By Dr. Christopher Darius Stonebanks
We have been walking to the school site at the end of the work day lately, checking on the progress of the construction, and I am uneasy about how good that feels. Many years ago, a professor told me that he was envious that I knew how to do basic renovation and construction work. His reason was that as an academic, he always saw just pieces of the “big picture” through his own work, and never got to really see if his ideas actually contributed to any concrete change. To build a deck, put in a floor, stairs, or even simply paint a room, he thought, must give someone a great sense of accomplishment. A sense of finality; “That’s it, it’s done, now someone can actually make use of what I have done. Up the stairs with you. Go!” Being a part of building the school and the soon-to-come teachers’ houses has reminded me of that professor’s comments. For many years I have worked with a number of education students that feel a great sense of frustration as they examine, let’s say, creativity in the grade four classroom, because their thoughts turn to (understandably) immediate concerns about the poor conditions of the students’ outdoor bathroom. What good is formulating a strategy for better artistic expression if the child risks dysentery? There are a multitude of voluntourism projects that bring Canadians and Americans to developing nations and give them a tour of the exotic beauty and then at some point put a hammer in their hands and ask them to help put up a wall in a classroom or a clinic. Photos are taken of these voluntourists with the locals, while they (I imagine) feel quite proud of the dirt on their hands, face, and clothes and their own kindness as they are arm and arm with locals … for a day or two. My thoughts always turn to the skills the voluntourist actually brings to the table. I am not referring to a carpenter’s union who flies to Haiti to build schools, applying their trade to a good cause. I am talking about the very well-meaning individuals who want to “do good”, and recognize that the ethics of travelling to such places as, for example, Mexico and staying in a gated resort while poverty exists right outside of the walls is questionable. For me, the problem with many of these voluntourists is that I wouldn’t trust them to hang a picture in my house, let alone trust their ability to put in a supporting wall in a school structure. But, I am beginning to understand that there certainly is something attractive about the immediacy of the act.
Pre-service teachers and teachers are now in a space where the curriculum they are developing has the potential to make a significant difference to the lives of children in the Chilanga region. But there are so many variables that there are no guarantees of immediate reward. The teacher who will be implementing the curriculum has a tremendous professional responsibility on his shoulders to enact the curriculum he has helped to develop; so much rides on his shoulders. The community had to give up farming land for the school’s construction, and I am sure their expectations will be high as they rightfully will await some dividends for their temporary loss as the Senior Chief allocates new land for farming. Will they support the school? What about the curriculum designs itself? Will an unstandardized curriculum be met with resistance? Will it stand up? The classroom certainly looks like it’s standing up without any problems. Built almost entirely of brick and mortar, it seems like overkill in a region that does not normally (and thankfully) suffer from natural disasters. Foundation of concrete, doubled brick upon brick the walls go higher and higher each day we see it, with its surface picture of “real development”.
Before it appears as though I am slipping into an argument against building schools, I am not. Classroom spaces and teachers’ housing is in desperate need. But, so is a curriculum that will actually begin to address the needs of the community. Banking of information has failed to make positive change to the human condition in Malawi and buildings alone are not the answer. The work that the pre-service teachers and teachers are currently undertaking is as exhausting and important as the construction of the school. Although finding funding for schools in Malawi is a daunting task, it is nonetheless doable. Trying to get funding for students and teachers to come to Malawi, work with local stakeholders, and develop curriculum seems almost impossible to me. The sacrifices that all of the students (education, biology and our CEGEP students) have made to come to Malawi should be applauded and the work they are completing should be admired. I hope, as Amy, Annabelle, Corinne, Elise, Farah Roxanne, Frank, Jae, Linden, Louisa, Naomi, and Rebecca look at the school going up, they see it as a parallel to their own amazing accomplishments.