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.