Vol 6, Num 22 :: 2007.11.30 — 2007.12.14
I am not cynical.
I appear to have a lot of people fooled, though.
Quick background: I’m 28, spent the last seven years or so wandering around—including an eight month stint with the Peace Corps in Bangladesh—and am currently living in Malawi, Africa spending other people’s money on a “freelance” development gig. I work with a few orphanages, generally trying to help in whatever ways I can. It’s as much an experiment in human nature, with me as one of the test subjects, as a do-gooder mission.
I think people are generally more bad than good. Most Western aid to Africa doesn’t work and some of it does more harm than good. The human race does not, in general, move forward. We are no less barbaric than we were four thousand years ago. The situation of the poor here in Malawi is not going to get better for a long time.
But I am not cynical.
I don’t think telling the truth is ever cynical. And the truth just isn’t very pretty sometimes. Nor is it always fun, engaging, or easily identified. When the glass is well below the halfway line, it’s not half-full—it’s time for a refill. And the refill requires a dream.
Let’s say there are two kinds of dreamers. Those who have a dream (Dreamers) and those who dream as a way of life (Dreamingers). I’m trying to be the former and not the latter. I’m tired of Dreamingers. I’m tired of being called a pessimist by people who’d rather fantasize about tomorrow’s reality than start building the bridge from today’s. I’m sarcastic. I chuckle about gross injustices when there’s nothing I can do about them (which is precisely the reason I usually don’t chuckle about American politics). Not everyone needs to be sarcastic; it’s my way of coping. It’s an alternative to outright disillusionment. Disillusionment is the shock, the heartbreak that comes from being ambushed by the awfulness of the world. It takes the idealistic wind out of your sails; it shoots you out of the sky.
What gets me frustrated is when I see some people racing off towards that brick wall with a big D painted on it. They hit it and fall hard. They sink like Peter trying to walk on water—except in this story they go all the way to the bottom. That’s when you’ve become cynical. When the disillusionment has truly felled you. When you’re no longer looking out for the good. Others do what really drives me nuts: They treat disillusionment like an ugly pink eviction notice and they slip it into the bookshelf hoping it will blend in with the other printed material. They learn to ignore it. They buy the groceries, read the funny pages, raise the kids. They forget about that awfulness they caught a glimpse of once upon a time. It’s always there, but if you talk about the kind of new blender you want to buy and the rising price of cable TV for long enough and with enough people who think likewise, it can start to feel like maybe these are really the things that matter. Still others live in a fantasy world, constructed by their egos or religion or just plain naïveté. Dreamingers.
I can’t think of a place that’s been hurt more by these Dreamingers than Africa. Almost every white Westerner around here has a plan, a Land Rover, a load of money, and a heart bursting with guilt and charity. The intentions are usually good, if a bit egocentric—(“What can I do with my life to help these poor people who clearly both want and need my assistance?”). But the results are a continent in extreme crisis that is just as often exacerbated as helped by the new school or orphanage that someone built over there. Within a mile radius of my place here in Malawi, there are no less than three orphanage/preschools whose once-cheery and colorful marquees have been painted over or left to fade in the hot sun, and whose interiors have become, at best, squalid bedrooms for some family, and at worst, completely deserted rat hotels. One well that was dug by the Indianapolis Rotary Club has been taken over by a local man who now sells the water and keeps the profit. I cannot express to you how common this phenomenon is. The former executive director of the orphanage for which I volunteer now (another local man) started and led the place effectively for years, only to sexually abuse the kids and staff, take money from the orphanage’s coffers, and effectively chase away all of the good help, by and by. This stuff happens all the time.
Why? Because we in America believe in magic bullets. We want our TiVo. It shows in our public opinion about things like universal health care: We desire it but we don’t want to pay taxes like the Canucks or the Norwegians to get it. When we came under attack from Islamic militants, we didn’t want to stop and think about the dizzyingly complex and widespread cycle of poverty and destitution that produces this kind of extremism. Instead we beat a quick path to the armory and taped American flags to our windows. In terms of development, we want to believe that buying the right concert ticket or a special GAP t-shirt will really help just enough that we can continue going about our daily lives, guilt-free. And, more to the point, we want to believe that if it actually takes fifty years to teach a man to fish and we weren’t exactly planning on that, we can get away with buying him a fancy new pole.
