The Displaced Nation

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Tag Archives: Malawi

RANDOM NOMAD: Jennifer Lentfer, International Aid Consultant, Writer & Blogger

Born in: Bruning, Nebraska USA
Passports: USA
Countries, states, cities lived in: Zimbabwe (Mutare & Harare): 1999 & 2002-04; Michigan (Detroit): 1999-2000; Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh): 2000-2002; Namibia (Windhoek): a few months in 2001; Malawi (Lilongwe): 2004-05; California (Santa Cruz): 2005-10; Washington, DC: two weeks ago-present.
Cyberspace coordinates: How Matters | Aid effectiveness is not what we do, but HOW we do it (blog); @intldogooder (Twitter handle)

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
I grew up on a pig farm in Bruning, Nebraska, population 248. The graduating class of my secondary school had 16 people. Every time the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is uttered, I think “If only they really knew…” Thinking back, there were two very important teachers, one in high school, and another at university, who were extremely influential in shaping and expanding my world view. And my parents certainly raised me to cultivate a curiosity about life. This, along with my insatiable, youthful desire to get as far away from Nebraska as possible, was a combustible mix that shaped my career and life path.

Is anyone else in your family a “displaced” person?
I was the first person in my family to go or live abroad. I don’t think I even knew anyone who had been to Africa before my first trip abroad, at age 19.

Describe the moment when you felt most displaced.
On the bustling Nelson Mandela Avenue in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2003. I always hated driving to city centre, but a colleague and I had to go to the immigration office to update our work permits. When we came out of the office, our car was blocked by another on the street. So we just got into the car and waited.

Eventually a man came up my driver’s side window and tapped on the glass. Not knowing him, I rolled the window down a couple of inches. This seemed to anger him and he walked away to talk to another man, a companion of his, who started yelling out to walkers-by that this white woman [me] would not roll down my window — I must think Africans are “stinky,” on and on… Luckily people didn’t engage him. There was a dynamic going on that I didn’t understand — apparently, I had parked in the man’s space, and he felt justified in scolding and harassing me for that.

After a few more minutes, the original man came back to my window, pulled out his wallet and his War Veterans identification card, placed it up against the glass and menacingly dragged it across. And then it made sense. The card, along with the man’s demeanor, indicated that he was probably one of the veterans of Zimbabwe’s war for independence, who’d been recruited by the Mugabe government for help in brutally suppressing opposition demonstrations, in murdering and torturing opposition leaders, and in seizing land on behalf of the government elite.

Eventually, the man had had enough with me. He motioned for the car behind me to move, and I backed out and drove away very quickly.

Obviously, my experience that day was nothing compared to the very real and severe political violence and torture experienced then and now by Zimbabwe’s opposition supporters. If I felt displaced, imagine how black and white Zimbabweans felt who were violently displaced from their lands on behalf of so-called fast-track land resettlement. And on another level, my experience was nothing compared to the everyday torments of living in a country where in a sense everyone (war veterans included) has been displaced from a state of personal dignity and safety, through subtle yet deliberate expressions of power.

Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
Also in Zimbabwe — when talking with a group of local leaders in 2008. We were sharing stories about the issues women face in their struggles to raise families and improve their communities. One woman shared a brilliant story of triumph from being a physically and emotionally abused wife to now owning her own hairdressing business. She cried as she bravely told us about her life, and many others shared her tears.

Because I was there as a visitor, I was expected to respond (through a translator), and I took a chance in trying to break the tension and make the moment a bit lighter. I told her that I could tell she was a hairdresser because her plaits [braids] looked so perfect.

After the pause in which the translator shared what I had said, the room erupted in laughter. We were all reminded, no matter where we were from, of the sweetness of laughter through tears.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of your adopted countries into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
I had quite the African basket collection going for a while until they were stolen from my storage unit in Santa Cruz. That’s all the thieves got since I was in the process of moving at the time. Their house probably looks really cool now.

