Times I cried in 2016

170x170bbThe first time was a surprise. Everyone was out of the office, so I decided to put on some music. With Malawi’s high data costs, I wasn’t really supposed to be streaming, but a band I liked had released a new EP. The empty office turned out to be more important than I thought. I sat enraptured as I listened to See the Love, by The Brilliance. The collection is a lament for all the pain, hate, and brokenness so overwhelmingly big and dark, and a cry for peace and love across difference. I found tears falling as I saw that pain reflected in my daily experience in Malawi.

The second time was embarrassing. I volunteered a kids club at my church in Lilongwe, and we finished the year by watching The Prince of Egypt. I was near the front, in charge of distributing popcorn refills to a crowd of kids crammed three to a desk in a stuffy classroom. I hadn’t seen this movie for years and found myself drawn into Moses’ journey. When Moses met God at the burning bush, I felt overcome by his sense of wonder.

Moses takes off his shoes and brings God all his excuses. “How can I stand up against all this evil? Who will listen to me?” Flames burst and Moses is drawn up into the light, reminded of God’s power and purpose. I shall be with you, Moses.

Moses goes home and shares his vision with his wife (more tears). I tried not to let the ten-year-olds see me but they kept coming up for more popcorn, oblivious to the drama before them. In Malawi, lonely and displaced, my emotions were always a little closer to the surface. As I sat watching God give Moses a mission to accomplish, I realized how much I longed for the same: to be awed by God’s power and drawn up into his purpose.

You can probably guess the last time. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you were there. I stood under a tree on a sunny summer morning, the dappled light covering a crowd of smiling friends. I turned to see a woman in a white dress with flowers in her hair. No tears came in that moment, but inside, the feeling was the same: drawn up in light, lost in the glory of it all. Here were hope and purpose.13315690_1254935667864331_931651089424059889_n

There were other times, too. Some are forgotten, and some are not yet right for sharing. But these three somehow sum up what 2016 was for me. It was a year where pain and hopelessness became deep and personal. It was a year I cried out in loneliness, longing for God to show me his plans. It was a year of joy as moments of truth and intimacy filled my life like dappled sunlight. This year I cried when I saw glimpses of home.

Here’s to Hoping

I’m on my knees, gingerly reaching under the bed. Blue latex gloves will protect me from filth but not a stray needle. The bed’s occupant left the shelter last night, and I’m cleaning out his possessions, getting the bed ready for the next guy.

Under the bed, tucked carefully away in the far corner, are a pair of shoes. Brown leather, well worn, but high quality; like your Dad might wear to church. I strain to grab them, walk down the hall, and throw them in the garbage.

Before I got hired at the men’s shelter, they asked me: “Working here, you are going to be dealing with mental illness, addictions, stress, and conflict. How are you going to cope?” In the interview, waxed eloquent about my morning meditation and church group, but as I drive home I can’t get the shoes out of my head. What kind of person throws out a homeless man’s shoes?

It isn’t just the shoes that haunt me. Over the last months, I’ve watched addiction, mental health issues, poor choices, and poor institutions leave people broken and empty. Images flash to mind:
A father frantically calling lawyers after his children were taken away. A teenager too nervous to sleep in the shelter; assault charges preventing his return to a group home. A senior on first name basis with ambulance attendants because the hospital is the only place where anyone will care for him.

What hope can I offer these people? How do I cope?

In Youth Work, Naomi Nichols describes how people experience the Ontario shelter system. She describes the shelter as a boundary community; a place where ‘the street’ and ‘the system’ meet. Nichols reflects a trip to the mall with a shelter resident who casually told stories of rape, abuse, and addiction. Nichols questioned how the teen could be so vulnerable in such a public setting. She realizes that this personal disclosure is a precondition for the teen to receive shelter and welfare. To cross the boundary and access social services, you must be vulnerable, intimate. At the same time, to offer support to those on the street, the shelter worker must be professional, impartial.

Nichols argues that this relationship is fundamentally jarring. The contrast between their intimacy and my impartiality pulls at me. But it has done more than just tug me from my comfort zone, it has left me struggling to find my footing. I watch the same people face the same problems over and over, helpless to intervene. I signed on to bring hope and healing, and now it seems that all my efforts might barely preserve the status quo. After a while, poverty is not jarring, it is wearing.

Prayer comes as an afterthought, a duty I’ve neglected. It seems irrelevant to the mundane world where I distribute blankets and dispose of old shoes. I don’t even know what to ask for. I hang so tightly to my desire to cope, but deep down I know I’m not enough.

