Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Our humanity

Our humanity is tied together, undoubtedly and undisputedly.

Throughout our lives, connectivity either reveals itself, or doesn’t—it’s the observation of nature, and realizing an intricate and beautiful design that threads everything together. It’s finding likeminded individuals who eloquently explore the world in ways we never could; and yet somehow give a voice to our sense of absolute truth. It’s the unexpected way social media, the arts, overlapping philosophies, and religious epiphany create a deeper understanding and context for our experiences. It’s traveling and uncovering a shared humanity with those in the farthest stretches of the planet. Its countless shared tragedies and joys binding us irrevocably, as comrades in arms, in the depth of human experience—recognizing the infinite love and potential that we are capable of cultivating. It’s uncovering the strength of vulnerability in our togetherness and the challenges we face when we stand alone. It’s available, and it’s waiting to reveal itself, as long as we are willing to open our eyes.

I’ve been removed from the States, my home country, for two years now; and so, my lens is admittedly not a current insider’s perspective. But even before this, my disdain for the American mindset, interpretation of the American dream, and view of America as exploitative has made me a Negative Nancy when broaching issues concerning our great USA. Nancy’s negativity is amplified tenfold when we begin treating Human Rights as political issues, losing sight of empathy, compassion, and our shared humanity. When we remove identity and replace it with statistics, monetary value, and ‘us versus them mentality’, or treat some as allies and others as dogs, we are intentionally fooling ourselves to feel better about the harmful choices we’re about to make—and the lives we’re willing to endanger. We are failing to take responsibility for our role on the world stage, and what that’s meant on a global scale. And last but not least, we are making the art of turning our backs to those in need, in some way justifiable. And so, when I’m told that I’m simplifying issues to my understanding of what is moral and what is ethical, I say, “Damn right.” When I’m asked how this is any different or more valuable than those who use religious arguments while debating politics, I say, “Google Humanism, then get back to me.” Or, "Maybe read your book of ethics a bit closer." We are failing our fellow human beings and we are absolutely failing ourselves.

"You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 22:21)

"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it." (Hebrews 13:2)

"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me soething to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in." (Matthew 25:35)

"You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him." (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)

“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God." (Leviticus 19:33-34) 

Need I say more?^

I’ve learned more about what it means to be an American while living in Africa these past two years than my entire life living as an American in the US.  Conversations with Malawians, expats, and other PCVs and living away from home has made me radically redefine this sense of identity. While I’m still no fan, I’ve come to love and respect my country more than I’d ever thought possible through new outlooks and experiences in a developing world—which is saying a lot, seeing as all I’m reading in the news and on social media is racial tensions boiling over, an unjust justice system prevailing, massive gun deaths, exclusion, feeble excuses and justifications for inaction or wrongful choices, and most disturbingly a sense of righteous hatred.

While righteous anger can be an all-consuming slippery slope, it holds value in its ability to educate, to initiate real progress and change while tackling injustice, there is, however no such thing as, 'righteous hatred.' Sorry to break it to you, but hatred and anything born from it is not justice, no matter how justifiable it may seem. It's just bigotry, misunderstanding, ignorance--a refusal to see beyond our anger. Hatred begets further hatred. Fearmongering does the same. Separating 'us' from 'them' only creates isolation, distrust, and a further divide in recognizing the underlying connection and humanity in one another.

Need exists everywhere and all the time. Ignoring or refusal to help in a critical situation, where aid can and should be freely given seems deeply and inherently wrong. That's not to say that we should stop doing the work that countless organizations, and wonderful human beings are doing on our home turf with any of the multitude of issues affecting Americans; but it does beg the question, why does this issue only arise with great passion, focus, and outcry when we are denying help to foreign people or foreign lands? 

To discount one person's tragedy over another's because they belong to us makes no sense. I wish there was always such a strong emphasis on relieving injustices and inequity in our own land, but it's almost as if we keep these players in their state of duress as a barrier of social responsibility. This 'ride or die', 'look after our own mentality' has never done much good for us--in fact, it only prevents good we can do for others. 

Have we forgotten what the word refugee means? Do we have any sense of what a refugee has given up just for the chance to live? I imagine most of us have absolutely no frame of reference for what it means to leave your home, country, language, culture, income, family--to not have a way to feed yourself, manage a menstrual cycle, keep warm, a place to safely lay your head, or having your life depend on fleeing from violence. We suffered from 9/11, Paris suffered just days ago--but Syrian refugees, what have they suffered through, and for how long--just to run to some sense of respite? All of this only to be met with further discrimination, fear, apathy, and indignation.

Where is our empathy and why does our excessive fear trump it at every turn?

I believe strongly that with ability, comes social and moral obligation and responsibility to give back. When we start deciding who is worthy, placing our own value statements, and judgements on who is deserving of salvation, and who isn't, we're playing a seriously dangerous game. There are real lives at stake here.

But, I honestly believe, to my core, that we have a moral and ethical responsibility and imperative to one another. Honestly, what does nationality even have to do with this? This is a question of remembering our humanity and doing what is right.

And so what should I do when these issues weigh heavily on my heart? Do I ignore the hateful or misguided ideas spewed out by friends, family, and acquaintances--and wait for the storm to pass? Do I try on focus on my life here and the present, and let shit work itself out? Do I engage and start what are bound to be frustrating painful dialogues where we all leave bruised and battered? Do I look for others to affirm the hurt building in my heart, and together lament that the world just doesn't get it? Do I listen to friends who tell me to just chill the fuck out? Honestly, I'm asking, cause I don't know.

