A Letter from a Family Member in Malawi

I am not a religious person yet I do believe in doing well to others in society and at home. Being a good person is much more than a cloth to hide behind, its the act of doing good when no one is watching. I try my best, yet not perfect. I received an email from my cousin who is in Malawi at a Jesuit Refugee camp and his perspective makes me think. Do I live in excess? Can I do better? Who can I help?

Hello Family,

I hope everyone is doing well. As you are all preparing for winter – putting on the boots, bundling up and sipping hot coco – I want you to know that I am sweating my ass off and swatting mosquitoes. It is the beginning of the hot season here and people are now preparing their fields for the first rains.

I know I haven’t written in awhile, so I thought I would sit down and give everyone an update. A lot of what I have included comes from my journal, so please forgive me if it is too introspective, heady or manifestoish. I spend a lot of time alone here. Besides, writing is how I process my experience and it gives you some insight into how I see the world. When studying philosophy in Chicago, it was taught that a rational thinker is supposed to be as clear, unbiased and objective as possible. To a certain degree I think this is true. But here, in the real world, outside the university, it seems the tables are turned. It seems that we all see the world through different lenses. The question then, for us, is: What lens are we wearing to see the world? Here is a view through my lenses.
My first two months here have been an emotional rollercoaster—up, down, up, down, down, up. I am not sure what the final ratio of ups to downs is, but, thank God, I think the tracks are starting to level out, or at least not be so dramatic. It is amazing how human beings can adapt to almost anything (I’ve certainly experienced this with the refugees). The question for me, though, is not about adaptability – whether or not I can survive (I can) – but rather it is about flourishing – whether I belong here or not. Or spiritually put, whether or not this is where God wants me to be. I have struggled with this question a lot because (a) it can become extremely narcissistic, quickly devolving into a sporadic or fleeting quest for personal happiness (different from grace, joy or consolation); and (b) it can become a question of codependency: does the overwhelming need of others keep me in a place that I do not belong? In Jesuit language we call these “questions for discernment”, and to avoid the pitfall of the ego (narcissism and codependency), we ask not where am I supposed to be but where does God want me to be. And as subjective as God can sometimes be (we mistaking ourselves for God), if we ask this question honestly and are open to the response, then at least we can replace the “I” of the ego with the “Other” of something beyond ourselves. To do this, I think, requires interior freedom and time, both of which I am struggling to find. So until then I am just hanging out, doing what I can and enjoying my time.

The hardest part of this discernment is that I love the work – kicking it with the refugees – but do not feel very Jesuit. Politically, JRS Malawi is complicated beyond belief. It also has a history of hostility towards Jesuits, which makes it feel more like a NGO than a Jesuit institution. The good news, however, is that the new country director is pro Jesuit and very supportive. She is my best friend here.

Hanging out with the refugees has been a heartbreaking and humbling experience. Most people couldn’t imagine the suffering that goes on inside a refugee camp, because if they could they could never live the same. I’ve seen more suffering than you can shake a stick at: a seven year old physically and mentally disabled girl who had been raped; orphans whose parents have been killed; a child who fell into pot of hot cooking oil and whose private parts are burned and chin is fused to his neck; thousands of people starving to death; and people dying senseless deaths because they do not have adequate access to healthcare or food to take their medication. Recently I have made it my mission to visit an older man who suffered a stroke and is now dying. I have no idea what I am doing or why I should choose him out the thousands who are suffering, but I am trying to nurse him back to health and lift his spirits so that he can at least die with some dignity. The saddest part is that he has lost control of his bowels and is trapped in his mud wall room, and when I go to lift him up, his blanket is soaked in shit. In a refugee camp you certainly get over your phobia of germs.

One thing you come to realize is that most of this suffering is manmade. In philosophy the problematic question for believers is why does an all-powerful and all-loving God allow people to suffer? This, although valid, I think, is escapism, because it fails point the finger of responsibility at who is really to blame. Poverty is created and imposed by man. And as far as material suffering goes, which is most of the world’s suffering, the onerous is on us humans, not God.

That said, the camp is also filled with an unquenchable joy. When I walk down the narrow paths between the mud and grass thatched houses, the kids run up to me, give me a hug and yell masungu (white man) while their mothers stand at the door waving with smiles as big as the African sun. If you ask them where their joy comes from, without exception, they will say from God. Marx said that religion was the opiate of the masses – a drug to keep the social order of injustice – and my response is: So what. Who am I to doubt the faith of so many toothless smiles? I think Marx would have had a hard time looking at these people and saying that you are all wrong, you’re addicted to a drug. As one refugee said, “For exiles, our only hope is God, divine providence.”

It is hard not to lose hope here. Every day, when you think you have seen it all, you are sucker punched in the gut with more suffering. When people ask if I am optimistic that things will change or get better, I say “No.” I am not optimistic that things will change, especially because the refugees aren’t even the poorest of the poor. Malawi is expecting a food shortage this year and it is estimated that 1.5 million Malawians will experience famine. When the whole system is fucked – corruption, greed, exploitation, etc. – and no one in the First World is willing to sacrifice or change their consumption habits, how can one be optimistic? I am a “hopefulist”, not an optimist, which I define as working you’re hardest to kick injustice’s ass and praying harder that God will take mercy and “fill the hungry and send the rich away empty.” If this sounds like a revengeful indictment on the rich, it’s not. It’s just hard to see other human beings live with so little when you know that, because of no making of their own, others live with so much. I often find myself praying for both rich and poor: “Lord, I pray for those who go without and for those who live in excess.”

As you can probably tell, there has been a lot interior activity going on and there are lots of lessons I still have to sift through. When I get on a role, it’s hard to stop. This, I know, can come off strong and I can tend to overstate things a bit. But hopefully this reflects more passion than fanaticism.

Going back to the discernment question, where does God want me to be? For now, I think it is here. How do I know this? Well, it certainly is not because I’ve heard the voice of God say “Travis, I want you in Malawi working with refugees.” (When people say things like this I usually think they are crazy, because in my experience rarely [okay never] does God speak with such certainty. And the only people I know who would say God does are fundamentalists and suicide bombers, both of which I think are the two sides of the same coin.) Rather, I know that God wants me here because, besides not having interior freedom to make a good discernment, the refugees aren’t done teaching me the lesson I was sent here to learn. What is the lesson? Well, awhile back I wrote this in my journal:

Depravity makes you grateful for everything. These are the words that echoed through my head as I walked to work this morning, kicking up the red dusty soil in three day worn clothes. I was happy and grateful. I have come to believe that it is simplicity, not things, which our consumptive spirit needs. But how hard do we bite, claw and fight for a little larger piece of the pie, thinking that this is what really satisfies our hungriness. Pope Francis said it best when warning of the lures of consumerism: “You may be full but you’re not nourished.” Nourished by simplicity, the substance of happiness and gratitude, now that’s a thought.
I haven’t learned the lesson of simplicity yet. My fear is that if I came back tomorrow I would pick up right where I left off, and I don’t want to do that. Why? Because when I am living simply I feel centered and connected.

There is a saying by Newman that goes “He who has seen a ghost cannot be as if he had never seen it.” Well, the refugees have shown me the ghost, the haunting ghost of poverty, and because of this I cannot be as if I’ve never seen it. But unlike Newman I have never had good vision (My eyesight is 20/220.I am damn near blind). I think it is going to take me some time to really see the ghost here.


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