Igniting Powder

Living in Africa has changed me – there’s no doubt about it. From my time in Zambia in 2007, to my current life in Malawi, I’ve benefited from a continual process of incremental growth in almost every aspect of my person: problem solving, resourcefulness, self-awareness, empathy – I could go on and on.

I don’t want to make this too overblown, so let’s take a very simple example. Earlier this week I was cooking dinner at a small house which EWB rents in Lilongwe. From the beginning I thought I smelled burning plastic, but couldn’t figure out why. Eventually, midway through cooking, the cause revealed itself, although not directly.

First, the hotplate that I was using switched off without explanation. I tried tripping the breaker on the powerbar – no luck. Then I tried unplugging the hotplate, and that’s when I figured it out: the smell or burning plastic was from the hotplate’s plug heating up and fusing itself to the powerbar. In my efforts to pry them apart, one of the tines for the hotplates plug snapped off, remaining lodged in the powerbar. Oops.

This was frustrating for a couple reasons. First, because it was ridiculous – cheap imported electrical parts heating up and fusing together. Second, and much more frustrating though, was that I was really really hungry at the time, and was left staring at a half-cooked meal.

A year ago that would have been the end of it. I’d have thrown out the food, or maybe walked to a neighbour’s to borrow their stove. Luckily though, it wasn’t a year ago – and I’d been living in Malawi in the interim.

So, instead, I grabbed a pair of scissors, cut the plug off of the hotplate, peeled back the black outer casing, stripped the inner wires with me teeth, twisted up the exposed copper strands, tripped the ground mechanism in the outlet with a ballpoint pen lid, and shoved the bare wires directly into the wall socket. Ten minutes later I was enjoying a delicious meal. So simple.

This is what I mean by the personal growth I’m enjoying in Malawi. Every day comes with it’s own new set of challenges, and every day I get a little better at meeting them. The regular difficulties of living here become fodder for learning, and the more I get used to being challenged, the more I push myself.

A while ago I was talking to a South African commercial farm manager. He has a couple sons living in the U.S., and he said they’re quickly becoming very successful. He said South Africans living abroad are almost always successful – they come from an environment that’s immensely challenging, but they’re still accountable for regular success. They learn to be resourceful, and to get sh*t done. When they get to the comparatively less challenging environments of North America or Europe, they flourish. It’s not surprising.

The whole thing reminds me of a quote from a book I finished last month, The Count of Monte Cristo. Edmond Dantes, the hero of the story, is talking to the Abbe, his mentor. The Abbe has been imprisoned for years, alone in a dungeon, but still has managed to do many incredible things, including writing an entire book on the unification of Italy. Let’s pick them up in conversation:

‘I was reflecting, in the first place,’ replied Dantes, ‘upon the enormous degree of intelligence and ability you must have employed to reach the high perfection to which you have attained; - if you thus surpass all mankind as a prisoner, what would you not have accomplished as a free man?’

‘Possibly nothing at all; - the overflow of my brain would probably, in a state of freedom, have evaporated in a thousand follies; it needs trouble and difficulty and danger to hollow out various mysterious and hidden mines of human intelligence. Pressure is required, you know, to ignite powder: captivity has collected into one single focus all the floating faculties of my mind; they have come into close contact in the narrow space in which they have been wedged. You know that from the collision of clouds electricity is produced and from electricity comes the lightning from whose flash we have light amid our greatest darkness.’

Of course, I’m not comparing living in Africa to being in prison - however, much of this  still resonates. Trouble and difficulty definitely push me to grow as a person. Meanwhile, the concept of “a thousand follies” definitely speaks to my experience living in Canada in between my time in Africa – I try to accomplish too much, I feel like the whole world is at my fingertips, and I end up accomplishing nothing. And, to be honest, when I think back to living in the village in Zambia, without electricity, in a small mud hut, I realize that I read, wrote, and learned more during that time than in any other similar-length period of my life…maybe there is some truth to the “narrow space” idea.

As a final note, I’m not comparing myself to the imprisoned genius from the above quote, nor am I saying that I am reaching some above-average level of intelligence or resourcefulness from living here. I’m just saying that compared to when I’m in Canada, I learn and grow about 100 times faster in Malawi. It’s one of my biggest reasons for staying here.

As for the base I’m starting from or the plateaus I’ve reached – I’ll leave that to those who know me to figure it out – but suffice it to say, it’s nothing particularly special. Maybe give me a couple more years ;)


1 comment:

  1. Hey dude,

    Those experiences are pretty powerful. It's always the challenges that push us to grow, learn, adapt. Do you think you'll be able to sustain the learning and personal growth once the external pressures are gone? (ie. when you're back in Canada)

    Keep rocking it out man. Hey, and good luck with the African leaders conference!