What next?

This is one of those times where I just feel like I need to write. Just something. I found out a friend of mine passed away this weekend. I hadn’t known him very long and had only really conversed with him on a few occasions, but from just the few times I had been with him, I could tell just how kind and passionate he was. I had gone to help out at children’s classes with him and some other Baha’is a few times, and all the kids would run out from the homes as soon as they found out he had arrived. They loved him. And it was clear why. I remember sitting in the car with him when he was describing his dreams to start his own business, pursue his art, basically just follow his dreams and do something that would make a difference in the world. I remember being in awe at the way he told his vision and all of the plans he had. He was a clear leader. I couldn’t help but smile to myself when seeing the way his younger friend whom he brought along to children’s classes looked up to him and clearly strove to be more like him. Or the way he encouraged his younger friend to engage in the kinds of activities and discussions that centered around the betterment of the world. I cannot pretend to have known him very well, and almost feel disrespectful to write about him as though I did, but the fact is, in the short time I spent with him and the few conversations we had, I just remember feeling inspired. I sincerely wish I had gotten to know him better, and a part of me feels guilt for the fact that I could have seen more of him if I hadn’t stopped going to children’s classes to study for the GRE. But everything happens for a reason, and I am happy I at least had the chance to know him.

And it’s also served as a jarring reminder of how short life is and what really matters; and even more than that, how easy it is to waste time working towards the things that you think matter, when really, every minute should be spent doing those things. I’ve been spending the past month stressing about studying for the GRE, thinking it necessary to cut out all other things during this time for the sake of doing well on a test in order to get into a good grad school in order to get a good job in order to finally be in the best position possible to help people through whatever work I end up doing. But there is something so ironically wrong about all of it. If the ultimate purpose of doing any of this is to be able to help people, then why would I halt the activities in my life that were actually working towards the good of others, in order to put all my energy into this one test. And while it may be justified in some sense (the more you study, the better you do), I also realized that this mentality could easily go on forever. And in fact, has been going on for quite some time. Senior year of college was by far the worst year of my life. And a good part of it probably had to do with all of the focus I poured into working hard, studying, and applying to fellowships, all so that I could make something useful of my life after college.

And then I got this fellowship. The perfect embodiment of everything I’d been working towards. But then a few months in, I found myself asking the same question I had asked all of senior year, “what next?” Leading me to the sudden, poorly-thought out conclusion that grad school was the answer. But now, after actually taking a minute to think about why it is I am actually doing this (and how I could even feasibly afford to do it), I’ve realized the underlying reason is fear. Fear of being broke, fear of being unhelpful, fear of being not busy, fear of not doing something useful. But there is clearly this huge divide in my mind, no matter how much I talk about how important it is to live one unified, undivided life, between my purpose in life and what I actually do in life. My purpose is to help people. And I’ve realized it’s possible to be selfish even while working at a job whose primary purpose is to help people. If I really focused on my one simple life purpose, I wouldn’t feel so much pressure to constantly make something more of myself.

So now, I just don’t know what I’m doing anymore. After doing further research into ways to fund grad school, I’ve finally realized it’s the most absurd decision ever. (Like do people actually pursue master’s accepting the fact that they’ll be $50,000 in debt when they leave?….) And I’ve also realized, I shouldn’t care. Life is so short. The impact you make in the world has nothing to do with whether you’ve attended a fancy university. And if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that you can spend your entire life putting the important things on hold while you spend all your time preparing and planning for the future. It just needs to stop. At this point, I honestly might be broke next year, living somewhere awful, doing something uninteresting, or worse, doing nothing at all, but even in the absolute worst case scenario, I can always find some way to do what actually matters: helping people. I think I just need to remember this more often.

