Monthly Archives: July 2014

It May Take Us a While

By Kimberly Gregory (McGill)

Every step we take is worth it

Every step we take is worth it

The more that time goes by, the more I am starting to understand how truly enriching this whole experience has been. I have been living in close quarters with a diverse group of students for three weeks now. During my time here, these students have taught me so many things from step dancing to helping me understand the complex relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor. I have also started thinking more critically about the world around me. I find myself questioning things that in the past, I might not have. I think that I have taken in more knowledge in the past three weeks than I have in the last year. Furthermore, being around students from different disciplines has definitely broadened my view of the world. I find myself analyzing situations from new and more informed perspectives.

My favorite moments of this trip have been when I have engaged intellectual conversations with some of my colleagues. This kind of dialogue often occurs when there are only a few people around, usually early in the morning or late at night. It tends to begin with one person expressing a concern in regards to actions that were posed by the local residents, which do not concur with our beliefs and/or values. I enjoy hearing everyone’s point of view as we try and find the root of the problem together. Most of the time we do not come to a concrete conclusion because the issues that we are faced with here are very complex and multi-faceted. Nonetheless, I think that this kind of dialogue is crucial in order to try and make sense of everything that is going on around us. This collaborative knowledge also greatly influences the work we do here because it helps us better understand the local residents, which in turn, enables us to find more appropriate ways of serving their immediate and long-term needs.

In general, I have found that the roots of the issues involve both: a lack of communication and trust, which essentially go hand in hand. The lack of trust could be explained by the fact that “we in the West are deeply complicit in every crisis bedeviling Africa, that we’re up to our collective necks in retrograde practices, and that we’ve been virtually co-conspirators with certain African leaders in underdeveloping the continent” (Caplan, 2008). Keeping this in mind, who says that they should trust us?  I probably wouldn’t if the same people who were claiming to help, had in fact, betrayed them so many times in the past and continue to act in ways that are exploitative of the continent. The effects of this kind of behavior are intergenerational. We must work diligently to gain their trust back.

One way to develop trusting relationships within the community is to constantly engage in good and honest conversations. One component that is essential in developing this is time. We need to show them over and over again that they can trust us. We need to show them that when we say we will do something, we do it. We must not make promises that we cannot keep. This is one of the main problems with some of the other organizations as they work in a certain region for a small period of time and then leave. There is a lack of communication and therefore, there is no trust. Due to this, these organizations usually end up imposing their ideas on the specific communities. It makes it impossible to develop reciprocal relationships. They rationalize by telling themselves that they made a “difference” when in reality most of these organizations only help to serve specific short-term needs by donating money or building a school or helping people grow food. There are usually no long-term benefits that come out of this kind of work thus, the cycle of poverty continues. By this, I do not mean to say that what they are doing is bad. However, time, trust and communication are fundamental to long lasting change. Praxis Malawi, tries to develop this by making this project over a longer time span (approximately 15 years).

Over the years, the communication and trust has gotten better among local residents and the Praxis Malawi group. Nonetheless, we need to keep working on this. Too many issues still arise due to a fear of expressing honest opinions on both sides. A few of the many reasons that could explain this are: language barriers, differences in epistemologies, the ingrained fear of corruption on their part due to their history of colonialism and of course as was aforementioned, the way the West has betrayed them so many times in the past. We need to continually strive towards building reciprocal relationships. I look forward to seeing progress in this area in the future as I think we are on the route towards positive change.

Caplan, G. (2008). The betrayal of Africa. Toronto: Berkeley.


On the Subject of Networking

By Aaron Thornell (St. FX)

Trust starts in small groups

Trust starts in small groups

Prior to my departure for Malawi, my father and I were sitting on the couch, half-watching a hockey game between the Kings (whose championship I congratulate) and Blackhawks. Our attention was sunk into the creation of a Linked In account. He assured me it would be beneficial when I attempt to begin the headache-inducing search for the ever-elusive but oft-sought “job in my field”. Few know if such things even exist for recent under-graduates, but I figured some networking would not hurt my chances. As I filled in boxes about personal interests and experience, I wondered about what kinds of networking opportunities would be present or available in Malawi.

It was not until today (June 23) that this thought re-entered my conscious. The differences are many, although I would suggest that the importance of personal or professional connections stands to be of equal if not greater here in Malawi. Even prior to putting forward my name for consideration to be a part of the Praxis Malawi opportunity, one of my professors at St. FX emphasized the importance of personal acquaintance when embarking on overseas development initiatives. The role such links play in the development of trust cannot be over-stated. Part of this relates to the inescapable visible characteristics that set me and the rest of the group apart here in Malawi. I thought that perhaps due to the nature of the work being done (one which serves to benefit the larger community) that trust and partnership would be able to be established without too much difficulty. In reality, however, the circumstances of Malawi, one of the poorest nations in the world, do not allow for such Kumbaya-esque relations all the time. That is not to say that I feel as though I have yet to establish positive relationships – although there are very few in which I feel I know the other party and their motives entirely. The complexities of such relationships seem to accumulate without pause or end.

