Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hello, world.

Earlier this week, I signed on for a 5-month internship in Malawi, organized by the Canadian Co-operative Association. I'll be working with the Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Cooperatives as, essentially, an IT manager. (The official job title is longer, but that's what it boils down to). 

This blog is intended to document my journey through the process of packing up my life and relocating it to Africa for 5 months. I officially hop on a plane in mid-January, but until then I'll be writing about the joys of travel medicine, leaving my job, and anything else that comes up. 

For now, some thoughts (and a few quick facts!):

About Malawi

The basics:
Population: ~15.8 million
Capital: Lilongwe, pop. ~900,000  (where I'll be based)
Languages spoken: English and Chichewa 
GDP per capita: $800   (Canada: $39,400)
Average January high: 26°C   (Montreal: -6)

Some sobering figures:
HIV/AIDS prevalence: 11%   (Canada: 0.3%)
Life expectancy at birth: 51.7 years        (Canada: 81.38)

Some challenges for computerization:
Internet users: 5% of the population        (Canada: 80%)
Urban population: 20%   (Canada: 81%)
Most numbers from the CIA World Factbook

On new adventures

Though I've travelled to some unusual places, I haven't lived abroad since I was 4 years old (and even then, it was Europe, not Africa), nor have I visited a country facing the sort of challenges Malawi is. This is going to be an adventure, to say the least.

My biggest fears, however, don't have as much to do with Africa as with what I'll be leaving behind in Canada. Most of all:
  • Brook:  He'll be joining me in Malawi at some point, but probably not until March at the earliest. This is the result of various logistical issues, including visa restrictions and our inability (and unwillingness) to get rid of our apartment in Montreal right away. We haven't spent more than a week or two apart since we started dating; it'll be interesting to see how we cope with a couple of months.
  • My job: This is perhaps the harder thing to come to terms with (ok, Brook would probably like our temporary separation to be my highest concern, but I'm not so worried about us - and he'll thank me when he's standing on top of Kilimanjaro in May). Despite my excitement about this new opportunity, it's hard to leave behind secure employment, especially when it's in something as cool as game development.
This may bring certain readers to wonder, why would I do this? 

Ice sculpture = instant glamour.
After all, I'm working what many people would consider a dream job. Working in games was one of my dreams, too, when I graduated from university in 2005. I loved playing games and I like programming and working with technology, so it seemed like a perfect fit. I was warned, of course, as people in the game industry are fond of doing to young'uns who think they want to develop games: "the hours are long", "the pay is terrible", "it's not that glamorous", and so on. All these things are true to a certain extent, but it's also true that, sometimes, none of these things matter. (Particularly when you're stuck in a non-game-dev job you hate that also pays poorly and requires overtime). 

So why international development?
  1. Excitement and adventure. Anyone who knows me will know that I love travelling, immersing myself in other cultures, and experiencing new things. I'm usually the one saying "It's an adventure!" when everyone else in the car is saying "Where are we? I think we're lost." How could I say no to 5 months in Malawi?
  2. The challenges. There are so many problems that need to be solved when doing any sort of project in a developing nation. To take just one example, how do you bring banking to rural communities that barely get any electricity? On a technical level, the solutions are fascinating to consider. Canada hasn't had to deal with issues like these in many, many years. 
  3. It was also a dream. I volunteered for the National Student Commonwealth Forum throughout my studies, and briefly got involved in University of Ottawa's Engineers Without Borders club during its founding years. Not only did I develop a great interest in global issues, I also watched many alumni of these groups go overseas and have amazing experiences doing development work. Ever since, international development has been on my to-do list.
  4. I need a change. I still love playing video games, and I still enjoy my work and find many aspects of game development fascinating. On the other hand, I've also (especially in the past 2 years) lived through a few game development nightmares, and found myself pretty close to burnout. I'm currently on a great team at Ubisoft, doing very interesting work, but after 5 years in the industry I can see the veneer peeling. This seems like a good time to, ahem, save my game and take a break. Maybe I'll come back to it someday, maybe I won't - time will tell. 
You may note, as Brook did, that one thing isn't on the above list: I'm not doing this because I want to save the world or because I think it will be more fulfilling work than making games. First of all, I think that's a sure way to set yourself up for disappointment:  no matter where you're working, you will get frustrated, you will have to deal with bullshit, and you will wish you were doing something else. (If you're lucky, the feeling goes away relatively quickly). Secondly, let's be realistic: the problems of the world, or even of Malawi, won't be solved overnight, nor will they be solved exclusively by computerized banking (though I hope it'll help). 

I do, however, propose the following final point for my list:
  1. The impact. Improving a tool for my team at Ubisoft makes people happy - and I think improving the technical infrastructure of Malawian credit unions will impact more people, in greater ways. This hopefully translates into more happy people, and that's all I can ask for. 
Altruistic enough for you, dear readers? I hope so, because here goes!