My only idea is from a friend reaching out to everyone in hopes that they'll call their elected officials and..

"..tell them that not only does refusing refugees on the basis of fear contradict everything America is supposed to be about, but that it also is exactly what Daesh/ISIS wants. Or, if they're not a kneejerk xenophobe or not so cowed by possibility that they ignore reality and humanity, you can write and/or call to thank them."


If you need help, you can find them here: http://goo.gl/tmVABd  

That's all I got.


 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

White Saviors on Social Media

We Peace Corps volunteers have a definite sense of superiority over other non-host country nationals such as: long term expats living in big cities, travelers who're around for a few weeks, other Peace Corps vols who seem to have "an easier service" (the dreaded Posh Corps title,) and especially young, short term volunteers. 

Why sugar coat it?

It's not that we don't understand the drive, respect the efforts, and appreciate the intent; it's that we commit years to living in villages--trying our damnedest to integrate into the lifestyle and community, we develop real relationships with real people hoping to fully see them, we understand failed development efforts and how they haunt the country, and we feel like we have a real stake in the future of Malawi. We take issue with reducing this country to its array of statistical problems, when we ourselves have witnessed the reality of a rural health center, or broken educational system and understand that it's so much more than that. It's more than "rampant AIDs," or "school drop outs," it's individuals we know and love dealing with the reality of their situations. Our experience as volunteers living in the community gives us a sense of holistic understanding and seems to grant us a touch more authenticity to our lives here. So yeah, there's a sense of ego, and I'm not going to say its wholly wrong and unwarranted, but I will say that it's definitely harmful, toxic, and makes us, well, assholes. 27 months isn't exactly anything to scoff at, but it's not like we're dedicating our lives to a sustainable impact and it's not like we will ever fully and truly integrate. In the end we're all transient, we've all got our own agendas, and we're all hoping to do a little good.

However, a struggle exists when trying to validate and affirm each other's experiences especially when we recognize ignorance, inappropriate cultural behavior, intolerance, or the grand offense of channeling the Lorax--giving a voice to, "the voiceless." Speaking for Africa, for Malawi, for your community, for anyone--or misrepresenting your impact, importance, and how grateful your community is for your presence, is undignified and shameful. These people are not voiceless or opinion-less. How dare we? And yet, sometimes I think that's all we do. 

If there's one thing we can agree on from the volumes of recent articles outlining the decline of humanity due to the rise of millennials--it's probably our tendency to seek validation and approval via social media. And we can try and minimize its significance and our relationship with it, but in truth, it has become a very real part of our lives and way we interact with the world. Using social media, (aka sharing our experiences with people back home,) is loosely one of our goals as PCVs and one of the original three Peace Corps goals:


  • To help the people of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained workers

  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served 

  • To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans
That's good ol' fashioned cultural exchange, baby. Hell yes it's important. It humanizes a place and people that some would have otherwise written it off as hopeless. Or maybe it opens a person's eyes to different issues and struggles half a world away. It's educational, it's a reminder to look outside of ourselves, our experiences, and maybe critically think about the world around us.

 As millennials we've mastered the art of making social media appealing for our audiences, and have spent years forming our perfect personas. Something that says, "my life is rad, beautiful, and full." Usually the editing time on our photographs or Facebook posts takes triple the amount of time we spent enjoying the captured moment itself. If we've mastered anything in our 19 months in Malawi, it's how to post the perfect Peace Corps selfie. It goes a little something like this:

PCV, totally rocking the village chic attire, maybe messy, flyaway hair, or a bit of dirt smudged on her forehead, smiling, African baby tied to her back in a chitenje, surrounded by the group of Malawians on which she just imparted some amazing new skills and knowledge--or a group of smiling African children, as the sun is setting on the mountains in the background--the post details how humbled she is by her beautiful life in Malawi.

Golden right? ^ guaranteed likes and comments such as, how she is a hero, an inspiration, how the commenter himself could never do what she's doing, how she is a beautiful person inside and out, how lucky Malawi is to have her...etc.
Sound painfully familiar?

These posts flood my Facebook newsfeed, sometimes they're my posts. PCVs are the masters of the humble brag. "I'm saving the world, and getting work done," he said solemnly, and in flowery language.

 On the flip side, I read too many authoritative posts about Malawians, transport, animals, disease, food, experiences--whatever, which explicitly state an opinion presented as an indisuptable truth about Malawi. Few things in life have ever made me jump into the devil's advocate role faster and with more vigor, even if I agree with the original statement. Because, don't. 

And this is where that sense of superiority gets me. The perspectives of expats living only in cities, or talking to volunteers who will only experience Malawi for a few months is often offensive or anger inducing because there seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding. It seems like the absolute embodiment of white savior complex and all the things we hate about it. And yes, we as PCVs have an experience unique to our program, but often the way we represent Malawi is also one dimensional--and usually self-serving. And while we're great at observing it in others and judging them for it, but what about ourselves?
 
