Saturday, November 21, 2009


I made a personal promise to myself at the beginning of the year that I would not let these blogs digress into a commentary on my gastrointestinal tract. If you have appreciated this goal then read no further. For those of you who are still with me, welcome to my level. During my first few months in Malawi being prepared meant carrying toilet paper in my back pocket. I never had serious intestinal problems, but I never knew where or when Malawi’s microscopic populace would hold a party in my gut. As time went on one of two things happened. Either my body dominated the locals or, as is more likely, the locals setup shop inside my intestines and decided to exist in a continual state of asymptomatic parasitism.

The problems which marked my first few months in Malawi had nearly faded as I entered the home stretch of my time in Africa. Aside from the heat, which drenched my shirt everyday by 8am, things were going well. I had discovered that my neighbor Ayub had the best fan in a 20km radius and had consequently taken to absconding to his house in the afternoon. On one such afternoon I was basking in the afterglow of a huge afghani meal when I began to feel a dull ache in the gut. I initially passed off the pain as the result of overstuffing my shrunken stomach, but later that night the pain returned. After dinner I laid down on the bed and began massaging my abdomen and complaining to Jes who was taking her customary pre-bed shower. “When did it start?” She yelled over the shower water.

“This afternoon at Ayub’s… I think its just gas though,” There was a pause in the conversation as Jes rinsed her hair.

“Where does it hurt?” I moved to the left side of the bed so that I was visible through the open bathroom door.

“Right here,” I said, jabbing a finger in my lower right abdomen.

“Huh, weird,” said Jes as she turned off the water and began toweling off. I went back to massaging my abdomen for several minutes until Jes walked by on her way to the kitchen and said in an offhand way, “isn’t that where your appendix is?” My heart did one of those sudden big lub-dubs that is followed by near normal heart beats and a feeling of anxiety flowing from your heart to your extremities. I had actually already noticed that the pain coincided with my appendix but somehow having another person make the same observation added to the credibility. The pain was pretty minor though and I convinced myself that it would probably subside by morning. It didn’t.

The dull ache in my abdomen continued throughout the next week in both a very reassuring and disturbing way. The pain didn’t get any worse, a fact that I used to rationalize to myself that I was okay. The pain also didn’t get any better, a most unsettling detail that provoked worst-case-scenario dramas to play out in my head as I tried to sleep.

My medical options were slim; I could try to get the problem looked at locally or I could go to one of the private hospitals in Blantyre. When Jes had gone to Koche, the local clinic up the road, the young man examining her had proudly announced that he was going to be taking his MSCEs soon. The MSCEs are high school performance exams so Koche was obviously not a good option. The Mangochi District hospital was a little bigger and a little farther away but also did not have much to recommend it. Mangochi District Hospital serves 50,000 people and has three doctors. An American medical student who worked there once recalled to me that he had seen ants crawling inside an IV tube attached to a person. I had heard good things about the hospitals in Blantyre, but they were a 5 hour bus ride away, a journey not to be taken lightly. I didn’t feel justified going to Blantyre since the pain was, admittedly, pretty minor. I had heard horror stories from a friend in college who had had appendicitis and my lackluster symptoms didn’t seem to compare. I decided to hold out a while longer and hope for the best.

I woke up Sunday morning and the pain was worse. I tried to tell myself that it was worse because I had spent the last week pushing and prodding my abdomen, but the time for rationalization was quickly passing. It was at this moment that I realized how nominal my ‘health insurance’ really was. Jes and I had both purchased catastrophic travel insurance before we left the states. The policy, aside from having a high deductible, was pretty good. It would airlift you out in case of emergency and would pay up to two million dollars. Yet before you can be flown out of country you need to find a plane, that means Blantyre or Lilongwe. Both cities are hours away on bad roads and I sincerely doubt a leer jet is standing by. As comforting as those travel insurance plans feel, I suspect Jes and I were, and are, at the mercy of local medicine in nearly all emergency scenarios. As I faced the prospect of acute appendicitis, my options were really no greater than a well to do Malawian.

I decided that I had to act now as it would take a considerable amount of time to access medical care. I talked to Jes and we made the decision to go to Blantyre if it was appendicitis. Mr. Sibale, the director of MCV, was at the campus on Sunday and we discussed my options. He knew a doctor at a local private clinic that I could probably see Monday morning with little delay. ‘Little delay’ was key since a visit to the district hospital could mean waiting the better part of a day. Every time I walk past the district hospital I see a meandering line of people emerging from the entrance, baking in the blistering sun. The line moves so slowly that people can be seen sitting or sprawled on their backs as they wait. I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to wait till Monday for any answers. Much of the country closes down on the weekends and this, to some extent, includes transportation and medical services.

Monday morning came and the pain was worse. As I went to the breakfast table I felt my abdomen jarred by pain from the movement of walking. Jes joked that it was probably because I was so heavy footed, but her teasing manor couldn’t mask the nervous edge in her voice. I didn’t feel like eating so I drank a protein shake while Jes picked at some bread and mangoes. Sibale arrived at 8am. I stepped gingerly into the front car seat and bade farewell to Jes. We had both decided she should stay and pack incase we had to go to Blantyre. The 30 minute drive to the clinic was mostly paved but bumpy dirt patches caused me to rise off the seat in a vain attempt to shield my abdomen from the rough road.

The clinic was part of an Islamic charity that has a large compound with a school and a large garden. The school and the garden looked well maintained and I became hopeful that the clinic was equally cared for. It was, but unfortunately quality does not go unnoticed in Malawi. Several men were sprawled out on the front steps and every available seat and patch of floor was occupied by sick looking people. I was ushered over to the check-in desk where the attendant promptly asked to see my health book. A health book is a small notebook used for medical records. It has things like your weight, age, sex, and notes from past clinic visits. Never having visited a Malawian clinic in a patent capacity, I had no health book. Every clinic is pretty strict about patients having their health books and seeing as I have chewed out patients for not bringing them I really couldn’t blame the attendant’s instance. Fifty cents later and I was the proud owner of a Malawian health book, yahoo, only $2499.50 more until I satisfy my insurance deductible. I was then ushered over to a line of chairs against the back wall. After several minutes of waiting someone came out of the door to the right of the chairs and the person seated next to the door rose to enter the examination room. Immediately, every other person in line shifted to the next seat with amazing speed, considering most were probably sick. I was reading at the time and kind of missed the cue so was leapfrogged by the woman behind me. ‘Oh well, I’ll get it next time,’ I thought.

After five or six more seat changes I was the one entering the examination room. I was pretty thrilled; the queue had only taken about a half hour. Inside, there were two women, a small bed, a scale, and an old-school blood pressure machine. I immediately realized this was not the doctor’s office, just the pre-doctor screening. I guess there are hoops to jump through in every country. I was weighed (147lbs, okay I have lost some weight on the beans and rice diet) and had my blood pressure taken (120/80 – pretty good numbers, guess I am not dying yet). I was then ushered to the next, longer, line of chairs. To my relief, the door at the end of this line read, “doctor’s office.” Forty minutes later and I was face to face with a doctor with just enough gray hairs to exude a reassuring and competent manner. I had done some research on appendicitis and so tried my best to convey actual symptoms without imagined or embellished details which always occur after one reads what they are ‘supposed’ to be feeling. The doctor asked me some questions and did all the physical appendicitis tests. “Well,” he said, “I think you have acute appendicitis.” He started writing in my health book. Reading his scrawl upside down I saw the entry: refer to Mangochi District Hospital for management. “So you think I should go to Mangochi District Hospital?” I asked. He looked up, a bit startled that I had been reading his notes.

“Mangochi is where we refer appendicitis cases,” he said in a voice that sounded like he used this line frequently.

“So they can treat appendicitis at the district hospital?”

“Well it where we refer patients for appendicitis.”

“I heard that,” I said, “but would you recommend going there?” He stopped writing momentarily and fixed me with a gaze that for the first time suggested he was pulling out of automaton mode.

“Well, if you need surgery you may want to go to Blantyre,” he said.

“Do you think I will need surgery?”

“In my experience most appendicitis cases are surgical.” He paused again, and then said in a rather frank voice,

“You should go to Blantyre.”

“That’s what I needed to know,” I said, and thanked him for his assistance. He gave me some useful information on hospitals in Blantyre and within minutes I was on the phone to Jes. “We’re going to Blantyre,” I shouted into the phone as the SUV bounced along the bumpy road. Jes had spent the morning wrangling transport and had serendipitously been connected with Octavio. Octavio is the former ambassador of Portugal and I had spoken with him on several occasions as he often stays at his lakeshore chalet near MCV. He happened to be returning to Blantyre with his wife, and upon hearing about my medical predicament, had moved up his departure time.

