From the Field: the Life of One “Aid Worker”
Since arriving in Malawi eight weeks ago, there are two questions I have often been asked. The first: “So you’re not Malawian?” (To which I always answer, “No.”) And the second: “What brought you here to Malawi?”
Now, answering this question is always a little complicated. I’d heard about my organization a year earlier and after talking with the founder, fell in love with the model: peer education for mothers at the community level. Fast forward six months, and I heard about a competitive opening for a one-year placement in Malawi, a country that in all my African travel never made it on my radar. To increase my knowledge on the country, I spent the last several months of my Masters program researching and composing “Child Marriage: a Human Rights and Public Health Analysis,” using Malawi as a case study. By focusing on two phenomena that had startlingly high rates here – child marriage, which almost half of the female population faces, and HIV, infecting at least 11% of the population – I felt perfectly poised to bring new ideas to the organization. And the same week I submitted my thesis, I found out I would be coming to Malawi. Recipe for success, right?
The reality is that I can’t answer that question with a resounding “yes!” just yet. Despite eight years of experience in public health practice and research, I’ve felt underutilized and frustrated at this stage of my stay. I envisioned that I would arrive and they would ask about my background knowledge, about my experiences in HIV response in Kenya, Senegal, Namibia, and the U.S. I thought that they would find my thesis interesting and we would brainstorm how my recommendations fit in to the organizational model. I knew that I’d signed up for a challenge, but I wasn’t prepared for the type of challenges that have confronted me.
The fact is that the life of an “aid worker,” a label I’m still working to understand and accept, isn’t easy. We come from the outside with some degree of cultural context that will never match a native’s and have to learn to navigate relationships to be productive in our commitments towards development. And while our work life may prove challenging, defining a personal life presents more. We often leave our families and friends behind for six months, one year, two years while we fulfill our commitment. We quickly identify the local “expat” community but struggle to find our place within it. We sacrifice luxuries we’d become accustomed to – Tuesday night sushi and fro-yo, daily Law and Order marathons, spending hours on the phone. And we spend some of the most eligible years of our lives country-hopping and living carefree, wondering if we’ll 1) fall in love with a native and never return home, or 2) remain single for the rest of our lives.
Of course this isn’t every aid worker’s story; I’ve met people of all backgrounds and experiences who would agree with some parts and not others (such as several government aid workers who celebrate their benefits while I worry if my monthly stipend will hold me over until the next month). But the shared trait is that whether knowingly or not, we see problems in areas of the world that face some hardship and believe that somehow we can improve it. We have some fascination with traveling to the “unknown” and making an impact, with meeting new people and different cultures. As friend and fellow blogger Jenn and I discussed, perhaps there are some selfish tendencies that drive us into this work: it makes us feel good; it lets us see the world; we feel fulfilled by helping others. These are not popular thoughts – nor are they necessarily negative – but they exist, nonetheless.
After two months here in Malawi, I find that I’m still struggling to find my niche. I’m more aware than ever of my commitment to social justice through health, policy, and culture, and have several ideas on how we can begin to approach these, if someone will listen. I’m simultaneously learning more about patience and politics, recognizing that my African-American female identity (or any identity for that matter) will have an impact no matter where in the world I am and I have to strive toward fully embracing that. I’m also working toward understanding that my definition of “not doing enough” is subjective and self-defeating. Perhaps a slow start is just a higher power’s way of giving me a break before 10 intensive months.
Or perhaps the problem is the way we conceptualize the label of “aid worker.” If we see the title as prescriptive – as indicative of the type of experience we should have – then it becomes a means of measuring our “success,” or lack thereof. It becomes a way of justifying things we do or don’t do, some of which starkly contrast with our lives back in our home areas. But it could be useful such as in identifying a community of others who may face similar challenges in their day-to-day life.
Perhaps one of the biggest lessons is that like other labels, being called an “aid worker” doesn’t define me. As I wrote towards the start of my journey, it’s just “a single story.”