Africa is littered with failed projects by Westerners who didn’t get it. A friend recently told me about an article she read about “development porn” (I have a handy excuse for not reading and citing it here: I’m in Africa! Internet time costs an arm, a leg, and a goat). The big, staring eyes and distended bellies, interspersed with shots of emaciated infants crying to make you feel as guilty as possible and get you to pick up the phone and pay $22.50 a month. It’s selective imagery from the Third World intended to give you a certain picture and make you believe that you can make a difference with your credit cards. I’m not commenting on those kinds of programs’ efficacy—after all, credit cards have to come in somewhere—but rather the advertisements’ veracity. They’re a filter through which to view the Third World, whose root motivation is to get money out of you. You’re left with the impression that if only we who have televisions would give money to those people wearing Panama hats with the kids on their laps, it would all be fixed. The truth is so, so much harder than that. The real change happens with back- and heartbreaking work, on the ground and over the long term. All together now: GRASSROOTS. If you come to Africa with both guns blazing, spraying money every which way, starting new projects that aren’t anchored by years of training and/or experience; if you haven’t seen firsthand the cornucopia of shit that comes along with poverty and injustice; and if you haven’t acknowledged it to be such, then you’ve taken your first steps as a Dreaminger. I could give at least ten pages of examples of such shit without stopping—and you certainly don’t have to go to halfway across the world to experience it.
So what good is all of this “truth,” or that which we previously thought of as cynicism? It forces you to draw the hard conclusion: We have to change ourselves. It’s about markets and awareness and demand and language and geography and beliefs and history. It’s about the whole system. It’s not about Africa or South Asia or even The Third World at all. It’s about the whole system, which means that creating change in North America is just as important as creating change in Africa. After all, we’re the ones consuming the toys, burgers, and cars and dumping the waste into the air, water, or land(fills) when we’re done. Admitting our own culpability in contributing to the gross injustices in the world takes the kind of humility and courage that few of us possess in great quantity. It forces you to confront your own shortcomings—even those that were handed down to you from previous generations—and makes you one heck of a wet blanket from time to time. It’s no fun to think about. It begins to feel like everything we’ve touched has gone bad. To confront those bad feelings without pat reassurances and without curling up into the fetal position is the best training I can think of to equip a person for a legitimate assault on injustice. And this assault is what gets me excited. In my incredibly short career thus far in development, I’ve been leveled at least a dozen times—that is to say, taught a lesson. Proven very, very wrong. Embarrassed. I usually go through a few days or weeks (or, as my folks can attest, a few months on my parents’ couch with a bottle of crappy gin) of self-pity and yes, some disillusionment. But every time I get a little wiser, and a little less afraid of what will happen next time I fall on my face. My heart doesn’t ache for the kids like it used to. It aches for the system that left them flat, and gets pissed off enough at that system to want to go out and do something about it.
I’m not saying I’ve found the perfect way to scale that wall of disillusionment and I’m not saying I’ve got the perfect dream. (And naturally, by writing this article I’m setting myself up to be called, perhaps rightly, a hypocrite.) I’m just saying that any attempt at redemption needs to have a working relationship with the suffering and misery it’s trying to overcome. Don’t get cynical, get even. Dig a foundation of determination that runs deeper than the disillusionment—you’ll probably get really dirty and you’ll have to make several trips back to the hole to make it deeper before you can set the forms and pour the cement. But do it anyway. The thing about the Dreamers who might seem cynical is that the hope is way, way down there. It waits, like an undiscovered diamond, hard and unmovable, compressed by hardship and sadness. Heck, sometimes they even talk cynically, but it’s just an act: They’re redemption addicts on an undercover mission to infiltrate, destroy, then rebuild the whole works brick by brick.