Luck of the Draw

15 April 2018

[Above photo: The beach at Ossimba.]

It is stressful for me to have much more money and security than do the people around me. It is more stressful for them, of course, and I’m not lamenting my position or about to give away what I have. For me, however, it just is an everyday, often in the background, stress. It must be for most people, although for different reasons. I’ve noticed in my work in Berkeley with some truly wealthy people that they often become identified with their money, especially if it was inherited.  It assumes a large place in their life, and they fear it will be taken from them. I’ll admit that I sometimes wonder what would happen if my annuity company went bankrupt, the Republicans got their way and my Social Security was cut to nothing, or if someone hacked into my bank account and electronically siphoned it all away. But I don’t think about it often and I know how to live frugally. Plus, I’m currently fortunate in that I am healthy and can earn a good living if I need to. Even now, being a Peace Corps-Seed volunteer who gets a living allowance generous enough to live on in Malawi, I can leave my retirement monies alone and they can accumulate.

Our guard and laundress, Catherine, often asks me for things. “Daddy, I want a chicken.” “Then buy one, Catherine.” “Daddy, I want a rain jacket.” Her most recent was, “Daddy, buy me a house.” Really. “What does a house cost?” She came back two weeks later with house prices, anything from $2000 to $32,000. I realized I should have just chuckled with her. She obviously took my enquiry seriously. Now, I can afford that. It would make a huge difference to her and her kids. Why don’t I just do it? Well, what about the other two guards, Mr. Kabbich and Chimwemwe? Shouldn’t I give them an equivalent amount? How about the Mental Health Nurses I work with, who are smart, hard-working, compassionate, and are paid peanuts? Or our recently-graduated psychiatrists who are paid ridiculously low sums and carry considerable responsibility, in addition to having spent long years in training?  Or the patients I see who are obviously in extremely tight circumstances with no way out?

Linda has a much healthier and better-boundaried attitude than I do. She’s no less compassionate. She thinks we should give them each an extra month’s wages before we leave. And I’ll continue to pay for Joseph’s school through university, as well as his younger sister’s when that is necessary. It is, however, difficult to think of people with food and shelter insecurity their entire lives. Catherine asked Linda for money for a uniform (She gave it to her.). “All my children are in school. I’m going to go to school.” Good for her, as education is a way out. It is not like in the US, however, where there is so much money in the System that a person coming from nothing can actually earn a decent living with some education. Here she can do better than if she were uneducated, although it will always be a pinch.

It is a bit of a help to my often poorly-considered generosity that things outside the house have been disappearing. Our door matt.  A solar-powered lamp, which was a gift and was inadvertently left outside to charge, vanished overnight. The original flashlight—“It is broken and was thrown away.” Who knows if it was thrown or simply taken away? I bought another for the night guards—now that is gone. Both pairs of Croc-type shoes we kept on the back porch to walk in the garden are gone. A pillow was gone from the wicker couch on the front porch, but I found that today on one of the guard’s chairs in the guard hut. All of the kindling I purchased to use as a charcoal starter for the rare occasions we grill was stored under the wicker couch; none is left. And when I went to collect my boxer shorts—you don’t ask the laundress to wash your boxer shorts—this morning from the line, one of the pairs was missing and two clothespins were left.  Yesterday Linda noticed that a 5’ high papaya tree in full bloom that we have been watching has been carefully removed and the hole filled. It is irritating. They are “guards” but there are times when they don’t overlap and in the middle of the night they sleep, naturally, in the hut by the front gate. Are they stealing this stuff? Is someone coming over the wall, which isn’t difficult as I’ve done it twice after I’ve forgotten my gate key? A bit of the social contract is torn but I don’t have much interest or energy to mend it, if that were even possible. I’ll talk with them about it tomorrow night.  The small larcenies of every day.

Malawi has the lowest per capita income of any country in the world, according to the World Bank. The UN extreme poverty line is the equivalent of $1.90/person/day. Malawi is $0.68/day, and that figure includes people making good salaries as well. Not much is produced or saved here. Subsistence is the way of life and food, health, education, and other securities are grossly lacking. Many people cannot afford to come to our clinic monthly because they live at some distance and the minibus fare is $1 or $1.50. Malnutrition and stunting are prevalent—while some older people are overweight, most people here are very slender, both from physical labor and caloric deficiency. 18 million people to become 34 million 16 years from now.

Mozambique, with only 11 million more people, has >7x the land area. And lots of mineral wealth. Trains filled with coal regularly come to the northern port city of Nacala from the mines in western Mozambique.  Huge coal-carrying freighters are lined up outside the port (5 or 6 at a time) to load and carry the coal to India. Delhi’s air is supposedly worse than Beijing’s; they just haven’t publicized it until recently because then they would have been forced to address it.

I saw a very good documentary in a series at the Polytechnic University that a friend, a BBC journalist, assembled and got the American Embassy to fund. It is called “The Worker’s Cup”. The companies building the stadiums and facilities for the 2022 Soccer World Cup in Quatar use desperate migrant laborers from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The money to be generated is estimated at $14 billion. The UN and Amnesty International shone a light on the inhuman treatment of the laborers and in response, to spiff up their images, the construction companies supported the assemblage of 22 soccer teams from the thousands of workers to compete in their own Cup series. Of course, like nearly every male in a developing country, each of the men had failed dreams of getting out of poverty via professional soccer. The government wouldn’t let journalists report on the working conditions but needed publicity of the Worker’s Cup to counter the evil image the businesses had spawned. So the filmmaker used coverage of the tournament as a way to access the men. What emerges is a heart-breaking portrait of life as a poor person from a poor country, the remarkable humanity of the laborers, and the cynical sop thrown to them. Ironically, because of the publicity the tournament generated, recruitment of laborers from various countries improved and it was overall a financial boon to the companies.  It is, I think, a metaphor for professional sports in general: much money for a very few owners and players, false hopes and promises, lots of damaged bodies and spirits, and a huge distraction from the real issues adversely affecting people’s lives.

I can see I’m in a downward spiral today. Moods here follow a sine wave curve. It is time to head home, which will happen soon. Given DT’s antics, I’m counting on the courts to cheer me up. It has been a great opportunity, as well as extremely painful at times, to work and to live here. As desperate as people are, they still dance, sing, drum, fall in love, work, and are not as violent as the disenfranchised in the US. A sweet little country which feels doomed, to me at least.


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