I decided to remain in Mangochi since it was on the way to Blantyre. I waited on the dusty steps of Peoples, the local quickie mart chain. The sun was overhead and the temperature was steadily climbing into the mid-nineties. I pushed on my abdomen to see if the pain had gotten better. Ouch! Still there. After about a half hour of imagining a gruesome death on the steps of Peoples, Octavio’s gleaming Toyota Land Cruiser arrived. Octavio was dressed in a smart polo and the air conditioning was blasting. As I stepped into the car I felt as if I was also stepping out of Malawi…well, at least out of Mangochi. In just two and a half hours –a full three hours faster than the bus – we arrived in Blantyre.

Jes and I had decided upon the 7th Day Adventist hospital which came with good reviews from everyone we talked to. Their slogan is: we care, god heals. I secretly hoped the hospital also healed, but was prepared to accept intervention on my behalf from any source. After proving that we had adequate financial resources (in my case, being white was enough), I was ushered back to a waiting room that was so cold I was shivering within minutes (in retrospect the room was probably in the 70’s, but these days anything below 80 is too cold).

My doctor was a young and very nice Chinese man with an American accent. He became excited upon hearing that I was here volunteering for the year. “That’s how I started out in Malawi too,” he said, and then with a sheepish look added,” and I never left.” After a bit of poking a prodding he said, “I am going to admit you and call the surgeon for a consult, it does present like appendicitis.” The doctor seemed worried about my condition and before I left the examination room the surgeon had been called and was on his way. I was promptly put in a wheelchair and wheeled to the ward, a trip that actually involved going outside and down an alley. Nice to know I am still in Malawi. As I was taken down a barren but very clean hallway I couldn’t help but feel as ifI was in the 50’s. Nurses (all female) walked up and down the corridors wearing white dress uniforms with little white hats. My room was painted white and was barren except for a curtain and an old-style iron frame bed. Behind the curtain was my roommate, an older and well-off Malawian man.

The surgeon also poked and prodded me and after asking several questions said, “I don’t think this is appendicitis; wrong place wrong symptoms. It could be an infected caecum. We will give you IV antibiotics tonight and if it doesn’t get better we will operate tomorrow.” The surgeon left and I picked up War and Peace and prepared for a long night in the hospital.

A small placard on the wall said, “Visiting hours strictly enforced. Patients will be billed for unauthorized visitors present outside of visiting hours.” The approved visitation times were very short and I thought the stipulation seemed rather strict. Visiting hours were also maintained at the hospital I worked at during college, but the rules were pretty lenient and almost anyone could visit at anytime if they checked in. The rules at the Adventist hospital also seemed at odds with the attitude of my doctor, who had encouraged Jes to stay with me, even through the night. The rationale behind the visitation rules became clear when, at 5:30, the hospital was besieged by an army of visitors. The halls were suddenly filled with a mass of talking bustling people darting in and out of rooms. My roommate had about 30 visitors crowed around his bed. Visitors entered the room single file dressed in their Sunday best. They all spoke with my roommate briefly, then relegated themselves to the far side of the bed and stood in respectful silence while others took their turn. Visitors entered in phases, and although there were never fewer than 20 people in the room, it was obvious the different visitors belonged to different parts of my roommate’s life. Some groups interacted with the intimacy and familiarity of family, while other groups were clearly professional associates. Many visitors, upon noticing my glaring lack of visitors, came over to talk to me. It was quite nice to have the company and I ended up meeting the author of the biology textbook Jes uses in her class. As much as I have bashed Malawian textbooks in past posts, his is one of the better ones. Upon hearing I was from Oregon he became excited, exclaiming that he had done his undergrad at Whitman, small world.

After the half hour visitation period had passed I gained a full appreciation for the strict rules enforced by the hospital. All the people are nice, but very exhausting. United States hospitals can escape with lenient visitation policies because no one comes to visit. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but in the entire year I worked at Penrose St. Francis Hospital in Colorado Springs I did not see as many visitors as I saw in just a half hour in the Blantyre hospital. I have come to the opinion that everyone and their uncle, their neighbor, and their distant cousin visits hospitals in Malawi. Seeing the positive affect these visits had on my roommate really made a strong case, in my mind, that we need to step it up in the old USA. The visitors even improved my mood since my roommate, in true Malawi style, shared his extra visitors with me.

My first night in the hospital (or any hospital for that matter) strangely reminded me of trying to sleep on a long airplane flight. People kept waking me every 3 hours to tale my blood pressure and refilled my IV. Jes, feeling guilty about sleeping in my bed in the presence of sisters (all the nurses are nuns), had been sleeping on the cement floor but after several hours of fortitude was overcome with weariness. The nurse, upon entering the room to find Jes in my bed, made a comment along the lines of: “what took you so long.” Morning came slowly but was punctuated by another half hour of visitation when my roommate once again entertained dozens of guests.

I spent the following day in the hospital in a manic cycle as my abdominal pain fluctuated from better to worse to better. By the end of the day the pain was a bit better and the surgeon decided that my problem was actually an intestinal block which should pass with proper medication. I was pretty stir-crazy by this point so was very in favor of being discharged. The surgeon agreed that I was probably safe to leave but recommended I stay close by until the symptoms completely disappeared.

I am feeling completely better now and am back in Mangochi. The experience made me appreciate how accessible quality medical care is in the United States. I was in one of the best hospitals in Malawi and there were no CAT-scans, no MRIs, and I suspect, few specialists. There was a poster on the wall advertising the visitation of a neurosurgeon to Blantyre. Apparently a neurosurgeon from South Africa spends part of his year visiting, for several days each, seven sub-Saharan African countries. The poster listed the dates he would be in each country and stressed he was only doing consults. While this neurosurgeon is shared by seven countries, my home town of 50,000 people has two neurosurgeons to itself. The level of care available in Malawi, even at the best institutions, is limited. Imagine having access to care only as sophisticated as a community clinic in the United States. Who do you know who would be suffering? Who do you know who would be dead?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

It’s the Economy Stupid

In Malawi, one has a lot of time to think. I think while I pump water (Jes and I pump all our water with an MSR hand-pump), I think while I walk down the road, and I think with quite little distraction when the power goes out every night at 6pm. What has come as quite a shock is that my mind has chosen to occupy itself with economics during these moments of monotony. In college, Adam Smith was about the only economic theorist I read. Over the last several months I have been kicking myself for never taking an economics class. I am sure many people share my regrets based on the recent bamboozling financial quagmire. However, being cutoff from all but the most superficial and inane news, my impetus for economic learning has been quite different.

Malawi provides a unique perspective from which to observe economics. I can literally watch the flow of goods as they move from farmers to market, and as they are distributed from wholesalers along a chain of increasingly smaller, more expensive, and more remote shops. When I walk into the market and see only one stand selling tomatoes, I know the price will be steep. A haggling system also makes painfully clear that prices are motivated, not by value or cost of production, but by what someone is willing to pay. In the United States, although the same forces of competition and scale are at work, they are shrouded from view by an economic system so large and complex that it operates beyond public perception.

Poverty is probably the most visible economic phenomena in Malawi. The last time I saw poverty as severe was on a school trip to India several years ago. I remember wondering why people, who appear to contain the same intelligence and ability as Americans, have so much less wealth. The question seemed simple enough, and I asked several of the economic majors on the trip. Their answers were never satisfying and seemed to explain the poverty simply by restating it. “Indians are poor because the country has a low GDP,” and, “people are poor because their wages are low,” were common responses. The response concerning low wages progressed my question, but simply shifted the quintessence of my query to wages; why are wages low? After returning to the United States and school my thoughts were diverted to more immediate concerns.

In Africa, however, the question resurfaced, and I once again started asking people about the cause of poverty. Malawians usually have two responses to this question. First, they claim that Malawi is not poor, only its people. Now this sounds nonsensical at first, but it is really a statement about wealth distribution. Malawians see BMWs drive down the road, they see wealthy resort owners, and they assume that the wealth is there and that they aren’t getting their share. As appealing as this explanation is, it is utter hogwash. In a country where there are few natural resources and the per capita income hovers around 500 US dollars, even the most egalitarian economic distribution would still leave Malawi, and its people, poor.

The second rationalization I get from Malawians is that the country is lazy. This explanation is really a statement about how hard and how much Malawians work. It is true that the country enjoys a more relaxed professional culture than America. People take long lunch breaks, take mid-day naps, and work far fewer hours than Americans. However, when I see a Malawian tirelessly building a house in 100 degree heat, or carrying lumber for 10km on foot, I can’t believe Malawians are categorically lazy. Even if Malawians do work less than Americans, say 4 hours instead of 8 hours per day, the pay differential should be one half, not one orders of magnitude greater.