Weary, I return to the one who promises to lift my burdens. Trust and rest remain distant hope rather than personal experience. My heart is still broken, my vision clouded. But as I close my eyes, a light breaks through.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

There’s hope here, too.

A note left at the front desk: “Dad, I forgive you. Please call.”. A late night conversation, “Will you pray for me?”. An unexpected visitor, “I’ve found an apartment and a job, thanks for being here when I needed it.”

I’m on my knees.

Getting Both Shoes On

Our results show heavy usage of the donated TOMS shoes; indeed, the modal response was that children in the treatment group wore the shoes every day of the week. However, our study finds that the donated shoes did not significantly reduce shoelessness and had insignificant impacts in most of our key categories [health, school attendance] that would indicate transformative impacts.

argentina_shoes_blake-copyThis is from Bruce Wydick et al’s study of TOMS in El Salvador, released last month. The economists’ advanced statistical analysis confirms the long-held suspicions of most practitioners: TOMS have no “transformative impact” on children’s health or education.

Despite this, TOMS is by many measures the most successful social enterprise of all time. TOMS has given away more than 50 million shoes and spawned a host of copycat operations. My friend Justin put it:

“TOMS may have missed the point in doing effective social good, but they absolutely nailed effective branding. They understood the need to parse a complex issue into a simple message…that’s why their motto, “one for one,” is genius. In just three words you know exactly what they do and you have a cause to believe in”

This puzzles and frustrates me. Bringing communities out of poverty requires nuanced understanding and complicated intervention. However, raising money to bring communities out of poverty requires simple messages and relatable solutions. We need land reform and electoral accountability, we give goats and shoes.

Wydick and his team get this. They recognize that in-kind donations of food and clothes play a huge role in helping people in rich countries connect with the people they are donating to. They understand that despite the best theoretical knowledge, organizations have no choice but to follow the practices that allow them to keep operating.

So instead of lambasting TOMS for naive programming, the researchers offer a set of strategies for organizations to do better.

Like most scholars, they address the importance of foregrounding local needs and reducing dependency. For example, in El Salvador, the government already provides all schoolchildren with shoes. Moreover, the worm that causes the most foot infections has been eradicated in El Salvador.

Also, when physical goods are given out, Wydick and his team suggest that they should be given as rewards for positive activities like attending health checks. This builds a sense of accomplishment instead of dependency.

Finally, the authors introduced the idea of a “median impact narrative” as a contrast to the sort of ‘silver bullet’ stories so prevalent to the field. They suggest that instead of telling the story of an outlier, we tell the story of the average. So instead of a microloan spawning a multinational corporation, talk about the average impact that an intervention will have on each and every beneficiary. The authors of the paper created a statistically average ‘José Mantaro’ to describe TOMS’ impact:

“José Mantaro lives in San Francisco de Javier, El Salvador,…José’s family does not own a refrigerator, television, or radio, but both he and his brother have a bike…José walks 30 minutes to school, where he is in the third grade, but he has not yet learned to read or write.”

“José received a pair of TOMS shoes immediately after the baseline study in June 2012…He spent a little bit more time collecting water for his family and a little less time per day watching TV. An honest appraisal would suggest that receiving the shoes did not bring about transformative changes in Jose’s life…Yet the frequency with which he wore the new shoes indicates that the shoes donated by TOMS were nevertheless a welcome and appreciated gift.”

Of course, this reads a bit corny. It’s hard to imagine getting it by anyone in a marketing department. But the idea intrigues me- can we effectively pair statistics and stories? Perhaps for a more useful intervention, this kind of authenticity would be good marketing. I want to take part in development that effectively responds to real needs and inspires people to join the process. No answers yet, but I’m learning!

If you skip over the wild bootstrapping part, the paper is very readable, as is Wydick’s blog post on median impact narratives. I would recommend them both!

Not that Michael Jackson!

I wrote this a few weeks ago, but it wasn’t quite appropriate to post during the pre-wedding rush. 

An Anglican church was a strange place for Statistics Canada training session, but after landing my first hope of a post-university job as a ‘spare enumerator’ for the 2016 census, I wasn’t complaining.

The job was a long shot anyway because I applied I from Malawi without a contact number. I remember staring at my resume, wondering which one of a half dozen addresses was most relevant. My fiancé’s cell phone ended up being the link that connected me with the trainer on Sunday afternoon. I showed up for training at the church the next morning.

