October 25, 2009

bimbo saves the world

I imagine that living and working in Lilongwe is very similar to living and working in London. I earn my salary, I go out on Friday nights, watch DVDs, and spend too much time on facebook.

Busy with my routine, I’ve grown blinkers to the fact that next door, down the road, over the hill, in Malawi, England and all over; other people, other humans, spend their days scraping together enough cash for dinner…

These are varied, unique individuals with names and stories; they are not necessarily starving or dying, they’re not necessarily unhappy or living a life of less quality than myself, they’re not necessarily less intelligent or less capable or less anything. Nevertheless, their current circumstances do limit their access to the opportunities and services that I enjoy.

Fortunately every now and again something rocks my comfortable world, dazzles the blind spots, cuts through callouses. I’ve already told some of you... I met Theophilus when he was six weeks old, a big beautiful healthy boy. Five days later he had symptoms of malaria and died.

Such reality checks scream for a response. This kid’s death was wrong, not ok, unacceptable. I’m educated enough to know how preventable it was. I reviewed my options...

What could little jess possibly have to offer? The disposable part of my income (minute), and my professional skills (meagre). No worries, I happen to believe in a drop in the ocean, five loaves and two fishes. With a bit of money and a few management tricks, I'm going to change the status quo.

Option 1: Throw money around.

At the very least I should do this, right. A donation here or there to help a good cause. Every little counts. Agreed.

Whether it’s a relative or a friend, a beggar or a massive organisation – these people could do with transport, medicine, school fees, food etc. You hope they are who they say they are. You hope they really do need what they say they do. You hand over the cash.

Its amazing and very admirable, community spirit at its best. You’ve successfully provided options they didn’t have before, you’ve created the potential to improve lives (their own or other’s). Now they may use your money to go to the hospital like they said they would, or they may buy airtime. They may feed orphans, or they may pay their car insurance. At least you gave them the chance.

This isn’t enough for me. I happen to believe in Gandhi's idea of ‘be the change you seek’. My handout, my cash donation, would represent no significant sacrifice on my part and no engagement with the issues at hand. I want to do more than lazily placate my guilty conscience...

Option 2: Sell soul to a good organisation.

So if giving money’s complicated how about offering my skills? I’ve got contacts in church and NGOs, I’m sure they have a few activities I could volunteer to help with. Maybe I could do some organisation development for them – design a few systems. Or maybe I should join one of these social clubs, no doubt Lilongwe Lions group could use my budgeting know-how.

The people who do this are admirable and amazing. I’ll never be one of them. The prospect just doesn’t get me excited. After a long day in the office the last thing I want to do is exactly the same sort of stuff. Realistically I won’t be offering my professional skills to Lions or any one else.

It might be exciting if it was something exotic that I didn’t do every day, let’s all go to Africa, and build a school. Let’s live in a village and teach English. Let’s paint a children’s hospital ward. Let’s visit an orphanage and hold babies. People want to be part of the process of making a difference; it makes them feel significant, warm and fuzzy. I’m more interested in results.

I happen to believe (like VSO, unlike Peacecorps) that if you’re not proffering hard-learned professional skills, you’re only as helpful as the next local labourer. I'm no builder! Manpower isn’t something developing countries lack. I’ll leave the fun fun fun projects to those more qualified.

Option 3: ??

And so, dear reader, you can see my (our?) quandary; I don’t want to offer my professional skills (dull) and I don’t want to offer my un-skilled manpower (no need). Do I care enough to engage over and above a knee-jerk cheque?

Hmmm will jess actually sit down and think critically about possible responses? Will I take the time to work out how I could meaningfully contribute to a solution? Theophilus’ death was a true tragedy, but am I that bothered?

Watch this space.


  1. i think you should do something where you make the decisions if you want it to be meaningful - i say this because you seem to be quite passionate about this and you may find that saying 'here you go' to someone be it with ideas or money it may not translate into what you have in mind. my advice is keep it simple - and as direct as possible - not too many middlemen and you will be sure to find your fulfillment ;)

  2. I think its not true that you're not responding to poor situations you see around you - its just that the problems are quite diverse and astronomical - cant fix them all as I'm starting to realise.

  3. There is a difference between a mercenary and a conscript. The mercenary gets paid and then goes on to work for the next highest bidder. He/she is a hand for hire, he/she has no principles per se, maybe except making money and maybe a certain political leaning but basically its the money. The conscript is a citizen drafted into his/her nation's armed forces, he/she may not be very willing but still the interests of the nation affect them.

    We may send our money or we may give some of our gifts but indeed its not the same as involved commitment. When you move from the bleachers to the field, when you no longer just shout instructions about what could or should but actually do, thats a whole different ballgame.

