By Kimberly Gregory (McGill)
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.