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.
By Kimberly Gregory
I thought that I knew what to except when arriving in Malawi for my second year in a row, however I was wrong. I knew that I would experience culture shock despite having been here before but I thought that I would go through each stage as described by Pederson (1995) swiftly and with ease. As it turns out, I have completely skipped the honeymoon stage and have gone straight to the disintegration stage. Perhaps this was brought upon by my colleagues’ explicit euphoria from their new surroundings. On our drive to the hostel they were so amazed by everything, ironically they were even astonished by things like cows, chickens and goats which are not uncommon in Canada; a clear characteristic of the honeymoon stage. Another moment that drove me straight to the disintegration stage was when I saw the new location as it was even more prestigious than the last. It was a little mansion; the entrance had rounded stairs, the kind that is reminiscent of Mediterranean architecture. It had tall ceilings, and the rooms were enormous, much bigger than the rooms that you would find in most middle class Canadian homes. The beds had brand new mattresses with thick warm sheets for colder nights. Seeing this place invaded me with a sense of guilt because we had just driven from the airport where the majority of homes we saw were disheveled huts made of straw and mud. The only thing that brought me comfort was the fact that I knew this hostel would one day be used for students who want to study in the area. Thus, it was not a castle built exclusively for what was clearly the “white privileged people”.
I am concerned that living in this place creates barriers between us and the local community. Paulo Freire (1970) says “solidarity requires that one enter into a situation of those with whom one is solidary” (p.49). Living here prevents us from experiencing how most Malawians live and it reinforces the power inequities. In fact, I am living an even more privileged lifestyle than I would at home. There are people who cook for us and they have been cooking us the kind of meals that you would eat at a five star hotel. Meanwhile, many people here wonder if they will even be able to provide some sort of starch based meal for them and their family. Furthermore, there are even people who clean for us. I am aware that this is a way to provide direct economic relief, however there are certainly repercussions to this. Freire (1970) proposes that “the resolution for the oppressor –oppressed contradiction involves the disappearance of the oppressors as a dominant class” (p.56). There is already a clear dichotomy between the Malawian people and us Canadian students; did this have to be further reinforced by our living conditions? Do these power dynamics prevent us from building true reciprocity?
I fear that this upper class lifestyle will distract or even blind people from the entrenched poverty that surrounds us and in turn this lack of consciousness will contribute to less meaningful work in the field. It makes it too easy to return to the safe nest and forget the atrocities of the outside world and forgetting will not bring about the critical reflection that is needed when working on a project like this.
Pederson, P. (1995). The five Stages of culture shock: critical incidents around the world. Westport, C.T: Greenwood Press.
Freire, P. (1970). The pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury: New York.
By Kate Newhouse
We have just arrived at our village. As we drive in to the village we are greeted by women singing. Instantly many of us become overwhelmed with the kindness and how happy they seemed to see us.
We unloaded and brought out many soccer balls (or footballs as the Malawians call them) to start playing with the kids. It was nice to see so many children on the campus and we could feel it come to life.
As we watched the sunset the tremendous colours of blue, green, orange and yellow just made me feel settled. I was so happy that we were here after a long day of travel and I had mixed feelings about the next five weeks. I am excited to see what we can accomplish and see how it all works out. I have been talking about this trip for a year and it’s finally here.
We had a “team meeting” tonight where we all expressed our initial impressions. I talked about how we were viewed in the airport as just another group of white kids trying to “save” Africa. I didn’t like this and I wanted to explain to everyone in the airport that this is a project designed to last. Our work here is not going to take jobs away, but hopefully provide them with resources and knowledge to be sustainable year after year as my peers take part in this project as well.
During our team meeting, Dr. Stonebanks shared the story as to why the Transformative Praxis: Malawi logo was an eagle. He said it was from a professor in Malawi who he had lunch with and the story was about these birds acting as chickens pecking at the ground when a lion came by and asked why they were doing this. The birds replied that they were Malawian chickens and this is what Malawian chickens did. The lion said that they were actually eagles and that they should be soaring in the sky. We all agreed that this story was very representative of what we are trying to do. We want to show people what we can do and what they can do. Don’t be confined by labels, or norms, but think outside the box and create who you are and what you are capable of.
I am still so amazed that we are here and beginning to work so soon. I am still in the honeymoon stage of culture shock, but I can’t wait to experience all this project has to offer
By Kassandra Norrie
After hours and hours of travel we finally arrived on campus yesterday. Although I am a returning Praxis Malawi member, I was still arriving into a lot of unknown since this is the first time we have been based on the new campus. As we got off the bus, welcomed by a group of singing women, I was hit by the first phase of culture shock: The Honeymoon Phase. Walking through the new hostel I was amazed with how beautifully everything had been brought together (there was not a roof in the last pictures I saw), and this was the end to the shortest Honeymoon Phase I have ever experienced. After coming in the back and walking through the building I emerged through the front of the hostel and into a construction site. Men were high on ladders painting the cement above the bricks and down on their knees painting the cement of the foundation. This all seemed great until I went to the professors’ house that still was not completed. Men were painting the outside of the hostel while another building, where professors were expected to stay, sat across the campus incomplete. I walked back out of the house, saw the men painting the hostel and immediately thought, “What a waste of time and money”.