The most humiliating and guilt-ridden aspects of volunteering often aren't those moments where you've made a huge faux pas, been culturally inappropriate, or when you're an absolute spectacle. Instead, for me they consist of two things, realizing your privilege and how you've been using it unintentionally--or 
any interaction with white savior complex.
I'm not feeling like writing a spiel about WSC but feel free to google it, it's a thing and it's a shitty mixture of privilege, ignorance, good intention gone wrong, the goal to feel good about one's self over creating real change, perpetuating the idea that the global north can save the poor undeveloped world, not realizing that the systems of international development and foreign aid are deeply flawed, and poor execution. Few things have made me feel uncomfortable and dirty like kind and loving comments from family and friends who are unintentionally enforcing these ideas, while trying only to send love and support. Comments (like the fake ones I posted above^) unintentionally invalidate my reasons for being here, inflate my level of importance, and more than anything, take the focus from whatever I'm trying to accomplish and place it on me. It heaves grandiose idealism and pure intentions on my shoulders--let me be clear, we all have our own agendas. Of course it's because I'm loved, and people are proud, but after I try to explain, people just laugh it off and tell me that I'm being humble. 

Nah, it's more damaging than that. We all should have a sense of social and moral obligation for one another. With ability should exist an innate responsibility to give back--but we struggle with that idea. Currently evidenced by issues like housing refugees or immigration in general. We shouldn't glorify anyone for acting humanely, and doing something out of simple decency, that should be the norm. Instead, we should identify root causes of issues, systematic oppression, and work together for solutions. Acting as though these issues are too big and insurmountable to ever be reconciled is the problem.

Our presence on social media can also be problematic. Should I be using it regularly? If so, how can I capture and present my life here in an authentic and dignified way? I take pictures with my kids, of sunsets, of the work that I'm doing. I'm constantly humbled by Malawi, constantly learning and falling in love with and breaking up with Malawi and I say these things on social media. Is this okay, or am I the problem? 

Malawi, this experience--it's  everything to me. This is my life, and I want the memories, I want to share my experiences, and I want people to see Malawi like I do, in all its beauty and tragedy. But, I'm certainly not a pro with all of this. It's been a learning experience for me.

Here's an example of using social media poorly and doing a piss poor job of representing myself and Malawi well. Using people, places, things of cultural importance as props.

I will always be embarrassed of this photo and the next photo posted. Why did I do this? There isn't a good explanation. I was going into this little boy's surgery for his cleft lip and someone asked if I wanted a snap. This photo is one of those classic dehumanizing moments where an opportunity for a photo trumped my intent--to be there, be present, and help calm this little bugger before he went into surgery. At the time I didn't think anything of it, other than it would be cute, but looking at it afterward, he and his mother are a backdrop for the cool things I was doing in Peace Corps that I could post to Facebook.

Another poor example is this next photo. I was uncomfortable as the photo was taken, and feel stupid for going along with it at all. We were working in the recovery room at Operation Smile for people who've just come out of surgery. This was simply not appropriate. The photo is literally three white girls pose with the cool things they're doing in Africa, while they're actually doing nothing to help. 


These are my horrifying examples of Peace Corps service gone wrong, my long learning process, and undignified interactions with host country nationals, and such terrible social media use. But that's not to say that I usually do such an embarrassingly bad job of interacting with Malawi--or social media. 

This next post was a beautifully organic moment with my girls after they convinced me to go for a swim with them in the lake. These kids have become a huge part of my life and my service in Karonga--and some of my best friends. This will always be one of my favorite Malawi memories. 

Or a picture of my group, Chigotayo finally completing a training that they've been asking for since I came to country. My comrades in arms, my friends, the people I've been working with ever since I was placed in Karonga--we were proud and happy to have done this together.


Both of these were moments I'm happy to have caught and saved. But it broaches the question, then where's the line? How do we avoid exploiting people and situations when taking photos and recounting stories? How do PCVs share and engage the world with integrity--in a way that doesn't fabricate a beautiful whimsical fairy tale, or brings the attention back to our cool ass lives? How do we continue our goal of accurately and fully representing these experiences without ego and pride?

I guess I don't really know, and as long as I'm not participating in anything that feels wrong, fabricated, or dehumanizing I'm not really worried about it. A friend recently revealed to me that he didn't like that I'd shared so many photos on my Facebook. I respect his opinions very much but it made me really contemplate how much I actually cared about how he felt. The answer is, very little. Whenever I decide to take a photo or share elements of my experience it's not with the intent to impress, I share things that are funny, surprising, things that get me down, or make me feel passionately and deeply. I post pictures of my friends, work, kids, the beach.. You know, it's just an extension of my life. Just a peek. 

 

http://www.psmag.com/business-economics/instagrammingafrica-narcissism-global-voluntourism-83838

http://www.takepart.com/article/2014/07/22/why-wont-white-savior-complex-go-away




Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pleasure Rights

I've been reading a lot about female sexuality lately and have, of course, come across the oldies but goodies: an expectation of purity in turn creating a Madonna whore dichotomy, women's sexuality being defined in contrast to male counterparts, value placed on numbers of partners, bodies, heteronormativity, skin color, or levels of kink, the consequences of porn in shaping healthy sexual encounters, religion, abstinence education, contraception, and of course countless pieces about slut shaming, STIs, abuse, harassment, rape, abortion shamings, and really, any other type of shamings possible--tale as old as time. Within this context, (this context being, ya know, life) women just aren't allowed to be sexual beings. And, if a woman doesn't have any conflicting feelings or guilt about her sexuality, there is always someone available, sprinting to her rescue, preaching the linkage of immorality and sexuality--or helping in some way to create a lower self-worth than previously realized.

