I don't know everything about development. And like, no one does.
Sure, I know more than the majority of people about international development. I know much more about its theory, history and its practice than my friends. However, there are people that will always know more, and be better in these field than I am.
And because of that, I want to make it a frequent happening on this blog to have guest bloggers chime in on topics that are prevalent and on which they are experts.
So without further ado, I would like to introduce JACOB WINTER.
Jacob's the hottie on the left. Jacob grew up as the son of missionaries in Japan, and we met when he came to the University of Waterloo in 2012 to study International Development with me. While I didn't know him quite as well in the beginning, we became constant classmates as time went on and he's a guy I have to say I admire and respect greatly.
He's a fabulous student of development, a man who has the ability to think deeply and critically about things in a ways that I would have never thought of. He also has the work ethic and strength of character and faith for him to reach any heights he wishes. He is a man I believe who is after God's own heart.
He's a brilliant guy, and he has brilliant things to say. For our final capstone presentations at the end of our undergrad, all University of Waterloo International Development students had to present something about either our placement overseas or our thesis.
This was what he did, and he's given me permission to show you guys. Here's the video of him doing it in case you want to watch! And if you'd rather read (like I often do), the transcript of his presentation is below.
Enjoy the wise musings of Jacob Winter friends. You'll be seeing lots more of him 'round these parts.
Read more at his blog: Noble No More.
How do you use power well? | by Jacob Winter
The night before I left for Malawi, I was sitting in my living room talking to my Mom, and she told me a story.
She told me about when I was four years old, when my family moved to Chicago for my Dad to go to grad school. Every week, my Mom and I would take the train downtown to visit him on campus. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Chicago, but when you come up from the subway downtown, there’a a lot of homeless people- shaking change cups or hawking newspapers.
It was probably the first time that I came face to face with people who had pressing and overwhelming needs. And the difference I saw between their lives and mine really upset me.
There’s a journalist- Andy Crouch- who argues that “the powerful have a hard time seeing their own power and its effects." Power is hidden, especially to the people that have it. That moment, walking up the stairs from the subway, the system of unequal power was exposed, and I saw my place within it. My power was mapped.
My Mom, who grew up in a bungalow in Hamilton, was understandably nervous to have her four year old interacting with Chicago’s street people. But to her credit, she helped me engage rather than avoid. She told me “We can’t feed everybody”, but every week she would pack an extra lunch and we would give it to a certain lady we saw at one corner.
Of course, that’s a long time ago now, but in many ways arriving in Malawi felt a lot like coming up from that subway station, walking up the stairs and coming face to face with my own power, my place in the system. Being asked for money while walking down the street was a daily occurrence. Malawi is extremely poor- by some counts the poorest in the world- and as you can see, there’s a massive difference to come into this context as a Canadian. I quickly discovered that as a man with white skin, I had enormous power. Regardless of when I arrived, I got served lunch first, I got called ‘boss’ by people twenty years older, and after dinner, I always got handed the bill.
Based on sex and race traits that I am unable to change, I had power. There were several moments this year that, like walking up from that subway station, mapped the contours of my power- moments when the the hidden dynamics were revealed. I want to tell you about three specific moments.
The first came not long after I moved in. I lived in a giant house with a beautiful garden and a high wall. We had a gardener, a maid and security guards. This seemed like such exorbitant luxury. What kind of 22 year old has security guards?
At first I acted as though blind to the differences. Every day I would stop and take ten minutes to talk to our guards. They became my first and finest teachers of Chichewa. Every night I would make it a little further in conversation and we laughed at the words I forgot. A couple times I taught them how to use my computer, and we took these brilliant pictures together. One morning, after a few weeks, one of our night watchmen- Matthew- gave me a folded letter:
“I Matthew would like to inform you my friend and my boss Jacob that my wife are [sick] she was at Kamuzu centre hospital since last night. The main point of writing this letter I want you to borrow me money of MK 2,000 by month end. I will give [back] your money.
Please Jacob help me things are not good please help me Jacob.”
