By Cassia Tremblay
Malawi is beautiful and hopeful and also a little intimidating. The light is soft and it’s easy to forget that there is so much that is not soft about this country and this continent. It’s a funny juxtaposition to read about corruption and violence and poverty in Gerald Caplan’s The Betrayal of Africa while looking out across the still and silent bush that stretches out in front of the hostel or while being surrounding by smiling kids. On one hand it is sort of a relief that my surroundings don’t feel as hectic as the Africa described in the book. On the other hand we’re very sheltered at the hostel and what we see of the communities around us doesn’t likely reflect reality entirely.
I hope that my project will help me move into a headspace somewhere between harsh reality and dreams for positive change. Excuse me while I replicate an obnoxiously long passage from the Betrayal of Africa from the two sections “The Role of Outsiders” and “Who Cares about Africa?”
“This book offers no magic bullets, no easy answers to Africa’s problems. There are none. Everywhere you look there are major problems, and all of them must be tackled at the same time, because they all interact. And the tackling must be done by Africans and outsiders. … We need to help Africa not out of our selflessness and compassion but as restitution, compensation, an act of justice for the generations of crises, conflict, exploitation and underdevelopment for which we bear so much responsibility. … Until we think about the West’s relationship with Africa honestly, until we face up to the real record, until we acknowledge our vast culpability and complicity in the Africa mess, until then we’ll continue – in our caring and compassionate way – to impose policies that actually make the mess even worse.”
This passage makes me frustrated with Big Money and Big Men but it also makes me frustrated with myself. Global inequality is abhorrent, and I benefit from it, and until Gerald Caplan pointed it out to me, I never thought to consider how I was connected to the people of Malawi before I had even heard of TPM. This sentiment reminds me to frame my days here in terms of courage, restitution, and cooperation rather than compassion and philanthropy. It is with this mentality that I hope to move forward into my project (a project that is not really mine in any way).
The toilet project focuses on heath and sanitation, which feels like a lot to take on. There are so, so many aspects to social and community health that I cannot even anticipate. So instead of burdening myself with ‘health and sanitation’ I am going to try to think of the project in smaller terms: first we’ll gain an understanding of local hygiene practices, needs and wants, then we’ll plan a toilet, then we’ll build one and maybe repeat the process a second time.
It’s hard to grasp that I am only here for 5 weeks and I am trying to contribute to a project that will last years. It’s especially daunting to hear about how so many of last year’s projects didn’t survive. However, Melanie reminded me this morning that my efforts are a drop in the bucket and while I cannot fill or carry the bucket by myself, the drop I accomplish alongside my co-learners still matters. Those weren’t her exact words… but I’m pretty sure that’s what she meant.
By Ashwini Manohar
Malawi from the air is barren — red earth stretching for miles, shrubs, trees and occasionally a collection of huts. My first impression of Malawi was buoyed by intense curiosity, and I’m ashamed to say, filtered through the distorting lens of my camera.
Despite never being interested in documenting my life with pictures, the moment the chartered bus started moving from the parking lot of the airport, I whipped out my phone, went to the video feature and started recording. Soon enough, we left the relatively wealthy Lilongwe and headed towards Kasungu.
Poverty was ubiquitous. And I was mindlessly snapping, driven by some obscene desire to capture what was streaming by my window. Twenty minutes into the bus ride, realization struck: what was I doing? Why was I consuming poverty in this way? None of the people I’d snapped had given me explicit permission to take pictures of them. I put my phone away, ashamed and angry with myself.
I don’t really know how to put into words what I felt after that, as I gazed out the window. Mostly I felt numb, I think, not connecting the shanty huts with the fact that people lived in them. Occasionally we’d pass a busy business district, run-down stores selling everything from coffins to salon services. Sometimes music blasted from an unseen speaker.
We turned right on to a bumpy dirt road after a while. “We’re two minutes away,” Kassie said when I asked if we were close. The bus slowed to a crawling pace. As we rounded a corner, the TPM campus came into view. I immediately got anxious. Amber was almost jumping off her seat with excitement at seeing all the ladies she’d formed deep relationships with last year. Coming out of the bus in the midst of her squealing and hugging (oh Amber) was a bit overwhelming, but the kind and incredibly warm welcome I received put me at ease. I was happy and secure.
That feeling has remained the last three days as I acclimated (and still am) to life in Malawi. The sun rises before 6 and sets by about 7 in the evening. Roosters call and dogs howl during the night, and sunsets are breathtaking. You get one pail of hot water to shower, along with a cup; the two showers are conjoined in a small concrete building with wooden pellets and doors that don’t lock from the inside. The kitchen is outdoors — a cement structure with a partitioned pantry in the back, and most of the cooking is done with a charcoal fire in a mbaula: a clay pot handcrafted by women who poke holes in the bottom, which is then encircled by concrete and attached to a metal bottom that collects the ash from the burning charcoal. I recognized it from my childhood in Singapore. In preparation for Diwali, my grandmother would use it to fry her murukus (circular lentil biscuits) in a wok full of oil. I learned that a small mbaula costs about 1500 kwacha, or about $3 Canadian, and a bigger one costs about 2000 or 2500 kwacha, or about $4 or $5 Canadian. Almost every household has at least one.