What I've found fascinating in my recent readings, is the revolutionary idea that women have a right to pleasure. I realize it's 2015 and this should not be revolutionary--but what struck me is the phrasing. The RIGHT to pleasure. Isn't that delightful and kind of strange? Is pleasure really a right--if so, is it kind of privileged? Are we implying that inherently men have had this right and women don't?

Women having and realizing pleasure as a right is the dream, but it is also, of course, taboo. Not when I say it as a stand alone statement or we rationalize it by saying things like, "Sex should obviously be pleasurable for women as well as men." Or "Come on, we all know women have sex-and they enjoy it. Exhibit A." After which an issue of Cosmo is thrown in your face, this week's headline, something like, "Orgasm Central." 

No, it's taboo when we broach topics of female masturbation, female orgasms, feminist pornography, or young women choosing to have sex, picking contraceptives, or exploring sexuality. It's taboo because we have built-in value statements about what is expected of women versus men. In Malawi, its taken even further. It's taboo to ask if a young girl has a boyfriend because that suggests that she's sleeping with him. It's taboo to say the name of reproductive body parts, they're on the same level as curse words.  It's taboo to talk about sex at all, but especially as a woman. What's funniest to me is that while all these things remain true, people cannot wrap their minds around me, a 27 year old gal (spinster by Malawian standards) without a husband or boyfriend in Malawi, rockin' it solo. Especially if I tell them I have no plans for marriage or children, people just cannot compute, and often end up saying things like, "ah, just have one child." Just one. No biggie.

Recently, in one of my more inappropriate hitches, I was asked how I have sex without any dudes in my Malawi life. (And also I may have lied saying that men couldn't come to my house because Peace Corps said so.) Let's just say, minds were blown when I explained that ladies too, can masturbate. And yeah, more of my sex ed teaching occurs in cars with grown men than I'd like to admit--but as soon as I realize my fellow passengers don't actually know how HIV is spread, or the mechanics of pregnancy--I can't help but explain all of it. ALL of it. No storks included. And while it can be initially uncomfortable to talk about these issues, knowing the culture that I'm operating within, that I'm a white woman and especially when I'm talking  with grown men, it always facilitates incredibly needed and valuable discussion. It kills me when I realize how little is known in Malawi, or how much of the information I come across is actually accurate; it especially kills me to see what is being taught in schools via life skills classes. If it kills me, you may ask--what am I doing about it?

Other than disclosing more about my personal sex life than I'd ever expected to complete strangers--sexual and reproductive health education has become a main focus of my work. Having girls groups, doing the pad project, condom demonstrations, facilitating Camp GLOW (girls leading our world,) working with my youth group--and finding ways to be available for private questions and conversations or adding elements of education to any Peace Corps intervention I have--that's how.

I'm not gonna get into the specifics for fear that the Peace Corps Gods will smite  me, but Camp GLOW got in a bit of hot water for being a little too sexy this year. And by that, I mean that we have a strong focus on things like, sexual and reproductive health, gender based violence, menstruation and pregnancy, safe sexual choices, etc. We create an intentional safe space where the girls can get as much information about any of these topics or get answers to any questions regarding these topics as they may need. 

Imagine for a moment growing up in a culture almost completely devoid of any conversation about sexuality. Where what you're learning in school is abstinence, and what you're learning from your community is either roundabout or close to nonexistent about sex in general. Some girls have initiation ceremonies where they're taught how to have sex in ways that are pleasing to men. Imagine being told that if you, as a woman carry a condom, that means you'll likely be seen as a prostitute. If you insist on condom usage during sex that could mean you don't trust your partner or that you yourself have an STI and are untrustworthy. Imagine being told that if you use birth control you will become barren (in a culture that highly values children) or that if you have an abortion you will get cancer. Imagine not knowing that female masturbation exists let alone knowing that sex can also be pleasurable for women. Imagine not realizing that your period is linked to your ability to become pregnant, or that having sex on your period can still get you pregnant--using a bag isn't the same as using a condom.. Or that anal sex is like... A thing. Imagine living in a culture where your mother, teacher, best friend reinforce all of these culture myths ("a man can tell when you're menstruating by touching your hand!") or shames you for having sexual desires. 

The space and camaraderie created at GLOW is unique to the girls here in Malawi. Maybe it's the only time and place girls get the chance to really dig in deep and ask questions about any of these topics, disclose past or current traumas, talk about fears and anxieties, get factual answers removed from cultural bias, create and operate within a safe space where there is no shaming or judgement--maybe they're lucky and they have other outlets for these needs. Either way, for many girls this opportunity is a beacon of light. This is not at all an attempt to toot my own horn for being involved with the camp, it's an unhappy reality that I try to mitigate in my every day work.

And so, coming back to the idea of pleasure as a right almost seems silly when I think of all of hurdles we're working to overcome simply with sexual education here in Malawi. When really, it should be a revolution.. If a holistic idea of sex wasn't so taboo and words like "vulva," "vagina," and "clitoris" could be said loudly and proudly instead of muttered shyly while  avoiding eye contact with me as I'm teaching a reproductive health session--or if we could, without fear or hesitation teach, about masturbation as an option during a healthy sexual choice session, especially if we're pushing abstinence only; I truly believe we could both begin to empower women dramatically and drastically change the landscape of sexual health and behavior in Malawi. 