Although the laziness argument is a bit of a scapegoat, it did make me think about how much Malawians really accomplish with their labors. I was recently provided with a rather illuminating example at a roadside basket stand. An elderly woman sat on the ground, surrounded by stacks of woven baskets, mats, and little miniature cars targeted at tourists. I asked the woman how long it took her to weave one of her mats and she replied that it took about a day and a half. A person working in a factory in the United States could probably produce 100 or more such mats in the same amount of time. It was at this moment I realized the answer to my question. Wealth is simply the result of productivity. A person who creates 100 mats will have 100 times the wealth and purchasing power as a person who creates one mat. The man who hauls lumber on his back will probably work harder than a man transporting lumber with a truck, but he will transports far less lumber and therefore have far less wealth. At the rate Malawians weave mats and transport lumber, a considerable number of people are required to satisfy the country’s need for mats and lumber transport. In the United States, those same people are free to pursue other endeavors of production. They make cars, make television, build houses, and create the multitude of things we associate with wealthy societies.

Overall, Malawi’s human capital is probably held tied up most by its unproductive agriculture. Malawian farmers till their fields by hand and, as a result, cultivate far less land than a mechanized farmer. The national statistics are staggering; 87% of the population is employed in farming, not because Malawi is a prodigious agriculture exporter (although they do export food), but because unproductive farming necessitates massive human capital. In a developed country only 2-3% of the population is needed to produce sufficient food.

It seems clear that Malawians are poor because their overall productivity is low, however, within specific sectors of the economy the productivity argument appears to break down. What about teachers? Malawian teachers provide an inestimably valuable product and produce it at productivities roughly equivalent to their higher paid American counterparts (In some instances the teachers in Malawi may actually be more productive due to larger class sizes). If compensation is related to productivity, why then are Malawian teachers paid 2,500 dollars a year while American teachers receive more than ten times as much. I only saw the reason after I accepted that teachers, like other service professionals, don’t really produce anything. Now this seems harsh, especially given my current occupation. But to admit that teachers (and people in other service professions) are unproductive is not to say their labors are without value. Education and other service sectors are like oil to the economic engine; it aids the productivity and functionality of the engine, without actually providing the power or means of movement. The educational sector trains workers and develops production technologies. The health sector keeps everyone alive so that they can continue to work. And the financial sector determines how to distribute capital so that it best increases productivity and growth (at least in theory). Nowhere in these activities are the material goods associated with wealth produced. Therefore, the compensation of individuals in the services sector is inextricably tied to the wealth of the industrial complex that surrounds it. The teachers in Malawi are paid by student fees which are collected from families that are employed unproductively. The teachers can only charge what families can afford to pay and this fact limits the wages of Malawian teachers as well as all other service professionals.

Even from the examples of the basket weaver and the lumber transporter the root of Malawi’s low productivity becomes obvious, technology. The basket company in the United States uses machines to construct the baskets. A transport company uses trucks driven on paved roads, a practice far more efficient than carrying freight by hand over rough ground. Observing the consequences of low productivity in Malawi has given me a new appreciation for the touchy issue of automation in the United States.

Whenever a new machine or process eliminates jobs in the United States there is public outcry. Generally such occasions are viewed as evil companies maximizing profits at the expense of workers. I don’t really care to debate the morality of businesses, but looking at the end result of automation is instructive. Lets assume a new machine is created that eliminates the need for bank tellers (okay this has already happened, but it is a good example nonetheless). The most visible consequence is lost jobs and this is unfortunate indeed. However, people often fail to follow the less visible consequences of automation. Some of the money once paid to employs will pay for the ATMs, which will inevitably fund new jobs in the growing ATM-making industry. The bank, at least in the long term, will also realize an increased profit since the ATMs must cost less than humans to justify their use. The bank can then use that profit in three different ways: it can lower bank fees (effectively raising the income of everyone that uses banks), it can reinvest in the company (creating more jobs), or it can invest the money outside the company (creating jobs in other industries). Even if banks choose to lower bank fees, jobs will be created because consumers will now have more money to spend or invest in different areas of the economy, growing employment in those areas.

However, the most important effect of the ATMs is an increase in productivity. The banks continue to operate at the same capacity but with fewer employees. The laid-off workers (or to say it nicer, “liberated human capital”) can now be employed in new fields that provide new products to society. Imagine if all those people were employed at a new electronics company that produced wristwatch televisions. Everyone could have a wristwatch television; wouldn’t that be great? Well, maybe not. But some of the people could also become therapists and spiritual leaders to help people cope with the societal consequences of ubiquitous wristwatch televisions. My point is, is that liberated human and physical capital can be used in new endeavors to improve everyone’s quality of life.

This process of ever increasing automation, efficiently, and productivity is what has allowed the United State to enjoy such a high quality of life. The absence of such a process in Malawi has left the country devastatingly poor. In the developed world, the effort we spend castigating companies for improving efficiency at the loss of jobs would probably be better spent helping the now unemployed workers retrain and retool. If you question whether this process of ever-increasing productivity is worth the turmoil caused for employees and their families, I have one bit of advice: come to Malawi.

Most Malawians (almost 80%) live a rural subsistence lifestyle, largely due to 30 years of economic and social policy under President Banda. Because of Banda’s policies, Malawi represents the starting point of economic development. The humanitarian costs inherent in such a state of existence are staggering. The low productivity and ensuing poverty means that many are malnourished, healthcare services are appalling, and the education system is accessible to few. I think few Americans would find the standard of living in Malawi acceptable.

The economic question de jour then becomes: how can the quality of life in Malawi best be improved? One approach is outside humanitarian aid. Malawi receives so much outside aid that it accounts for 15% of the country’s nominal GDP. The money certainly assuages some human suffering, but after a year as an aid worker I question its long-term effectiveness. Fifty years of aid-culture in Malawi has bred significant dependence and done very little to progress people’s standard of living. There are of course pockets of success, but by most social measures the country has stagnated for the past 50 years. Much of the humanitarian aid that enters Malawi also has the downside of being unsustainable, a fact that was painfully revealed to MCV (and many other NGOs) during the latest economic recession.

Another way to increase quality of life is to increase productivity. This inevitably involves moving people away from a traditional lifestyle towards a more productive and developed economic system. For this to be realized you need technology, you need the tractors, machines, and factories that fuel affluent lifestyles. Unfortunately, Malawi lacks the capital for the significant internal investment needed for development and consequently requires external input. In short, the economy needs to become more open to investment. Before coming to Malawi, this investment-economic approach to achieving humanitarian aims always gave me pause. It always struck me as exploitive. International companies extracting huge profits while the locals receive a pittance. I was also concerned with the reports of cultural disintegration and the dilution of traditional beliefs with the popular culture of the western world. My angst with both criticisms of development has been tempered, though not eliminated, by my time in Malawi.

Let me begin with the argument that development and globalization destroys traditional culture. Every night outside my house I am serenaded by the singing and drumming of the female boarding students. Their performance is nearly always prompted by the nightly hour-long brownout. In the unlikely event the Malawi Power Board avoids a blackout, the girls remain inside and the air is silent. The other night, as I sat listening to their performance in my sweltering hut, I began to wonder how much singing and dancing is afforded nationwide by the regular blackouts. What effect would just one more hour of electricity have on the culture heritage of Malawi? Who knows, but I suspect the singing outside my window would stop. As people’s lifestyles change it seems inevitable that beliefs and behavior will follow. However, I doubt that this cultural change will morph Malawi into a nondescript country without any semblance of locality.

The missionaries who came to Malawi started the process of globalization over 150 year ago and still the religious character of Malawi remains as unique as ever. Yesterday I was relaxing under our school’s baobab tree with other teachers in a vain attempt to escape the mid-day heat. As the conversation turned to religion (as it so often does when a heathen such as myself is present) I asked what effect they thought Christianity and Islam had on their traditional religions. I thought the biology teacher had an interesting point; he said that the evangelical religions brought new options that were relevant in some, but not all, situations. He appreciated both his Christian and traditional beliefs and embraced both ways of thinking without any apparent contradiction. People in Malawi are always on the prowl for new religions to try; religions are almost viewed as an a la carte offering. Jes is constantly being asked to start up a Jewish group and half the teachers hold strong convictions that I should start a congregational church so they can have a go. Religion here is a smorgasbord of options and even the imported religions like Christianity and Islam have a strong local flavor. Overall, I would describe the religious culture here as more interesting and unique because of outside influences. As more culture and technology is imported into Malawi I do see some traditional culture disappearing, but just as often I see new ways being blended with old to make a culture that is uniquely Malawi. Last night I saw a group of students singing and dancing around the tinny drum beat of a cell phone speaker, giving me hope that the bane of development will fail to usurp the vivacious character of Malawi.

