If God is with us, who can be against us?

There’s a guy who sells bumper stickers down the road from my office. He hangs out around the traffic lights in Area 15, right next to the homemade sling-shot hawker, the stray puppy purveyor, the mop/broom/feather dust buster man, and an ever-changing variety of mobile merchants who sell live chickens, turkeys, and your occasional duck off of the handle bars of their bicycles.

The thing about bumper stickers in Malawi is that there are only about five – five staple phrases that you are sure to see on the back of at least every other vehicle in town. For the humble worker: “No Food for Lazy Man.” For the romantic: “I Love my Wife” (also available in “I Love my Husband”). For the God-fearing man: “RELAX: God is in Control” or the sticker that graces the back of my 1996 Toyota Corolla: “This Car is Protected by the Blood of Jesus.” (Trust me, if you were in a driver in this country, you’d want Jesus on your side too). And last, but not least, the Malawian adage that most aptly plucks the strings of satire: “If God is with us, who can be against us?”

Who can be against us…who, oh who, can be against us? Oh Malawi. You really just walked right into this one, didn’t you?

As much as I would like to think that I am optimistic about the future of international development and the burgeoning government systems in which we work, there are moments where the sheer irrational logic that seems to dictate infrastructure and problem solving in this country just completely overloads my capacity for lucid, balanced reactions. Malawi, I love you like a second home, but seriously? You are doing my head in.

There has not been steady running water in my neighborhood in almost 7 weeks, which when paired with the twice weekly electricity blackouts, the 72 hours this past weekend where the entire country was without functioning cell phones, and an apparent region-wide diesel fuel shortage, is making city living around here a real kick in the pants lately. When this first started, I made one, maybe two phone calls to the water company, politely asking when we might have running water again. “Yes, Madam, we are working on it. We do not know what the problem is.” Fair enough. Pipes burst, shit happens. I tell myself that there are people who work at the water board whose only job is to fix this sort of thing, maybe there is some kind of clandestine mercenary plumbing troop tasked with rappelling down in the middle of the night to fix busted water lines or clogged dams for the betterment of Lilongwers everywhere. I mean, no water for 7 weeks: There MUST be a contingency plans for this right? There must be. There has to be. Someone quash that grumbling rage in the pit of my stomach that says mockingly, “you are a moron. Of course there isn’t.”

Let’s fast-forward to this past weekend, six and a half weeks after this utility debacle began. I am on the phone, once again, with the water board, arguing against the most incomprehensible reasoning I have ever heard in my life in regards to why there is STILL no water between the hours of 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. every day in Area 12:

Me: Good afternoon, Sir. I am calling about the problem in Area 12. We still do not have water. When will this be fixed? 
Water Man: Yes, Madam, we are working on it. 
Me: Right, so what is the problem? 
Water Man: Ahhh, we do not know.  
Me: Sir, it’s been six weeks. Your company turns the water off at the exact time, for 12 hours a day, six days a week. 
Water Man: Yes. We do not know what the problem is. 
Me: Ok, but that is what I’m saying: The problem is that your company turns off our water EVERY DAY. 
Water Man: Mmm-hmmm, yes, well…we do not know what the problem is.

Based on my dead-end conversation with the “faults” line personnel, my housemate then decided on Monday that perhaps a physical visit to the water board might prove more fruitful in terms of information gathering. Wrong. That scenario clearly ended in similar obscurity, with a rather bright-faced Northern Irishman storming out of the building muttering unmentionable curses and with no clearer picture of how, when, or why anyone would conceivably expect that there be reliable utilities, like water, in this city.