But first we'd have to admit that women are sexual, and have the right to pleasure. I know, I know. Too far fetched.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

All you need is love

While I tend to find skits at trainings and orientations worthless and essentially, the worst, our last Peace Corps training forced us to group up and perform strategies for resiliency. Most were pretty spot on with our experiences--but the one I was part of resonated a little deeper with something that we all have struggled with from time to time. It reflected the way we interact with Malawians--approaching situations out of a place of stress, frustration, assumption, and negative experience, rather than with thoughtfulness, intentionality, and loving kindness.

I've realized something recently. My whole service is defined by love, and I've received it in abundance. Sometimes overwhelmingly, in ways that make me feel shame and guilt as if I'm inadequately built for reciprocation. But more that anything, I'm reminded that far too often, I respond in difficult situations with frustration, anger, or impatience. I'm not who or where I want to be in those moments and I think it's because I tend to forget to look at a person in his entirety. Instead, I focus on the situation, make myself a victim, and prepare to fire back in a sassy manner which makes myself feel slightly vindicated, and leaves the other person feeling slightly stupid. (I imagine.) All I'm doing here is perpetuating harm.

Its wrong, it's harmful. It's when we lose sight of each other's humanity that problems arise--it's when I start to think of Malawians as one dimensional, incapable or when Malawians see me as a walking ATM or an object that we all play a role in that harm. Yes, a big part of my role as a Peace Corps volunteer is to be a catalyst for change-to empower people to break down their own barriers to achievement. But one of our other main goals is to create cross cultural understanding, relationships, and spread a bit of that infinite love. 

This is why I don't shy away from those difficult conversations, why I don't hide my taboos, and especially why I don't lie about my marital status, my religious and spiritual beliefs, and why I will talk about the negative and positive aspects of America, and my culture. Yes, it's so much easier to lie here, to cop out, and have tame waters for smooth sailing.. But then, what's the point? If I'm here pretending to be another version of myself I'm living an inauthentic life and I'm giving false ideas to those in my community. Honestly, I feel like that's perpetuating the same amount of harm.

Instead, I am just trying. Trying to respond well and trying to remember that the iwes I'm frustrated with aren't bad--they're craving love and attention. I'm certain many of the kids in my village have never before been hugged or encouraged. These kids have become a huge part of my service and have redefined the way I interact with the world, let alone my community. I'm trying to not feel a flash of anger when yelled at in every trading center and asked for sex, for money, to give literal clothes and possessions from my back, etc. Instead, to remember that what people here know about me and my life is all assumption based on movies and media. And that facilitating the learning process is my responsibility--otherwise I'll be burned by my own anger, while nothing changes. I'm trying to remember the incredible amounts of love and kindness I receive from everyone I encounter. How they've helped me make Malawi my home, welcomed me, fed me, taught me, housed me, befriended me, and tried to understand me. I've never known such a deep, unselfish, kind of love as I've been given in Malawi.

Ultimately, like everything in Malawi, it come down to choice. Choosing how to react and respond, choosing to have a positive attitude, choosing to spread love--even when it's the furthest thing from what I'm experiencing internally. And so, imma keep trying.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Malaria

“No animal on earth has touched so profoundly the lives of so many human beings. She has been a nuisance, pain and angel of death. Mosquitoes have felled great leaders, decimated armies, and decided the fate of nations. All this and she is roughly the size and weight of a grape seed.” --Andrew Spielman, Mosquito

Ahhh, Mosquitos. 

I've never thought much about them in the states--in fact they'd only ever registered as a minor annoyance, forcing me to donate blood and leaving behind itchy reminders of our brief encounters. The bastards. Even coming to Malawi, I knew that their bite could potentially be life threatening but I clung to my mosquito net, bug spray, and prophalyxis feeling safe and invincible. Can't get to me Ms.Mosquito-- I'm playing for keeps. It was even joke among my friends back home who knew how often I tend to get bitten by mosquitos. "There's no way you're coming home without getting malaria!" And I'd agree, laughing.

And so, I went through my first few weeks in homestay unaffected and unphased by p. falciparum until my baby brother was bitten. He developed malaria and became incredibly ill, incredibly fast. I watched this healthy baby go from smiley and playful to a sick wreck in a matter of a day. Luckily, my family was well educated on the symptoms of malaria, what happens when it is left untreated, and had a few kwacha to scrape together. They hired a bike taxi to take him to the health center the next day, he returned with medicine and was just fine.

However, that is not necessarily the norm. Within the span of that week, a little girl two villages over died from a case of untreated malaria. I couldn't help repeating in my mind over and over again.. "What a waste. What a tragedy. How easily that could have been avoided.." In the matter of that one week, malaria left the realm of abstract and morphed into a constant and tangible presence for me and my life in Malawi. Ever since, I've been obsessed with talking to the community about malaria. I want to understand why people don't take it seriously, why some choose to use their nets for other purposes, why some seek out treatment and others don't--and it's all fascinating. It's a mixed bag of cultural practices, needs and survival, myths versus information, and a sense of invincibility. While I have no doubt those two instances led me and my work on a path towards malaria education and prevention techniques in the community, digging further into the minds of my friends and neighbors has ignited the passion to be an activist for bed nets and early treatment. 