From more cultural concerns, I would like to move on to the argument that investment led development is inherently exploitive. When outside companies (usually manufacturers) enter a developing country the rewards of the partnership often seem one-sided. When a company ships manufactured goods from the 3rd-world they attach an enormous mark-up, little of which is seen by those actually making the product. When I walk into an American department store and pay 50 dollars for a new pair of jeans, the thought that those making the jeans are paid less than a dollar a day is a little unsettling. Such measly wages seem almost immoral. However, after living in Malawi for a year that dollar-a-day figure doesn’t have the same shock value it once did. In Malawi, there is nothing insulting about paying a worker a dollar a day; in fact, it is a good wage that many would be happy to receive. I can actually foresee it being socially disruptive to pay factory workers significantly more than the local market income. What sort of harmful incentives would be created in an economy where a seamstress in a textiles plant makes four or five times as much as a teacher or nurse? Is that justice? Regardless of how one-sided the rewards of third world investment appear to be, it is wrong to assume that local communities do not benefit; they actually benefit a great deal.

The MCV sewing program recently made the choice to enter into what is called piece work, basically a compensation system where companies (often international) auction out large sewing orders at very low per item rates. The piece work system is how most commercial sewing is conducted and has a bit of a stigma because it produces a ruthless bidding system that leads to low wages (at least by American standards). MCV is making prison uniforms at 70 kwacha a piece, or about 50 cents. The people working in the sewing program start at 170 kwacha a day (about 1 dollar) and are expected to produce a certain number of uniforms, though I don’t think a quota system is in place. Although piece work has a bit of a stigma, I actually applaud Nettie’s (Nettie is the director of the sewing program) decision to change the sewing program. Previously, the sewing shop was routinely empty as the tourist orders on which the program relied were infrequent. “Piece work” may not have the same cachet as “tourist boutique,” but it has allowed the sewing program to train and employ a roomful of people, giving skills and a dignified livelihood to individuals who previously had none. Even at a dollar a day, employees can save for the future, pay for their children’s education, and appreciate the stability of an income. Now when I walk into the sewing shop there is a positive vibe; people are in a great work environment and proud of their vocation. The biggest complaint I hear in Malawi is that there is no work. People want and need employment.

As long as a humane work environment is maintained, I see nothing immoral with outside companies bringing factories to Malawi. This may feel exploitive, but for all its evils this type of investment-led-development has helped lift millions out of poverty. China, and to a lesser extent India, have both embraced this style of economic development and have seen their incomes and access to basic services increase dramatically. Meta studies have consistently shown that developing countries with open economies and high levels of external investment post much larger economic and humanitarian gains than countries relying on internal investment alone.

I still have reservations about the future of development in Malawi. If wealthy companies enter Malawi, the lopsided power between companies and employees could easily create an environment where workers are exploited in ways far more damaging than low wages. I would be most concerned by inhumane working conditions where a disregard for human dignity could quickly nullify any humanitarian gain offered by increased wealth. I think that Malawi’s development needs to move forward cautiously and deliberately. To not move forward at all would be robbing people of a proven path towards increased productivity and prosperity.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Generosity…in Moderation

Ever since childhood we are taught that sharing is a good thing. The idea is so engrained that just last week I found myself reflexively chastising two toddlers in the nursery for hording the Tonka truck. I think that an ethic of sharing is necessary for a successful society and that people everywhere are taught, in one way or another, that sharing is important. However, after living in Malawi for nearly a year I have come to the belief that Americans are not the world’s most prolific sharers. In the United States there is a sanctity of ownership and a belief that what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours. There are certainly many generous Americans (many, I suspect, are reading this blog), but their generosity is viewed as a choice, not an obligation. In Malawi, the culture of sharing is embedded within a system of property ownership that is much more nebulous. The boundary between personal and communal ownership has an equilibrium that is forever moving, ebbing and flowing in response to the changing needs of individuals and communities. I have observed that there is an unspoken rule that when you have something you are expected to share, with the expectation that others will do the same when they are able. I suspect this ethic of sharing evolved from the need of communal societies to temper the ups and downs of a subsistence lifestyle. Even if the generosity of Malawians emanates from the need for a social safety net, the result is nevertheless heartwarming.

When teachers buy sodas or popcorn, they always buy several and surreptitiously place them on other teacher’s desks. During lunch you often see a group of students huddled around a plate, one student sharing their meal with their fellow classmates. Yesterday, I was sitting at my desk grading papers while other teachers ate lunch. I hadn’t paid for lunch, not because I didn’t have the money, but because I couldn’t face another day of nsima and beans. I have nothing against nsima and beans, but the heat compounded with the culinary monotony is sometimes enough to make me skip meals. Peter, realizing that I didn’t have lunch, brought some food over to share with me. Even though teachers pay for lunch separately, the food always arrives in a communal pot and is shared by all. Even when a teacher collects their food separately they quickly surrender it to the big bowl on entry to the teacher’s room. I can never bring myself to eat on days that I haven’t paid, but I am alone in this respect. Probably only 2/3 of teachers pay on any given day, but the communal bowl usually has enough food. Jes and I secretly grumble to each other on days when the communal pot is kuchepa (Chichewa for insufficient), often absconding to our house for a few biscuits to augment the paltry portions. If other teachers share our frustration, it is well hidden. I suspect most teacher do not feel entitled, as I do, to a full lunch simply because they have paid. If you are able to pay, you do, and if you can’t, you don’t. For Malawians it is no more and no less complicated, to suggest otherwise would be uncouth.

For me, this unconditional generosity is one of the most beautiful things about Malawi. Unfortunately, this is often the only perspective taken by outsiders. Visitors nearly always laud the generosity of Malawians, and really, how could you not within the confines of traditional morality. Although I am honestly touched by the generosity of Malawians, I do see consequences of sharing, both societal and personal, which deserved to be acknowledged.

One problem I see with the sharing culture is the entitlement people feel for the possessions of others. The other day at school Jes passed two students quarreling over a book. Finally, one student turned to Jes and said, “make her lend me the book, she should share it.” Apparently the girl owned a biology book but didn’t want to lend it to her class mate. “But madam, he never returns my book when I lend it to him,” said the girl with the book. Jes, bemused by the entitlement of the boy, rebuked his request and explained that the girl could do with the book as she wanted. The boy stared at Jes in disbelief; it was obviously not the response he had expected and probably not the reply he would have received from a Malawian teacher. I don’t think a Malawian teacher would have gone as far as to forcibly take the book from the girl, but they would pressure the girl to share. This may seem innocuous enough –it certainly would be in the United States– but in Malawian culture a recommendation of that sort would be tantamount to an order; it would be deplorable to refuse. I see this type of forced redistribution all the time at school.

In my form 1 class there are about six students, out of 50, who own calculators. During exams and problem sessions these six calculators get passed around the room with seemingly no preference given to the student who owns the calculator. Even during the national exams (test which are extremely important to future of students), I have seen teachers take calculators from students, without asking, and give them to students across the room. It would be comparable to having your calculator whisked away without your consent during your SAT math test. I personally believe that individuals should have a right to their possessions and that forcing students to share school supplies is unfair. However, I am willing to acknowledge that my opinion is colored by my upbringing in the United States. I understand that what is fair and unfair in Malawi is governed by a different covenant than exists in the United States.

Morality aside, I worry that obligatory sharing often does more harm to the benefactor than it does good for the recipient. Many teachers with long commutes ride a bicycle to school and park it in the teacher’s room. Almost daily, a teacher will rush into the teacher’s room with a worried look on their face and exclaim, “where is my bicycle!” Turns out, many of the teachers who commute on foot (and live close by) like to borrow the bikes to nip home during breaks, but don’t think to ask permission. Sometimes the bikes disappear for only a few minutes, but last week one was gone for five hours. By the time the bike was returned the bike owner (who rides 18km to and from school each day) was seriously inconvenienced. The bikes have also started returning with flat tires or broken spokes with no one taking responsibility for the damage. A bike may seem like a minor possession in the United States, but near Mangochi it is often teachers’ only mode of transport. The teachers who bring bikes to school do so because they need to. It is impossible to walk 20 or 30 kilometers each day. Conversely, those who borrow bikes do so only for convenience and, through their actions, cause a large inconvenience for the bike owner.

The manner in which the bikes are borrowed is clearly inexcusable, but one could argue that extensive sharing, even if it causes some inconvenience, would be necessary with scarce (and expensive) items (such as bikes) in poor areaa. Unfortunately, I worry that in many instances the scarcity of commodities is actually amplified by the sharing culture. Pens, which any teacher can afford in copious quantities, are always a scarce commodity around the teachers’ room. Teacher are constantly scouring the room and rooting through desks looking for extra pens. I often find that my personal stock has been pillaged from my desk. It feels like stealing to me, but I don’t think the other teachers see it that way. I suspect they would happily return my pens if I had the need, but are happy to ‘borrow’ in a semi-permanent fashion as long as I still have pens aplenty. There is no reason for a pen shortage among teachers; they are cheap and available at nearly every local shop. I think the scarcity of pens stems from teachers’ assumption that they will always be able to borrow from someone else. The teachers also realize, rightfully so, that even if they came to school with extra pens they would not be reserved for their exclusive use. The sharing culture actually generates a strong disincentive against bringing pens, and in doing so, creates an artificial shortage which frequently disrupts the workday.

