with their nation’s flag and attended numerous functions for the week that they were here.

In my head, I kept thinking of the absolute waste of money on the funeral. I agree that she was an important lady and that she should be respected, but was it really necessary to invite Robert Mugabe to Malawi to attend the funeral and pay for him to be comfortable? What could Malawi have done with the money used in petrol, meals, accommodations, and multiple functions? I felt guilty for having these thoughts as I can’t understand the importance of mourning and death. But, nevertheless the feeling stuck with me.

On constant death…If I counted the number of funerals I’ve seen….

This brings me to the topic of death. I always think of it as the only morgue in Blantyre is located right at the back of the college. Often on my way to class, I would see flocks of people in colorful garb standing with morose faces near the gates of the college, waiting for the hearse to exist with the body. For the first few months, I honestly had no idea what these people were waiting for and when I found out, I was in disbelief. The flocks of people were waiting on a daily basis nearly. And once I found that out, it was like my eyes opened up to death all around me. I noticed the frequent absences for funerals and the hundreds of coffin shops around the outskirts of Blantyre.

Death is a commonly accepted event here, as it is in many parts of Southern Africa. Death happens for many reasons. There are the obvious killers like malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria, acute respiratory infections, sepsis, and diarrhea. But there are also things like underlying medical issues not identified and medical mismanagement. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that someone went to hospital with a minor issue and never came back. I have heard of botched surgeries, failure to identify the problem, and secondary infections after surgery. And not just in people that are poor at the government hospital. These stories pervade even into the middle and upper classes, who can afford care at the private hospitals, Mwaiwathu and Seventh Day Adventist. Most people with complications go to South Africa for treatment, but by the time they arrive, it is often too late. Or they have to stay in South for several months to be treated. This can be extremely costly and difficult on any family, no matter how wealthy you are.

I think this is on my mind because a medical student died this past week all of a sudden. She was driving to the lake and got into a car accident. She was being treated at Queen’s hospital for the week but then had “complications.” She was flown to South Africa and died thereafter. No one knows what exactly happened. When I ask my friends, they just say, “things got complicated.” And so it goes. This is no new thing to me. Quite often my classmates are not in class because a niece, uncle, aunt or grandmother has died and they must go back to the village to take care of the funeral arrangements. Just last week one of my classmates grandmother’s died in a minibus accident and her cousin had to have both of her legs amputated. The story was told to me in a deadpan voice by our class president. People listened then simply went back to their work.

When I first arrived, this was all very shocking to me. Now, I have become desensitized. It’s just a part of life here. Death. But, when I sit and think about it, I can’t accept it. Is this just another thing I should accept? Is it like when you are a medical student and your first cadaver makes you want to pass out but slowly, becomes a part of your daily life? Something tells me that this is not so, at least not at the frequency with which it happens.

How Do You Contribute Your Best Skill Set…When is it right to come home?

Maybe because it is now summer in the northern hemisphere, I have met tons and tons of people volunteering here this summer. As I mentioned in my last post, there are many people here for short term projects and for entire summer stays. I think this, plus Donna leaving, has made me wonder about the utility of being abroad and why we come and go.

Every time I meet someone, it inevitable comes up that I should ask them what they are doing and why they are here. Sometimes, people give me answers like, oh, I just really wanted to come to Africa and I wanted to help out. This is totally fine, I am not opposed to this. But, this is an OK answer to me in the short term. If you want to “help out,” aren’t there plenty of projects in your own back yard? This is not to say that I am any better, I also want to help people. But, this desire to help people is not sustainable in the long term if you do not have a skill set to contribute. I am sure that the recent college graduate may be really motivated and willing to learn. But, in a hospital setting for example, what is needed is a seasoned nurse or doctor. In a school, a veteran teacher would be wonderful. And in an orphanage, even a food preparation specialist would be essential. I think you see my point. So how do we interpret these people that want to help out? Are they overly idealistic? Is it their fault? Do we say that hey, Africa doesn’t need your help? Do we just tell them to go and get some training before coming back?