Soon after I got to my site in Karonga, I attended a mini-malaria Bootcamp learning more and more about malaria in general and more specifically in Malawi. After that, I was chosen to go to Senegal to work internationally with the Peace Corps Africa community on malaria from a Grassroots level. I was incredibly lucky to pair something I'd become passionate about into my every day work. I've been lucky enough to find people who want to go out into the communities with me--educating  and exciting everyone about malaria prevention and treatment. 

April 25th was World Malaria Day and it was my deepest hope and desire was to bring awareness to my and surrounding communities about malaria. I invited four other volunteers as well as myself to hold an event where we'd spread our knowledge and passion in a variety of ways. Luckily for me, my friend and fellow PCV made a video of it:


And while I'd like to say that my presence here in Karonga has made a huge difference in how people see and treat malaria.. The impact is small, but growing. I still see people using bed nets to fish or ward off goats from their gardens, and I talk to adults and children every week who suspect they have malaria but haven't gone to the health center to be tested. And so, is the reality of grassroots work. Making connections, having conversations, reminding people howimportant  their health is--not only to them, but to their families. It's remembering that I'm working within a framework and culture that is not my own, and that I need to understand the multitude of layers surrounding each circumstance and situation. It's remembering to react with kindness at all times and not act as if I have all the answers.  I'm learning too, every single day, every single interaction. 

But I do know that malaria is both preventable and treatable--a child dying every 60 seconds from malaria, is a completely avoidable tragedy. Even if you're not living in Africa, able to donate to programs, or actively make a change, talking about and learning about malaria and how it still affects so much of the world is valuable to all of us. I'm not going to go on my normal speal telling you all about anopheles mosquitoes, or throwing statistics in your face, that's not why you read this (assuming anyone is reading this.) I just want to remind the world that here in Africa, real people are facing real issues that aren't too big and massive and overwhelming to be fixed. We're working through them, pachoko, pachoko..

I just want to remind you that unity and solidarity across the continents, oceans or any invisible barriers we create for ourselves are worth a damn.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Azungu

I've been putting this post off for what seems like my whole (Peace Corps) life, but I keep coming back to it in hopes to break it down, process it. I know how incredibly sensitive this subject is, and how problematic some of the things that I'm thinking and feeling are. I know that as a white person, tackling racism or anything within that spectrum from the other side seems inherently wrong or unauthentic. Its tricky.

How are my experiences legitimate if I'm making a conscious choice to live this life? I'm not a victim of structural injustice. I'm not living with the burden and history of cultural and racial discrimination heavy on my back. My experiences here are a mixture of severe privilege as well as being singled or exploited because of my skin. So I know this is loaded, its complicated, its almost taboo--but my disclaimer is that I'm trying to be thoughtful about this experience in terms of my own life while understanding that I'm not speaking on behalf of any other person or group of people who experiences any type of discrimination. I'm just trying to feel it out, figure it out.
So, here I am. I'm finally going to bite the bullet and write a little about what its meant for me to be white in Malawi.


Walking around my village, and areas where I live and hearing the word, "azungu" immediately hardens my heart and toughens my hide. Depending on the circumstance, the anger causes my hair to prickle. I have, it seems, developed a literal physical reaction to that term. Azungu.

White person.
Stranger.
Outsider.
One with money.
One who has come to give me things.
One who will take me to America.

Okay, so only the first three are legitimate translations, but the others are held beliefs

I don't always despise this term but there comes times when it breaks you down. It breaks your heart a little that the people who know you deny you a name and an identity.

My skin is my permanent, irreversible stranger status. 

There's the correcting the same iwes over and over, "Don't call me azungu, I have a name, its Amy;" but, when an adult refers to me as azungu, that's when the  boiling-blood-achy-breaky-heart-action kicks in. Lady, I don't know your name but I'm certainly not calling you, "black person."

While I say all this, azungu is not an inherently insulting term. In many contexts, its perfectly fine, even the correct term, and thus not anger inducing. Therefore correcting someone can be an art, and their reactions unexpectedly fall on either side of the spectrum. They either tend to laugh, heartedly, and in my face--or be embarrassed. Referring to me in passing to someone else as an azungu is fine (if I'm out of earshot) but to address me as such is plainly rude. The distinction though flimsy, is tolerable. 

Honestly though, it all seems problematic to me. When you're constantly reduced to your skin, your perceived wealth, and status-- it beats you down. It is to have your identity wiped and instead a superimposed Malawian stereotype of a rich American here to give hand outs and live the bwana lifestyle. 

Being called azungu is the obvious, in your face admission of, "you are different and I'm acknowledging it." Its taken eight months for the term to get under my skin, and while I'm happy that I've been such a cool cucumber up until now-- it's also embarrassing. Man, there's no way I could make it as a black woman in the states, huh? I'd have it much worse, on a consistent basis, with no escape, with no choice in the matter, trapped in a characterization of an identity very visible to all and completely inescapable. This experience, however will fade back into a minor annoyance when I'm back in the states and  part of "the majority"--and eventually in the future might even be something that I'd laugh at myself for, "Wow, how frustrated I used to get. I used to lose my shit over that." 

But hell, I can't deny that I've got an escape route that many people would kill for.

