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Saturday, March 1, 2014

Obstacle or Opportunity: the case of the online writings of missionaries and aid workers in Lilongwe

The Back Story

There is a "why AID/charity?" question that is attached more frequently than ever to aid and charity directed at Africa and Africans nowadays.  1 Trillion US Dollars have been spent in direct, bilateral and multilateral aid (grants, donations, soft loans etc.) over the years and more is in the works (see link under the second bullet point in the section below).  Yet poverty and life-threatening challenges persist.  Writers like Easterly critique the prevalent aid models in use today...and so do others including Zambian-born Havard graduate Dambisa Moyo in her book Dead Aid.

The "why AID/charity?" question resonates with me and has done so since I went to a College in Lilongwe that promoted charity-based approaches to anything from tuition fee support, college trips, village interventions etc. Perhaps I am among the priviledged in Malawi because it was the first time for me to see a structure so comprehensively interwoven with donations.  I was often reminded to thank the donors without whom, I was told, the opportunity to study would not be possible. Photos were taken of classmates, myself, whomever...and stories were written. Sometimes very tall stories, anything to keep the aid we received high.  I saw there were genuine needs but was kept from the slippery slope of accepting the situation without question one day when one of the directors offered me a torn-up children's fairy tale book unwanted by the college's primary school - she said perhaps my younger brother would want it.  She had never met him, knew nothing of him - including the fact that he was 11 and had long read The Hobbit and was now taking delight in discussing botulinum toxin (not that he needed any!).  I said "no" to the book but have thought since "why" despite limitless amounts of money and gifts given to the poor (depending on your description of poverty and the variables you employ), why there is an unstated implication that AID, particularly, open-ended and infinite aid giving models of charity are inherently good, a moral "right way" in and of itself.

Without re-hashing what so many others have written in answer to this question, I intend to, in this short-ish post to reflect on some of the ideas, attitudes and worldviews that perpetuate the idea that AID and charity is good, based on my own discoveries as a Malawian woman who has pored over online writings of missionaries and AID workers working in our capital city of Lilongwe. Most of the writings have been sure to sustain the image of the ordinary "African" as hapless, agency-less, hopeless and gripped in the throes of death with the only solution being more help, more money, more gifts so they can get the opportunities of health care, education and faith (or whatever type of social consciousness) they need.  Not much different from what David Livingstone recommended in the nineteenth century for our people. Either we, as Malawians are an impossible people to improve or there is something very wrong as scholars continue to claim.  Indeed, comparatively, reading Malawian writings online (or for those with no access to the internet...what they are quoted to have said) I see diverse opinions on their view of AID/charity.  You could look that up on anything from google scholar to Malawian online news media to facebook pages accessible on your mobile almost anywhere in Malawi such as My Malawi My Views (aka MMMV).

The Case Study

I chose to look at why AID and charity  following a suggestion given to me by a missionary that my angst at the writings of missionaries is misplaced and misdirected and that I should write about it as a form of therapy. So here I go, not for the sake of a personal therapeutic fix but that hopefully, some of the missionaries will read and do their own research into why they are in Malawi and why they choose to do what they do in the ways they do. And what they envision for the immediate and distant future of the wider society/s in and around Malawi.

I have to say, reading through dozens of online writings by was good material for reflection during my studies in  Theology & Development and African Studies, respectively.  The reflection took me from encountering regurgitations of Joseph Conrad's infamous Heart of Darkness (see here or here for a non-missionary's aid worker's take) with a dose of Poisonwood Bible-esque pursuit of comforts (see here with this group heading to Kenya from Malawi) and even some narcissism (here). Portrayals of the poor as agency-less, hapless and invariably Black (read into that as you will) were abundant (read this whole blog for instance) as were the Madonna-esque paternalistic ones.   There was also the graphic exploitation (and exoticising) of poverty to make a point about the validity's of one's mission work such as in the following facebook post:

