Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Twenty Questions (and then some)

To recap: I've found a nice place to live, started my Chichewa classes, and discovered that the “Warm Heart of Africa” isn't always so warm.

For my first two months, I'm focusing primarily on language lessons: six hours a day, five days a week. On the weekends, however, I'm starting to get out to the nearby villages to visit some development projects. I have a self-appointed “field assistant”---a young man who works for a Malawian wildlife conservation organization---whom I met on my second day in Zomba while eating lunch at a hotel near the language center. Although azungu (white foreigners) are hardly a novelty in Zomba, we are still a source of much curiosity, and a white woman, particularly one on her own, attracts quite a lot of (often unwanted) attention. I'm not sure I'll ever get used to the lack of anonymity and privacy that comes with being a white woman in Malawi. D., my field assistant, was actually one of my less intrusive encounters. He had come to the hotel to have lunch with his 1-year-old nephew for whom he is the primary caregiver (both parents have died). Like many Malawian children, the nephew looked at me with a mixture of wonder and fear. I smiled and tried a few Chichewa greetings, which only confused the child but impressed D., who was then curious about where I had learned Chichewa and why I was in Malawi. Remembering that I'm here as an anthropologist, I put aside my natural aversion to chatting with strangers. I explained that I had come to Malawi to study international volunteering and development. D. said that he knew some international volunteers in the area and offered to put me in touch with them. So we exchanged phone numbers.

I thought that he would simply pass on my number to the volunteers or give me their numbers, but when he contacted me, D. said that he had arranged some meetings and would take me to the volunteers himself. Well, D. hasn't exactly followed through on that plan (so far, I've only had a brief meeting with two volunteers). But he has been helpful in taking me to visit what he terms the “real” Malawi and to speak with villagers about current development efforts.

Over the past four weekends, I've visited about a half dozen villages in the wider Zomba area. Although these field trips haven't exactly pertained to my research project, I've been gathering some useful background information. As I write this, I'm struggling to summarize some of that information, both because my interviews have left me with more questions than answers and because I'm wary of making any generalizations based on just a handful of visits.

What has emerged for me is a rather messy knot of various strands of discourse (pardon the jargon) on development and poverty. The Malawian government, and its ruling party the DPP, are intent on promoting Malawi's success as a developing nation---particularly its move in the past three years from food-aid recipient to food exporter---and downplaying any problems. In the media, the government has been strongly countering claims of an impending famine, although it did acknowledge about two weeks ago that some Malawians still experience hunger. Still, the government claims that the famine “rumors” are being spread by its political opponents and by vendors who want to inflate the price the maize.

Most of the local villagers with whom I've been speaking, however, are adamant that they are on the verge of famine and that conditions are only going to get worse next year because of rising prices for food and fertilizer. Their rainy season harvest, during which they plant their largest fields and on which they rely for the bulk of their food for the coming year, was largely a failure because of heavy rains that swept away the fertilizer and soil. Moreover, they say that the much-tauted fertilizer subsidies, which have been given much of the credit in Western media for Malawi's turnaround, came too late in the planting season to be of any use. Interestingly, these villagers don't doubt that Malawi is producing plenty of food, but they say that the food isn't being distributed to those who need it.

Of course, just as the government has a vested interest in promoting its view of Malawi's development, these villagers have their own agendas in promoting their views. The cynical scholar in me constantly questions whether I'm getting a hyperbolic tale of hunger in hopes that I'll be moved to give money or whether some people have just become so accustomed to saying that they are poor and hungry that the narrative comes from rote (much like the moaning of the “poor” graduate student---pace my fellow grad students). But then, twisting myself into mental knots, I wonder whether my cynicism is the product of a neoconservative, neoliberal Western mentality that has seeped in against my will or a defensive mechanism from my guilt that I'm asking a lot of questions about development and poverty but not actually doing anything to solve the problems.

When I ask the villagers what they need to prevent famine and to improve their lives, almost all of them tell me the same two things: fertilizer and access to markets (or training on how to access markets). Although I don't doubt that fertilizer and access to markets are important for rural development, I'm intrigued that so many people have given identical answers and I wonder what is shaping their ideas. Which then leads me along another set of strands in the knot: the development agencies and their program agendas.

Many of the villages that I've visited have implemented irrigation projects. (I don't have a sense of how widespread irrigation is; irrigation seems to be a pet interest of D.'s and he has been steering me toward these villages.) The irrigation projects usually center around agricultural “clubs” that have been formed and trained by either the Malawian government or the European Union's development program. The projects seem to be succeeding in at least bridging the gap between rainy seasons (although I've gotten opposing answers to whether the irrigation plots are sufficient to make up for the poor harvest this year, and the plots are generally too small to produce enough for both consumption and sale). Several of the projects have maize (chimanga) that will be ready to harvest in July or August (as well as various vegetables---but only maize is considered “food”), and most of the farmers I spoke to planned to do another planting right away to get another harvest just before planting for the rainy season.

