what impact is
When I left Atlanta, I knew that I would come back a different person. I talked a lot about taking a risk, about having faith, about Should vs. Must.
It’s amazing how little I knew of risk.
I’m currently in northern Nigeria. Yes, there is terrorism. There are also more subtle, but sometimes more insidious slights - corruption, wealth inequality, fear mongering, and political manuevering at the expense of the common man. Complacency.
In some ways, it’s easy to lose hope. It’s easy to be jaded while doing development work in general. To be overwhelmed with the enormity of the challenges, and to feel that the work you do will never make a drop in the bucket. It’s like giving a dollar to a single beggar in a slum teeming with people.
But there are also stories here that are powerful enough to bring you to your knees with humility.
I don’t feel worthy enough to write these words, to share this story. In some ways, I feel like it’s not my story to share. I’m just a sham, able to get involved and do something without having to risk everything. At the end of the day, my story in Nigeria is finite. I’m not sure how long I have here, but I know that for me, there will always be an out. There will be another project, another place, another slightly-more-or-less-comfortable job.
There are terrible things that happen in the world, but there are incredible people on the other side also. People who are full of hope and promise and opportunity. People who invest themselves, day in & day out, in hard, unglamorous work. Who have come back to make sure that people don’t get left behind.
People who remove shackles.
When I tell people I’m working on product development to improve immunization systems in Nigeria, the image that conjures in their mind is riding on motorbikes through the jungle going from mud hut to mud hut, delivering vaccines like a modern-day messiah. It’s whisking around health camp outreach sessions, dropping oral polio vaccine into the mouths of bright-eyed babies with adoring parents looking on.
Yes, this happened. A few weeks ago, we spent some time at a grazing reserve for nomadic Fulani in northern Nigeria. We tracked vaccine. We toured clinics. We met patients.
The irony of the story, though, is that this image is so little of the actual work. The truth is that most development work is just that: hard, unglamorous work. 95% of our time is devoted to the simple things that are required to get any good product out the door & into the world. System maps. Stakeholder requirements. Test plans. Data analysis.
When you look at it from that lens, the work we do here, while important, is the same fulfilling work that anyone looks for. The chance to work with an amazing team on a complex problem that makes an impact in the world. We are not heroes. We gave up other jobs, other opportunities, but in the same way that other young professionals make tradeoffs in their professional lives.
At the end of our time in the grazing reserve, we visited the one hospital in the area, with an Oxford-educated, WHO-trained doctor who had come back to serve his people. He had surely given up another life, other dreams. Here was a building he built in the middle of the bush, disconnected from the grid, unknown outside of the village. He did not boast about his credentials or share his story. Instead, he told the stories of the people that brought him back - the mothers that lined his ICU. The babies he vaccinated. The men he repaired.
Impact is not measured by Instagram likes or photo retweets.
There are other worlds. Other kinds of dreams. Dreams in which failure is feasible. Honorable. Sometimes even worth striving for. Worlds in which recognition is not the only barometer of brilliance or human worth. There are plenty of warriors whom I know and love, people far more valuable than myself, who go to war each day, knowing in advance that they will fail. True, they are less “successful” in the most vulgar sense of the word, but by no means less fulfilled. - The Cost of Living | Arundhati Roy
In a place where Fulani are sometimes considered second-class citizens, here was a man who understood that he came to work every day fighting a losing battle. It was at once amazing to see what he had built and what they were able to do with what they had, and also heartbreaking to see a community so neglected by its government & partners.
In a place like this, it becomes easy to understand.
The real heroes are not me.
The real risks are not mine.
Real faith is not quitting a comfortable job for a slightly less comfortable job.
The best work is being done by people you’ve never heard of, by people who don’t have press releases or Twitter accounts or glossy annual reports.
Nigeria is a constant reminder that work is love made visible. That the most important acts are the little ones.
Committing yourself to the work.
Understanding that people are more complex than poverty.
Seeking allies not in those who have power, but those who have the strength to be here, day in, day out.
Leaving behind the idea of recognition and retweets in favor of more important things.
To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget. - The Cost of Living | Arundhati Roy