Lets talk about entitlement. You know, that golden reason children and parents resent each other until the offspring reach their years of independence. That rhetoric-ridden battle cry of white male US senators everywhere. Or, more simply put, the American way. If there was one thing I was not expecting when I came to Malawi, one of the least developed countries in Africa, and the world, it was a strong sense of entitlement.

Holy hell, was I wrong.

Malawi has an unreal sense of entitlement. How is this possible, you ask, in a nation of unprivileged people, with no money, with no industry, no big plans of improvement or future momentum? 

Malawi's entitlement comes from yours truly. The USA and other western influence from years and years and years of charity, missions work--no sustainable development--but a metric shit ton of handouts. Malawi is the poster child for, "development done wrong." 

It has created the understanding that white people are rich. Especially Americans, super rich and that outside influences are the only real way to get lotsa money. Outside influences make the decisions, thus taking away the autonomy of Malawians to make critical decisions for their own futures. The complicated histories of colonialism in Africa and especially of the missions work has led to Malawians looking at white people as a business transaction. "This person has money, resources, the citizenship I want, and the leverage I need." Therefore it's not at all surprising that I get asked for things constantly. (And usually within the first few minutes of chatting.) and sometimes it's less sinister and more along the lines of, "I want you or someone like you to come work in my school." Or, "I've always wanted to marry a white person." And the classic, "We know you people have..."

Lately, I've gone through a period where I've felt constantly on guard, hardened, even more distrusting, and just plain exhausted in my interactions with Malawians. You name it, they want it. And for the record, it's honest to goodness out of need, and because of our shared shitty developmental history. So, there is literally no shame, nor is it seen as inappropriate to ask me for anything.. All the things. It's also a cultural practice to share basically everything, almost without question. (And so without shared resources, it looks like PCVs and other expats are hoarding treasure troves from their communities.) Can't even tell you how many iwes I've run into who don't know a lick of English except for what their parents have taught them, "Azungu, give me money." The joke is, that we had a large hand in creating this mess and further exesperate it..

This has resulted in things being stolen from in or around my house multiple times. It's the reason I'm overcharged for everything, and it's why people want to chat with me, be friends with me, or be around me at all. It creates really complicated feelings within me because I understand where it stems from, I get the sense of need and urgency and how my existence looks like a band aid or cure all. I know that I am very well off comparatively and that this is ultimately teaching me generosity, patience, and empathy in ways I'd never anticipated. But I get angry, I feel shitty, I become rude, or short, or aggressive in every day interactions with Malawians. Just because I understand it, doesn't make it tolerable--doesn't make it okay. 

When you lose your tourist status and become an expat doing her damnedest to integrate, you tend to have intensely troubled feelings towards white people who are just passing through. I generally avoid or have to mentally prep when going to places that white people (who arent PCVs or other expats) frequent. The challenges arise when they perpetuate stereotypes of ignorance, wealth, inability to care about language, culture, customs--it's the short shorts, it's the safaris and the tourist mindframe--those willing to pay $20 for a "village walk" or someone who openly and loudly scoffs at the notion of eating village food. Its the use of phrases like, "those indeginious people," it's the unknowingly paying 3x the actual cost thus jacking the price for all other white people, and it's the waving around of expensive purchases and electronics as if trying to flag down a rescue flight. It's being embarrassed, feeling as though these faces are a mirror held up to my own and knowing that a few short years ago this would have been me. It's telling and painful and it makes me wish I could shed my skin and start anew with no stereotype to fight and or live up to.

I'm not saying that anyone should move to a new country and give up their sense of identity or culture to integrate; instead, I am saying that cultural exchange can be done well, respectfully and in ways that will be better received.

 Being white, especially here, means a lot of things. One of the most undeniable is privilege. Privilege for days. Seriously, anyone who doesn't understand or believe in white privilege should come and live in Malawi for 2 months. Afterward, even the most conservative disbeliever would become a well-versed expert. 

It's just one of those disgusting concepts that rears it's head as an imbalance of power, whether realized or not. It's a hard truth to admit to yourself, especially when you realize that you've just participated in an act that was privileged. But it's a part of life here and something very few, if any people push back against. It's the reason people will give me their best product and maprizeys when selling me something, I get the best seat in the minibus, people will pick me up when I'm hitching but leave Malawians along the side of the road, I get the best portion or piece of food when eating with Malawian families, or people want to hear me speak at events, be their friend, give me gifts...etc. Sometimes, when it's someone you're friends with, you can confuse privilege with appreciation and it become dangerous ground. In admist all the shit we go through regularly, it's can be hella hard to push back against things that are nice and feel like little luxuries. But god, having that discussion with Malawians? Its so necessary.

My life as a PCV in Malawi is a weird combination of being privileged and taken advantage of. The goal is the grey area.. The land of integration where your neighbors and friends understand you. Who you are, why you're here, what you're doing--and real relationships develop without a sense of wanting a thing from each other other than honest to goodness human connection. 

If this doesn't happen, you're destined to live in a world of extremes. Here are some of mine that I've encountered a time or two (times a thousand) more than I'd like to admit:

-Men admitting to wanting to have sex with a white girl "just once" 

-Marriage proposals and admissions of love constantly

-Everything is exorbitantly priced. "Azungu Mtengo"

-"Madam, what the difference is between me and you?"