There’s seventeen of us sitting in the room. Folded cards determine our spot around the table. On the front was our names, and on the back, the census tract each of us was assigned. 2709-01, 2709-02, 2709-03, etc, around the table. Each person was assigned a tract near where they lived and was given a map showing their section of the city.

My card held only 2709-     .
I was a spare, so I didn’t get a number or a map.

I knew this going in, but didn’t realize how much of an outsider that made me. I avoid making friends with the fellow enumerators because I can’t think of any good directions for small talk. Where do you live? What do you do? Tell me about your family? I dare not ask because answering any of these questions back would require lengthy and awkward self-disclosure.

I shrink in a little more as we talk about people who don’t fit the system; who count in multiple places. According to the census methodology, people should be counted in their ‘main dwelling’— “where a person lives most of their time, that is, where they spend the major part of the year – a place one would call home.”

By official rules, my home is in Hamilton with my grandmother. That’s been my address since I was nine, but I’ve never actually lived there. In the last six weeks, I’ve had five different addresses.

We break for lunch, but I’m still too shy to talk so I pull out my book.

imagesAt Home in the World is by Michael Jackson— the aging Australian anthropologist not the Thriller star. The book traces Jackson’s journey to central Australia to learn how the aboriginal Walpiri people understand home. Driven from a nomadic lifestyle by European invaders, the Walpiri now struggle to reconcile their traditional lifestyle with welfare cheques and land-claim bureaucracy.

Their struggles are familiar to anyone knowledgeable about indigenous reserves in Canada. For the Walpiri, home does not require walls and windows.

The book reads like a story, with Jackson and his wife traipsing around in their Toyota, sleeping under the stars and driving long desert roads to visit grizzled elders and sacred sites.

Jackson tells the story of meeting Zack, an elder who takes Jackson to an old mine called ‘The Granites’ where he used to work. The place was notorious for the harsh conditions and maltreatment of aboriginal laborers. Yet this is where Zack brings Jackson to help him understand who he is. Jackson concludes: “The Granites was where [Zack] had met his hardship head on, had been tested, and had endured. This then, was also home.

Home is not a place apart from the all the storms of life, it is a place found in the thick of it.
Jackson adds: “One might say that home is not always somewhere cut off from the world. Sometimes it is a place in the world where one triumphs over adversity…

Today, Tess and I got to walk into our first apartment. It wasn’t as clean as we wanted, so we drove to Walmart and bought a big blue bucket and some bleach. We spent the afternoon on our hands and knees, scrubbing the bathroom and cupboards and listening to loud music. The stress/demands of submitting resumes, making seating charts, and catching up on readings were still there, but something about the rhythmic scrubbing helped them fade.

“Home is not always somewhere cut off from the world. Sometimes it is a place in the world where one triumphs over adversity…”

This then, was also home.


How do you use power well? | Final presentation

Last week was the Waterloo International Development program’s ‘Capstone’ program. We spent the week debriefing our experiences, culminating with a final presentation before our peers and professors. I talked about my experience of power in Malawi, and how I struggled to use it well:

After the presentation, one of the panelists, Hari Stirbet, who had taught me two courses, asked me a question. As best as I can remember, here is how it went:

Hari: “I’m going to be a little bit politically incorrect here and ask a question. Jacob, I know that spirituality has shaped you significantly- that you are a Christian. How has that impacted your understanding and what you said?”

Me: “Well, the last thing that I said in the presentation — thank you, for this question— that power is to be given for others.

For me, that has been shaped by Jesus. If you look at the life on Jesus, just before he was executed, he was eating dinner with his friends or disciples, and in the Gospel of John it records that “Jesus knew that all power and authority had been given to him”, and then he gets up and gets a towel and washes his disciples feet.

And whether you believe in Jesus as the Son of God, or even as a great teacher, you see that he had all this power and he used it to serve and give for others. And so for me, this understanding of power has come from knowing Jesus”

Malawi in Selfies

Tomorrow I will get on a plane and leave Malawi. The past few days have been filled with goodbyes to the people and places that have become a part of everyday life. As I reflect, I am struck by the number of stories that I’m bringing back with me. Naturally (for a 22-year-old), many of these moments were captured in selfies

When my colleague Jocelyn left the office, the staff at the National Youth Council of Malawi went outside to take goodbye pictures. This shot happened spontaneously after the bulk of shoot, which explains why Jocelyn (back) isn’t actually paying any attention.
Taking the picture is my supervisor Promise, who is NYCOM’s officer for Research and Evaluation. As an intern in his department, my main task was to read the reports sent in by youth organisations across the country and send feedback on their work. The others in the picture Brenda, Felix, and Charles (front to back), support much of the rest of the Council’s work, which includes registering and training youth organisations across Malawi. Over countless cups of tea and avocado sandwiches, the group has become very close, and I will miss them a lot.