I skipped over the depression of the Disintegration Phase and went right to where I left off three years ago into the Reintegration Phase. I was angry. The workers were painting our hostel while other buildings were still not completed. I had to remove myself from the group to reflect and place myself somewhere in “The Five Stages of Culture Shock” (Pedersen, 1995). Maybe the men painting were hired painters who could not help to complete the building? I do not know, because I never bothered to ask.
Understanding culture shock prior to our arrival in Malawi has enabled me to find my direction and help point others in the right direction as quickly as possible. I know why I am here. I have my goals set to work towards, and with such a short amount of time to work I am happy that my experience has helped me to negotiate my way through culture shock and come out facing in the proper direction.
By Taylor Lowery
The group exits onto the tarmac and breathes in the Malawian air. When we enter the airport, there was lovely jazz playing and a friendly vibe. As we walked out of the scramble of luggage I was frightened as a man grabbed at the cart of bags I was assigned and started walking away with it. From behind I was being yelled at “keep hold of your cart” but I couldn’t understand why. We were following our guide and I thought he must be working for Praxis Malawi. With the yelling still happening directed towards me I grabbed hold with one hand and kept hold until the end. After the short walk to the van, he asked for a tip and of course I had no Malawian currency yet and therefore nothing to give. A minute and a half out of the airport and already my first lesson: In a developing country, kind gestures are not solely purposed for kindness. They simply cannot afford to be.
The 2 hour drive to The Campus was a whirlwind of emotions. The window was down, and the air felt fresh after the cabin air on the flight. The ebb and flow of vans and transport trucks passing each other, the honking, the street walkers and vendors, the bikes holding more people and goods than would be legally allowed in North America. My stomach was still a little scared from the altercation at the airport but I decided to slowly allow myself to ease into the environment, and to my pleasant surprise began to really see everything in a more beautiful light. The smiles, the fabrics of colourful patterns, the little waving hands and pointing fingers saying “hey, white people!” were even a charming occurrence. I found each doubled bicycle ride, the balanced baskets and buckets on well trained heads, the gathering of friends and families, and the small babies poking out from behind their mothers or sisters- beautiful. The playing, the laughing, oh it looked like so much fun. Even the extreme amount of responsibility for people of all ages seemed fun. Back home the only thing a 12-year-old would be responsible for is maybe taking their chiwawa for a walk. Here 12 year olds were in charge of whipping their 4 oxen home. How cool is that?
This beautiful collection of people and activities was in the foreground of a splendid backdrop of dried vegetation between tracks of caramel dirt roads. The escarpments in the distance looked like they had gigantic leafy green ants marching across the top and spilling down the sides. Colonies scattered in parts and bunched in others. The horizon displayed a naval brigade in the blue ocean sky. The white, fluffy ships were varying in size and shape, some heavier and more important than others but together commanded a presence- striking fear and awe all in one moment.
We pulled off the pavement and onto the dirt road and we knew we were close. Greeted by running children behind the van, singing woman and cheerful men- the experience was unanimously overwhelming for me and my classmates. We stood there shaking hands, unable to communicate but smiling. One member of the group finally had the idea to bring out a soccer ball and this was greeted by a course of cheers. Together we were entertained, learning names, running around in the most energizing, organized chaos I have ever had the pleasure of being a part of. Soon the sun started to set and all the Canadian students took a second, looking up at this fantastic purple and pink sky. The children had seen it a million times and were not interested in stopping one second of play to admire the beauty.
I was suddenly overcome with how stereotypical my current state was in the 5 step process of culture shock, outlined and discussed in this course extensively (Pedersen, 1995). I was smack dab in the middle of the honeymoon phase described as a general playful excitement and overall sense of euphoria (Pedersen, 1995). Interestingly I could totally pin-point the exact moment this feeling had evolved. In the van, in the attempts to protect myself from the fear and shock residing in my stomach, I made a deliberate choice to change the fear into positive curiosity. This stage is a defense mechanism.
I suddenly felt unsure of my place, here in the football field, kids looking up at me, the colour of my skin entertaining enough. I stood back and decided to wait my feelings out. Maybe tomorrow I would have a better idea of what I was doing here.
Pedersen. P (1995). The five steps of culture shock: Critical Incidents around the World. Wesport, (Greenwood Press)
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.