By Marten Sealy
Day three in Malawi, and I am full to the brim with positive emotions; satisfaction and optimism. My fellow Canadian students, all twelve of us, appear to share a sense of fascination in our everyday encounters among the people and places that we will be spending the next five weeks. The children are wildly enthusiastic, our local colleagues are hospitable to say the least, and the panoramic sub-Saharan landscape is serene. I advise anyone who enjoys gazing at the sky to treat themselves and visit this land. The sun sets between 5-6pm, followed by an impressive display of southern hemisphere constellations (the big dipper is upside down). I suppose this is what Pederson (1995) calls the honeymoon phase.
I spent the month of May in the university town of Lennoxville, QC. Lennox was peaceful, as much of the loud Bishop’s crowds had retreated home for the summer. This environment allowed for long days of reflection on the life that I’ve led so far, and contemplation on my future endeavors. Better yet, my stream of thought during this time was guided by weekly conference calls with the professors and future participants of this year’s effort with Transformative Praxis: Malawi. These virtual meetings, despite technical hiccups, were informative and contributed greatly to my mental preparation. I’ve put a lot of thought into some of the themes introduced in these meetings… particularly in the final session where we discussed the 5 Stages of Culture Shock (Pederson, 1995): Honeymoon, Disintegration (anger at self), Re-integration (anger at others), Autonomy (overcoming negative feelings), and Interdependence (truly integrating oneself into the host country’s).
If we assume a linear progression from 1-5, then the typical gung-ho western humanitarian aid worker is infatuated at first sight. They are destined to go through a period of great stress, self-doubt, and anger as they become accustomed to the cultural differences and harsh underlying realities, but with persistence they have the potential to emerge as an increasingly competent member of the host society. This forms a sort of bell curve, with a treacherous peak splitting the comfort of one valley, with the accomplishment of the other. It’s a useful model, and one that has helped me make sense of my experience so far.
It seems to me like a case study of others’ past experiences though, and not necessarily a predictor of what lies in my path. I don’t believe in accepting a fate that doesn’t satisfy one’s own ambitions. I could accept the profoundly character building experience of labouring that sharp mountain if I had been plucked off my couch in Canada, Play Station™ controller still in hand, and air dropped into rural Malawi… but that is simply not the case. I began preparing for this project in January (five months prior to departure), and with a final month dedicated towards calm meditation, I really believe that I am arriving with an arsenal of wisdom from stories shared with me, and an open mind capable of fully absorbing new experiences without retreating into a shell of doubt. I want to believe that my preparation will allow me to hike up and down, continuing in the direction of autonomy with relative composure.
Only time will tell though. I have no crystal ball; just blind presumption. It may be with great humility that I have to make my next update. Only time will tell.
Pederson, P. (1995). The five Stages of culture shock: critical incidents around the world. Westport, C.T: Greenwood Press.
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