The irrigation projects seem promising, but again, I'm led to more questions: Is this a location-specific solution? (As I noted in the previous post, Zomba has plenty of water from mountain streams, but other areas are much further from reliable water sources.) Can it be implemented on a larger scale or would that lead to diminishing returns (i.e., if more people tapped into the streams for irrigation, would the distribution of water become too small to sustain the projects)? What are the effects of irrigation on water supply for other household needs? How will local communities negotiate water rights in a large-scale irrigation system?

I'll allow myself one generalization from these visits: The more I visit various development projects, the more I realize that achieving small-scale, short-term improvement in rural development is relatively easy: take a village, provide some basic agricultural inputs (fertilizer, irrigation, hybrid seeds), and voila! But as one economist I spoke to argues, none of these projects are succeeding in really moving people out of poverty. The people in that village will have enough to eat so long as they receive free or subsidized inputs, but they still aren't able to generate the income needed to participate in the market or to achieve economic independence and mobility. And they are still very vulnerable to even small shocks---heavy rains, drought, pests---that threaten to push them from survival to famine. Furthermore, the development of that village does not benefit anyone outside of the village; localized projects don't have spillover effects.

The ever-vexing, billion-dollar question remains: How do we raise income levels across a substantial portion of the population so that people in Malawi, as well as other developing nations, are able not just to survive but to thrive? How do achieve large-scale, long-term economic development, rather than small-scale, short-term humanitarian interventions?

Despite Jeffrey Sachs' grand proclamations, I don't think we've found an answer yet.

This post really took a much more depressing turn than I had intended. And I have to admit that my gloomy outlook on economic development might be colored more than a little by my current gloomy mood. Nearly five weeks in (almost half way!), I'm having another bad case of homesickness and really wondering how I'll cope with a full year in the field. The biting ants have returned several more times---each time in greater number---and they are being joined by grasshoppers and cockroaches seeking shelter from the cold. And the little, everyday inconveniences and annoyances are building up: not having enough hot water for a really decent bath; not being able to get my hair really and truly clean; not getting a decent night's sleep because I'm worrying about ants coming in the windows or lizards falling from the ceiling (yes, one did) or the monkeys are being loud; eating the same horrid foods day after day---and not really having much choice in the matter (although on the plus side, I'm losing weight!); not having any truly clean clothes; and so on and so forth. And I know that these are really petty complaints and that as an anthropologist, I'm supposed to be living like a Malawian and embracing the social and cultural differences---trying understand how these differences in lifestyles shape and are shaped by differences in perspectives, attitudes, beliefs. But much of the time, I'm just counting the days until I get home to hot showers, snuggles with my dog, vast supermarkets, reliable communication networks, cable television, a washing machine, and a strict division between me and the insects.

And, so, in addition to my research questions, I'm struggling with some personal ones: Is anthropology the right field for me? If not, then what? Should I find a new research topic? Can I still pursue this one but in a different way? (I am really excited about my research topic---I'm just not thrilled with spending a year in Malawi to do the research.) Am I a bad anthropologist or just human?


At 8:55 AM , Blogger nwt said...

Based on the analytical portion of the post, you strike me as a very good anthropologist! So I'll go with door # 2---you're just human. When I was in the Philippines, I got used to the 'everyday inconveniences' after a month or so. But then toward the end of my 9 months I experienced a relapse of being distressed by them. So I think it has to do with how long one is there and the unconscious expectations and tolerances one has based on that time-horizon. In other words, if you go there for a year you'll probably not be bothered by those issues as much b/c you won't have your upcoming return home shimmering in the back of your mind all the time. (This of course doesn't apply to your feelings about Rowan, which may have no relation to the 'time horizon'.) Does that make sense? Anyway, glad to read that you've been so productive. Keep up the good work!

At 10:58 AM , Blogger artemisia said...

I loved this post! you are doing a wonderful job of approaching so many questions. I think that you are coming up with more questions than answers means you are on the right track. I think good scholarship always ends up heavy on the questions, and considerate of any answers.

If you are truly excited about your topic but have reservations about the fieldwork, I would dare say you are simply human trying to do good scholarship.

However, how much field work will you be expected to do once you've finished the Ph.D.? Is that something to consider?

At 11:26 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are not a bad person for questioning whether or not you want to continue in anthropology. It is a long, tough road with few benefits and honestly it is not that noble a profession anymore. If you are interested in something else, like working for international aid projects in some capacity, then you owe it to yourself to fully explore those other options.


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