Working for NYCOM had its adventures. The picture on the left was taken just after a we had gathered a group of civic leaders and youth together for a forum on youth involvement in volunteerism. It was inspiring to meet and hear opinions from youth leaders from across the city. After the event, everyone piled into the back of the old NYCOM truck- known affectionately as “the Lawnmower”- for a ride home.

The picture on the right was taken a few months later, when a group of us met to draft a national framework on volunteerism based on some ideas that emerged in the forum. What better place to draft a framework than the UN offices? We played it cool during the meeting, but some friends from Makwelero and I had to stop for a picture in the lobby before leaving.


The picture above was taken at a training for AWANA leaders at my church. Just after Christmas, I signed up to help lead the churches weekly kid’s program. I was incredibly nervous when I sat down at this training, but by the end of the session, this close knit group had welcomed me in. Over the next months, I got to know them better as we spent hours leading relay races, teaching Bible verses, and fighting for team points (Go Blue!). Between this group and a Tuesday night Bible study, I was graciously welcomed into the church community, and saying goodbye has been hard.

This picture is amazing because Jocelyn actually snuck up behind me for an underwater photobomb. So impressive.
We were snorkeling off of a little island in Lake Malawi- probably Africa’s most underrated tourist attraction- where we we had come for a weekend away. Traveling in Malawi always has its adventures, including attempting to hotwire a Hilux and pass police checkpoints with eight in a Corolla, but this particular weekend was all blue skies and calm water. 


These pictures are of going out for dinner with my housemates. I spent the last eight months sharing life with two university classmates (Amy and Rachelle). We were joined by Tanya (Sept-December) and Jocelyn (January-April). Through culture shock, power outages, and stress at work, going out to eat became an important way to decompress. Notably, here we are eating pizza (left) and curry (right), which represent the sum of best of Lilongwe’s dining options.

While we may have gotten bored with Lilongwe’s restaurants, we managed to stay interested in each others’ lives. After eight months, we can answer for each other’s favourite Hogwarts professor, brand of apple juice, or flavour of Fanta, but we still genuinely enjoy each other’s company and have become our own type of family. This will be the hardest goodbye.

As life in Malawi closes down, these captured moments become increasingly precious. This has been a unique chapter of life and there’s lots of change ahead. Looking back reminds me of how much I’ve grown and learned this year. Each of these pictures remind me that in a place where I expected to be an outsider and find difference, every relationship marked by welcome, beauty, and similarity. In Africa’s ‘warm heart’, I was surprised to experience a piece of home.


What do you do when someone on the street asks you for money?

My fingers clench and my mind races as I approach. Sometimes the story is a drawn out tragedy, other times it is told fully in the flash of pleading eyes. It is always the same: “Can you help me?”


In Malawi, someone on the street asks for money about every other day. I still leave each of these interactions feeling guilty and bewildered. I feel guilty when I refuse people, and I feel guilty when I give, knowing I haven’t given anything that can change their future. I walk away with a deep sense of confusion and frustration. I’ve written about it before.

Out of this confusion I wrote to five wise friends to ask them a hard question: “What do you do when people ask you for money on the street?”. I limited their answers to 150 words, which is far too few for such a question, but from each reply I got a fresh perspective into what it means to truly be generous.

My friend Anneke is a schoolteacher working in Memphis, Tennessee. I loved her response because her questions echo my own:

This past weekend I went to New Orleans, and passed people asking for money with signs/requests such as:

“Give me money or I will vote for Trump.”
“I need money to buy crack!”
“Need money for weed and feed.”

These brought up the worst thoughts we all have when we see people begging for money: Are they actually homeless? Are they trying to help themselves? Will they just spend it on alcohol and drugs? I can’t give you a catch-all answer. But here’s what I do:

  • My husband and I invest in change we know will last: sponsoring a Compassion Child, and supporting organizations that help with homelessness and addiction in America.
  • I make sandwiches at church once a month for a downtown homeless outreach.
  • I bought Christmas presents for a family who comes to my church’s food pantry.
  • Sometime in July an older women and young girl came up to me outside of an ice cream shop. The woman asked for money for bus fare, so they could get home. I gave her the money.
  • When I was in Chicago over Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, I felt tremendously guilty about walking past all the homeless people. I told my mom this, and she told me to pick one person to help. So I gave one guy $20. And I have no idea what he spent it on.