You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
Peanut butter vegetable stew is what I crave — from Zimbabwe. Let me know which of these recipes you fancy:

You may add one word or expression from the countries you’ve lived in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
Zvakaoma. This is a phrase in Shona that means, “it’s tough” or “it’s difficult.” It also roughly translates to “shucks” in English or “c’est la vie” in French. It was a phrase I heard often in Zimbabwe because of the severe economic downturn and the unavailability of basic commodities and cash during my time there. To my ears, it was a very compassionate phrase. Zvakaoma — I lament with you; I feel your frustration and pain. Sometimes a well-timed zvakaoma can get you through your day.

This month we are looking into “philanthropic displacement” — when people travel or become expats on behalf of helping others less fortunate than themselves. Do you have a role model you look up to when engaged in this kind of travel — whose words of advice you remember when you find yourself in a difficult situation?
Great question — one that we aid workers should always be asking themselves as well, because how we go about developing our role or calling can have an impact on our effectiveness as helpers. Helping is hard. Unfortunately, there aren’t any simple solutions to aiding the poor.

Having worked in international aid and philanthropy for over a decade, I’ve come to admire the people who have managed not to totally lose their idealism and commitment to the work. So many aid workers become jaded and cynical — I can’t help but wonder if this hinders their effectiveness in the field.

In addition, I really look up to the leaders of local nonprofits and grassroots organizations in the countries where I’ve worked. I’ve had the privilege of working with over three hundred such groups in southern and eastern Africa during my career. Most were linked to local churches, schools, or clinics though some were also independent. They extend support and services into areas that are not reached sufficiently by government or international agencies.

The web of local initiatives in the developing world is still largely undocumented, unrecognized and under-resourced. WiserEarth.org conservatively estimates there well may be over a million such groups around the world! In my experience, these local leaders are there for kids, families and communities, whether funding or support from outsiders is available or not. Watching them and their persistence keeps me going.

Voluntourism is said to be the fastest growing segment of the travel industry (itself one of the world’s fastest growing industries). Do you think this kind of travel can help the uninitiated understand the problems our planet is facing?
Aid workers easily get frustrated when we see harm being done by well-meaning but naive tourists. Though if we are honest, that is how many of us got our start in this work. A great article by writer J.B. MacKinnon, entitled “The Dark Side of Volunteer Tourism,” provides a reality check. He wrote:

First, nothing is likely to stop the increase in person-to-person contact between people of the richer nations and people of the poorer. Second, there is much to be gained on both sides from this exchange. Third, those gains will be made through a series of small, personal, humbling errors.

To anyone considering voluntourism, I can recommend PEPY Tours in Cambodia. It’s doing voluntourism responsibly, thoughtfully, and respectfully — and has a great blog to follow, Lessons I Learned.

In general, I’d advise volun-tourists to ask critical questions of whatever project or trip in which they’re involved. Link the big issues to what you’re trying to do locally. It’s important to be curious about the root causes of poverty and vulnerability and what is needed for long-term change. Commit yourself to this learning process and never stop asking the deeper questions, whether it’s your first trip abroad or you’ve been working “in the field” for decades.

It’s also vital to recognize that every community has important non-monetary assets. When we come from a perspective of “we have so much, they have so little,” it’s easy to miss this. So the question becomes: “Who are the local leaders who are already doing great work who need the resources I have to offer?”

Finally, don’t let your good work become all about you. Place local people’s efforts before your own, in order to foster ownership and sustainability. Remember that whatever you do will always be secondary to the relationships you build.

Readers — yay or nay for letting Jennifer Lentfer into The Displaced Nation? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Jennifer — find amusing.)

img: From corn to cassava — Jennifer Lentfer talking with farmer and local leader Jones Pilo in Zomba, Malawi (2007).