I fear the sharing culture causes far more widespread problems than simple pen shortages. Teachers are constantly complaining that they are unable to save for the future because the moment they accumulate any capital, be it goats or money, they are expected to provide for an ever-increasing proportion of their family and community. One employee at MCV was recently forced to rent a personal apartment in a nearby town because whenever he brought money or personal items to his home village, they were taken from his room and ‘redistributed’ within his family. If an individual cannot have personal ownership they cannot rely on their innate ambition to better their condition, they cannot plan for the future or invest prudentially. If capital is dispersed the moment any concentration of it exists, it prevents the type of long term investments that are needed by an economy. Imagine a shrewd farmer who dreams of building a granary or opening a market. Both endeavors require that the farmer save his resources so that he may afford the upfront costs. If the resources are wrested from farmer’s the moment they accumulate, the granary and the market will never be built. The money will instead be spent on smaller items which almost certainly contribute less to the economic development of the region. The economic development of a society and a country begins with the economic efforts of individuals and without an incentive for these efforts the economic progress of the country is stymied. I think this is happening in Malawi.

I am still impressed by the generosity of Malawians. I still believe sharing is a good thing. But within these beliefs I also see drawbacks of excessive sharing. I can appreciate how communal ownership and sharing obstruct the progress of Malawi, and I can appreciate the value inherent in moderate selfishness. Living in Malawi has made me recognize the credence and insight of Adam Smith when he wrote, “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest… Every individual endeavors to employ his capital so that its produce may be of the greatest value…by pursuing his own interest he frequently promoters that of the society more effectively that he really intends to promote it.”

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Mysterious friends

Of all the teachers I work with at MCV, Zamizan was probably the one in the situation most similar to my own (Jes excluded of course). He was new to MCV, having just graduated from college in Blantyre. He had not studied to be a teacher but, for some reason or another, found himself far from home teaching at Gracious Secondary School (the MCV school). During school breaks he would endure the segmented 20 hour bus ride to his home village in the northern hills of Malawi. Aside from these infrequent excursions he lived on MCV grounds, isolated, except for Jes, myself, and the boarding students. As an unattached bachelor, he quickly became the boarding master; a job to which he devoted himself entirely. He dutifully arrived at school each morning long before other teachers to unlock classrooms. After dinner, Zamizan would return to school so that boarding students could use the electric lights to study. Often I would hear him leading students back to the dorms at eight or nine o’clock at night.

At school his quiet assiduity stood out. While other teachers engaged in animated debates in the teachers’ room, Zamizan would busy himself grading papers or helping students. His taciturn manor often gave him an air of composure and contemplation I didn’t commonly see in Malawians. I always secretly wondered about Zamizan’s past since he was so different from other teachers. The mystery thickened when Zamizan showed up at school with a Toyota Corolla. For a man that lived in a 200 square foot cement room without electricity or running water, a car seemed an unexpected extravagance. The car also hinted at an undisclosed past, since such purchases are far beyond the means of a Malawian teacher’s salary.

Several weeks ago the secret came out. It started in the teacher’s room as hushed whispers. “Did you hear about Zamizan?” “Yes, how long does he have before he has to leave?” “He is the big man now.” It turned out that Zamizan’s father, who recently passed away (and left Zamizan the car), had been a paramount chief of the Ngoni tribe. The Ngoni is the largest tribe in Malawi and although his father was not the head chief, he still presided over an area of more than 50,000 people. The Malawian government embraces tribal sovereignty and gives chiefs an official position in the government, an office staff, along with a house and a generous salary. In return the chiefs are responsible for governing their district and mitigating local disputes. According to Zamizan, there are also numerous social obligations. You could think of a chief as a bit like a mayor except that they, instead of being elected, are chosen by heredity. Zamizan, as luck would have it, was the eldest born and had thus been groomed his entire life for chiefdom. He had found himself at MCV through a family connection and I suspect he was biding his time until the inevitable moment his tribal responsibilities arrived. Even at MCV it was common knowledge that his father was ill, and Zamizan must have known his tenure as a teacher would be short.

Still, I got the impression Zamizan was reluctant to take the post for which he was born. I remember Zamizan once admitting that his childhood dream was to become a mechanic, but that his father had pressured him to attend college and major in business administration. Although Zamizan certainly had the ability to be chief, I don’t think he would have chosen such a life for himself if given the chance. Chiefdom would require an extroverted persona very uncommon for Zamizan. A timely marriage would also be required and I gathered from Zamizam's expressions that this was not something he wanted just yet. His father's death also meant an abrupt end to Zamizan's life at MCV. Zamizan enjoyed teaching and he lamented leaving his students before their exams.

Zamizan’s situation contrasted so sharply with a democratic system that it made me appreciate a drawback of electing leaders. Take the common example of presidential or gubernatorial elections in the United States. Such high stakes offices are so difficult to obtain that only very ambitious individuals, doing whatever it takes, are likely to win. Quality candidates who are unwilling to cut shady deals or sell out to big business are usually unlikely to rise. With an inherited system, being power hungry is not a prerequisite for office. Zamizan is humble, honest, and a good listener, characteristics that are important for leadership yet so often lacking in modern American politicians. Zamizan may turn out to be a good leader precisely because he is not the type of person who would normally pursue public office. Of course the reverse is also possible, and it is for this and many other reasons that I remain sour to the idea of pushing people like Zamizan into positions for which they may not be ready and may not be interested.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Dancing with Men

Before Jes and I embarked to Malawi it seemed that everyone had a bit of cultural advice. I consider myself a fairly easygoing person and have yet to be perturbed or embarrassed by a cultural idiosyncrasy, that is, until now. The 2nd most popular musician in Malawi was going to be playing at my favorite local bar. A night out is a rare thing in Malawi and Jes and I were very excited.

After dinner we peddled down to the bar on our banduka (bike with a seat in back), ignoring the nearly constant laughing and pointing of passersby. I am used to the constant gawking now, and have come to accept that I will likely be a source of amusement for Malawians up until my departure. It is my way of giving back. Jes and I on the bike have become such a quotidian source of amusement that people often look crestfallen when we walk past bikeless and will ask accusatory questions like, “Azungu, banduka lanu lili kuti? (Where is your banduka white man?)”

We arrived at half past six and I secretly hoped we would run into Vicky, the bar owner who, in addition to being a good conversationalist, buys Jes and I rounds for which, hard as I try, I am never able to reciprocate. To my delight, Vicky was there and a beer was quickly thrust into my hand; the night was starting out good. We played some pool and drank more beers as the opening bands started up. The first few bands were pretty atrocious. Some probably had potential, but any semblance of talent was drowned out by an overbearing synthesized backbeat. To my dismay, most Malawian music groups rely heavily on synthesizers, and although I am not universally opposed to this, I feel it detracts from the acoustic bands and choirs who often employ them.

Although the music was disappointing, the backup dancers were not. Nearly every musical performance in Malawi, no matter how small, has enthusiastic backup dancers. I suspect they aren’t always professionals, just groups of drunken guys who feel the ambiance to be incomplete without five to ten men in tight pants gyrating their hips and spiraling around the stage. The dancing, although not necessarily good, is always executed with intrepid panache, which in the opinion of this dancing-impaired blogger, is what really matters.

As the night progressed and the music got better, the dance floor started to fill and before long everyone was dancing. To make a blanket stereotype, it is true that Africans are better than average dancers. But what I find more remarkable is the sheer magnitude of participation. Poor dancing skills are no deterrent. Alongside the rhythmically talented are those with two left feet who, in the United States, would relegate themselves to standing in dark corners. This unbridled enthusiasm for dancing means that wherever there is a beat, people congregate to dance. Several nights ago while biking home from Maldeco, I had to swerve to avoid hitting a dance party (in the middle of the road) of young boys moving to the sonorous beat of a nearby Chibuku (shake-shake) bar. Once I was awoken at MCV by timid taps on my front door. After cursing quietly and putting on sufficient clothes to chastise someone without the loss of undue dignity, I opened the door to find a group of students, eyes timidly downcast, professing their belief that the night was perfect for a dance party and would I please, if it wasn’t too much trouble, set up the speakers and lend them my Ipod.

