I have almost no direct experience of violence in the world. On the few occasions where I’ve been an eyewitness, outside nightclubs or at the school gates, or any time I open a news site and am confronted by some story of violent conflict, I’m struck by its incomprehensibility. “What is wrong with people?!” I exclaim, and I’m left wondering, how did things get so out of hand? I find some comfort in trying to understand where tensions, conflict and violence come from, perhaps because figuring things out is familiar territory for me. It’s what I do!
My big sister has seen a lot more of the world than I have. She works for the British Government, at the Department for International Development, where the choice of posting given is between London, “Overseas” and “Fragile States.” Jen has worked on aid programs in all three, and is currently based in Malawi, in South-East Africa. At Christmas I went to visit. It’s a beautiful country: it’s very rural, and very green, with bright red earth. Most of its people work in smallholder agriculture, and for many this is quite a fragile existence.
Jen took me all over, so we had plenty of time in the car to talk - but we found that talking wasn’t easy. I was trying to figure out Malawi, and was asking lots of questions. I’d ask, are things in Malawi the way they are because of this? Or perhaps because of this? Jen got quieter and quieter, and seemed to be getting frustrated with me. (Perhaps you remember family car journeys like this. Perhaps you have a small child of your own?) Eventually, after some terse exchanges, I gave up, feeling annoyed. However, over the next few days it began to dawn on me why Jen might not be quite so into this game of “why” as I was.
It’s possible that one reason Jen is so good at her job is that she learns in a different way than I do. We all make models of the world to try and understand it, we tell ourselves stories: and those models are often simple, to fit inside our heads. But communities, societies, economies, all these are complex systems, where there are always many things going on at the same time, and the results can be both unpredictable and incomprehensible. Jen always puts great emphasis on “just being.” She’ll tell me about her next vacation, how she’s going to go there and “just be.” Right now, I think she’s “just being” in Malawi. She’s living there, and talking to the people there, and experiencing life there firsthand - and from this vantage point she can see that the simple explanations that I was looking for in the car don’t make sense, because Malawi is complicated.
The week after I got back, I was fortunate enough at work to hear Google’s Peter Norvig give a talk about their research on teaching computers how to recognize objects - faces, numbers, kittens and so on - in photographs on the internet. He said that their experience has been that “more data beats clever algorithms, but that better data beats more data.” I think Jen’s intuitive approach is to focus on collecting better data, because Malawi’s story is a complicated one.
Jen and I didn’t talk about how she goes about trying to understand the troubled communities that she works with - she’d probably be frustrated by my attempts to make a simple characterisation of it! But I at least figured out that collecting more data might be a good thing for me to think about, when trying to understand conflict in the world. And, because I love my big sister, it was pretty easy for me to find this way of stopping being annoyed, find some reconciliation, and enjoy the rest of our time together.