April 12, 2009


Today I'm sitting at the dining room table in the house where I live in Lilongwe. I'm drinking fancy peach tea I bought in the UK and listening to Adele on my laptop. I have a meeting across town in 90 minutes with field staff visiting from Mchjinji District in western Malawi. I have just enough time to finish typing summary notes from my meeting last Thursday with the Lilongwe District Water Officer. Excellent!

To my right is a large picture window that looks out over the backyard. I see Lucia, our 18 year old maid sweeping leaves and dried grass into piles for eventual disposal in the rubbish pit. A golf ball slowly lodges itself in my throat. My stomach feels itchy. My eyes well up a bit. I stare blankly at my computer screen for a couple minutes; at the notes I've started writing. I look back to Lucia. Wearing the same black skirt and blue fleece vest she wears every day. With a pregnant tummy that grows by the week. I see her all the time. I don't know why in this particular instance my questions start rising up like balloons.

Is she happy?

Is she worried about having a baby?

What would she have wanted to do if she wasn't illiterate, expecting, and our maid?

Does she ever wonder why I am me, and she is her?

I finally get to the questions I was trying extra hard to avoid.

Does that meeting with the Lilongwe Water Officer really matter?

Does the work I'm here doing really matter?

I sit quietly for a few minutes and let the questions float back down. Gradually, my pulse stops pounding in my ears. The golf ball dissolves. My eyes can focus again on my computer screen.

Because I think the work I’m doing really could make a difference.

But I keep on asking myself questions that are hard to answer.

What change am I influencing here?

How is this change benefiting people?

If Lucia asked me to explain my work to her, would she honestly approve?

It can be really tough working here while walking such a fine line between conviction and doubt. It wears on you to question your relevance so regularly. I can’t seem to shake my doubt – but, I think this actually might be a good thing.

My doubt constantly proofreads my choices. It gives me a check mark of motivation when, after deliberation, I confirm I’m still going in the right direction. It draws a big red circle around my blind spots; times when I let my ego get the best of me. I think my doubt keeps me honest with myself, and with the people I’m here working for.


  1. I second the above comment! the best! - jen

  2. You know you've really got something if you can seriously challenge your thinking ans still come out with the same convictions!

  3. it seems to me that constant doubt isn't healthy... but it is necessary to do good, honest development work. that's a tough one all right.
    well, don't be too hard on yourself all the time. we're all rooting for you!

  4. I've been meaning to respond to this for ages - sorry for the delay!

    A heavy topic, Ashley - it might have the most weight in a writing I've read in a long time.

    "Because I think the work that I'm doing really could make a difference." To me, that line is the most important of the article - as long as that thought is what resolves every little conflict you're doing okay. If not - well, that'd be a bridge I'd cross when I came to it.

    Personally, I know I don't doubt enough - that fine line of mine is far too thick and I'm working on finding the center of it. In the work that you - we - do, it's arguably more important than any other feeling. It keeps us in check, you're right - but finding that precarious balance between a help and a hindrance is perhaps the most difficult thing we'll do. I simply feel that it's a good thing we find it difficult. If it were easy, well, we probably wouldn't be doing anything right.

    Hope I've added something in the above comments! If it counts, though, I agree with you.

    I think that the work that you're doing really does make a difference.