That said, I just drive past the people on street corners. You drive everywhere in Memphis, so I drive past people asking for money instead of walking past them, and that makes it easier in a terrible way. I want to recognize their humanity without giving them money by instead donating to an organization that is designed to help people in situations like theirs.

If you know Anneke and her husband David, you know that these words are weighted with the sacrifices they’ve made for the community they’ve adopted. Anneke’s stories highlight the complexities of engaging with people living at the margins. Very often, giving to people on the street becomes about alleviating guilt instead of poverty, and Anneke reminds us that there are more sustainable and effective uses for my money. Simply put, there are better ways to help.

My friend Kaitlin, a fellow development student, addresses Anneke’s concerns head on with a more philosophical approach. What struck me about Kaitlin’s response is that she started by putting herself into the shoes of someone on the street:

I can’t really answer this question straight without feeling guilty. Instead, I’ll ask: “What makes us refuse to give money?” I often hear mumblings about drug addictions in response. Two questions: First, can we assume this without first understanding the context of this person’s life? If we don’t have enough time to get to know the person, whether drugs are involved, or whether the money goes to food or a baby, then not giving does greater harm.
Second, if drugs are involved, how can we judge them for it? How many of ‘us’, people with ‘normal’ jobs, do drugs? Nobody questions where we get the money for it, so why do we do that for panhandlers? Of course it is better to invest in a system that will help people get on their feet, but assuming any ‘system’ will produce utopian results is not wise – there will always be people at the edge of the crowd, and even before money, those people need others to simply acknowledge their existence.

You can read Kaitlin’s full response here. Her core message is that systems will always leave people at the margins, while people have the ability to acknowledge and give dignity to each other. My friend Nathan concluded similarly. Another development student who grew up next door to Drake in Toronto, Nathan argues that the best thing we can offer is trust:

“I think what I do when I see people asking for money is, if possible, I give it to them. Simple as that. I give them what I can, usually coinage. In my experience (more personal than anything) is that when someone is in need, what they need is practical help, monetary or otherwise, and all they need is for someone to trust them enough to give that to them. And it’s as simple to me as that, forgetting all other issues like dependency and whatnot. Because I know what it’s like to not have enough.”

Where Anneke struggled to recognize common humanity, Nathan grounds his giving in empathy. He concludes that given the complexity of people’s reality, it is better to err on the side of generosity.
I was expecting to have this principle reinforced by my friend Ryan, who is so committed to empathizing with the poor that he moved to Manilla to live and work in a slum. But his response was the opposite of what I expected:

To be boring and honest, I usually just ignore people who ask me for money on the street.   However, I admit that this belief often becomes an excuse. I say to myself, “That beggar won’t be helped by my money, so I’ll keep it for myself.” Instead of saying, “I won’t be helped by the $5 in my pocket, I might as well give it to this beggar.”
This question gets a hundred times harder to answer when that person asking for money is my friend and neighbour. Now my sense of responsibility to be generous is increased, but so is the danger of hurting the relationship. I don’t want to create a dependence relationship, so I still usually say “No” to people who ask, even though it’s hard…but it doesn’t stop there. I want to be a friend who listens, spends time and cares. So I try to give (money, food, hospitality) in such a way that says: “This is a gift because I love you. You don’t owe me anything because I am honouring the relationship we already have.”

Ryan foregrounds the thread that has been running through each of these answers. One way or another, we need a response which shows shared humanity and gives dignity. We can give money, and we can give more than that. We can also give elsewhere. The key is that we are motivated by love for someone who is just like us, not fear or guilt of someone who is other. This tension is so well-captured in my friend Hikari’s words, which have become the prayer that I want to carry with me:

I don’t want to walk away or forget. When a person begs for money, they’re sharing their vulnerability with me and I, a human just like them, should also be vulnerable. If a person asks for money, I would want to share a meal, spend time, give them the money I have or just do all three. I can’t discern perfectly of what this person will do or what the outcome of my actions will be, but the fact that we cross paths has a meaning. The best thing I can do is pray that God will give me wisdom and trust in all of this. Jesus is the epitome of selflessness, and while I struggle to be like him, I believe that once I start thinking of myself less, I will be able to face people full on instead of shying away and letting them become a forgotten memory.


What do you do in this situation? I would love to continue the conversation, so please comment! Also, if you’re looking for a ‘Yes, but how?’ Ryan also pointed me to 
this wonderfully practical article.
A special thanks to this amazing group of people who took time and effort to share a piece of themselves with me.