The items on the agenda for last week’s staff meeting were nothing new: problems procuring Internet dongles for staff; insurance issues; the status of recruitment for two open positions. I took up my usual position in the back of the conference room, one ear tuned to the meeting, the rest of my sensesfocused on replying to the bevy of emails that had flooded my inbox since last night. But when the head of the office Social Welfare Committee took the floor, something caught my attention.According to the Committee head, three of my fellow staff members had received bereavement funds from the Social Welfare Committee for the loss of a family member over the past month.
Three people inan office of thirty.
Ten percent of the office staff.
To me, this was a staggering percentage. But as I scanned the faces of my coworkers, it seemed I was the only one shocked by the statistic. And when you look at Malawi’s demographic indicators, you can start to understand why. Average life expectancy in Malawi is 54, compared to 78.5 in the United States (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/lifexpec.htm). Malawi’s crude death rate (total number of deaths per year per 1000 people) is 13, placing it just outside the top 20 countries with the highest crude death rates (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2066rank.html). Maternal mortality in Malawi is 675 per 100,000 live births, one of the highest rates in among all African countries (http://www.who.int/countryfocus/cooperation_strategy/ccsbrief_mwi_en.pdf), while the under 5 mortality rate (http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/malawi_statistics.html) in Malawi is 92, compared to 8 in the US (http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/usa_statistics.html).
The effect of high mortality rates on development has been well documented, particularly in regards to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which has eliminated vast swaths of the population aged 18-35 in many African countries. But what effect do these rates have on the mentality of a people and a nation?What happens when three deaths among coworker families over the course of a month is the norm, or at least not out of the ordinary?
When the head of the Social Welfare Committee read out the names of those who had received bereavement funds last month, his face was placid, his tone neutral, as if he were checking off items from a grocery list.Here in Malawi, death is a part of life, discussed as matter-of-factly as the weather or the price of fuel.One could look at this as a positive adaptation, a coping mechanism that allows people to move forward with their lives in the face of life’s harsh realities.
But part of me wonders if it is in fact maladaptive, if becoming so inured to death infuses a certain amount of fatalism and apathy into the culture and people. If life – to put it in Hobbesian terms – is so nasty, brutish, and short, what’s the point in planning for the future? Over and over again during my time working in Africa I have been stunned and completely frustrated by this pervasive lack of forethought and planning. In Ethiopia, government workers told me at the eleventh hour that the permits for my Masters research were not valid, even though those permits had been in their hands for over two months prior. In my current placement in Malawi, I may have to leave the country next week since my organization still has not secured my temporary employment permit, even though they have known since May that I would need one. It’s not hard to see the impact this lack of forethought could – and, in all likelihood, does – have on public health and development efforts in Malawi and throughout the continent.
In a recent post in The Enterprise, Charlie Fiske talks about the many challenges – or “lessons to be learned” as he so diplomatically puts it – facing an expat living and working in Malawi, chief among them this lack of forethought that I’ve mentioned.
So many times I simply want to say, “What were you thinking?“… “If you are traveling 200 kilometers don’t you think it makes sense to have more than 3 liters of fuel on board before making the trip?”
Ultimately, Fiske concludes that any change in planning or forethought “needs to be initiated by Malawians themselves…change has to be initiated by those who live here.”
The question for me, though, is this: How canforethought and strategic planning be instilled in a country where sickness, death, and the fatalism they foster are so pervasive? How can we flip the switch and turn apathy into action?