All of Sunday I spent with Unna and Chimwemwe (which means Happiness in Chechewa, the language spoken in these parts of Malawi), who cook our meals, clean our hostel and haul water for us to clean ourselves and drink. Sunday was honestly the happiest I’ve felt this year. I learned how to make nsima and mpilu (green leaves that look like lettuce) and beans. Unna told me about life in Malawi — how women in Malawi relate to each other, the political system, what she feels about the political system, her husband and her two kids. I told her and Chimwemwe that the children in the field were making fun of my hairy arms, and they laughed at them too and said women in Malawi don’t really grow hair anywhere! (It’s true. I’m jealous.) We shared stories and laughed and had a really good time.
Though I am cocooned in a haze of happiness and contentment (Stage 1: Honeymoon Phase), confusion about my role in TPM and what TPM does still lingered. I was starting to get anxiety attacks because I didn’t want my experience for the next 5 weeks to be one of me floundering around for direction and for everything I do with the community here to be useless.
So on Saturday, I plucked up my courage and went to the professors’ house to ask Dr. Stonebanks and Melanie some questions. It was a good talk — I learned about the political structure of TPM, and of the nearby villages, and where the development committee fit in, which is what Amber and I were going to work on with the women in TPM.
I haven’t strayed beyond the protective boundaries of the campus, and want very much to walk through the villages. I’m sure that will happen in the coming weeks.
Tio nana (See you later).
By Kirsten Dobler
I’ve been attempting to catch and ponder my thoughts and feelings over the last two days. There are many ways to feel when you return to a place like Chilanga, Malawi.
I feel comfort in the familiarity of my surroundings: the faces and names that stuck in my mind, the children that call me Kiri (kee-ree) or Kristina, the groups of children that follow us to the football (soccer) pitch or follow and join us as we walk down the roads.
I feel unease when asking myself what I can contribute to the lives of those who live here. Even asking that question — am I so filled with the idea of being a ‘white savior’ that I must enact my knowledge onto the people I encounter? What does it mean to help people who aren’t asking, but expecting (in a sense) for us to help? It’s a double-edged sword because we are told by western society that we need to help and it is imprinted into colonial history for them to expect it. Have we ever given countries that we label Third World the opportunity to discover and develop on their own? Sure the ‘colonial powers’ aren’t ruling anymore, but their legacy is strong. Who cares if people act the same as us or work the same as us? If everyone is healthy and respected should that not be enough? Is it sensible for us to believe that we know what’s best?
I am filled with hope that all of my questions can be reached through communication and dialogue. If we’re going to succeed, we need to allow our community to mutually prosper. Of course we are going to help in all the ways that are of means, but we need to learn first. Our community must be sustainable in our relationships, practices, and goals.
I am frustrated at the people who have become a part of the project that chose to abandon the hard work they put in. Everyone cares about the project in Malawi, but what happens when they return to the West? Is it out of sight out of mind? I deeply worry that it sets an example for our community here. When people come and create things without local investment the projects are lost. One of the successes from the past year is the chicken coop. I believe that it’s because of the positive relationship that Amber has with the Women’s Group. If we can create relationships and autonomy then we can become sustainable.
In the next five weeks we will be looking towards many things we have on campus.
In the eleven months I was away from Malawi in the past year it was not always easy to envision myself back here. It was often difficult to think about my contribution on the ground. When you are absorbed into the fast paced reality of your life at home it’s difficult to think externally. As of this moment I am hoping and striving to create the relationships needed to mutually grow in knowledge and passion for the success of this, of our, TPM community.
By Kassandra Norrie
This past year was the first that I was able to remain involved with the TPM team through the full year. A project that had previously been five weeks and a couple of fundraisers to me became a major part of my life. There were many highs and lows throughout the year, days that brought me to tears, days that I would run into an office with great news to share, and days with so many mixed emotions. Many of these emotions were sparked by iPhone pictures sent from a colleague living on the campus in Malawi.
When projects began, buildings were constructed, ‘poop trees’ grew, the campus continued to evolve and I would receive pictures to my phone. When we arrived last year I was prepared for a brand new campus; however, this year I thought I knew exactly what I was arriving to. With all of the picture updates I saw through the year I mistakenly thought I was very prepared to arrive on the campus this week. As we got off the bus and I walked towards the two newest buildings, a radio station and a house for the field director, I was astounded with the constructions. The pictures on my phone screen did not do it justice. The radio station was at least twice the size I thought it was. The new home was more beautiful than I had imagined.
As someone who has already been to Malawi twice and lived on the campus for five weeks, I thought I knew exactly what these pictures looked like in reality. The realization of how underwhelming the pictures actually were (no offence to the photographer) made me realize how I may be portraying TPM to others in Canada. When I look at a picture of the TPM Community Center I automatically picture the tuck shop to the left, the beautiful mural on the sidewall, the imposing tree behind where chiefs gather in the shade, the gardens in front, children playing on the porch, committees meeting inside, and the striking sun rising from behind. When I show that same picture to someone who has not had the opportunity to visit our campus, what do they see? A plain brick building and wonder why I get so excited? Going from iPhone pictures to reality this year has made me rethink the pictures I use when showing others what TPM is, what they stand for, what they have done, and what they plan to accomplish. How can I (and other TPM members) take pictures that will show everyone else what I see when I look at a picture of a seemingly plain brick building?
About the Blog
From 2013 to 2017 students participating in Transformative Praxis: Malawi wrote blog posts reflecting on their experiences of participating in action research in Malawi.