I’ve never visited Kabira, one of the largest slums in the world. I’ve never stood on the edge of one of those vast wastelands of dump in Bangladesh, and fought the nausea from the stench of rotting food. I’ve never experienced the trauma of war, nor can recall the smell of streets lined with corpses.
But I can recall the smells of rotting beer, meat and waste that line the banks of the Shire river. I have watched as kids dug deep into the mounds of trash that overflowed the dumpsters that hugged Kampala’s roads. I remember smells of the flesh that rotted off un-bathed, diseased bodies within the suffocating quarters of Msiliza’s township. And I’ve seen death [...] “God takes the ones who feel like they have so little to give, but who give thanks, and God makes this enough. God makes them enough.” It hit me that the ones who give thanks are the ones who get to give, and find out there is always more than enough to give. If we can find things to thank God for in undesirable circumstances, we will feel the reward of His love. If all that Bangladeshi had to do was walk by a sign, and look up…imagine the impact we could have as walking billboards for Christ. I strongly believe ABC does this with its students and graduates. As missionaries, we’re just lucky to be a part of the impact so many graduates have had for Christ’s cause. I

Balanced and informative ones were sprinkled in of course (see examples) although I might venture to say that such ones were written by those who either have long-term plans in Lilongwe or those who probably don't have to write for an audience that pays them for their trouble and sacrifice. These writings give a glimpse of how some of the missionaries and aid workers championing development activities in our capital city see themselves, see their audience (usually readers in their home countries) and see us (othering).

Grasping at the "Why"

Why do they give? Why must we receive? ...and indeed, why should we accept that nothing should change? We live in a world where ideas of property, health, backwardness (or, as some put it, heathenism) and knowledge production (e.g. what may be considered "true" education) are held in the hands of the powerful. That is so globally, that is so locally. The giving in most aid interventions and missions donations works from a context in which those purported to have the right amount of property, health, progress and knowledge give to those without and very rarely do the twain meet in terms of dialogue beyond the surface.  Let us attempt to grasp some of the underlying issues with such a framework by focussin on : knowledge creation, class, race and self-image.

  • Knowledge generation: my experience of Western education (for the purposes of this entry, "West" should be read as North America and Western Europe- I have undergone and experienced the following so far: Cambridge syllabus (Primary and Secondary School levels); US, South African and Dutch) - is that it separates the "how" and the "why".  For instance, one can be taught, to remarkable levels, how to philosophise but the question of why one method of philosophy (e.g. Greek) is superior to another (e.g. !Khoisan). One spends a life-time within her/his normative scholarly tradition and misses out on the opportunity of dialoguing her/his knowledge base with that of others, and does not even know why they don't.  This often leads to stereotypical views of anything "other" and a fear of, or outright rejection of the "new" or unknown. This goes for the big areas of one's knowledge base such as ideology (e.g. Capitalism vs. Socialism etc) as it does for the relatively small ones such as geography....we can ask, how many of the online writers we are looking at in this article knew of Malawi before ever going there? (for this geography problem in general see here).  And what about history, how many of the online writers can name and give context to the political parties that are gearing up for this year's May elections in Malawi and why they were formed...and by whom?  Also, in terms of knowledge, what skills set do they possess for a Lilongwe environment.  How knowledge is generated influences how charity and aid is thought of. In the links above, we get descriptions of the lack, the problems and how to solve them but why the problems are there (and persist) is reasoned out using the background of a normative education system that is more often than not, Western ( I do consent that I often work from this normative too because the bulk of my studies - save for a few years- was either modelled on or originated from the West but bear with me, I'm trying to have a dialogue going in my brain through research...).  The point is, more often than not, the sample of writers above (with sum luck you can find more) reveal what they "know" and what they don't know is hardly mentioned. Now imagine yourself in a room with someone coming to you with only what they know to help you...hopefully you get the point here. 

