Really Good Deed

I think I am in a strange place right now. Although Swaziland itself certainly has its quirks, it is a figurative strangeness that has stumbled into me. I seem to be caught in some sort of expat purgatory, where I feel a small pull towards home with every email or card I receive from friends or every time I speak to my family on the phone; yet Swaziland has not yet released me from its firm and steady grip.

The past few weeks in Mbabane have been misty and gray; it’s the kind of soft rain you can’t block with an umbrella. You walk outside and become immediately coated in tiny, indistinct beads of water, and you must just give into it because there is no other choice. I’ve spent the last few weeks feeling generally soggy, like a sponge that has taken in its capacity.

I’m trying with every fiber of my being not to give in to a great temptation right now. That temptation is to quit the job I have at Save the Children. I feel that I am not yet done with Swaziland; not yet finished being here and knowing this place and these people, and with working towards something. Towards a change, even a small one. I think there is more that I want to do here before I leave.

But the work environment I find myself in is one that is defeating, and which deflates me on a daily basis. Most recently, I found out that my immediate supervisor is saying nasty things about me to the field officers, sometimes behind my back. But the worst is that he sometimes says these things in Siswati when I am right there, when I can’t understand his words and he knows it.

It’s not that this hurts my feelings so much. It would have crushed my feelings even five years ago, but not now. But it makes me understand the word “indignant” in a way I don’t think I did before. I’m in the worst kind of managerial position; I am in a place where I am the face of this project and of every decision that is made, yet I have almost no power over what actually happens. It would be difficult enough to be in this position in dealing with only one organization; but as it happens, I am coordinating four organizations with wide geographic spread throughout the country. This means four program managers, four finance officers, four monitoring and evaluation officers, and fifteen field officers. Yet despite the fact that I am trying my absolute best to make this project succeed, I find little support in my own organization for my work or the project itself. I am constantly confronted by my managers and asked to defend decisions which they themselves actually made mere months ago. And while this has alarming implications for my own state of mental health and level of stress, what truly worries me is that when I leave here, I will be the only one in the organization who learned anything about this grant, much less enough to be able to continue managing it. It’s not sustainable, for me or for the organization.

Someone told me recently that in the development world, it can sometimes take more courage to walk away from a project than it does to stick with it. To pull resources from a community or organization that doesn’t want you there, and to put those resources into a different place.  Although it was in the context of community-level work, that statement has hovered in my thoughts.

With every new battle at work, with every co-worker I have to harass over and over to do something that is part of their job to begin with, with every time a manager betrays or undercuts me, and with every night I close the office alone without a word from anyone, the urge to pull myself away from the situation becomes stronger and stronger. Yet there is something inside of me that will not allow it yet, and I wonder if I could think of it as anything besides a failure if I were to leave this position early. Is it a failure if I quit this job in favor of one where I feel I can make more of an impact? To be in a place where I myself feel more effective, even if it means leaving this project in the beginning stages?

The other day, I woke up feeling restless and exhausted after a night spent mostly lying awake mentally ticking off things I couldn’t forget to do at work the next day. I dragged myself out of bed and started getting ready for work, feeling sluggish and weighed down as I took a shower and got dressed, ate my breakfast, and brushed my teeth. I slowly climbed the hill to the street to wait for a kombi, bracing my umbrella against the relentless horizontal rain. A few moments later, a truck turned onto the main road where I was waiting and pulled over to offer me a ride, as occasionally happens while I wait for kombis there. The window rolled down, and a kind face peered out at me and said in accented English, “You are going to town?”

I hesitated for a second, but then climbed in with a grateful smile, the prospect of waiting for an indefinite amount of time for the next kombi in this weather, and in this mood, enough to propel me into the truck without too much further thought. As I settled into the front seat, the driver, an older gentleman who informed me he was Iranian-born and Filipino-studied, glanced over at me with a smile and began chatting with me, asking me what I was doing here and when I had arrived. We chatted as we inched towards town in the early morning traffic.

“I am born in Iran, and study in Phillippines,” he told me. “But now I am a Swazi. I come to this country in 1984.”

“Why did you come to Swaziland?” I asked him.

“Iran at that time – no good country. Philippines – no good country to be, too. So I take my wife from Philippines and we come to this beautiful Kingdom to live,” he replied, waving his hand vaguely at our surroundings.

I looked out the window, which was smudged with dreariness and fogged with the breathless rain. It gave a slightly impressionist tint to the world outside.

“So what kind of work do you do?” I asked as he slowed the car to ease over the series of large speed bumps that usually have me clutching my seat and belongings and have my head scraping the ceiling when I travel this road in a kombi. I marveled afresh at the convenience and comfort of having a car as I listened to him talk. I forget sometimes about things like that.

“Before we come here, we had to choose between having peace and having money, so we choose peace,” he said. “You can always make money. Me, at that time, I work as professor at a college, I have chickens and sell egg on the side of road. I do many things, and have plenty money to live in peace!”

I smiled at him and said that I would have chosen peace over money, too.

We stopped at a red light as we approached town, and I watched the flash of headlights snap past us. People trudged past us along the sidewalk and in the street, some of them holding umbrellas and others squinting into the rain as they walked. He turned to me and said, “To me, it doesn’t matter if you have money. It is important just to do good things in this world without thinking of the reward. Sometimes then good things happen to you later, but it’s ok if they don’t. You just have to do good things without expecting anything in return. Then it is really good deed you are doing.”

I turned to him and said, “That is just how I feel.” He smiled at me and then turned back to the road, tapped the gas pedal, and drove me all the way to the doorstep of Save the Children, saving me a walk in the rain.

As we drove the rest of the short distance to my office, I silently added, “And thank you for reminding me of that on a morning when I had forgotten.”

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