Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Charitable Research Paradox

Before I get ahead of myself, I am glad to say that I am finally working on my project. Since Monday, I have been drying carrots and tomatoes using various amounts of salt to assist in the dehydration process. I also started a small batch of sauerkraut that I am planning on using as a starter for a separate fermentation project, and pickled some carrots. My goal is to create a blend of preserved vegetables (dried, fermented, or pickled) that could help Malawian families consume more Vitamin A and C, as well as increasing the iron and zinc intake, but also ensure simplicity so that the families can continue to make and use it once the “azungu” (white people) go back to “Azungu-land”. To say I have made major headway would be an enormous overstatement but I am satisfied to state that I am started. To be completely honest, I have new ideas everyday but because everything I do has a three-month time limit, I have to focus on the things I believe will be the most important.

Tuesday was Election Day here in Malawi. Because of the elections, most of the SAFI staff was out of town meaning that us interns had plenty of time to focus on our own projects, read, study for the GRE (A few of us need to take it sometime this fall), and relax. It also allowed for me to develop a game plan, which is exactly what I needed to do.

Wednesday I had my first run-in with what I am going to call “The Charitable Researcher” paradox. Here is what happened: I was taking some measurements on the carrots and tomatoes that I had out in the solar dehydrators. The vegetables had been drying for a few days and I was finally ready to pull them out, put them in plastic bags, and store them until I am ready to make various dried vegetable blend. As I was pulling them out of the dehydrator, a young boy appeared behind me. Curious as to what I was doing, he strained his neck to see around me as I worked. To test the saltiness of the carrots, I tossed a small, dehydrated carrot round into my mouth and after deciding I liked the flavor and texture, offered a small taste to my little African shadow. Shadow, as I am going to start calling him, quickly devoured the carrot piece and gave me a bright smile of approval. Apparently my shriveled carrot nibs gained his seal-of-approval. Seemingly seconds after this interaction with Shadow, I found myself surrounded by the hands of other children.

I do not know how so many people saw my little exchange with Shadow but I now found myself in a predicament. With at least a dozen children surrounding me, I was left with only two choices; tell them no so I can hold onto my materials for my project or give up my materials and have to recover for the loss in a few weeks. How do I tell all of these severely malnourished children that I need these vegetables for my research? How can I work on my projects if I end up feeding all my materials to the people I am doing the projects for? What is the more Christ-like thing to do, tell them no but have my data and materials to improve their lives, or sacrifice my data and materials in order to meet their needs right now?

I eventually decided that at that particular moment, I wasn’t going to literally take food out of the hands of children. I grabbed just enough of each treatment to take a water activity reading but then let the kids take the rest. Their hands furiously grabbed for little chucks of carrot and tomato in what I can only describe as a feeding frenzy. On multiple occasions, I had to stop the pushing and the fighting over the food and establish calm among the crowd. One cannot imagine the way a small mob of undernourished children will fight over the dried, shriveled remains of 10 carrots and 6 tomatoes. Once all the scraps were gone, the children stood around me hoping I would have something else to give them. I looked at them and said I couldn’t give them anything else except for knowledge. I can teach them and their parents how to do what I did because one 23-year old can’t feed a village dried carrots. I don’t know if they understood me but they quickly scattered. I couldn’t find Shadow anywhere. 

The paradox of “physically feed them now” versus “theoretically feed them more later” is something I will have to face many times this summer. I know that I cannot always allow my research to be consumed before I am done with it, but I felt like this time around, it was to teach me the importance of what I am doing here. As a Food Scientist, I want to make sure nobody goes hungry. A basic knowledge of food processing can save lives, improve nutrition, increase lifespan, and completely change a person’s quality of life. Watching the kids fight over the samples is now ingrained in my memory. The idea that what I am doing here can vastly increase the quality of life has sunk in and I can see that my work has meaning. If I can just improve the lives of just one family or just one person’s life while I am here, I will consider that I huge success. I probably will not see much of the fruits of my three months of labor here but I have faith that things can and will change for these families.

Change occurs on a person-to-person level. Language evolves as we use it to communicate, transportation evolves as use it to meet with other people, technology evolves as we use connect ourselves to others and the World. Everyone has the capacity to improve something in the lives of others by focusing on individuals as opposed to the whole. If my generation wants to change the world, we will have to do it one person at a time.  

I hope that I can resume my projects without any problems, but I am so grateful to be here in Malawi. Every day is a new adventure. Some days are easy and others can be harder but there is no better satisfaction than knowing that you are exactly where you need to be.

(Once again, pictures are coming later)

1 comment:

  1. The magic of children appearing from nowhere when food is brought out;)