Alternate Realities

Lately, I’ve been doing a little thinking and planning for when I arrive back in Canada. And as I’ve been imagining what life back home will look like—a full-time job, maybe a car, a nice apartment to myself—I’ve been finding myself unable to come to terms with how life in Canada can exist in the same world as life here in Malawi.

I’ve noticed in my circle of friends here made up of other North American volunteers, we sometimes refer to “real life”—what things are like in our safe and comfortable lives in Victoria, in Waterloo, in Seattle. But as one of the girls once pointed out to me, this is real life. The living standards we see in Malawi, with some 65% of the country living on less than a dollar a day and kids dying of malnutrition in the central hospital in Blantyre, are the daily reality for millions of people around the world.

I struggle to comprehend how that can happen on the same planet where people drop hundreds of dollars on the latest iPhone, or build careers around interior decorating, or complain about how Netflix is down right now. How is it even possible to care about these things when a place like Malawi exists? I know I’m not the first volunteer in the Global South to struggle with this question. Nor am I claiming moral high ground. (I’ve definitely whined about Netflix in the past, and I probably will in the future, too.) I mean that it’s literally difficult to hold a conception of both worlds in my head at the same time.

It bothers me, knowing that my pocket money for the week here is the equivalent of a teacher’s monthly salary. Knowing that I have a job waiting for me at home where I make more money than I will really need (though I may still feel like I don’t make enough). Knowing that the people I meet here—the kind caretakers at my compound, or the bright Malawian youth who volunteer with my host organization—will likely never have the resources to come to Canada. They will never know my life, and I will never really know theirs. Knowing that our effed-up global system (that is, some mix of international economic policies, colonialism, geography, and leadership) creates these two extremes makes me sick. Sometimes it leaves me in tears of anger, frustration and despair.

It’s always the kids in our neighbourhood that get to me as I walk to and from our compound. Especially in the evenings just before dark, they’re out playing soccer on the dirt road, the Malawian equivalent of road hockey. And they’re having so much fun, laughing and hollering and pushing and deking, all the while playing in bare feet and torn clothes and using a sphere of wrapped-up garbage to serve as the ball. I think to myself: what will their futures be like? Why have I been given more than they will have? And what can I do about it?

One thought on “Alternate Realities

  1. Colonialism: History; you cannot change it or regret it.
    Geography: God; no one but Him has control.
    Leadership: Individualistic; we cannot truly influence another countries government or force inspiring leaders to arise for another’s culture and world.
    International economic policies: Philanthropists; with the air that the poor are useless to help themselves and the rich are responsible, probably having reasoned “we are responsible for colonialism, geography and poor leadership,” international economic policies have crushed Malawi’s ability to become useful, responsible, strong.

    The differences between Malawi and the western world are real, they are stark. The differences attract compassion, and rightly so. The stark and real differences that attract compassion are, inevitably, motivators to level the gap; people will dedicate their lives to this: pulling up the one that lag behinds. Pulling, encouraging – or dragging? The strong words against philanthropists are not meant for you, they are meant for those who help countries like Malawi and the people in them out of a sense of responsibility.

    Are you responsible? The four reasons you listed for the differences between countries and people, and ended with an appropriate ‘etc.,’ were valid as far as I can tell. You are able to summarize huge ideas and recognize important trends. My reason for listing them out with my own comments following close behind was to challenge the tone of your paragraph and post. Your compassion has obviously been deepened by clarity – you see the differences with clarity because of your experiences and your personality. However, don’t let your compassion be ruined by taking responsibility!

    P.S. I grew up in Malawi – it’s cool that you went there!

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