Day 5 ~ What I Left in Malawi

Part 5 of my 5-part note on “Living Below the Line


I never intended to dig into “how I’m feeling” this week; I don’t think 5 days on a starch-centric diet gives me much insight into what poverty is like. I will say this though: if the slowly creeping lethargy and moodiness I have felt since Monday can be traced to lack of nutrients, it’s a sharp reminder of what I’ll call the “Privilege Epiphany”: the embarrassing, visceral realization of how pampered my lifestyle is, how dependent I am on the luxuries I often take for granted.

When I was 19 I lived in Malawi for 3 months, where the average annual income is about $750/year. That’s not where I had my first Privilege Epiphany, but it was the locus of the most significant, the most constant realizing. The 30 parentless kids who lived at AMAO — the orphanage down the road, where I spent a lot of my time — were not starving, but they subsisted for the most part on 1 or 2 meals a day that consisted mainly of nsima (a maize porridge), with a bit of boiled greens and maybe some egg. Probably the most important thing I did there was contribute some of the money I’d raised to ensure they were at least getting some meat and milk every day. I knew that eventually that money would run out, and they would go back to just nsima. I promised myself I would keep that from happening.

When I got back to Canada, I immediately raised $8,000 through a benefit concert and a cocktail reception hosted by the singular Judy Dempsey at the Hungry Planet, at which we auctioned off Malawian carvings I’d brought home with me. But the weight of the situation was already overloading my 19-year-old brain — bank accounts to be set up, plans to be made, criteria to be set, strategy to be developed, progress to be monitored, people to be chosen and entrusted. I couldn’t handle the responsibility I’d given myself. I handed the money over to my church — already a benefactor of the community I’d lived in — and went off to university, trying to forget my guilt.

Two agonizing questions of economic justice:

1. When you don’t have the resources to help everyone, who do you choose to help?
2. Who do you trust to administer those resources?

I don’t know how to answer the first question, but thankfully the second one is easier. Established international development organizations, with long-term sustainable development plans and transparent financials can do what I was completely ill-equipped to do. Moreover, the good ones are committed to building local capacity — they provide expertise but recognize that the people from the communities they are serving know best what is needed, and are best positioned to lead the process. Now that I work in this sector, I have even more of an appreciation for how complex development is, and what a life-changing impact it can have when done well.

I promised myself I would never forget what I’d learned in Malawi. But I did. I still do. All the time. I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in Live Below the Line, because I’m starting to think our guts are better teachers than our minds, even if they are not necessarily more trustworthy.

The AMAO kids and I used to sing songs together. Their favourite was “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” I can’t decide if it’s funny or ridiculous or poignant — a Canadian kid teaching Malawian kids a South African song that was originally composed in Zulu and that he learned from his mom’s a capella quartet…in any case, when danced and sung by the AMAO kids, it was glorious.

That was 8 years ago. I wonder how they’re doing now.

Day 5

Lunch

Leftover stirfry = $0.34

Dinner

Lentils (carrot, onion, S&P, chili flakes, garlic) + tbsp mayo = $0.55

Dessert

1/4 cantaloupe = $0.64

banana + tbsp peanut butter = $0.24

Total = $1.77 (I miscalculated initially. Oh well. A little reminder that perfection is unattainable.)

If you stuck with me this far, I am stunned and grateful.

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