Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Malawi Update #8

There was a meeting a couple of weeks ago with folks from a couple of different NGO's. Myself and Jong Soh attended. There were three members of a much smaller organization (The three who were at the meeting are the only staff-people of the organization, and one of them is going home to Switzerland tomorrow after a 2-year stay). The name of their project is: "boNGO," which stands for "Based on the Need for Grass-Roots Organization." They have been active now for a couple of years. They work directly in the community--one on one--hence, the grass-roots bit. A college student who is studying Political Science was also there. The meeting was organized in an effort to bring together foreign workers, volunteers, and native Malawians, who all work in the field of Development in one capacity or another. We met at the house where 2 out of 3 of the boNGO folks live. It is a big, lovely home in Nantcholi with 3 dogs, 2 cats and a monstrous botanical paradise. The owner of the home is a Swiss woman who married a Malawian architect. The house reflects an African sensibility with a spiral staircase sense of adventure. He has since passed on, and she maintains close to an acre of fenced in flowers, herbs, cacti, and everything else you can imagine that's legal, green and lovely. The two hosts of our event rent out a couple of her extra rooms.
We sat down in the living room and we each had the opportunity to share a challenge that we have faced, or are facing, in our work. The first person to speak mentioned that he will be going home to Chicago soon, and that he is constantly confronted with the challenge of how to take his experience here home and make an impact back in the States. The second to speak is a Malawian. He brought up the challenges facing each of us as we first define the how, where, when, why, and then the entire realm of Development for ourselves, and then, when working to cause something, tailoring that definition so that we can actually work together. I shared how my biggest challenge has been to communicate clearly with people. Straight-talk. Once we had these topics written down, we discussed each of them in turn. I was really surprised at how useful the meeting ended up being. It was not formally structured. It was set up by us and for us and we drank tea felt and no pressure to have our agenda look any certain way. Our intention was to understand each other and ourselves just a little bit more. The most interesting result of the meeting for me, was that I saw how each of these challenges exist not only here in the Malawian NGO world, but that they are also real challenges back in the daily reality of the U.S.
The last few weeks have been challenging. Getting through the first month and a half and then through the holidays, I found myself comfortable with the way basic things happen here. Functions like catching a bus. Knowing how much things cost. How long it will take to get from one place to another. Being able to start to distinguish between the sound of a Malawian laughing happily, and a Malawian's laughing sarcastically, or worriedly, or with embarrassment. I made some friends. All of this contributed to me feeling at home.
Over the past week, I've been thinking a lot about who is responsible for whether or not the work I do here has any kind of lasting impact. It's not rocket science.
It is just as easy to blow things out of proportion here as back home. There is an inflated sense of importance. The work I'm here to do either makes me better than I would be if I were at home, or a failure if I'm not good enough. There is an inflated sense of entitlement. The locals look at me as a bank. I'll walk by with no money and they will hold out their hands and demand: "Give me my money!" I have this sense of entitlement, too. "Give me my purpose!" As if someone is keeping that safe for me until I earn the qualifications to hold onto it myself. These are some of the thoughts and realities that have been crawling along my spine, swooning deliciously to be kept secret. But I can't keep doing these updates unless I share more than the pretty picture.
Objectively, there is simply a list of tasks to invest time and energy into. There are statistics to analyze, and a database to restructure. There are volunteers to meet and a campaign to acknowledge them and take their photos for I.D. cards. There is fundraising to be done here and back home. There are meetings at the office. Meetings in the field. There is a difference to be made here.
Since the holidays, I've felt like blaming my organization for a lack of structure. Over the past week, I've corresponded with a couple of folks back home, and I've realized that if I feel that any part of my trip here is ineffective, it is really up to me to mobilize and make a change in attitude and action. The best and the worst thing about the organization I'm working with, is that they leave me to structure most of my own initiatives. But that's the way life works outside of this project, so is it really much of a surprise to find the common thread?

1 comment:

Ash said...

Hi Benji, I surfed onto your blog from the TA Alumni page. Good job with all the work you are doing out there in Malawi! I have friends who were in Peace Corps and all have had wonderful experiences. Hope you continue to enjoy your time and look forward to reading more about your life in Malawi!
Ashish (Class of '93)