Second Vocational Essay
The eight weeks I spent in rural Zambia this summer changed how I look at the world. I learned about life in a rural village, poverty, and true happiness while I was there. These rural villages are incredibly remote which makes it difficult to build infrastructure to serve the local people. No paved roads go into these communities and during the rainy season they can be cut off for months. Building schools and finding teachers to teach in these schools is near impossible. Instead, Lifeline Energy and Chikuni Radio station, paired with the Ministry of Education of Zambia, broadcast school classes over the radio. Every outstation has at least one solar powered radio from Lifeline Energy and two or three mentors who facilitate the classes. Our research tried to help these mentors teach with assistance from the radio programs. My experiences there have shifted how I view the world and I’m still wrestling with how my views have changed and what those changes mean.
Recently I have struggled to understand the motivations behind my actions. Part of my vocational discernment process is attempting to understand what motivates me, what I am passionate about, and why I do what I do now. I have come up with countless questions countered by seemingly endless possibilities. However, I have begun to sift through my experiences in Zambia and take from them the turning points and moments that have shifted my worldview. For me, the most important part of this process has been trying to learn how my motivations have changed through this fellowship and how I will proceed within this new paradigm.
In Zambia, there seemed to be two options for a white woman: I could be an exploiter or an aid worker. The traditional system of dependency and aid has only brought westerners there for those two purposes. Tourists were rare and someone who was genuinely interested in learning about the culture even more so. Although I was not there working within the typical aid framework, I was grouped with the later category.
The second week we were there, we had the opportunity to visit Victoria Falls, or Mosi-oa-Tunya, “The smoke that thunders”. While we were at the bus station, a bustling location overflowing with new sights, smells, and sounds, about eight or nine people asked me if I was going to Malawi. I was confused because Malawi is not a popular tourist destination. I learned from Kristine, the head of Lifeline Energy, that Malawi was plagued by a series of terrible droughts that lead to disastrous famines. Many aid workers in Zambia were leaving Zambia and going to help in Malawi.
Ever since I was a young girl, I had expected to live that life. At the age of six, I declared that after college I would apply and spend two years in the Peace Corp. After that, my goal was to work in a household aid agency, such as the United Nations or UNICEF. I dreamed of living and working in exotic, far away places, meeting incredible people, and living a life of fulfillment and adventure. However, these dreams came to an abrupt end even before the fellowship began.
I knew that the traditional system of aid was broken even before I applied for the Global Social Benefit Fellowship. I had plans of working to improve the system. Yet I do not think I fully comprehended how collapsed the system truly was. Billions of dollars is distributed in aid money yet the number of people in poverty is not shrinking. The wealth gap is ever widening and the environmental degradation in developing nations has become alarming. Even an exemplary community such as Chikuni has benefited but never thrived from the money that has been donated from abroad. Millions of dollars has been funneled into the community and despite their best efforts; there has been little change. Of course Chikuni is doing much better than many other surrounding communities with their education system, the radio broadcasts, and the free health clinics; yet, the absolute and overwhelming poverty trudges on without significant change.
Living in Chikuni, I met inspiring people who toiled tirelessly day in and day out to improve the living conditions of the people in and around the community. Watching their hard work and the limited outcomes was frustrating. There was no lack of money, no lack of hard work, and no lack of effort, but the system was broken. That realization was difficult for me because it upended my strategic and streamlined life plan. I realized that I could not continue on that trajectory, I could not work within the broken system.
How to get around this complex problem is still a continually turning cog in my brain. Thus far, I just want to tear down the existing structure of aid, especially government-to-government aid. However, it takes an incredible amount of influence and power to change such a mammoth issue. People like giving to charities; it makes them feel good about themselves and their contribution to the world. The vast majority of these people are so incredibly out of touch with the true needs of the worlds poorest that it is devastating to hear, “Stop giving away your money, it isn’t doing any real good”. That statement is false; charities all around the world help people everyday. Lifeline Energy brings education to thousands of African children every day. But the system needs to change; the values need to be revolutionized. An overhaul of the current system may be in the cards for the near future, but in my eyes it seems quite unlikely.
Luckily for me, I was introduced to a variety of alternatives through the fellowship classes, including social entrepreneurship. I strongly believe that social entrepreneurship is one of the leading ways to empower people and lift them out of poverty. The job training programs and education in Zambia were the two aspects of life there that helped me find hope for the future. Helping people to help themselves is a crucial aspect that most aid agencies miss. The two programs that I believed were the most impactful in Chikuni were the job training opportunities and the life skills radio programming. These two programs gave people the tools to help themselves and help others.
I have also come to the conclusion that the world revolves around money. Money means power and power means potential for change. Working against a large corporation is daunting and nearing impossible in the world today. But imagine a company equally as large and powerful that had a social mission. Social enterprises need to be the new giants of change and an overwhelming force to reckon with. I know there is a bright and impactful future for the world of social enterprises and now is a time when I can use my skills and experience from Zambia to change the world in a meaningful way. Yet I still question why I want to change the world so badly.
Whenever I think about what motivates me to help people, I am overwhelmed with a series of questions before I can even begin to ponder an answer or two. How will I feel on my deathbed? Do I carry some sort of privileged, well-educated guilt? A modern day version of the white man’s burden? Do I feel superior to these people? Or pity them? Do I genuinely believe I am making a difference or is this some sort of selfish avenue to make myself feel better? These tough questions plague me and I am sure that many of them will be unanswerable throughout most of my life, yet I strive to find some version of the answer as I choose my future.
One important realization that I have had is that no matter what avenue I choose, I can make people’s lives better. I am slowly beginning to find comfort in allowing myself to live in the United States, live within the mainstream capitalist society, and still give my life some sort of meaning or value. The concept of the civically engaged citizen eases me to sleep. Americans all over the country are influencing their future through voting, collective community action, and sustainable living. Perhaps I could be content with living “the good life” that Plato discusses. I could try to bring happiness to myself and those around me and still promote a conscious awareness of our global community.
The one thing I am sure about is my passion for environmental conservation. Perhaps conservation and bringing nature back to humans is where my greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need. The agro-forestry gardens in Zambia and the vast wilderness of Africa reminded me that humans have always lived within nature and that natural world is all around us no matter where we are. There does not need to be a separation between urban nature and rural nature. Perhaps I can devote some of my life to bringing nature back into urban spaces through green architecture, urban gardening, or local community action. Encouraging people to vote with their dollar and influence the future of commodities and markets may be the avenue that best suits my passions and skill set. Today, that is my answer to the multitude of questions milling around inside my head, but you never know, my answer may be completely different tomorrow – and that is okay.