As a fairly remarkable dancer (by racial, not dancing criteria), I was quickly accosted by potential dancing partners at the bar. This would have been fine by me, if all the suitors had not been men. Although men and women do dance together in Malawi, man on man and woman on woman partnering is common. As far as women are concerned, the social norm is analogous to what it is in the United States. With men, however, the parallel quickly breaks down. The conventions of physical distance and masculine separation seem not to exist. The other day in class we had a shortage of chairs and a student came in late and found nowhere to sit. After scouring the room, the boy walked over to his best friend and sat on his lap. Very considerate of the friend, but certainly not something you would see at a high school in the United States.

Back at the bar, I first tried to politely decline the interested dance partners. But then persistent men started buying me drinks in the hopes I could be cajoled. Declining drinks is considered rude in Malawi and as the beers in front of me quickly multiplied, I began to weigh the consequences of my continued inaction. Jes of course thought the whole thing was hilarious and started goading me with a lecture on masculine insecurity. Eventually, I was coerced into action.

The actual dancing was interesting and can only be described as half dance off, half cock fight. Most normal dance moves were employed, grinding was no exception, but with the added confusion of rapid-role-reversals. The whole affair took on a competitive bent, where dancers jockeyed for position and challenges were rhythmically intense. Thankfully, expectations of me were quite low and I was rewarded for even the most modest efforts.

I don’t think dancing with other men is something I will ever be entirely comfortable with. Sometimes it is impossible to completely step into another culture; the homegrown expectations and thinking patterns are simply too engrained. That doesn’t mean, however, that one cannot overcome some social and culture barriers. I can now hold hands as nonchalantly as a Malawian native and I am thoroughly looking forward to freaking people out on my return home.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Reduce, reuse, recycle, REPAIR

Malawi is truly the handyman’s dream. The nascent economy produces (or at least imports) most modern machines, but unlike a more consumer-driven economy, there is a lack of choice. There are often only a few iterations per product category. For example, there are only 4 types of soda, several colors of paint, and 1 common doorknob in the Mangochi area. The simplicity is quite nice; not only is shopping straightforward, but next time you need to touch up that chipped paint on the bathroom wall you don’t need to agonize over a color match. Yet, the chief advantage of such a parsimonious system is the ubiquity of spare parts and the resultant opportunities for the do-it-your-selfer. I count myself as a proud member of this demographic, and thankfully, Jes does not. Fortunately Jes doesn’t hog repair jobs or usurp my position as head tinkerer. .

I am not nearly as ambitious when it comes to jury-rigging as some of my Malawian counterparts. The other day I saw a man securing an engine block to his car with the remains of an old tire. I do, however, welcome the occasional weekend project; so imagine my delight when, while reading in bed, I began to smell the unmistakable stench of burning electronics. I jumped up to find that the plug of our electric water kettle had melted into a clump of mangled plastics and wires. Luckily, a plug in Malawi is a huge contraption equipped with screws for easy repair. I suspect that the inconsistent electricity in Malawi has spawned a demand for repairable and replaceable plugs. After a quick trip to the hardware market and I was the proud owner of a new, rather expensive, electrical plug.

The hardware market-men, as I call them, are notorious sharks who will charge ridiculous prices for simple items. I was once quoted a dollar for a rusted used 1/16in bolt that was worth a few cents. I usually try to patronize the larger established hardware stores that have fixed prices; however, I entered Mangochi around 1pm, meaning most large businesses were closed for their 2+ hour lunch break.

With plug in hand I returned home and prepped the wires from the dysfunctional kettle. Three wires protruded from the sheath: red, blue, and yellow/green. ‘Well, this doesn’t take a genius,’ I thought, ‘no sane person would make red the ground wire.’ This left me with a fifty-fifty chance of correctly guessing the proper arrangement of wires in the plug. After a moment of vacillation, I finally settled on blue as the most likely candidate for the ground line, and chose red and green as the live wires. For anyone who would rebuke me for picking blue over green, let me state in my defense that a later investigation revealed my choice to be irrelevant. Someone “intelligently” choose red as the ground line for reasons I cannot begin to fathom.

I gingerly plugged my kettle into the socket and…ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ… OUCH!! What’s wrong Jesse,” Jes called from the bedroom. Jes walked into the room just in time to see me try to unplug the kettle…ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ… *@#!!$%. “It shocked me again,” I said accusatorily. Jes started laughing, much to my annoyance. However, her amusement was short lived as she nonchalantly rested her elbow on the refrigerator and…OUCH…WHAT THE #%$@. “The refrigerator shocked me!” Jes exclaimed - now eyeing the refrigerator as if the once harmless appliance had acquired a nefarious agenda. These weren’t paltry shocks either, mind you; they were body-spasm-inducing, make your-arm-hurt-all-night, shocks. The rest of the night was punctuated by outbursts of curses as we were shocked by various electrical appliances throughout the house.

I finally managed to unplug the kettle using a long wooden stick while standing on a plastic beer crate, a stroke of brilliance to which I still refer. I am not sure exactly what happened, but I think I managed to electrify the ground line of the house when I improperly wired the kettle’s plug. The end result was that everything plugged into an electrical outlet had its chassi electrified with unbridled Malawian power. When Jes or I touched one of the electrified objects, our bodies provided a seductive electric conduit to the well grounded cement floor. This theory should only work, however, if the ground line of our house was affixed to an object with less grounding potential than yours truly (I actually suspect the outlets in the house were interconnected but never grounded to anything). This would not surprise me in the least, seeing as many Malawians view ground lines as an irritating waste of time. Many appliances and dwellings are frequently mis-wired, and I am constantly receiving low-level shocks from ovens and refrigerators that are not probably grounded. Through trial and error, I was able to construe the correct arraignment of wires for our plug. Don’t tell Jes, but as I was sweeping the next day I found the small instruction card that had fluttered, unnoticed, out of the plug and onto the floor. Jes and I have now been enjoying piping hot shock-free water for over a month. My next project is the stove, which inexplicably has only one functional burner. Wish me luck.

Ps. If anyone with more electronics knowledge has insights or theories about what happened with the ground line, please send them my way.

Friday, June 26, 2009

On Bribery

One of the more prominent stereotypes of Africa purveyed in Hollywood movies is that every policeman, soldier, and government official that you cross will demand a bribe. I honestly arrived in Africa with very few preconceptions, but nevertheless came prepared to spar with crooked officials. I say, “prepared,” in a loose sense. I honestly had no idea what I would do, but played through enough scenarios in my head to know the outcomes weren’t pretty. Either I could acquiesce to the request, looking pride and money I could not afford, or refuse, and be at the mercy of the official. Even if a refusal ended with a benign outcome, I was fairly convinced I would botch the job and stand there stuttering embarrassingly before tourists who were handling their bribery with far more class.

To my relief, Malawi has lived up to its reputation for friendliness. The police, military, and government officials here are some of the nicest people I have met. The most likely place to run into police is at roadside checkpoints, which are scattered along Malawi’s major roads. They are the government’s primary method of enforcing vehicle registration and insurance, since patrol cars are still too expensive for ordinary use. The first few times I was pulled aside my pulse quickened and my mind began to race with images of Jack Daniels and wads of cash being coyly surrendered by tanned and muscular movie protagonists. At a roadblock near the capital, I think an officer noticed my apprehension since, after returning to the car with my license, sternly said, “we have a problem here.” His frown then immediately melted into a smile and he slapped me on the back and said, “just kidding, have a great trip.” Luckily for me, the police do not seem interested in booze or money, and if they are, show no compulsion to extort it from me. There are several things, however, the police nearly always want: a friendly wave, pleasant conversation, and information regarding how good your day has been.

The Malawian police also serve a handy dual purpose. Since the quality roads in Malawi are not accompanied by quality road signs, the police are often the only source of reliable directions. They always enquire as to your destination, and are quick to point out, always in non-judgmental way, that you took a wrong turn. I was once told how to drive half way across the country after a friendly police officer realized I had no clue where I was going. I think American cops could really improve their image by emulating the Malawian system. Of course, it might seem a tad patronizing for a police officer to ask if you are having a good day after pulling you over for running a red light. Just a hunch.

I lack the experience to judge whether Malawi is the exception or the rule, but paging through the Africa Lonely Planet leads me to suspect the former. The pages are rife with examples of bribery scams and boarder crossings to avoid. Tourists I have met are frequently hassled at the border crossings and checkpoints of neighboring countries. I am relieved that Malawi avoids this stigma, but nevertheless cannot shirk the feeling that I am missing out on the full African experience. Okay, that’s horrible. No one should ever root for corruption; it is one of the biggest obstacles holding back Africa. Still though, after playing out bribery scenarios in your head, you start to wonder what it would really be like.