The images below give an example of a contrast in what, in my experience, many missionaries and aid workers know of Africa as opposed to what they don't before, during or after they leave:

  • On the issue of class, I've come to think that this is simple. There is a background narrative in many parts of the globe (not just the West) that people are rich because they are smarter, blessed, hard-working and whatever else you can add to the list. Conversely, the poor are poor because they possess none of these traits or if they are lucky, they possess the traits in an undeveloped stage.  Thus, as some of the writers I've quoted reveal, those with the means to give must do so dutifully and faithfully because that is how it should be.  The very real problems that are corruption, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, malaria, orphanhood, starvation and poverty are mentioned regularly - we are not told whether these exist in their home country to any degree but so far, more than $1 trillion in development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa (see quote source) there is clearly the richer and the poorer.  ...but questions remain as to why $1 trillion later, the online writers believe in the infinite need of doing what they do.

  • Race is complicated but in the context of this blog, I'll just give you exhibit A (start at six sentences from the bottom) and B and let you ponder that through with all of the above in mind.

  • Finally, the issue of self-image. From my reading of the writings, the idea of "self-sacrifice" is pre-eminent and so is that of "calling".  To my eyes, this is all confusing because whether a missionary or aid worker goes to live in the city or the rural areas, there are people living there too and more often than not, their communities have existed for more than fifty years (since the year of independence) and we hope they will continue to do so years from now.  This implies that despite facing difficult circumstances, there are sustaining forces in each community. People wake up, people farm, people marry, people eat something and do it all over again the next day. Some have more, some have less. Some die before their time and some work at stopping that from happening and some of these people doing this work are from those same communities. Some have businesses, some have nothing, some are managers, some are blue collar workers.  I would imagine, therefore, that a missionary's or aid worker's interest would be to nurture the sustaining forces by bringing in input from her/his knowledge base to help/accompany the community in making the sustaining forces survive. Or, at the very least, I would imagine they would support the nurturing of empathy and solidarity where there is none between the local haves and have-nots.  What I see rather is a negation of local capacities when only one narrative is proclaimed. Is this even Christian? If so, I need an education on that.  In passing, it should be said that there are some of those who see themselves as sacrificing but live like this and better with a nanny, house help, gardner and house guard to boot!

Are there Opportunities? 

I find that opportunities lie in analysing the motives that for all of us are influenced by our knowledge base, our class, our race and our self-image. Me writing this blog and the "other" writing their own blogs/articles for the audience at home must be measured and weighed carefully so that we realise that people are people all over this globe we call home. To date, we are yet to see open-ended charity and aid interventions solving once and for all an entire nation's problems and lifting them out of poverty.  I've seen some individual lives transform , thanks to donations, aid and help but not entire cities and countries. The desire to help must be tempered with the realisation that this should be an exchage in terms of dialogue that is genuine and knowledge that each community has assets that can not be rubbed over if lasting and positive change for the better can be achieved.  On the other hand, we are yet to see an entire nation left unscathed by the trappings of wealth (see here).

Empathy and accompaniment, perhaps, should be tempered with sober, life-affirming yet dignity-filled approaches.  A fluid regard rather than a dualistic one, perhaps of race (and gender), knowledge base, class and self-image. We all fail, but we all contribute somehow to those around us.  Some pointers I've been given that point in such directions are study (yes, we must study from various angles) and we must be open to receive ourselves.  I have received a lot for my study opportunities, conditionally of course but even without conditions, perhaps it's in standing in both shoes of the giver and the receiver every once in a while that creates opportunities for something greater? Solidarity, liberation (there is a Theology too called Liberation Theology), self-reflection (not narcissism), self-critique and raport may just create opportunities that last in a positive way.  Let hope floatamong us everyone.

photos:,; Black History and Africa Education (facebook)


Unknown said...

Dear thandie! Please please email me kathleen dot bomani at gmail dot com. Cant find your email online, need to talk to you about your writing. ASAP
Also, awesome post


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