Hard to believe more than half a year has flown by since I left the sub-zero temps of Toronto in January to embark on this year long adventure as an advisor to the Malawian outpost of the Washington D.C. based global microlender, FINCA.

When necessities become luxuries

I want to start playing blog catch up by thanking my friends from “the Six” and other area codes who have kept me sane whilst I’ve made home in Malawi.

It’s a truly beautiful place where a 1Mbps download speed anyone in the Northern hemisphere takes for granted is an intermittent luxury. This, combined with “load shedding” (a curious euphemism that Escom, the national utility, uses to describe electrical blackouts — as if reliable power is an annoying load that must be shed time to time) makes the lack of Netflix all the more noticeable. Oh, and did I mention the water shortages? Planning the number of times you’re going to flush your toilet in advance (since your water reserves are limited) is an art, I shit you not.

Gotta love the news headlines… sure made Easter egg hunting much more challenging

Thankfully, the FINCA office where I work has its own generator, and when I’m at home, my trusty charge bank has plenty of juice to keep my Kindle’s backlight running. The stash of candles I keep makes reading the few books I brought along with me (and journalling) a very romantic affair in the evenings.

I don’t think I’ll ever read or handwrite with electric powered light again. I surmise that maybe after thousands of years, our brains evolved to be better thinkers, readers and writers under candlelight, with the flickering wick somehow juicing our neurons to go into overdrive. But denied the soft orange incandescent glow that used to guide minds in the past, I’m afraid we may have become stupider by the blue light of our laptops and smartphone screens (yes, I’m writing on a laptop right now for all you ad-hominem smartasses out there).

Truly though, it isn’t much of a stretch to say we are stupider because of our technology. There are entire teams of very smart people at Google and Facebook and other places with bean bag chairs as office furniture who are reverse engineering the mind to ensure that we are addicted to our screens and the apps on them. Last I checked maximizing the addictiveness of a product was the specialized craft of people like Tony Montana (you know, the drug dealer in Scarface) and big tobacco.

Not nice.

But these are trifles. Truly first world problems. When you don’t have a screen to stare at, you have to take in what’s around you. I mean, look at this view:

Blue Zebra Lodge, where the Malawian elite (and volunteers from Canada) meet to eat (and swim and relax)

Or this one from a regularly epic hike:

Photo credit to my hombre & Malawian mountain guide, Chinga

Perhaps no power, no Internet, and no Netflix (but some candlelight) is the necessary recipe to be able to read three or four books a month and cultivate some perspective, and I mean chapter books, yo. It is truly refreshing to change the intellectual diet from those idiotic lists we all like to read while maintaining the perception of our impressive productivity at the office. You know the literature I’m talking about. The ones with titles like “8 ways you can be a better person”, “12 ways to get ripped abs”, or “10 ways to get promoted”.

Look, I’d be a liar to say that tech hasn’t been a lifesaver. Obviously it would be much harder to stay in touch with friends via trans-Atlantic carrier pigeon, but unplugging for a while and having to actually listen to myself think instead of watching Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis go at it in “Billions” has been a blessing that I think we should all give a try.

A tale of two planets

That space will give you time to reflect on the state of affairs of the world — your world. By surrounding myself with simplicity (or the foul odour of a toilet that needs a good flush), it’s hard not to feel like I’m on a different planet — let’s call it planet microfinance — where Netflix has been replaced by watching a show that requires much less bandwidth.

It’s the show of planet privilege where the characters have water and electricity and LTE and lots and lots and lots of money. They all participate by Tweet, Insta, and Facebook, stirring themselves into a craze each time their Emperor, Donald Trump, demonstrates his geopolitical maneuvering genius. The characters also go crazy when a story surfaces that a lesser emperor named Prime Minister Trudeau, ruler of one of the small northern tribes of NAFTA, got improperly frisky at a ski resort more than two decades ago.

Minaj is as confused as you are

Of course my favorite characters of the show, Kim Kardashian and Nicki Minaj (et al.) keep everyone on the same wavelength by sharing their deep philosophies on social media. This delights much of the regular characters who feel like their lives might be meaningful as well if only they work hard keeping busy “at work” so they too can afford to take pictures in front of the same places Kim and Nicki (et al.) tell them to go and with the same things Kim and Nicki (et al.) tell them to buy.

But all is not bad on planet privilege. Some of the less known characters are quietly helping soothe a victim or two (or ten or fifty) of yet another mindless mass shooting, or helping an elderly, homeless, or sick person live out their lives with dignity, or teaching a young person to put down their iPad and go outside and play with a friend. The truly inconspicuous ones might be proposing an outlandish economic idea like the one that suggests extreme inequality the likes of which history has never before seen is a bad thing for everyone on both planet privilege & planet microfinance.

I mean, when I buy tickets to watch German opera singer Gloria Rehm in Lilongwe (Malawi’s capital city), I shouldn’t have to feel guilty knowing that those tickets would take an average Malawian four months wages to purchase. Likewise, the CEO of your company probably isn’t adding that much value to justify making your entire annual salary within four days.

Maybe something I’ve understood in the examination of differences between planet privilege and planet microfinance, is exactly its opposite. I discovered that both planets have much more in common at a deeper level, than they have different superficially.

For example, they have some fundamental suffering in common. Like planet microfinance, the worst disease of planet privilege is ignorance. On both planets, it is a phenomenon carefully engineered and curated to propagate a status quo that advantages the local overlords at everyone else’s expense. I really don’t think people wake up in the morning and decide to be stupid — they are taught to be.

Conversely, both planets also have a fundamental dignity in common. As in planet privilege, the most redemptive aspect of planet microfinance is courage. Like planet microfinance, where some people wake up in the morning knowing they will never be able to afford a car, people in planet privilege wake up in the morning knowing that they will never own a private jet like their boss’s boss’s boss might.

Nevertheless, citizens on both planets feel that they might move the needle just a little bit by teaching their 3 year old that they can have better aspirations than owning a car or flying in a private jet when they grow up. To inculcate the desire to have an education instead of a car in planet microfinance, or the desire to make the world a better place instead of having a jet in planet privilege, takes courage.

Ultimately, the world is a shared dream and dreams are reflections of our innermost desires and aspirations. The suffering and joy we experience are bounded only by the sophistication and beauty of our desires and aspirations. Thus, having vulgar aspirations contributes to a vulgar world. It’s vulgar to think that a CEO deserves to make 250 times the salary of people they lord over, much as it is vulgar to believe one can cure himself of HIV by having sex with a teenage virgin. Both beliefs, at their core, acknowledge an ignorant and false supposition that one human being’s dignity can be ranked above another’s. I’m afraid that this pernicious vulgarity seems to be multiplying in both planet microfinance and planet privilege.

So, at the midpoint, one thing I’ve learned is that the path to a better world begins in the process of elevating our individual desires and aspirations, and defending those aspirations and desires worth defending.

What are your aspirations? What desires and aspirations would you defend? e-mail me or leave a comment below.

That’s a wrap for me. Stay tuned in a couple weeks for a story about a ghost and a win for microfinance in Malawi.

PS. Here’s your reward for making it this far. Be like the elephant. Drink the water. Not the kool-aid.

It’s actually rare to see elephants since they’re endangered. Mostly because of people in Planet Privilege who desire ivory and people in Planet Microfinance who desire money. Global warming also has a part in it, supposedly (I mean global warming isn’t a thing for real, right?)