Life as an Expat Aid Worker

Just to kick things off, i’ve selected a few posts from my old blogsite (graduateinafrica.blogspot.com) to recycle here, because I particularly enjoyed writing them. Suffice to say some of them are a bit old, and my views may well have changed a bit since first writing but here’s one I wrote in March 2011, from Malawi.

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It’s a tough life, picture this: ice cold gin and tonic, white sandy beaches, hot sun and a warm lake to swim in. The peace and serenity of Lake Malawi brings us all a lot of happiness from an often frustrating and utterly bizarre life living in one of Africa’s big cities. Personally, i’m not cut out for the expat vibe that buzzes around this place; it’s a melting pot for diplomats, NGO and government workers with way too much money and an arrogance that goes beyond belief! There’s your die hard old Tobacco biddies, earning upwards of 250K a year just to work the 6 month tobacco season in Malawi, and then there’s the general do-gooders (like myself) who are all still naive enough to believe they can make a difference in an otherwise poor and underdeveloped region.

I went to a party with a dutch physio friend of mine recently. She’s the kind of person who works long days, and parties long into the night – she knows everyone and is generally a great person to be around. So there was a house party that she had heard of and we tagged along. Turned out to be the house party of a top ranking US embassy worker, who lived in the most palatial mansion I have ever seen. There was a huge satellite dish (approx 20 feet tall and 8 feet wide) just in the corner of the garden… veuve clicquot bottles were used as candlesticks and there were trays and trays of catering. not the kind of party we had expected, and full of some rather unsavoury characters I must say… Met some interesting people though, and did the whole networking thing. It did just make me laugh though; the whole thing was a bit surreal. Here’s a country where my strongest and fondest memories are of sitting in the dust in my chitenge talking with rural women in remote villages far away from the NGO tarmac track (despite having fleets of brand new twin cab pickup Hilux’s, many NGOs are unwilling to stray too far from the tarmac which somewhat limits the scope of their work in a country that is predominantly rural and remote). So the comfortable life in Lilongwe, with money and champagne bottles etc was all new for me… nothing particularly wrong with that I suppose, I just know that I would rather spend my time here honestly (there’s the dogooder in me), without flashing money around and then be able to go home and enjoy something a little nicer than VC with my family in England!

so it’s an interesting time to be here, and working for a company rather than a charity per se provides a completely different insight into the work ethic found here, and the attitudes of people who are living here for business rather than to change the world… I’m almost certain we could drink NGOs under the table!

In other news, I have settled in well and I am living with a great family. The house is in a great part of town which is quiet and feels relatively secure. Ive spent time in Mangochi with old friends as well as a trip up north to Mzuzu to visit one of our farms – KTW – and to spend time monitoring and evaluating the feeding programme that has been left to run itself for almost a year… Tomorrow I am supposed to be doing another farm visit in Mangochi, reviewing the adult literacy staff and circles on another of the farm’s followed by a weekend with close friends up near the Mozambique border. However, I am not so sure of these plans! Wherever I go, vehicles always seem to trouble me… when I was here in 2009 I made do with a very old Toyota corolla and managed to negotiate roads that are really only meant for higher clearence, four wheel drive vehicles. It was not without its challenges, particularly being a young female driving alone. It’s less than ideal to break down or have problems when you’re young and alone. I was overly optimistic about this new job, given that part of the agreement was a suitable vehicle to use. I’ve been here a few weeks already, and still no vehicle. I made do with hitching lifts for a wee while, but ive now been given a VERY old corrola to do a 5 hour journey tomorrow then another 5 hours on sunday….

….last night it broke down in the drive….

The last thing I want to be, is one of these fussy Europeans demanding brand new big cars! Indeed, me and my old toyota corrola have had some fun times together and I would consider myself something of a pro at handling a low clearance car on mud tracks and farms! But there is a balance to be had, and to be physically unable to do work because of a lack of appropriate vehicle is annoying (when it doesn’t need to be like that!) I certainly did not sign my life away to an office job here; I did that in London, with 4 times the salary. **note that about 3 months later, we managed to push the sale through of a beautiful twincab hilux that was about 10 years old; I grew emotionally attached to it – is that normal?? We had some great times together and I could easily write for hours on the joys of a slightly old and faded hilux in rural Africa…

Mzungus have a tough reputation in Africa, and it’s a difficult task to balance the realities of working in this environment, and sticking to good old common sense and reality. All this time I have spent in Africa and I still havn’t worked it out!

My chichewa is improving slowly, and I have even managed to remember one or two phrases of Chiyao. It’s a difficult language to understand but once you grasp a few phrases you’re well on your way! So until next time…

…Asigale chenene… (stay well)

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One thought on “Life as an Expat Aid Worker

  1. petokvitko says:

    Well said! Possibly the closest analogy of LLW/Malawi that I’ve read. Your honesty is brutal yet compelling reading. Have you considered a career in journalism? I know “hacks” that would denounce MAC OS and swear affinity to Windows, (allegedly!), if they were capable of prose such as yours. Fantastic stuff. P.S. the VC comments are genius… a good bottle of red any day!

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