  4. Jess,
    Ghandi's quote is also one of my favorites, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." I don't think there's a right way or a wrong way to respond to the need, the hurting, and the injustice in the world. I say, just DO something!
    Whether it's getting involved on the ground, giving a donation, or inspiring others to think about such issues by writing a blog on the topic. (By the way, the simple fact that you work in a clinic in Malawi is a contribution in itself!)
    Thanks for encouraging us to stop and consider what our role is in bringing about healing and justice in this messed up world.

  5. enjoyed, will be thinking about it. my current refuges from moral responsibility are cynicism and drink.

  6. When your talents (writing passionately and sensitively) naturally merge with your desires (for a more just world with better 'results') that is when something beautiful happens.

    Generating debate, raising awareness, provoking responses, inspiring action... that not enough for you? Can you build on that?

  7. No death feels right. The death of someone close feels even more incorrect. The death of a young one feels unacceptable indeed. Such is the reality of our journey on earth. But we just don’t sit back and accept this reality. Theophilus death could have been prevented. But then efforts are being made to prevent such. Money is being thrown around and people are selling their souls to 'good' organisations. Yet we are having more and more of these unacceptable deaths. What are we not doing or doing wrong????????? Maybe knowing the answer could help us get option 3.

  8. Jess,

    Like yourself & Charisa i also beleive you must 'be the change you wish to see in the world'

    Living where i do now, gives me a constant reality check. It allows me many oportunities every day to do something.

    Your writing is such an inspiration, your a special person. Thank you for just being you

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  10. Don't hold back Michael! Say what you feel!!

    Jess, I loved this post. You have a way of articulating a lot of what is going on in my head, in a much better way that I could say it, but in a way that rarely gives clear-cut answers, and causes me more confusion! Ok, so as someone who lives in Ireland, has lived in South Africa, wants to engage with people in meaningful ways, wants to use what I have wisely but in a way that doesn't patronise or undermine - I can identify with much of what you said. To be honest, I'm starting to feel like I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't. If I sit on my hands and do nothing, I am accused of having no compassion, of not caring, of being detached from the real world. I don't give much directly to charities, because I'm cynical about how they use money (saw a lot of misuse in South Africa), but I agree with you that it's not enough for me to just set up my little direct debit and then forget about the world with a clean conscience. I like microfinance (kiva.org is good), but again, I'm just passing on money, and nothing of myself. But when I try to engage, use my skills, offer my help, I've been accused of being patronising, belittling, damaging. I have many wonderful friends in South Africa who get angry with people in the West for their lack of engagement, but equally angry when support is offered. I'm well aware that support is often given wrongly - I've written papers on it, to try to get people here to think more about how they engage. But I'm just not sure where I can fit in the middle of it all. And it's not an African thing - I see the same situations in the communities I work in here in Belfast.

  11. those who have the slightest sensitivity do feel uncomfortable with the injustices of poverty. we shouldn't knock direct debits - what if you are an old person unable to engage? but not enough for some of us like emma who want it to be more personal.
    jesus said 'the poor are always with us'.
    gus said 'can't fix them all'.
    yiwonda said 'keep it simple and as direct as possible'.
    michael said (paraphrasing!)'get on with it'.
    so let's start with the people we do know and thoughtfully help them (not just with money). having an attitude of giving as a lifestyle is also helpful. i like the idea of encouraging small business so that a handout or loan enables someone to build a life with dignity and satisfaction. but often we are asked to help in a crisis and then we have to choose to give or refuse without guilt, and therein is the hard part!

  12. Ummm – thanks Jess - I am also impressed with the joint wisdom expressed here in the responses. Someone said to me that if you find the answer then you know you must have got it wrong. So what if there is no answer? Then we live with the paradox and imbalance. We never feel entirely satisfied with our response to the world around us but just keep doing our best in all humility. Proverbs 30:8 Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me.

  13. Rephrasing (or something like it).

    Jess, what are you are doing is asking your mind. You don't ask your mind when it comes to such matters. It'll just give you (like it does to so many of us) reasons why it (whatever it is you think you ought to do) can't be done, etc, etc.

    It's good to know that you seriously ponder these issues. It gives hope.

  14. Georgia Burford30 October, 2009 14:06

    i am feeling quite disheartened at working at a national and global level - if everyone does their bit locally much more is achievable...

  15. hmmm... very interesting...

  16. Thinking and being concerned about it is a start...the challenge comes in chanelling your energies in the right direction...wouldnot it be lovely if we were heroes and heroines all the time...no matter what u do wheter big or small it does make a difference...how big of a difference is debatable but a difference none the less

  17. Your talents (gifts), passions, and desires may be your greatest indicators of what you ought to do about this.

    The one skill that you have that we all can atest to is your ability to articulate things...

    ...perhaps you have already started making an impact by opening up this dialog.

    One of the concepts that have rocked my life lately is the Mother Theresa concept of "We cannot do great things, we can only do small things with great love." The question is, what are the small things (sucrifices for others) that we are called to do at this point in our lives? If we are not doing those, then who is?


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