My power, which had been hidden in our interaction up till then, was suddenly clear. Two thousand kwacha is five dollars- almost unnoticeable for me. Yet for Matthew this was close to a life or death situation. I had a choice to make. How would I use my power?
And while I did choose to trust Matthew’s words and respect his vulnerability, the moment also revealed the limitations of my power. While I was happy and able to give Matthew the money for his wife’s hospital bill, I was powerless to change his income, his wife’s susceptibility to disease, or the drought that was driving up food prices.
This too, had been hidden. I couldn’t feed everybody.
Over subsequent months, I got to know the guards better. Our interactions uncovered different places where I had power and they did not- resources, education, mobility, technology. Salaries for guards are pitifully low, maybe $75 a month, with bosses and managers taking a cut. Most of the guards sent a good chunk of their paycheck home to their parents and siblings, leaving them with little for their own needs and families.
To supplement these meager salaries, our night guards would work during the day, moulding bricks or driving Malawi’s ubiquitous bicycle taxis.
After a full day of shoveling clay or pedaling up hills, staying up through the night to stand watch is impossible. A couple nights we arrived home late and found ourselves locked out, the guards asleep in their small hut. So we talked to WUSC, our host organisation, to see if they could gently ask the guard company to remind their staff to be awake to let us in. We made it clear that we didn’t want them to get fired or in trouble, just that someone who spoke Chichewa could explain our situation to them.
When I got home that afternoon, the guards were gone, replaced by a new set faces. When I greeted one, Muli Bwanji, How are you? He stood straight and saluted blankly. Our old guards had been relocated.
It’s a strange moment. Those of you who were responsible for my safety are probably relieved. But I was upset, and it took a while to figure out why. Yes I had lost some friends, but that was only part of it. I eventually realized that the interaction had revealed something crucial, it was hidden to me, but obvious to them the entire time— that behind all our Chichewa lessons, conversations about our loved ones, behind every cautious appeal for Malaria medication was the reality— “I could have you removed anytime I wanted”.
Suddenly my power was transparent, it’s awful shape and size mapped for me to see. How could I pretend to have a meaningful relationship with someone who I could have removed? This was a totally different kind of power, and I had leveraged it to increase my personal security. I recognize that the situation was complicated, but I couldn’t help but feel that I hadn’t used my power well.
Life went on and I slowly started getting to know the new guards, but the question continued to haunt me: “All this power and privilege- how do I use it well?
The closest thing I have to an answer came just a few weeks before leaving Malawi. I got sick, and spent a whole day in bed coughing, and when I went back to work the next day, I felt awful. So after work I decided to head to a clinic. A bus got me halfway there, and I had to walk the last fifteen minutes.
As I walked, suddenly behind me came Matthew on his bicycle- a total coincidence. I hadn’t seen him for months, and I learned that he was now guarding at the president’s house. I asked about his family and then told him I was going to the clinic.
Horrified that I would be walking, he told me to get on the bike, and taxied me the rest of the way. When we arrived, I offered to pay and he looked and me and said “no. Jacob,” them looking down he added “this is your bicycle”.
And for just a moment, things were different. My money had no value compared to his generosity. The hidden dynamics of power were again clarified, but this time I had little power- sick and weak, with no way to get where I wanted to be. And Matthew had a bicycle, the ability to get me where I needed. How did he use his power?
“This is your bicycle.”
Most days, Matthew used his power to cart people around for absurdly small amounts of money. But to me, he said “this power that I have, it isn’t for sale. It is for you.”
And it’s only a moment. right? He left me at the gates of one of the best clinics in the country, and I left him cycling off, now late for the cold dark shift of the night watchman. But like the moments before, the sheet had been pulled back and power was revealed. Power that was not hoarded or manipulated, [grasped or gripped], but [given] for the sake of another.
So how do you use power well?
Come to grips with your own power. Expose it. Map its extensions and limitations. Walk up the stairs out of the subway station and do the uncomfortable work of meeting people different than you.
Recognize your limitations, admit that you can’t feed everybody, but be willing to engage anyway.
And once you’ve understood the sum of your power, leverage it for others. Whether it’s a thirty thousand dollar degree or an old bicycle, learn to get up under people and say, “this is for you”.