By Cassia Tremblay
Malawi is beautiful and hopeful and also a little intimidating. The light is soft and it’s easy to forget that there is so much that is not soft about this country and this continent. It’s a funny juxtaposition to read about corruption and violence and poverty in Gerald Caplan’s The Betrayal of Africa while looking out across the still and silent bush that stretches out in front of the hostel or while being surrounding by smiling kids. On one hand it is sort of a relief that my surroundings don’t feel as hectic as the Africa described in the book. On the other hand we’re very sheltered at the hostel and what we see of the communities around us doesn’t likely reflect reality entirely.
I hope that my project will help me move into a headspace somewhere between harsh reality and dreams for positive change. Excuse me while I replicate an obnoxiously long passage from the Betrayal of Africa from the two sections “The Role of Outsiders” and “Who Cares about Africa?”
“This book offers no magic bullets, no easy answers to Africa’s problems. There are none. Everywhere you look there are major problems, and all of them must be tackled at the same time, because they all interact. And the tackling must be done by Africans and outsiders. … We need to help Africa not out of our selflessness and compassion but as restitution, compensation, an act of justice for the generations of crises, conflict, exploitation and underdevelopment for which we bear so much responsibility. … Until we think about the West’s relationship with Africa honestly, until we face up to the real record, until we acknowledge our vast culpability and complicity in the Africa mess, until then we’ll continue – in our caring and compassionate way – to impose policies that actually make the mess even worse.”
This passage makes me frustrated with Big Money and Big Men but it also makes me frustrated with myself. Global inequality is abhorrent, and I benefit from it, and until Gerald Caplan pointed it out to me, I never thought to consider how I was connected to the people of Malawi before I had even heard of TPM. This sentiment reminds me to frame my days here in terms of courage, restitution, and cooperation rather than compassion and philanthropy. It is with this mentality that I hope to move forward into my project (a project that is not really mine in any way).
The toilet project focuses on heath and sanitation, which feels like a lot to take on. There are so, so many aspects to social and community health that I cannot even anticipate. So instead of burdening myself with ‘health and sanitation’ I am going to try to think of the project in smaller terms: first we’ll gain an understanding of local hygiene practices, needs and wants, then we’ll plan a toilet, then we’ll build one and maybe repeat the process a second time.
It’s hard to grasp that I am only here for 5 weeks and I am trying to contribute to a project that will last years. It’s especially daunting to hear about how so many of last year’s projects didn’t survive. However, Melanie reminded me this morning that my efforts are a drop in the bucket and while I cannot fill or carry the bucket by myself, the drop I accomplish alongside my co-learners still matters. Those weren’t her exact words… but I’m pretty sure that’s what she meant.