Despite reading Satre’s words preceding Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (keeping in mind the period of its writing) I have only felt a very strong sense of guilt on a couple of occasions while in Malawi. The struggle of coping with the past actions of Westerners is one that I have looked at many times, but that is not for this entry. Instead, it is Freire’s words that give me pause. I do not feel like a direct, conscious oppressor, although surely, indirectly the role is well played. At the same time, I attempt to rally myself with Malawians I meet, aware of my perceptions of them as the oppressed written about. I strive to gain their trust, in hopes that I may play a role in their liberation. A plethora of questions associate themselves with this initial thought. By posing this question do I inadvertently distance myself?

“To achieve … praxis, however, it is necessary to trust in the oppressed and in their ability to reason.”

Without this valued trust, who knows where such projects can go? Shall I extend myself, and risk falling into traps – traps that could disturb far more than just my fragile conscious?

Corrupt individuals prey upon this extended trust, the innocence of the traveling Westerner, in particular those with the delicate sensibility present in so many young humanitarian workers. Learning this can, I feel, produce a certain cynicism that I have already addressed in prior blog posts. It is a matter, however, of overcoming this cynicism, or else learning to cope with it. Trust can certainly be found, but often it is a matter of knowing where to look, and keeping in close contact with those trust-worthy individuals. This form of networking, through personal acquaintance and long periods of winning trust is very different from accumulating phone numbers and emails following a conference. Very different contexts call for very different approaches to essentially the same practice. I worry, however, that the only way to win such relationships is through time – a commodity in ever-shortening supply.

The Power of Romanticism: Fear and Self-Loathing in Malawi

By Ryan Moyer (Bishop’s)

Looking ahead

Looking ahead

“Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without the quality.”

The Speeches and Writings of Che Guevera, p.398

Is there such a thing as action motivated by a moral compass completely emancipated from one’s own desires? Tough question, here’s a half answer; you never truly know someone until you know what they want. As a student, academic achievement is my currency to buy upward social mobility and power. Good grades are respect. Good grades are acceptance. Academic achievement is the beast of burden that carries my dreams of actually doing something meaningful.  With so much appearing to ride on my first real academic endeavor here in Malawi, how do I maintain composure?

Every sports team tryout I ever attended was a failure. I would crack under the pressure like a Pinto’s engine cylinder and either double dribble in front of the coach or throw the pass out of bounds. I stutter every time I approach a woman I’m attracted to, or even men I feel intimidated by. The physiological effects I feel during job interviews could be compared to heroin withdrawal. If I’m ever interviewed outdoors during the Canadian winter my perspiration could form a skating rink.

With embarrassment as a shadow, I began to win and succeed by default; I would not engage with challenges.  Smart right? With so many years of this activity gradually becoming my natural stress response, the duty of emancipating tradition is a trial, an internal one as well as one which is external while working in the Chilanga region. Up until now (maybe still but to a lesser degree) I’ve mostly been asking; Is this the best I can do? Am I asking the right questions?  Will this get me good grades? The egoism is deafening. I’ve been raised and have been complacent in a system that promotes competition, hedonistic activity and romanticism at all costs, like they’re going out of style. Well the cost is lack of progression and solutions, and hopefully those mindsets are going out of style. These traditions allow for the evasion of any type of critical thinking or self-loathing as we float down the lazy river of Western society. Behind the fences of the water park are those who built the place and harvested the pineapples we sip from. But, our drinks have frilly umbrellas and the six o’clock news is doing a segment on puppies, so calm down.

The question has arisen in my research of cooking stoves; If the cooks are aware of all the benefits of the cooking stove vs. their usual three rock fire system, why don’t they use the cook stove? Another question has arisen; Why was I not more engaged in finding an answer before now(Question mark) Tradition most definitely has a part to play in all of this. I hope in finding answers to the questions which mark my own inability to shake tradition, I can reflexively conclude some questions that arise from tradition in Makupo.

If the goals define the action and mine have been; impressing a professor, befriending my peers and getting good grades, then I have been walking the wrong path for three weeks. I have wasted time. I have beat the hell out of any type of personal progression or potential community growth with a continued direction of naval gazing solutions that ultimately were manifested to benefit myself.  In typical fashion the challenge of engaging in knowledge transfer in dialectical form was swapped for knowledge transfer that is one sided in the form of a proposed English lesson.  White ego, white privilege, orientalism, Euro-centric; whatever you want to call it, continues to creep into my praxis. It’s just easy to romanticize neo-liberal solutions, because that has most often been done in these situations and because…well, it provides comfort in the midst of ambiguity and an overwhelming sense of futility. An academic placebo effect.

Ram Dass is a writer and former UC Berkley psychologist that has been monumentally influential in how I conduct my life. His teachings revolve around the perception of time, as the title of his book Be Here Now clearly illustrates. His teachings are relevant, ironically, here and now more so than they have ever been. I mustn’t consider past failures or even future dreams of employment in my current work. If I emancipate traditional practices of hedonism, immediate gratification (cursory solutions) and the fear of failure, only then will I be able to progress. I said at the beginning that academic achievement is the beast of burden that carries my dream of doing something meaningful, but here in Malawi I already am, here and now.

Romance is a wonderful feeling, but one filled with nostalgia for the past and lust for the future, along with acts of false generosity. Love is working on solutions, here and now, with, not for, the people of the Chilanga region. But, to do that, I need to turn off the news, put down the pineapple, get out of the lazy river and climb the fence to work from, not for, the margins of society.