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.
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.