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, who is hoping that Oliver’s visit back to Milton Keynes doesn’t result in any surprise guests (Sandra, for instance!) at their first Thanksgiving. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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RANDOM NOMAD: Matt Collin, Ph.D. Student in Development Economics, Researcher on Tanzania & Aid Blogger

Born in: Oxford, UK
Passports: USA & UK
Countries lived in: South Carolina, USA (Conway & Clemson): 1984-2001 & 2001-05; UK (Oxford): 2005-06, 2008-present; Malawi (Lilongwe): 2006-08.
Cyberspace coordinates: Aid Thoughts | Digesting the difficult decisions of development (currently on hiatus)

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
I’m not sure I actually had much a homeland to begin with. Despite living in the American South for quite a long time, my parents — a well-traveled American father and an Anglo-American mother — kept me from completely identifying as a South Carolinian. Frequent trips to the United Kingdom to see my mother’s family made me very familiar with life there, although I don’t know that I managed to feel completely “normal” in either location.

This upbringing made it easier for me to leave the United States. While I felt very at home in South Carolina, it didn’t provide the best opportunities for the career I wanted to pursue, in development economics. Oxford did — plus it was familiar from previous visits.

Is anyone else in your immediate family “displaced”?
Both of my parents are “displaced.” My father spent a large hunk of his life in the Middle East and Europe. He ended up in England, where he met my mother. They returned to the US just after I was born. My mother, whose mother is English and father American, was born in the US but raised in the UK — the opposite of me.

Describe the moment when you felt most displaced.
My first few days in Malawi. I went there as a fellow with the Overseas Development Institute in the UK, which sends young economists off to developing countries on two-year stints to work as civil servants for the host government. (I’d been placed in Malawi’s Ministry of Finance.)

My connecting flight through Johannesburg was late, so I ended up tagging a long with an Asian Malawian man who got us onto a flight to Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital — which is reasonably far away from where I needed to be. I spent my first night in Malawi alone in a large, empty guest house, with a promise I’d be driven to Lilongwe the next day. I was young (22) and at that point possessed all the typical Western prejudices about African countries. Everything was unknown. What followed, though — a long, leisurely drive up the spine of the country — was an amazing and illuminating introduction.

Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
It’s hard to pinpoint when you stop feeling displaced because you don’t really notice the absence of the feeling — you just feel comfortable.

The first time I started noticing how comfortable I felt in Malawi was during my first visit back to the UK. There was this sudden anxiety in realizing that there were things going on back in Malawi that I wouldn’t be around to observe. Your home is where you want to get back to, whether or not it is a physical place or a person, and I wanted to get back to Malawi, after having lived there for only eight months.

I suppose I felt least displaced after two years in Malawi, just as I was about to leave. I had never before felt sad about leaving a place, as my moves were always part of my personal trajectory — going to school, taking a new job, etc. Leaving Malawi was heart wrenching in a way I’d never experienced before.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of your adopted countries into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
From the United Kingdom: British sweets — when I was young, I developed a major craving for fruit pastilles, wine gums and the like — and would horde them whenever my family visited the UK.
From South Carolina: Sand dollars and salt water taffy from Myrtle Beach, the beach town I used to live near. (The town is a little garish, but it’s incredibly relaxed in its tackiness.)
From Malawi: A small, simple scene constructed out of banana leaves, in a wooden frame. It’s of a small village in Malawi, with a striking blue sky — the sky takes up half the frame. I had it in my bedroom in Lilongwe, and it’s followed me wherever I’ve moved since. I think it does a good job of capturing the quiet, laid-back atmosphere of the country.

You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
This is difficult, as I’m not known for my cooking, but here we go:

For a starter, I’d serve an avocado and mango salad (both grown in Malawi).

For the main course, we’d have chambo curry (chambo is a fish from Lake Malawi, similar to tilapia) with nsima (ground maize meal) — preferably refried and spiced. Or if you’d prefer, I can replace the nsima with grits from South Carolina — they are practically the same thing. For good measure, let’s have fried okra from South Carolina on the side.