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Sketchy Border Crossings, Good Company, and Mini Revelations

This weekend I ventured to Livingstone, Zambia (home of Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world) with a couple other Piaf fellows for a little Southern Africa regional meetup. Amusingly enough, the time it took to travel there was about the same as the time we actually spent there. Some of the fellows and I drove down to Gaborone, Botswana from Joburg, and from there joined the Gaborone fellows on a 13 hour bus ride the rest of the way to Livingstone. My favorite part of it all was arriving at the Zambian border. Our bus was originally supposed to take us all the way to Livingstone but informed us at the last minute that it wouldn’t be going into Zambia due to riots in Lusaka or something, so instead, we get dropped off at the border. After 13 hours of quality time spent basically on top of our seat-mates and woken up periodically throughout the night from the bus honking loudly to scare the goats, donkeys, or cows of the road, or swerving suddenly to avoid hitting a cow right in the middle of the road (pretty sure we almost died at the moment), we groggily stumbled off the bus at 10 am and headed towards the ill-marked little office to get our visas stamped out of Botswana.  With grey skies and light downpour outside to complement the setting, we continued down a road hoping to find the Zambian border control and another bus to take us the rest of the way (as our bus basically decided to abandon us with no further guidance), and eventually came to a dead end where the road was cut off by a river. Turns out you have to take a ferry across to get to the border. After warding off several men trying to convince us to exchange money to pay the fee of boarding the ferry (yeah, they were lying), we got onto the plank of floating steel next to the trucks that loaded before us and finally made it to the other side where we then had to pay a $50 fee for the Zambian visa. With pockets full of dollars, kwachas, pula, and rand, whose conversion rates all started to blend together in my mind by the time we made it to the border (which only accepted dollars and pounds for some reason), it took quite some time to sort out all of our payments without giving in to the shady money exchange dealers swarming around us outside the door trying to rip us off in our moment of desperation. …I guess there’s not really much point to this story other than the amusing sketchiness of it all…I’ve never come closer to feeling like I was engaging in some kind of illegal border-crossing activity without actually doing anything wrong.

Rather than share the details of what we actually did in Livingstone, though (basically, just the normal touristy things one does in Livingstone), I feel compelled to share some of the mini revelations I’ve had over the course of these past few days, mainly from the discussions I’ve had with the other fellows and their personal experiences in their respective organizations and countries. After having now left the others and continued on to Lusaka on my own for a 2 day work-trip at the country office we have here, I think I’ve had some time for their words to settle more. In particular, the other night we talked about unexpected challenges vs. expectations that we had in the 3 or 4 months we’ve been here now. Throughout everyone’s response was some link to race dynamics, expat behavior towards locals, and combatting stereotypes towards Africa. In my own time in Joburg, I also saw the presence of these issues, but typically interpreted them with a critical, interested eye rather than feeling them as personal challenges to face on a daily basis. Perhaps it’s that I’ve created somewhat of a sheltered life for myself in Joburg with the people I’ve befriended and the places I spend the majority of my time, such that I don’t necessarily encounter all the incidences of racism or stereotypes and skewed perspectives between different cultural groups that I know is so common. I jokingly expressed to the group that there must be something wrong with me for not getting more offended by things that I know should be offending me; I still don’t know if it’s linked to my belief in the eventual establishment of unity on earth that leads me to not internalize all of the issues around me to such a strong degree or if it’s that I’m really not as critical as I should be of things that are so evident and horrible.

From this weekend and I think mostly as a result of hearing the experiences of the other fellows on these matters, I feel like some feelings have finally come to the surface though and made me realize that I am actually troubled by a lot of what I’ve encountered and there are some pretty messed up things that should evoke some kind of emotional response. One thing I’ve realized throughout all of this is that wealth makes me uncomfortable. And particularly in the cities where poverty is literally right beside it. While huge economic disparities would obviously bother most people who are able to see it so drastically displayed and is not something I just now have reflected on, it’s more that I keep finding myself in positions that feel hypocritical in a way. For instance, I just entered Lusaka a few hours ago, where I was picked up by a hotel shuttle bus filled with several business-looking older white men, and was taken to a hotel that costs over $100 a night, which is more than I think I’ve ever paid for a hotel. Perhaps part of my discomfort is due to guilt and pressure at the fact that I am here for these 2 days to basically create some visibility material on some of our operations in Zambia and hopefully write some success stories for our reports, which donors will see. While my bosses have not placed much pressure on me for this mission, and have been encouraging in my being able to go to the field (as was agreed upon as one of the terms of my fellowship), it’s mainly the fact that such a ridiculous large amount of money is going towards my mere 2 days of coming here to write some stories. I realize that the UN has plenty of money and is not going to lose it’s ability to feed more people due to the cost of my little trip, but I just hope that the end results of it are worth the cost for the organization.