Luckily for me, though perhaps not for Malawi, my curiosity was satisfied by a crooked immigration officer at the airport last month. I suppose that even in a country known for its friendliness there are always a few jerks. Jes and I were on route to a Safari with Jes’s family, but first needed to clear immigration. Pat, Wendy, and Elias all had no problem, but Jes and I were told we had to meet with the immigration officer. I half expected this, since at first glance I appear to have overstayed my visa. This is not the case; I was approved for a temporary residence permit and by Malawian law, need only the paper work and not a stamped passport. I had the paper work and had handed it over with my passport, so was understandably a little irked when I was told there was a problem.

“Well, should I go down to the immigration office?” I asked. The immigration paperwork had been courteously handled by a proxy from the airline while we licked ice-cream cones on the observation level. “Oh that’s not necessary,” relied the attendant, “he is going to come up here to talk to you.” That really should have been my first clue that something was wrong, but at the time I graciously accepted the seeming friendly offer to meet in a locale where I could finish my ice-cream unabated.

We choose a secluded table at the corner of the cafeteria and the conversation started out cordially enough. He started with a long drawn-out speech on how Malawi doesn’t issue fines for overstayed visas. ‘Well good,’ I thought, who would open with a line like that if bribery was to come. Looking back, he was probably trying to abolish any chance of legitimately buying our freedom. Nevertheless, at the time I was put at ease and accepted that there must be a simple misunderstanding. Jes and I ardently tried to explain our situation to the officer, but he didn’t seem particularly interested in our story and kept affirming that the permit was invalid.

Undoubtedly, Jes and I first appeared to the immigration officer as easy patsies. We look like young American tourists who overstayed their visa. He also knows that we are shortly scheduled to depart the country by plane, a scenario which probably entails subsequent expensive flights we will not want to miss. Indeed, by all accounts he should have had us over a barrel, but not all was as it seemed. Firstly, we were flying to Zambia on a private plane. There was no connecting flight, and as the only passengers, the pilot was unlikely to leave without us. Secondly, after living in Malawi for 6 months we had acquired some useful contacts and information.

“Why don’t you call the immigration officer who handled this for us in Blantyre,” I said, as I produced a phone number from my wallet. He wasn’t expecting this; as I said earlier, I had given the bribery stuff some thought. He quickly regained his composure and withdrew a cell phone form his pocket and dialed. Jes and I have been learning the local language, but we are unusual in this respect. Most international workers don’t bother since English is so ubiquitous. Now understand that Jes and I are in no way fluent, but at the time, we knew enough to suspect the officer’s conversation was likely to a friend, and not to our contact in Blantyre.

“I am afraid we still have a problem,” said the officer after concluding the call. He then proceeded to repeat everything he had already told us. I began to wonder whether we had been misinformed in Blantyre; maybe we really were in visa violation. After all, the immigration officer undoubtedly knew more than we, and had still said nothing blatant to suggest he was not an upstanding agent of the law. But part of me was still suspicious; little things just didn’t add up. The phone call, the discrepant information, something was wrong. I glanced to Jes and then back to the officer and noticed something peculiar. Usually uniformed men and women in Malawi have name tags, but the man before me seemed to have inconspicuously removed his. ‘That’s odd,’ I thought. “Well, what should we do?” I asked. “Well,” he said, glancing to the ceiling before reaffixing his gaze, “I could allow you to leave for humanitarian reasons.” ‘Sure, fine,’ I thought, whatever it takes to get us out of this mess. “Does that mean we could leave?” I asked. “You could leave today, but it is up to you,” the officer replied phlegmatically. What did he mean, “it was up to us.” Who in their right mind would spend their vacation dealing with entrenched bureaucracy? “You can call your friend in Blantyre yourself if you want, unfortunately my phone is out of minutes,” he said. I was pretty sure this was a lie. I was willing to bet his phone had plenty of minutes, but he knew that we probably didn’t have a Malawian cell phone and would therefore have no recourse. We did actually, have a phone that is; one that was stocked with an unusually high number of minutes that would allow us to call any official in Blantyre, no matter how protracted the conversation. We also happened to have the numbers of several people who are close friends of Malawi’s chief immigration officer. I was pretty sure that in few minutes I could have the personal cell phone number of this guy’s boss. ‘Bring it on’, I thought. I’ll call who ever I need to. And then it came, the final piece of the puzzle, the sentence that confirmed that the officer was not inept, just corrupt. “We can help each other,” he said.

Damn, this guy really did want a bribe. I was sure he could probably detain us, but at this point I was pretty pissed off and was prepared to inconvenience myself on principle. I just hoped Jes was on board. “He wants a bribe Jesse,” said Jes very loudly. Bless her heart, she was on board. Several people at the far corners of the room glanced in our direction. The officer across the table shifted uneasily in his seat. Then Jes continued, still very loudly, “I think we should call the people in Blantyre.” To the shock of the man across the table, I quickly produced a Malawian phone and replied, “I agree, this doesn’t seem right.” I then made a show of searching through contacts to the chagrin of the officer who now realized that he had messed with the wrong two tourists. His ambivalent demeanor quickly faded and he said in a resigned voice, “I think we are okay here.” I personally still wanted to call Blantyre and bust the guy, but our plane was scheduled to depart in minutes. As we passed through the immigration gate, the officer was all smiles. “I called Blantyre and got it all worked out,” he said as I walked past. I thought, ‘yeah right,’ and looked over at Jes as she flashed me a sardonic look.

After the feeling of ultimate victory had subsided, I began to consider whether the officer’s behavior was excusable. In the Africa Lonely Planet guide, a common boarder crossing bribery scam is described in which the author maintains that the officials “shouldn’t be blamed since they have probably have not been paid in months” (I tried to find the page number and exact quote, but the book is over 1000 pages and I failed to relocate it). During the Safari with Jes’s family, I overheard a tourist who was telling a story of how a guard demanded a bribe at a boarder crossing. He finished the story with an air of nonchalance, saying, “hey, he probably needed the money right?” I don’t know why this type of rationalization is so common. Perhaps it is fueled by a sense of guilt arising from witnessing the poverty that is so common in Africa. Perhaps people are masking their embarrassment of being cheated. Maybe stereotypes have made people so expectant, they don’t think twice.

It is very gracious to dismiss corrupt behavior as the product of poverty, however I worry such sentiments are more of an excuse than a cause. I am not about to begrudge a mother or father that steals to feed their family, but how often is bribery done out of necessity? In my bribery experience, the immigration official had a government job, and was therefore relatively affluent. We need to be careful to not excuse behavior that has such severe consequences

Every time a tourist pays a bribe, they are assuaging a personal risk but increasing the likelihood future travelers will encounter a dangerous situation. They are also contributing to a system of corruption that is holding back Africa. When encountering bribery, I would never encourage anyone to put themselves in physical danger, but safe countermeasures can taken. Have your documentation ready, have numbers you can call, and of course, don’t break laws or overstay visas. Most bribery occurs when the victim is at least a little at fault. If you are in the wrong, try to work through official channels even if it is inconvenient. If your relative affluence makes you uncomfortable when traveling in a poor country, donate your time or money to an NGO, but please, don’t allow a sense of guilt to rationalize corrupt behavior.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Laptops and Appropriate Technology