I thought about this a lot when Donna was leaving. She was really reluctant to go. She had had this amazing transformative experience here and is a qualified teacher so felt her skills were really giving back to the world. I always felt that it was time for her to go back. I think that she needed to learn more things and earn some money before she could be comfortable doing the work with orphans that she wanted to do. If she had stayed, she would have worked for a private school and with public on the side, which would be just like going back to England and teaching. So, she decided not to do it. My friend Jess also brings up a good point that people come to Malawi, have an amazing experience, but don’t realize that they are not living like the average person here. Because you are here for such a short period of time (relatively) your concept of reality is distorted and you eat at nice expatriate restaurants, go on vacations, and go to bars at night. And even though you are not Malawian and can’t compare, at some point it is going to hit you that this is not how people live. Guilt will ensue as will feelings of disconnectedness to the place that you are. In addition, what always makes the experience for you is the people that you meet. And when you realize that those people are gone, your experience changes entirely.

In a place like Blantyre, I feel that this is true. The people that I have seen that do best here are those that have come to work for a faith based organization. Driven by their faith in God and mission based work, their lives are much more sustainable and typically more discreet and less that of a tourist. So, what do we say to this? Do we discourage people from coming and living in the Malawi and the developing world entirely? Surely their economic contributions are good for the economy? Where does this leave the person that wants to contribute, perhaps even for a long term? Do we tell them to go and make a plan and then come back when all the details are worked out?

Do we believe in development or charity….40 years later, how can we? How about Cultural Development?

Ok, a final comment and I’ll keep it short. While I was in graduate school, I attended a conference on African Economic Development. In the closing lecture, my then supervisor at work, gave a powerful speech. He had worked in Lesotho as a young man teaching for 2 years. He had since been in touch with the continent in terms of human rights work for the past 40 years. So, he had a pretty good sense of what the reality on the ground in terms of “development” work was. And he said, “Look. I went to Lesotho as a young man and felt there was a lot of hope in the air. Development projects were all around me and I thought that in 40 years, we were going to see a new Africa. But, the issues are still the same. And the same projects are being run and going no where. Where are the results of this? It is up to you young people to reinvent the development framework if not do away with it.” I thought that this was so right on at the time and now that I am here, I still feel the same way. I think that if anyone is interested, I can email some projects that I have seen and the similarities in the projects from year to year with little innovation. I guess this is the problem in any aspect of the social sector: failure to innovate. Because there is no competition, there is no need to create something that has an edge. The end result is always good, right, because you are helping, not harming, people. So, why work to make something even more beneficial if it is not being inefficient in and of itself? (I think this is how the development camp probably sees it.)

I know that the UNDPs and all the NGOs are doing great work, but where is it going? When is a country like Malawi going to be self-sustainable? To this end, I do believe that Professor Jeffrey Sachs has a good point. Economic development from the ground up is what is going to lift up the nation. But, isn’t it more than just about money?

An NGO friend of mine had a discussion about this the other night. He doesn’t believe in development either. He believes in humanitarian work. I am not settled yet on my idea but I do know that I find development work to be problematic. I asked him then, how does a country become economically sustainable. He cited the examples in Asia that today are growing to giant status in the world (India, China, etc.). And he said that the one element that differentiates India, from say Malawi, is nationalism. Yes, the ability to identify as a nation and take pride in a collective identity and a collective struggle. It’s the move from individual identity to a group identity and the willingness to sacrifice the benefits of the individual for that of the group. This is an oversimplification, but he claims the essential missing ingredient.

Well, I do agree with this to some extent. But, I feel that it is so much deeper than this. To understand the failure of development, it is, I believe, important to understand people. What I see most, is that people don’t take pride in themselves. It’s a sort of remnant of colonialism. That we are always subordinate beings, that the foreigner is the expert, and that because my country is failing, I must not know what is right. This tune has been sung before too. I guess what I am saying is that I see a sort of group lack of self-confidence and I believe that once you validate people as intelligent, productive, human beings, we can move on to the next step. I’ve seen this in varied experiences in youth work in New York. Many of my students were immigrants or minorities and therefore viewed themselves as one step down on the social ladder. Without the skills and tools to develop themselves as full human beings, they lacked self-confidence to reach their full potential. Once they had these skills, they were good to go. Its not something that you can quantify or even structure as a process. It has to be done in an ad hoc manner. So, this may sound like a “community participation or mobilization” strategy, but its more than just that. Its individual tailored and requires one to spend a lot of time working with people with little results to show the donors. (There is a man named Father Bouchet, who works at Mua Mission, about 2 hours away from Blantyre. He has done this wonderfully and I encourage you to Google him and his work.)