-"I will come over tomorrow and you will teach me English"

-Malawian friends wanting to leave their wives for me

-"You will marry me then carry me to America."

-Countless blanket statements about the whites, Americans, and Malawians--and those ever confusing, elusive, sometimes fake "Black Americans"

-"I want you to be my friend."

-"Give me: money, books, pens, toys, candy, clothes, peanut butter.. (You name it...)

And many, many more experiences.

It's hard because good, solid, real relationships are what make me whole. They're everything to me. Sometimes its really challenging feeling like I can't make authentic relationships with Malawians  because I'm being sought out for mobility  or utility and not as one human being to another. More than anything in my life here, this is my struggle.. But

All of this comes down to one thing,

Choice.

I have a choice, to be here, to spend my time and live my life as I will. I have a choice in my future, who to marry, when to marry, to have children or not, to pursue further education or not. I choose how to live, where to live, how to spend my money. 

I get choose my future because I have the resources and opportunity to do so. All I see looking around Malawi is the inability to choose. Circumstance, poverty, and hardship are kings here. And so people are resigned to their fates. 

All of this is undeniably linked with privilege.. But I can't help but be thankful for being able to be here. To better see inequity and better understand the roots of poverty and really see and understand what privilege means. I've always been sort of lucky, and now I understand what that means on a global scale. I'd like to spend my life working in a way that lessens that injustice, if only a little.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Baltimore

Tonight, I'm half a world away from home, sitting by myself in the dark, trying to untangle the jumble of emotions in my gut, feelings of sadness, hot tears of anger, and mostly an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. I'm mourning the deep wounds of one of the great loves of my life. My city, Baltimore. 

For years Bmore has been keeping it together but hanging by threads in the face of tense race relations, poverty, police brutality, lack of jobs, drug issues, and general lack of equity. So many fates exist within Baltimore, so many lives and roles to be played out--two streets away from the some of the wealthiest residents are condemned lots, boarded up row homes as far as the eye can see. Living in Baltimore, along with being the best year of my life, opened my eyes to the world, to unjust police surveillance, cavalier attitudes about homelessness and harassment, violence, so many unnecessary deaths, and literal lines drawn in the street separating black from white, poor from the rich, those with a future and those who would die years before their time.

It's no surprise to me that in a time where people are finally fighting back, those who have been oppressed their entire lives are coming together, finding their voices, and fighting structural injustice that Baltimore has found it's place in this war. Yes, it's violent. It's scary, and it's a consuming type of wildfire--the kind that spreads and hopefully creates revolution. The kind that works to change this heinous bullshit we call justice at it's very core. But god, what I can't understand is how we're surprised that this is happening again. Have we forgotten Trevyon so soon? What about Ferguson? How about the thousands of other black bodies broken and battered by our justice system? Did we truly not anticipate this outcry after the police broke the spine of a young black man who only ostensibly committed the crime of being a young black man? 

I can't believe I'm not there. I can't believe I'm not closer. I can't believe that all I can do is read about it on the news and post articles on Facebook. I can't believe I can't be there for my city, my people, protesting in solidarity. I can't pretend that I didn't spend a better part of the afternoon looking up plane tickets and riding a rollercoaster of emotion. 

I believe in a need for protest, I believe in change. I don't support or endorse violence, but I understand why it's happening. What I can't stomach is all the racist things I'm seeing on social media in response to these events. How do we not recognize that we're perpetuating all of the things that this protest is fighting against? How do we not care? 

When did our disgust for property damage override our disgust for massive injustice. Why aren't we all standing together right now?

http://m.dailykos.com/story/2015/04/28/1380944/-The-Dominant-White-Response-to-Baltimore-Shows-Why-Black-Residents-are-Justified-in-their-Anger?detail=facebook_sf

http://www.forbes.com/sites/dandiamond/2015/04/28/why-baltimore-burned/

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/04/nonviolence-as-compliance/391640/

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/04/the-paradox-at-the-heart-of-police-brutality-protests/391637/?utm_source=SFTwitter

http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/video/2015/apr/28/baltimore-riots-police-justice-video

http://www.buzzfeed.com/adamserwer/black-leadership-in-baltimore

http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-32497921

http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/04/29/why-is-america-celebrating-the-beating-of-a-black-child/?tid=sm_fb

http://www.buzzfeed.com/ryanhatesthis/another-side-of-the-baltimore-riots?bffb&utm_term=4ldqpho#4ldqpho

http://www.colorlines.com/articles/thugs-students-rioters-fans-medias-subtle-racism-unrest-coverage

http://www.npr.org/2015/04/28/402761088/-aint-no-way-you-can-sit-here-and-be-silent?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20150428

http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/04/what-white-folks-need-to-know-about-baltimoreuprising/

 http://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/04/orioles-john-angelos-baltimore-protests-mlb?utm_content=buffer01307&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/04/baltimore-freddie-gray-unrest-protests/

http://socialistworker.org/2015/04/27/in-the-streets-for-freddie

 https://radfag.wordpress.com/2015/04/26/in-support-of-baltimore-or-smashing-police-cars-is-logical-political-strategy/

http://www.salon.com/2015/04/28/baltimores_violent_protesters_are_right_smashing_police_cars_is_a_legitimate_political_strategy/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=socialflow 


http://www.alternet.org/economy/ten-shocking-facts-about-baltimore#.VUEQe6gPjuE.facebook