By Kate Newhouse
I look down to the dry red dirt. I can see strokes from the broom that must have recently swept. I am back in Malawi and back with the red dirt. My feet already know what they are in for and my hair too, but my unsettled mind doesn’t know what’s in store.
As we get off the plane in Lilongwe we can see the excitement and energy surrounding us. We are quickly ushered to fill out our visa papers and wait in line. Dr. Stonebanks goes first. After moments of waiting it’s clear that people are paying the locals to help them jump the line. The local men in safety vests ask people if they need help and then rush them to the front of the line and fast track them through the next few lines, cutting in front of a long line of people. We wait and wait, but aren’t moving. It was frustrating and quickly got to me and made me upset with the local people and their need for money. The priorities here in Malawi are something I am not used to. In Canada, I am used to having certain things guaranteed. We have systems in place to support most different needs and wants, but here in Malawi the needs are so great and the need for money influences almost every action. These actions make it hard for me to open up and trust local people. I am constantly thinking of their actions. Why they are being this way? What do they want from me? What would they do if they could? It becomes a wall for me; a huge barrier and it influences the actions I take. This impedes my conversations and my work. It’s a cycle I am trying to understand and work through.
This is my second time visiting Malawi. The first time I spent most of the trip in the honeymoon phase. I was figuring it all out and I was so in love with the campus and all the excitement that surrounds it. This time I hope I can really get my feet wet and try to understand this cycle. I need to find a way to penetrate the ideas and the thoughts and hesitations I have. I need to ask questions and persist on getting the answers and the honesty that is so critical. I need to begin the tough conversations.
We are reading William Easterly’s “The White Man’s Burden”. Here he talks about the importance and influence of foreign aid. He mentions that many sub-Saharan African governments spend their money on consumables and not on investments. I sense that local Chilanga residents do the same. It seems like anytime a Malawian makes money they buy necessities and then spend the rest quickly. That being said, I am sure all they are using the money for has a need. The money they receive may not be enough for their list of needs and wants, but it seems to be spent quickly. I am not an economist or a financial planner, but this makes sense. They are so used to spending what they have, as it usually isn’t much. I am wondering then where is the answer as Easterly makes me question a solution. Is there one?
I spoke with one of the ladies hired by Transformative Praxis: Malawi and she was very honest in saying that people here aren’t smart with their money. She mentioned having children and how many local people have children they cannot support. This she said is why children get married young and end up in unfortunate situations. She also spoke about the differences between men and women. She said men are often so focused on money and this leads them to not consider their children. The women want opportunities for their children, but their voices are often lost under the men.
Just being here 48 hours I feel like I have experienced so much. I know I have made no impact, but one honest conversation is a good start.
By Marten Sealy
I would like to take this opportunity to share examples of some situations and conversations that I’ve experienced here. I’ve had both of these conversations with several people on different occasions, and the exact replies are varied, so they’ve been left out.
I will be glad if this post helps to ‘personify’ some of the portraits found in each issue of National Geographic.
Myself: I’m sorry, I’m not handing out anything material, nor can I promise you any grand solutions.
Friend: *Disappointment, occasionally mixed with confusion, as if to say, “but you’re from Canada.”*
Myself: You see, I could hand out 100 dollars right now, and I’d be fine, but I’d never see that money again. I know that it would be received gratefully, and it could help feed or clothe many people today, but it would do nothing for future generations. It’s tempting, but I have other plans for that money. If I invest that money in Canada, in my education, then someday I may be in the position where I can really help the people of this country.
This brings understanding, but I have to be careful not to make specific promises. It’s definitely one of the most difficult things to communicate.
Friend: *questions about Canada*
Myself: *honest (and modest) answers*
Friend: Canada is a blessed country
Myself: Hmm…I’m fortunate to have been born in Canada, yes, but a blessed country? That depends who you ask. Do you know the history of Europeans coming to Malawi/Africa?
Friend: Yes, they came from the UK, Portugal, France, etc. Wealthy white people.
Myself: Well, if millions of those Europeans had decided to move to Africa, bringing their families in such great numbers that they crowded the black people off of their original land, would you call Africa blessed?
Friend: Ah, you’re from Canada, but you’re not proud of that?
Myself: That’s a hard question to answer my friend. I live a comfortable life, but wealth isn’t everything. Everyone should be proud of their roots.
Friend: That is true. Thank you. [occasionally: I’m proud to be Malawian]
This often concludes with a head nod and a moment of silence.
By Taylor Lowery
Time is both slow and fast here. A general routine fills the day allowing for time to pass, yet the tranquility of just “being” and “doing” seems to stop time in its place. The work feels easy, fun and creative.
I’ve come to realize that when you are confident in what you are doing it is easy to feel comfortable; when tasks fall within your realm of understanding it is easy to feel competent and it is easy to be yourself. This comfort is a feeling I am very weary of. Wasn’t I on this adventure to get away from my comforts? Wasn’t this the time to step into something a little more unknown?
I have been told that learning comes when you are outside your comfort zone- that box that you draw just around the perimeter of what you know and of what you are used to. This theory is known to Education students through the Education Psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, who called this your Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), the zone of what you can achieve when you receive scaffolding to step just outside of what you can already do on your own.
So following this theory, I must move past that work which I feel most comfortable doing and into an area which I feel more uncomfortable. Once I reflected on this I realized that what scares me most right now is my comfort in this project and the notion that soon I should probably step out of it.
If I could peel apart the layers of this comfort, I might find that what give me the most shelter is the interactions I choose to surround myself with. If I wish to fully immerse myself in this experience I think I need to gain some confidence in engaging in dialogue- not with my young adult peers, not with the English speaking cooks, or our Malawian teacher friends- but in dialogue that is not convenient; dialogue that must be worked towards, and translated; some dialogue that requires me to sit in discomfort.
From my readings on Freire, he speaks dialogues praise, and in fact dismantles any development (Pedagogy) work that does not include dialogue at its core. This is what I realized I needed help doing. My father likes to say, ” You are only a stranger until you say hello”. I hoped to get a little further than this.
I decided to bring my concerns to the attention of the group. We decided to set up meetings with four of the nearby villages to talk about Education and their ideas on its future place here. One person expressed some apprehension, “how about if we don’t like what we hear? Aren’t we trying to bring a different perspective to Education? Don’t we want to be different?” I thought about this for a second but questioned that without dialogue how would we even know where to start and develop if we don’t know the current ideas, attitudes and realities? How can this school’s curriculum (the work we are here to help construct) serve the community if we don’t even bother to ask?
Dr. Stonebanks suggested we have discussion groups with just the woman as they would be the only ones to give us an honest opinion, and not just what they thought we “wanted to hear.” Meetings were arranged then changed, then rescheduled due to funerals…then etcetera, etcetera… but they finally took place. Debriefing afterwards illuminated a lot, confirmed other things and also changed some of our original lesson focuses. I will not go into detail here about the conversations as I have already done a lot of reflection and as I am sure others are blogging about these conversations so I wish not to saturate the topic.
What I do want to express however, is the amount of joy I felt when I recognized a familiar butterfly in my stomach just prior to our meeting with these women. I also really reveled in the awkward moments during the actual conversations, such as when I was offered cooked corn from a toddler and when the women asked us for a water well. This was the feeling I was searching for, the evidence that I was stepping out of the comfort and into the unknown.
About the Blog
Since 2013, students participating in Transformative Praxis: Malawi have been writing blog posts reflecting on their experiences of participating in action research in Malawi. The original blog with the full archive can be found here