To be proud of yourself, you must accept the flaws that you have in your culture, but take pride in it. For my youth, it was taking pride in the fact that they were Latino, African-American, or South Asian and embracing elements of their culture that they can share. When I walk around the streets of Malawi, I feel the presence of British culture all around me. It’s in the way people dress, talk, eat, and interact with one another. Although people are Malawian, this is not the most valued or most prideful identity to have. So, when I say cultural development, instilling this pride in oneself is step #1. The others, well let’s save that for another blog (my friend Victoria is working on these steps, so hopefully she will post a bit on this!). But, how do we do this and can it be justified as an alternative form of development? I think that this theory holds true in any marginalized community, whether it be in the developing world or the developing world within the developed world. It speaks to the essence of being a human being and realizing your full potential. It takes us back to the beginning of learning who we are, unlearning, and relearning. And it may or may not fit into the idea of aid, but to me, it is as essential and water purification and basic sanitation. Let’s put this last thought on the table and hear some great debate this month on this issue.


Thank you all again for supporting me and reading my blog. You have no idea how much is means to me. The days are getting less and less and I only hope that by the time I leave, some of these questions will have more answers for me to share.

Yours in the pursuit of knowledge, strength, and service,


Blogger viarota said...

I appreciate your fieldwork and the ideas you put online, just to share with all of us. If everyone did so, our learning of the planet would be much richer. So thank you, Aparna.

Just to leave some thoughts...

...what you blogged about the extravagant commemoration of the President's wife is understandable once we accept that, people aren't necessarily moved by logic or public benefit, but motivated by vanity, greed, attention and amplification of power.

...the idea of unnatural death is shockingly morbid mostly to Americans; but in tragedy-struck developing countries, its prevalence can numb and desensitize, so people get over it astonishingly well, or, make peace with death better than Americans do. That was true for me in Guatemala, El Salvador, rural China, etc.

...Volunteering in exotic countries without skill or contribution. Interpret it as the privileged being idealistic, over-estimating oneself, and inadvertently seeking peer approval at home for good-hearted-but-badass factor. It's also our "fake it til you make it" instant gratification culture. Chalk it up to being ambitious young. When I first volunteered, I definitely gained learning more than I ever contributed back to the locals... but I also understood the situation more intimately. I found out that a lot of "relevant" material I was learning was off-key or downright wrong.

What the world needs more of is humility and self-sacrifice for the greater good. And if people learned that, even if they didn't contribute much to locals in the host country, then society benefits as a whole wherever they are.

Lastly, nationalism is crucial for a certain stage of development---the surging flourishing kind. Do you remember Maslow's development pyramid? I believe nations act very much like human beings do (after all, they're artificial construct.) You need the basics, identity, relation to self and others, appreciation of beauty, etc. Which is why first-world rich (North Americans, Scandinavia, Britain, Germany) are at the self-actualization of donating/volunteering/putting purpose in their lives.

... Which is a nice close. Anyway, I do hope to see the photos soon. Take care of yourself...I'll send an update from Eastern Turkestan soon.

5:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You make me think too much!!!
Item 1- I think the amount spent on funerals is getting ridiculous. I liked President Regan but thought the amount spent on his final farwell was obscene when we have 40 million Americans without health care. I view the Presidential Libraries as the Pyramids of today.
Item 2-I have been involved in Rotary Youth Exchange in the past 10 years and I think that our long term Exchange Program is somewhat comparable to what you are experiencing. Our short term Program is more like a vacation and comparable to some of the volunteers you are meeting this summer. I just got back from Montana with a group called the Blackfeet Indian Medical Corp. I worked on the construction crew with my nephew and the Doctors and medical personel worked at the Hospital in Browning. I really think these short term experiences are good in building some long term friendships and help us to understand each other. Long term is a totally differnt experience because one is immersed in a new language and culture. I just wanted to refer you to some articles written by Dr. Dennis White on Reverse Culture Shock which you can check out before you come back home. Dennis is a psychologist and former peace corp volunteer and has written extensively on the phenomenon of Reverse Culture Shock. I remember talking to a mother at one of our RYE conferences and she mentioned how different her son was after spending a year in Japan. One day she went to the store and when she came back home her son had vacummed all the drapes and furniture because he had become Mr. Clean. I am not trying to compare your experiences with a high school exchange but I think you may have some things in common but yours is much more serious because you are dealing with life and death issues in your adopted country. I have total respect for your committment to make this world a better place.
Item 3 Death. This is the most difficult for me because I never experienced the massive amount of death that you see every day. I have to think about this some more because I really don't know how I would be able to cope with it. I have been through the dying process with my parents but had strong family support and Hospice. How are these countries going to survive with all the death and destruction? Take Care, Mike Casey

5:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Item 4-I vote Yes for Cultural Development. I am a second generation Irish American and very proud of my heritage. Irish is the first language of the Republic of Ireland and English the second and there are many summer schools in Ireland where young students attend their Irish and Music classes. Ther Brits did their best to stamp out the Irish Language and Culture but they were unsuccessful and approximately 35% of Irish adults speak Irish today. I live 2 miles from Gaelic Park in Chicago and I enjoy going there for the Irish Plays,Dancing, and Music. One of the reasons why Chicago is such a great place is that we have so many cultures and everyone has their own parade and resturants.
Our local Rotary Clubs are helping establish an Immersion School on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation in Browing, Mt.The Blackfoot Indians have been in North America for 6000 years and they are in danger of losing the language and culture. Our construction project st the Reservation this year was on a Bunkhouse which will sleep around 12 young people and a couple of adults who will attend the Immersion School in the Summer. I think this is a very good project and I once again vote Yes for Cultural Development. My Best, Mike Casey

3:23 AM  
Anonymous Pilar said...

Aparna, I really enjoy your blog. You have very interesting things to say about your experiences in Africa. I think volunteering is not a waste of time for anybody. Hopefully more educated people would give their time to others. Unfortunately both time and skill are expensive resources. I read this book, it is quite interesting you might enjoy it too: All you need is love : the Peace Corps and the spirit of the 1960s / Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman
Also, the concept of development is quite contradictory now a day, especially since this development will cause us to lose everything. Once China and India reach the level of carbon emissions of the US we will all be toast (literally). Incidentally the percentage of people enjoying the benefits of this development in India and China are very few. Workers have no rights; they are practically slaves in many instances. I believe that people everywhere could put a bit more effort in making their companies respect workers rights and environmental laws. It is hard when they can move anywhere and go exploit people and resources wherever they want. If that is development it does not look very promising.

Anyway, you are getting very smart over there. You are a great girl, hope to see you soon.

2:23 PM  
Blogger aveen said...

Hey Aparna,

I am very proud to say your latest blog is a masterpiece! I just loved all the the things you have brought to attention. I haven't stopped thinking about them since I read your blog. I would just like to comment about the cultural development point you made.

There is one thing we have to learn from history [which every teenager in the world probably is aware of] and that is not to impose one's ideas or wishes on
others, isn't it? Why do we forget that when we are helping/aiding people? I have always noticed how most of these organizations are either directly or indirectly propogating their own religious, cultural or political beliefs on the people they claim to be helping. I have seen this first hand in India, so I know it exists. Those that have the oppurtunity to go to various countries to help, have the added responsibility to respect the local people and their cultures & their way of life.

We will loose precious & ancient cultures if we don't take care of this right now. We should be
educated enough to know that no single culture or society is better than the other. Education in this regard is THE key when Universities or Organizations send people on such missions, no matter
how big or small they are. We should learn to help the local peoples in improving their way of life and learn a little ourselves from them in the process. We should try to resist our natural instincts of imposing our way of life on them, especially trying to convince them that our way is the ONLY way to be happy & successful. I think we all know that no one or no country for that matter is perfect.

Another point i would like to make is that, we should not forget that countries who claim to be 'developed' today are the ones who robbed & stole from the countries they have today labelled as 'developing' or even worse, as 'under developed'. So, in my opinion, I don't think it is fair to claim that the 'developed' western nations are the most charitable ones today.[I say this as someone who grew up in India and knows what life is on the other side of the world, which is basically the same, just different in little ways!!!] I SAY IT IS ABOUT TIME!

Anyway, can't wait to see you again. Until then, stay safe & enjoy Malawi! Take care, bye.

9:24 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home