June 20, 2006: Newsletter
Note: This entry is taken from an article I wrote for Power Steering, the monthly newsletter of Greenlights for NonProfit Success
Earth, Tempo, Foreign-ness, Familiarity: Four Thoughts on My Work in Africa
Janie Hayes, Communications Director
Story Workshop Educational Trust; Blantyre, Malawi
I am submitting this article just before the deadline because I sat for three days staring at a blank screen, trying to decide what to write. A few weeks ago, Andy Buck emailed to ask me to write a piece on my impressions of the differences between Malawian Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and American nonprofits. As a former Greenlights staffer who has been living and working in the small central African country of Malawi for nearly three months, I agreed. It sounded fun—almost easy.
The NGO that I work for is a Malawian organization called the Story Workshop (www.storyworkshop.org). Our mandate is to use mass media creatively in order to share development messages for positive social change on the issues of food security, the environment, health, HIV/AIDS, gender, human rights, and democracy. Our campaigns reach millions of people around the country through radio, comic books, village theater productions, and music.
In other words, there’s plenty to talk about. But when I sat down to write, I was at a standstill on how to delineate similarities and differences of my American and Malawian workplaces. After days of a blank screen, I realized this: Things are not either different or similar. They are both at the same time – different, and also very much the same.
Look around my office here, for instance, and you’ll recognize the landscape: There are project reports piled up on filing cabinets, an outdated spreadsheet on the wall that shows a project work plan, several calendars with various dates circled, a poster for an advocacy campaign on the cabinet wall. A strategic plan sits on my desk next to my computer, which is next to a disorganized pile of business cards. A memo from the ED on “cost-cutting measures” lies there next to empty coffee cups.
But turn to page 20 of my employee handbook and you’ll read about the “coffin allowance” of my death benefits plan. This is pertinent; at least four Story Workshop staff members or actors have died in the last five years. Another staff member’s wife passed away and another employee lost a child. The average life expectancy of a Malawian is mid-30s, and every few days a staff member is attending a funeral. Death is a persistent fact of life here.
Next to the sink in the bathroom sits a box of condoms. A sign on the wall urges Story Workshop staff members and visitors to use these free condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS. This is not simply a simple gesture, but germane, as more than 10% of Malawians are HIV-positive. AIDS is destroying the Malawian workforce.
Many of the things I see on a day-to-day basis are sobering. But like anywhere, levity can be found in the most unusual places. Across from the condoms, a sign above the toilet reads, “If you sprinkle when you tinkle, please be neat and wipe the seat.”
Now that is a sentiment that resonates.
The Malawian government lists several hundred organizations as registered NGOs. Thousands more community-based organizations—associated with various clubs, churches, and village groups—work daily to address needs in the country’s urban and rural areas.
Malawi needs all of them … and more.
To say that Malawi is a struggling country would be an understatement. As one of the ten poorest countries in the world today, it suffers from poverty, overcrowding, lack of infrastructure, corruption, decimation of the population from preventable diseases like AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. Not to mention all of the problems that accompany a country struggling for survival: gender violence, child labor, lack of education, environmental destruction, etc.
Unlike in Austin, in Malawi you can’t escape the relationship between people and the earth. At Greenlights, my work was largely cerebral, focused on planning, capacity building, and training. But in a land facing poverty, everything else tends to take a back seat. Irrigation techniques, forestry tie boxes, crop diversification, and boreholes are concepts that are weaseling their way into my lexicon.
Through my work here, I have seen things for the first time: families without enough food to feed their families, hungry 8 year-olds carrying their sick brothers or sisters on their backs, stunted and naked children on the side of the road, emaciated people in hospital beds.
And so I am beginning to truly understand what poverty can do to people and how the impoverished face myriad dilemmas whether their emergency rations come from a World Food Program food pallet or the hot-dog warmer in the back of a Mobile Loaves and Fishes truck.
Outside the Story Workshop offices is a small gravel parking lot. Of a staff of about 25 people, only three have cars. Staff members receive a transportation allowance to ride crowded (and often maniacal) minibuses to work. Because of the expense of transportation, simply moving around the city can become a nightmare. For traveling around the country, Story Workshop employs several drivers. While it sounds like a luxury, it’s actually a requirement for getting our work done.
I ride my bike to work from my house in the morning and usually I walk to lunch – 15 minutes across the river and up the hill into the city. Other days I chip in for an all-staff lunch of chicken and nsima (the Malawian maize staple that is eaten by hand). There is no conference room, so we stand around a table outside, and when we’re done, we wash our hands at a water tap.
Our technology, like ourselves, is more pedestrian here. At top speed my connection runs at 50kbps, and the most well meaning attachment can shut down our fax line for the morning. I no longer average 60 emails a day, and most of my communication is the spoken word – whether on the phone, if the lines are working, or more often face-to-face. Since I’ve come to Africa, I don’t need a day-planner; I have so few meetings that I can keep them straight in my head. Gone are the days of rushing around frantically, jumping in and out of my car, and dashing into a coffee shop for a mid-day pick-me-up.
Which all means I have more time to just think. In some ways, certain things are more straightforward here. I find people in general to be warm, welcoming, less harried, and more accessible. There is less skepticism and defensiveness, it seems, and if the phone lines are working, you usually get a real person on the phone, not a voice mail.
When I call to request a meeting with someone, the usual reaction is, “Sure. Come on over” – not “Let me see if I can schedule you in next week.”
In Malawi, I constantly feel the sensation of being a foreigner. This might seem like stating the obvious, but it has ramifications for my everyday life. In Chichewa, the first language of most Malawians, I am a “muzungu” (a white person). While the term is not derogatory, it is an unmistakable marker of difference. Joyce, Faith, and Smith—my officemates, an eclectic mix of professionals with art, education, and science backgrounds—speak a language to each other that I do not understand, which leaves me clueless for much of the day (quite a shock for someone who considers talking a principal talent).
I’m different in other ways too. My skin is white, so I always stand out, and I can’t deny that my sensibilities can be quite American.
It’s hard to know whether to be disturbed or bemused about those personality quirks that make me stand out here, things like my irritation with what I take to be unnecessary delays, my inclination to Google anything I don’t understand, my ingrained belief that the easiest way to get from point A to point B is a straight line, and my failure to ask beforehand whether it is okay to wear trousers in a small village. (It’s not.)
The Story Workshop’s work—like that of Greenlights—is essential to improving the lives of so many people. The employees who show up everyday are committed to helping influence positive change in peoples’ lives. I feel this here as I felt it in Austin, and it is a comforting thread that runs through the ongoing fabric of my work.
As an organization, Story Workshop also struggles with many challenges that feel familiar: how to raise enough money to pay for our work, how to implement action around our strategic plan, how to make a real impact and then how to measure it, how best to work with each other and the community around us, etc.
The problems surrounding us here – as in the U.S. – often seem insurmountable. But my colleagues here, like in Austin, choose hope, hard work, and new ideas and over disillusionment and cynicism. And because they do it, I will choose to ride on their coat-tails, to learn from them, and to take everything I can from this wild ride that is both radically different from anything I have ever seen and also strangely similar to Greenlights and the Austin nonprofits from whom I learned so much.