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to the term, “appropriate technology.” The term became a buzz word a while back in the realm of development and foreign aid. The principal behind it being that developing countries should be given technology that will mesh with their lifestyle and current state of development. Proponents of the theory would argue against giving undeveloped areas medical or educational aid which relied too heavily on electricity or consistent access to technology. This could include anything from x-ray machines to computer based learning tools.
Several years ago during a service project in India I saw remote villages that had benefited greatly from low tech borehole wells. The wells have no electronic parts and can be easily fixed with basic hand tools. They represent a project that would fall under the classification appropriate technology. Projects like this, and those that focus on soil reclamation and improved farming practices have provided significant improvement in peoples lives in a sustainable fashion. In the same village where I had seen the boreholes, I also saw the remnants of a failed electrification project. Several years back a centralized solar system had been installed to power basic electronic devices such as radios and lamps. After 6 months the battery had died, and without access to new acid or the electronics knowledge necessary, the equipment had been dismantled and was being used decoratively in the chief’s house. Ironically, I was visiting the village with a team from college who were installing a solar lighting system. At the time I secretly wondered whether our equipment would eventually be used aesthetically, but the time and effort I had invested in the project made it easy to ignore such thoughts. A year later I heard rumors that the solar systems were still in use, but to subsequent news I have not been privy. Overall, the experience lead me to question the practicality of technological projects in remote areas.
After returning home I began reading about the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) movement. The organization was started by an MIT professor who wanted to bring computing to the children of the 3rd world. His idea was that by building a rugged laptop aimed at children, you would create a tech savvy population ready to utilize the technology necessary for development. The website featured many idyllic photos of children typing away on custom green laptops in the shadow of thatched mud huts. Aside from wanting to play with the laptops, which were admittedly pretty cool, I was skeptical. I simply could not imagine the laptops succeeding in places like the village I had visited in India. I thought the project was bound to confirm that those boring appropriate technology people were right.
Fast forward several years to today. I start the day as normal. This means waking up to no power and no water. That fine, I am prepared for this now and quickly wash down the bread I had baked the night before with the water I had presciently set aside. I journey to school where, in the half hour before classes start, I quickly outline my lectures for the day. In form 1 we are starting acids and bases, this means two things: first, an excursion to the supply room, and second, that I will end the day with acid burns from lack of protective equipment. Although the school is woefully ill equipped for labs, a smattering of grants and donations over the years has left the school with some surprising equipment. Recently, during an afternoon of snooping, I found a cabinet full of chemicals (most improperly labeled), a brand new electronic scale (without batteries), and a water deionizer (wrong type of plug). Luckily for me, though unfortunate for the students, the stash remains untouched, locked away in a room which the other teachers seem nervous to enter for fear they might break something. My sense of entitlement, fostered by a childhood and adolescent in America, leaves me with no such trepidation, and I frequently hunt down the keys and go searching for something to spice up my next lesson.
I have made it a goal to do at least one lab per class per week. Sometimes the lab is basic; last week I rigged up a water-alcohol solution over a candle to illustrate the principals of distillation. After some of the stunts I pulled in COOL Science (a science outreach club at Colorado College), the stuff I do now seems down right lamb. Amazingly though, the students are always a great audience. During the distillation demo I actually got cheers when the water started to boil. I know these kids cook at home so boiling water shouldn’t be too exciting. Perhaps it is because these kids never get demos at school. Except for a sedimentation demo I once saw a teacher do (he ingeniously used sand and a coke bottle), I have never seen another teacher do a demo. This is a shame, since with some improvising and a little ingenuity our basic supplies can make some passable educational demos.
Today I was hoping to find anything labeled acid or base, and if I’m lucky, something with a chemical formula and a stated concentration. I was in the back of the room, trying to hold my breath because I had just accidentally kicked a box full of unlabeled white powder, when I saw a box of with a green cord protruding. Through a crack in the box I saw a green bevel and I was filled with disbelief. Yes!; it was a box with 15 pristine OLPC green laptops. The first thing I did, after doing a kick ass acid-base demo with color changing indicators, was spend the day playing with the laptops.
The laptops got some things very right and some things very wrong. A linux variant is used which is smart, since due to the proliferation of pirated software in Malawi, every computer expends half its energy following the instructions of viruses and spyware. Another smart idea is the mesh network, which automatically creates an adhoc network between all OLPC laptops in range. This is great for doing activities and lessons between the computers. A feature which allows two people to work on the same document is quite fun. Jes and I’s collaboration quickly digressed into an exchange of dirty words that ended with a small food fight. Still, I think the feature holds promise for those who show a little more maturity. The biggest drawback of the laptops is that they are designed for primary school aged children. This is a problem for two reasons. First, young children in Malawi rank slightly above a goat in the social order, so are very unlikely to ever get their hands on the laptop. Second, the games and applications that come preloaded are of limited practical use for the secondary students or adults who are likely to have access to the laptop.
Access is the key issue here. I found the laptops buried in a supply room and judging from the dust on the box, they had been there for a while. I conspicuity took two laptops to the teacher room and started running loud attention grabbing programs. Within minutes every teacher was huddled behind my desk, taking excitedly about the laptops. Most teachers had never seen the laptops before and expressed disbelief that I had found them in the supply room. This is nothing new, I often hear the head science teacher exclaim, “oh, we had that did we,” when I return from the supply room with some scientific contraption. Some veteran teachers (teachers who have been here more than 1 year), recalled with nostalgia when the laptops had arrived, but seemed unaware they still existed. Apparently after a short foray, they were stored away for safe keeping with every other useful item the school owns.
A week has passed now, and I have dutifully charge two laptops every night and delivered them to the teacher’s room every morning. After years of doing fundraising projects, I have a pet peeve for donor dollars going to waste. Someone shelled out a lot of money for the laptops, and until now, they might have invested in Chrysler for all the good it’s doing. Slowly the teachers have been cracking the green lids of the laptops and trying them out. Throughout the week, several teachers have asked whether they could take the laptops home. I made it clear that the computers did not belong to me, and encouraged them to check one out from the school. This is something the teachers are entirely free to do, but the moment I suggest entering the stockroom their interest fades. I don’t get it; the administration does nothing to discourage teachers from using supplies. The principal even mentioned she wished the teachers would better utilize the resources we do have. I got the first sign that my plan was working today when the computer teacher asked if he could use the laptops in class to illustrate networking. Because they don’t have MS Office he can’t use them in his normal lessons, so it might just be Jes and I for a while.
I took the laptops into my form 1 classes today as a treat for completing their physical science course work. After a stampede to the front of the room, the students were putting the term childproof to the test. I hadn’t until today appreciated the vocabulary that has evolved with the assimilation of the computer into everyday life. A quick instruction to use the mouse left kids furtively looking to the corners of the room for rodents. An instruction to click a button had half the class pushing on the screen. One kid sat in front of the computer, hands folded in his lab, giving verbal commands to no avail. Big cheers erupted when the students realized that moving their finger on the front of the laptop moved the curser. I honestly think moving the curser around would have amused most the class for the entire period. Needless to say the laptops were a big hit. I don’t think they can ever be used for education purposes, but as an introduction to computers use they are invaluable.
At the end of the day I am still asking myself if the computers are worth the money spent on them. The cost of the laptops was about $2300, enough to pay the tuition for 23 students for a year. Jes and I plan on using them occasionally, but I suspect that after we leave they will be relegated back to the stockroom. The computer teacher may use them to illustrate networking, but without commercial software, he can’t use them regularly in his classes. I am afraid that in the case of MCV the tech project has failed. In many ways the OPLC laptops at MCV illustrate why high-tech projects are so risky. The computer required charging, a difficult proposition with intermittent power, no converters, few plugs, and no power strips. The laptop design also failed to accommodate the population to which they were given. These inconveniences, combined with a lack of prerequisite computer knowledge, doomed the project and wasted thousands of dollars. This example would seem to demonstrate why appropriate technology should be embraced and high-tech projects dismissed. However, living in Malawi I have been exposed to a perspective which also should be given credence.
Please, for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a Malawian. If someone gave you a choice between a textbook and a laptop, what would you choose? The answer is simple, you would choose the laptop. It is more interesting, more novel, and unequivocally cooler. The Malawians’ choice, and their motivations, would be the same. Malawians want they same things as you or I. They want a developed economy, cars, computers, and advanced medical care.
The problem with appropriate technology is that you are giving people what they need, without advancing them towards a lifestyle that they want. You are making a judgment about what is best for the person. I think that Malawians should have a voice in the aid they receive. It is not the place of the 1st world to tell the 3rd that they should be happy with better crop yield and fresh water while forgoing the technological amenities we enjoy. In developed countries, I have noticed a tendency to idealize rural or village life. In magazines like Natural Geographic, large vibrant pictures of thatched huts and traditional garb convey a quant lifestyle. The subsistence lifestyle may be quaint, but it also has some very serious drawbacks. If people want to continue living traditionally, let them. However, those who desire a more modern life should also be supported.
A developed lifestyle doesn’t come from bore-hole wells; it comes from more radical investments in technology. Without crazy projects like OLPC, a computer movement will never begin, and people will be trapped in a way of life with inherent disadvantages. A perfect example is illustrated in the book, Mountains Beyond Mountains. In Peru’s peasant populations, Paul Farmer treated multi-drug resistant tuberculosis with state-of-the-art medication, often spending tens of thousands of dollars per patient. At the time, the therapy was considered too expensive and impossible without access to 1st world medical facilities. Nearly all of Farmer’s patients responded to treatment, creating a paradigm shift in the field of tuberculosis care. The expensive drugs were certified for 3rd world application causing use to rise and prices to plummet. Farmer took a large risk and it paid off big. A similar but smaller risk was taken with the laptops at MCV. In the case of the laptops no benefit was realized, which begs the question, should the risk have been taken. It is impossible to answer such as question because one never knows what the outcome will be. All that is known for certain is that if enough projects are attempted, eventually one will succeed.
This is not an argument for high tech aid any more than it is an argument for appropriate technology. I personally think the two models of assistance need to go hand in hand. Dollar for dollar, the low tech stuff will always work better. I still believe the basics: food, water, health, and shelter need to come first. I am still skeptical of projects like OLPC. However, I also realize that the lifestyles people want will never transpire without higher risk projects. I believe that hardnosed pragmatism needs to be tempered with an acknowledgement of what people want from their lives. If people want development, and they do, the higher risk ventures are needed. Many projects like OLPC’s and Farmer’s will fail, but sometimes they will succeed, and when they do, they will do more to advance people’s quality of life than appropriate technology ever could.