Are we doing anything useful here?

Day 6 – What are we actually doing here in Malawi?
[This post follows on from the Motorbike Training post.]

Motorbike training is past, and we’re now staying over at Paul and Sarah’s house (fellow VSO bikers), and we have been invited to a party this evening. The party is hosted by a friend of a friend of one of the VSO’s, who works for the UN we think. We call Dunn, a local taxi driver, and rouse him from sleep to give us a lift there. The party is in an expensive neighbourhood, in a large house with a large garden, and elegant lighting along the path leading from gate to patio. We pile out of the taxi, and I greet the night guard in Chichewa, going through the full greeting. He responds with pleasure and surprise, as if he is unaccustomed to mzungus speaking to him in his own language. He is also more deferent than usual, and I find this a bit strange. The party is thronging with beautiful people, and though I usually spend my social time with only white people, this is one of the first times I’ve felt as if I’m not in Malawi. The white people here are young and glamorous, carefully groomed, and more upper class. There is loads of food, good wine and privilege going round, and I stand myself next to a table with a bottle of expensive South African red wine, its worth apparently unrecognised by anybody else. I take care of this oversight. The people are mostly DFID or UN apparently, and definitely assume importance. They are no older than me. They all know each other and make little effort to talk to us. My female VSO colleagues point out that the girls here are wearing fancy evening dresses, and indeed they are – which probably contributes to the different atmosphere. They have actually packed or bought eveningwear for just this sort of social occasion. My VSO friends clearly have not packed these sorts of luxuries. We all feel a bit underdressed. We realise for the first time that there is a clear hierarchy amongst development workers, and we VSO volunteers are pretty near the bottom. The only people lower than us are the Peace Corps!

There is some dancing and drinking, but talk amongst us VSO people turns to our role here in Malawi – what are we ACTUALLY doing here? There is a feeling that maybe we’re not doing that much of real use, that maybe we’re helping spend lots of money without really showing the necessary returns for it. After all, we’ve just spent over a week accommodated at VSO’s expense, at Kumbali Cultural Village for the ICT2, and at the hotel for motorbike training. How can we justify that, plus all the other myriad expenses? Of course, even though we will need to write a report at the end of our placements, it’s not our job to justify our roles directly. We know that VSO do regularly re-examine their objectives and placements, and we have to satisfy ourselves with that. But at this party, drunkenly discussing the Big Picture, we are not convinced it’s really worth it. But I also look around at the DFID and UN people, who are here in Malawi on significantly higher, more generous salaries. I wonder if they’re doing that much more of lasting value, considering the extra money they’re costing. Sure, they may be involved in policy development which is potentially significant, and they’re probably amongst the brightest recent graduates of their Oxbridge universities – but they are so young, and are not really living in Malawi. Do they even greet their night guard in Chichewa? If they are economists or development people involved in policy making, surely it would be better to have that work done by older, more experienced people who’ve spent time working in developing countries? But perhaps these people hold junior positions, and have bold ambitions of a successful diplomatic or development career ahead of them, and then living in Malawi for a short while is merely a stepping stone to greater things. The excess of the party seems out of place here, obscene even.

And then it’s almost time to go. There is a fluff of activity in one huddle of young diplomats, as one girl announces that she can’t find her bag with spare clothes in. The girl is astonishingly pretty, and many of they guys offer to help look. She flits around, looking behind couches, asking us to get up so she can look under where we’re sitting. Her smiles of earlier in the evening have disappeared, and now we’re clearly in the way. It’s a drama, perhaps an emergency. This may be one of the more serious setbacks she’s encountered in Malawi so far. And then, suddenly, the bag is found and everyone can relax. The smiles return. We phone Dunn to arrange to be picked up, rousing him once again from sleep at 1am. Half an hour later Dunn phones to say he is outside, and we make our exit. As we walk down the driveway, we can hear someone talking loudly in broken Chichewa outside the gate. The accent is English and slurred by alcohol, and as we open the gate we see a young British guy in T-shirt and jeans, trying his hand at the standard Chichewa greeting. He’s shouting it at our driver, Dunn, belittling him with a mockingly poor, yet self-righteously proud, attempt at what should be an easy dialogue. "You see," he slurs, "I can speak your language…" As I walk past him and get into the cab, I feel ashamed. I want to apologise to Dunn, but can’t stop thinking that this drunken slob is one of those whom the world sends to help Dunn’s country and his people.

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