More than that though, being here just makes me think about what it would actually be like to continue working in the field of international development, and particularly for a big multilateral organization that does pay for it’s officers to go on missions to impoverished countries and stay in nice hotels. It’s not that I necessarily see a problem with providing enough funding for employees to stay in comfortable hotels when they travel, and in fact, for many of them, I think it is important that the UN does provide such logistic arrangements in light of the difficulty of the work a lot of them do and especially the challenges they face in having to constantly move their families around or live in difficult environments. What bothers me is more related to perceptions and stereotypes that play into these kinds of accommodations – both those of the local people towards international development workers or expats and of expats towards locals. To a large extent, it just feels like my staying in this hotel or the groups of expats that stick together for the most part rather than befriending the local people (as seemed the case in Livingstone) just contribute to the divides and stereotypes that hinder the effectiveness of the work itself.

And within this context, I’ve found myself extremely resistant to being pushed into the stereotypes of expats or aid workers or Americans or even white people (despite not even being completely white), while at the same time engaging in things that essentially further these views. One of the most common stereotypes of Americans that I’ve heard many times is that all Americans are rich. You should see the surprise on people’s faces here when they learn that I’ve never owned a smartphone. And now, despite being a deeply indebted recent graduate with only a basic living stipend for the year, it feels weird and hypocritical to be staying in a fancy hotel or living in one of the wealthier (and whiter) areas of Joburg or being able to travel around Africa or simply saying that I work for the UN and having people comment on the high salaries that UN workers make. And the thing about a lot of these stereotypes that bothers me the most is when they are actually perceived in a positive manner —  the biggest, for instance, is the superiority that seems afforded to white people in a lot of places. One always thinks of racism in terms of someone oppressing someone else, but less often do people talk about the psychological effects that remain among the oppressed (something that Stephen Biko focused on with his Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa). This could not have been more apparent than when I had gone to a soccer game in Soweto, one of the townships in Joburg where the population is mostly black, and when my white friends where approached by tons of local soccer fans asking for pictures to be taken with them. One person even asked one of the girls to kiss their baby. It was literally like they were celebrities for no other reason than their skin color.

It still blows my mind that apartheid only ended less than 20 years ago and that so many people here literally lived in a time when racism was a key component of the country’s basic institutions and legal system. Change takes time, and changing laws won’t immediately change mindsets and attitudes that have been around for so long, and I’m starting to see more and more just how deep these attitudes go.

There’s so much more I want to say on the topic of race but I’ll save it for another post cuz I also want to mention the other mini revelation that has come about from these recent travels, and that is, my own stereotypes of Africa. Again, more instances of hypocrisy I keep uncomfortably finding myself in. Especially after just talking about the importance of people seeing Africa for what it is (a diverse continent) in my last post, I keep realizing just how much western media shapes our perceptions of places in Africa and how much it’s even influenced my own. Despite working in Joburg and acknowledging how different every single country is from each other, in the back of my mind I still had some preconceptions of what other countries would look like. For whatever reason, I still held on to the assumption that outside of South Africa, cities in Botswana or Zambia would look more like ones I lived in in Madagascar as opposed to Joburg. Low and behold, Botswana and Lusaka have tons of similarities to Joburg, and contain just as much economic diversity. As much as I hate all of the exoticized notions of Africa, which make it out to be a place that’s either war-torn and poor or full of beautiful landscapes with wild animals, my expectations seemed to conform to these views in a lot of ways when I found myself surprised at the relatable city settings before me. I don’t mean to imply that these places were exactly like Joburg or Chicago or any other city, but just that they were not some extreme polar opposite to what one would find in the U.S. either. It is the side of Africa that tourism agencies never promote and international media never cover, and yet it is what I think is one of the most important aspects for people to see. It’s not like the West doesn’t engage in the affairs of Africa in significant ways, and if it’s going to continue to do so, it only makes sense for the general population to have access to a better understanding of all the intricate facets that make up each country, and not just the natural disasters or political instability or death tolls due to starvation or fighting in various regions. The kind of coverage that dominates media now basically furthers the sense of “otherness” towards Africa as a whole, leading to skewed understandings of its people and forming the basis for the ways in which many Western countries often try to intervene.

In sum, I’ve become more uncomfortable with more things, and I think it’s a good thing.