Argue that I am petty and spoiled all you like. I don’t care. I live in a house, in a city, I pay for public utilities and I have quality of life expectations, although they are certainly more tempered and flexible here than they would be at home in the U.S.  But what I would say in retort is that my annoyance with the infrastructural failures of this country is the accumulated frustration of living in a place that seems so apathetic to problem solving. Yes, my water may not be a major concern to you, Mr. Water Utility Man, but that is because I am a half-enraged white woman who, you figure correctly, probably has other alternatives to getting water when I need it. I can go to the posh hotel around the corner for a shower or I can drive up to a friend’s house for a hot bath and a cup of tea. But that is sort of the crux of the problem, now isn’t it, because there are LOADS of people who live in my neighborhood who can’t do the same thing. They are housekeepers, watchmen, guards, gardeners, tomato sellers, maybe even bumper sticker vendors – they are the ones who have to bear the brunt of bullshit like this and I am equally, if not more so, infuriated for them. As a Malawian friend of mine said last week, “it is very bad. Water is life. Without water…this is a difficult thing.” I obviously agree although after nearly two months of dealing with this, I can’t say that I have an immense amount of faith in the system’s ability to right itself at this point. Bucket showers and evening water hoarding continue, as do the occasional early morning shouts of “F**K MY LIFE!!!” that come from the bathroom when my half-naked roommate realizes, once again, that there is nothing coming out of the tap and we are both going to work dirty today. 

An expat friend wrote me in a gchat the other day, “I realized recently that living in Malawi is, sadly, like interacting with a teenager on a daily basis:  Stubborn, temperamental, crazy illogical, and sure that it is right 100% of the time.” As development workers, we are here trying to build systems of sustainability, to create projects that help people better themselves, their lives, and their country – at least this is the altruistic half-truth we all tell ourselves. But I question this rationale and wonder if our involvement here is, perhaps, doing more harm than good. I mean, how do you build sound, sustainable policies and projects if the infrastructure of a place is still so unreliable? It’s like building a fortress upon a foundation that has been crazy-glued together with a colorful mish-mash of questionable internal policies, politics, and ever-shifting international influences. I often feel like we are just tripping over one another, dog-piling onto an already incomprehensible bureaucracy that seems to bottleneck at the top before anything gets down to the bottom where it is really needed. 

I know God is with us, even as someone who walked away from the Church a long time ago, I believe in the spirit of something bigger and a faith in hope, and I can see that in the faces of the people I work with every day. But it isn’t God I’m worried about: It’s us, the communities of this country, expat, Malawian or otherwise. The biggest enemy of development is development itself and maybe all we’re doing here is compounding the problems, proliferating the crux of the issue even through our most altruistic efforts to make things better.

At the end of a 12-hour workday, when I’m tired and I’m dirty with red African dust, when my heart feels heavy and I’m angry at the world for the list of injustices we just can’t seem to sort out, the only thing I want to do is go sit in my shower, under an artificial rain of warm water and pretend, if only for a moment, that everything isn’t f**ked up, that God is nearer than he is far, that everything we’re all doing here is for some kind of purpose.

So, God, if you’re listening, cut us some slack. We could use a break here. And a little bit of water too.

Uphill mud

Work on the international development scene moves slowly. Painfully. Dreadfully. Slower-than-mud-uphill-in-a-downpour SLOWLY. For the most part, I can testify from experience that a lot of this isn’t a whole lot different than working in nonprofit in the U.S. — There is never enough money, never enough time, and everyone could use about twice the number of staff to accomplish everything that needs to get done. It’s easy to let all of these crushing, unrelenting challenges throw you into a bit of daily spin cycle, one that oscillates between wanting to routinely punch walls and/or people in the face or the moments of near hysterical euphoria when something actually gets done. Those moments, where you really get to see a tangible end result for someone are like contemporary, enigmatic miracles. I would put it akin perhaps to witnessing the birth of your first child — an overwhelming expansion of awe, love, and gratitude made more intense by the very fact that you know moments like this in life are unique. They are special. And they are limited. They don’t happen everyday.

And that is the problem: They don’t happen everyday. In fact, sometimes they don’t happen at all.

Life for refugees in a refugee camp is a combination of bustling activity and the sheer freezing of time. People come, people go. Life happens, life stops. Wake, eat, sleep. Wake up and do it all again. Apart from the infinite seepage of days one into another, the other constant presence in camp is the sense that nothing ever actually gets accomplished. From refugees, to the implementing organizations, and back again, there is this tiring feeling that the search for help is just a fuzzy run through one big labyrinth that loops over and over again with no beginning and no end. Earlier I said that international development runs at a snails pace — here, from where I am standing at the moment, it doesn’t actually move at all. Here, it feels more like running through quicksand. Maybe even running backwards through quicksand, or doing the moonwalk through mud. Here, I sometimes get the feeling that if you were to just stop on that patch of unstable earth, it might actually swallow you whole, suck you under, and spit you out somewhere in China during the Middle Ages. How’s that for a commentary on the modern bureaucracy of international aid.

