This post was transferred from my old blog. See the original post (with comments) at:


This post deserves a preface. I wrote it a couple days ago, first as a journal entry then as a blog post, when I wasn’t feeling too great.

This happens sometimes – part and parcel with my life and work in Malawi. This time, however, I thought it would be worth sharing it. Before reading though, understand that I really do enjoy my life here, and am really committed to the work we do. It’s just a bit of a roller coaster sometimes. Consider this post your front row seat at the side of the track.


From My Journal

September 15th, 2009, Chikwawa Water Office, 1:01pm

I just got back from one of the local restaurants here in Chikwawa. I went there for a quick bit of lunch – nsima with eggs, and a side of cabbage.

It was probably my third time there, and since my second visit the server, Blessings, has been interested in getting to know me. This time he sat down as I was eating some food to ask me a few questions.

“Kodi mumakonda kusewela pa mpila?”

Do I Like to play…[something I didn’t understand]?” Not knowing what he’s talking about, I look confused and ask him to say it again. After a few more repetitions of the same thing, he switches to English.

“Do you like to play basketball…volleyball?”

Oooh, he’s asking me what sports I like. I answer that I like to play both basketball and volleyball, but that I’m not very good at either. Based on past experiences, I refrain from trying to explain what ice hockey it.

This sort of conversation carries on for a few minutes. We talk half in English, half in Chichewa. He has a lot of questions, and I answer them as best I can.

I work in three places: Lilongwe, Machinga, and Chikwawa.”

“I stay with a friend in a house near the junction to Blantyre.”

“No, I don’t come from the same country as Enrique Iglesias, but yes, I do know his music.”

And so on.

I learn a few things about him too. I learn that he lives in the same restaurant where he works. I learn that his home district is Chikwawa. I learn that he’s an orphan.

Since he’s intermittently speaking in English, I figure he’s had some schooling. I’m curious how much though, so I ask.

Kodi munapita ku sukulu?” (Have you gone to school?)

Yes,” he answers, “up to form 2.” (Grade 10).

I ask him if he’s going to school now, but he answers no. He doesn’t have money for school fees.

I ask him if he’s saving for school fees from his job, but again he answers no. School feels are K3000 (CDN $23) per term, he tells me, and his job pays only K1500 (CDN $11.50) per month. The money he earns, he says, is only enough to give him the minimum of food and clothing – and he has no relatives left to help him.

As I’m sitting there I’m thinking: “His situation really sucks, and I could so easily help this guy out.” Courtesy of the sparse locations of Malawian banks, I’m carrying enough money in my pocket to pay for this guy’s next four school terms. But, like always, I don’t help him.

Instead, I thank him for the meal, and I get ready to go. “Ndiyenera kupita ku ntchito” - “I have to go to work.”

Thanks for the meal.

And with that I reach into my pocket, and casually hand him a K500 bill – one third of his monthly income. My outward facade is probably not revealing what’s going on inside my head. He gives me K200 in change. I pick up my bag, and I walk out. Back to work.

Back to work. Back to an empty office. Back to helping the district government develop a monitoring system for district water access that’s a million miles removed from directly helping anyone. A system that may or may not ever be institutionalized and used at the district. A system that if used, may or may not result in better planning – better planning that might make only a fraction of a difference for Malawi’s development. Better planning that’ll certainly never help pay the school fees for a guy like Blessings. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in what we’re doing, but we’re up against some pretty big challenges to get it right. And if we get it right, we’ll have still only made a tiny dent in the broader challenges Malawi faces.

Walking away from situations like this, from taking the easy road, from buying away my guilt, I used to tell myself it’s because I’m trying to help solve bigger problems. I used to tell myself that the work I’m doing will help create a better situation for people here, and that that work is more important than individual handouts.

After a while though, that’s worn thin. Now I don’t know what to tell myself. So instead, I say nothing. My capacity for rationalizing these things is gone. But I still walk away.

And sometimes, it’s not that easy.



  1. I feel for you, it must be incredibly difficult to make sense of the injustices that you ware experiencing. What is better--to look at the bigger picture, or to help a few individuals. I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. We can't fix everything, but we can fix somethings. Whatever difference we make, how ever big or small, is still a difference. Who are we to judge which is better, helping a hundred people or helping just one...

  2. Owen,
    Thanks for the honesty. Thanks for not hiding the feeling and pretending everything was fine. It doesn't make it better, but we all feel that way at times. For me, it is guilt mixed with frustration:

    Hard as it is, those connections keep you going... that and support of friends (or journals) when it really gets tough.

  3. Owen, we miss you dude. It's great to get such an honest look into your everyday life. Parenthood has taken us out of the loop a bit lately so it's always nice to get some good food for thought from the development world...and to hear stories about bee swarms and Obama visits and such.

    Keep your chin up. It's important.