For drinks, I’d offer either iced tea (that South Carolina classic) or a bottle of Carlsberg Brown — technically Danish, but Malawi has had its own Carlsberg brewery for decades now, and it’s the only place that produces “Browns.”

For dessert, it’s hard to go wrong with apple crumble from the UK, a country that knows its desserts!

You may add one word or expression from the countries you’ve lived in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
From the US: Ain’t — it’s incredibly stereotypical, and I can’t say that I actually used it that often when I lived in South Carolina, but occasionally I’ve wanted to bust out with this in conversation in the UK, to enjoy the bewildered response it would inevitably elicit.
From the UK: Nip, or go quickly. I grew up using this, thanks to my parents. As it’s an extremely common expression in the UK, I always assumed it was known elsewhere. Halfway through my undergraduate degree, I announced I was nipping out to the toilet, when a friend leaned in and quietly said, “Matt, no one here knows what you are talking about.” It’s indicative of the slight difficulty of navigating two countries with a common language, but different vocabulary.
From Malawi: Zikomo (thank you!), short for zikomo kwanbiri (thank you very much). Very simple, very basic — yet it was the word I ended up using most often.

This month we are looking into “philanthropic displacement” — when people travel or become expats on behalf of helping others less fortunate than themselves. Do you have a role model you look up to when engaged in this kind of travel — whose words of advice you remember when you find yourself in a difficult situation?
“Philanthropic displacement” is a difficult concept — one I’m not wholly comfortable with. It’s very difficult to travel to a completely new place and effectively help. Assistance requires familiarity, knowledge, and humility, so I think the most successful philanthropists will be those who make this choice independent of their decision to become displaced.

That said, I think the kind of displacement that comes from actually living in a country is a necessary condition for effective assistance. Many Americans are paralyzed at the thought of going to live overseas, especially in “exotic” and distant, developing countries. In that sense, my father was my greatest inspiration. He felt that you needed to travel to understand the world — and that you need to understand the world before you can aim to make it a better place. This was in stark contrast to most of the people I encountered in South Carolina, who rarely considered leaving the state.

My father also instilled in me an interest in human development, and so I suppose if you combine the two — overseas travel and human development — you have a good motivation to get into a field like development economics, and go jetting off to Africa to see what life is like there.

Voluntourism is said to be the fastest growing segment of the travel industry (itself one of the world’s fastest growing industries). Do you think this kind of travel can help the uninitiated understand the problems our planet is facing?
The difficulty I have with voluntourism is that is supply, not demand, driven. Citizens of developed countries feel the need to go learn about and assist people in developing countries, but often they are doing very basic tasks, such as building schools, which could easily be performed by local people. A fundamental question we should ask ourselves for these small-scale voluntourism initiatives is: “If we gave the village the money that we spent on the project, would they still pay for our plane tickets over?”

What’s more, I suspect most Westerners could gain the same or similar insights from straight-up tourism. You can, for example, go on slum tours in Nairobi. And, while I find “slum tourism” to be a bit strange, it at least isn’t trying to justify itself. There are also plenty of longer-term volunteer opportunities that can yield more insights than a one-week visit to build a school can.

So I suppose my answer is: don’t be afraid to make visiting a developing country a regular vacation — tourism dollars also help, and you can stretch your boundaries a little bit more. By the same token, don’t be afraid to take a leap and go to one of these countries for six months — just as long as you don’t go under the presumption that in half a year, you’ll be able to improve things. This takes time.

Readers — yay or nay for letting Matt Collin into The Displaced Nation? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Matt — find amusing.)

img: Matt Collin on a rock near Domwe Island, Lake Malawi (New Year’s Eve, 2006).

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, who, following a freak snowstorm in New England, has moved out of her house to avoid being turned into a popsicle. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation. Includes seasonal recipes and book giveaways. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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