There is no possible way for any of us to truly envision what kind of nightmares force people to flee their homes and become refugees — husbands running with wives, with babies on their backs hand-in-hand in the middle of the night from a life that at one time was fruitful, peaceful and above all, happy. Think about this — I mean really, REALLY think about it. What kind of horror would it take for you to make the decision, sometimes in only a matter of minutes, to leave everything you owned, even people you loved, behind without any hope of return? And then, once you’ve lived through the seemingly unthinkable, and often, the unlivable, you find yourself marooned in a foreign land without papers, without money, without explanation, dazed and scared, unsure what the future will bring but knowing that the past is full of demons and monsters so evil you are scared to close your eyes at night for fear of what the dark may bring. So here you are, in this place you are now to call “home” — maybe you’ve been here for years at this point. And all around you, there are these groups that advertise how they are supposed to be helping you but when you reach out for assistance they tell you “no.” Not enough resources. Not enough people. Too busy. Too burned out. You said the wrong thing, now you don’t get help. You made too many waves, now you don’t get help. Come back later. Or don’t come back at all. Ask another agency. Ask another case worker. Go ask Alice. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

As aid workers, as agencies, we are all guilty. We are all accountable. No one gets to skirt responsibility or close their eyes to the blatant reality that a lot of the time, the only thing those of us in the field are doing really well is failing to do anything at all. We act as if we are all righteous and wise, sometimes behind the backs of others, sometimes to one another’s faces, when in reality, our systems are broken. The wheels churn, spit out screws, and make ear-cringing screeches and pops as metal grinds against metal. For all the good intentions the world has had for helping people forced to flee their home countries, there are some 10,000 refugees idling at a camp in the highlands of Malawi just waiting. In camps all over Africa, there are hundreds of thousands, if not MILLIONS, of displaced people simply WAITING. For what? For someone, anyone, to give them answers to prayers and simple questions alike. In any case, nothing is clear, not even to those of us who are supposed to provide a response. We tell people to walk towards these doors for assistance and when they get there they find that they’ve been padlocked. Or torn down. Or maybe those doors never actually existed at all. Pepani. Sorry. Better luck during your next 7 years in this camp, or at the next one you flee to when the civil war starts again. And again. And again.

Welcome to Frustration Nation. All of that said, when you as the humanitarian worker are not having one of those weeks where everything you hear makes you want to cry, when the operational meetings you have make you so viscerally angry you have to sit on your hands for fear that you may jump across the table and throw rabbit punches at the person sitting smugly in front of you, or when you just feel like you are a wee burned out in general, there are those moments where all of the bullshit and the murkiness suddenly vanish and the horizon looks calm and level, just as it should. You help someone heal. A child gives you a hug. You watch as someone climbs into the truck that is about to take them to the plane that is going to deliver them to their new life. These enmeshed dreams of hope you start having for your clients really do happen, even if they don’t happen often enough.

In spite of all of the uncertainty and despair, there is a vivacious, booming pulse of survival running through the camp even if it’s not always evident, and even when the systems ostensibly set up to help seem to do nothing but drag everyone down. No one seems to give up and even though the drive to move onto better circumstances often turns ugly and desperate because of the perpetual despair and all of those dead-end doors, there is something sad and wondrousabout watching it all unfold. It’s like embers of a fire as close to burning out as they are to starting a whole new flame — the human spirit never dies without fighting the good fight, even if it means running blindly through the night and through a maze with no outlets. You just can’t kill hope.

But “hope” is a charged word, one that we associate with all things positive and shinny. It is warm rather than cold. It is sunny, rather than dark. Here, however, hope sometimes looks more like a solar eclipse than the bright beating sun. Sometimes it feels like it too.