Category Archives: Personal Narrative

Language Lessons

By Lara McTeigue

Learning body parts in Chichewa

Learning body parts in Chichewa

During our first week in Malawi, we took 2 Chichewa lessons. Our teacher was a local man who had just finished Teachers College and works with TPM to help run the Learning Lab on campus. We had a session amongst our student group about intercultural communication prior to these classes where we discussed differences from individualist and collectivist cultures. One of the points of variance raised concerned how learners and teachers operate in the classroom in terms of asking questions. In collectivist societies, students may tend to refrain from asking questions in the classroom setting to avoid making the teacher look as if they did not do their job competently. With the new awareness of this cultural norm, I found myself feeling hyper sensitive to my natural dispositions. I was second-guessing my own instincts to question the presentation of course content in order to gain a deeper understanding; something I would habitually do in Canada.

Our first lesson together started off with the introduction of a greeting. “How are you” was translated on the board from English to Chichewa and we repeated the phrase after the teacher aloud several times. We were then asked one by one to say the phrase aloud. Kate, a student returning to Malawi for a second time, asked the teacher then what the very first thing you should say upon meeting someone is. We learnt that “how are you” is in fact what Malawians say when meeting for the very first time.  I thought about the encounters we had had so far with locals and how they often replied “fine” when we would say “hello” or “nice to meet you”. This would explain the error. It also would be an early glimpse at how teaching with this very rehearsed “I say, we say, you say” structure that prepares students to reply with standard memorized responses in the language class really hinders their ability to communicate in authentic situations outside of the constructed classroom context.

Our teacher then jumped into teaching us numbers and days of the week using the similar threefold repetitive method. It was quickly being affirmed that repetition and memorization were patterns of teaching here without much explanation or deeper thinking of the content presented. We were asked to repeat the sayings aloud and then to close our books and practice in front of our peers. When questioned by the teacher, he often followed by asking if we were “confident” in our responses several times. He would also ask the class, “does she have the right answer?” Instead of encouraging us by praising our efforts, it became very intimidating to participate. I imagined that learners may be discouraged from contributing if the possibility to be ridiculed by peers was so high. On several occasions he also asked that we guess the next word to come without any prior knowledge to work off of. I found that this unfamiliar teaching style was slightly frustrating but we were able to chuckle off the majority of the awkwardness for now.

Chichewa is also an alphabetical language, like English or French, and so our second lesson started with a Chichewa song to help us remember the unique pronunciation of vowels. The song was short and fairly easy to perform. We sang it nearly 10 times in a row. We were all getting anxious about the chunk of time spent on singing from our short class together. We realized we were entering the schools and communities soon with next to no practical language knowledge.  The teacher planned to move into parts of the body next but several of us collectively began to feel more comfortable to verbalize our learning expectations. As we grew more at ease with raising questions and steering our own learning, we learnt more subtle cultural features of the language. For example, adding ‘please’ to a request is a sign of begging rather than simple politeness. I always knew that language classrooms were spaces rich with cultural influences but as someone who had not personally been in the position as language learner for quite some time, I was reminded of how much one can learn of another culture while learning the language spoken.

I was perceiving the new language standards that we were learning and the teaching style carried out as being very much so a reflection of the country in which it took place. Through reading Pennycook, I’ve come to understand that the parallels I drew from my observations of the class (which were causing me to question what I previously learned about effective learning) and what I knew of the socio-political-cultural state in Malawi was more so “part of the outside world, and play[s] a role in how that outside world operates.” This awareness would come to help me comprehend the structures in the Malawian classrooms as results of the nation’s narrative. Considering Malawi’s history as a colonized nation which had only gained independence a mere 60 years ago, its education system and teaching practices are still young. How they develop their own institutions will be a big factor in how the country progresses and gains resilience as an independent state. When frustrations arise surrounding methods that are different from ones we are used to applying in our own classrooms, it is imperative that this context is kept in mind.

Schools are spaces that mold young students on a fundamental level. As learners and teachers who are constantly trying to improve our systems, we must try to push the confines of the four walls of our familiar classrooms if we hope to avoid having them become spaces that “serve to maintain the status quo” (Pennycook, 2000.)

Stage Two

By Ashwini Manohar

Inside the Tuck Shop

Inside the Tuck Shop

Lying in bed on my second night in Malawi, I decide that I had spent all five weeks of my last trip here in the honeymoon stage of culture shock, because it occurs to me that this is what disintegration feels like. I am officially in stage two of culture shock, and unequivocally miserable.

So listless I am, in fact, that words like ‘excited’ and ‘happy’ and ‘hopeful’ have been expunged from my vocabulary. Everything is grey. My limbs weigh a ton. I kick dust when I walk, not because I want to, but because I’d rather drag my feet around than lift them. The mattress I slept on last year (which I loved) is now too thin, and I wake up with my shoulders and hips aching. The food is now too greasy. Why is everything fried? My feet, perpetually caged in hiking boots, are hot and damp and entirely uncomfortable. I break the rules and walk around with flip flops in the hostel one evening. I sigh a lot. I frown a lot. I worry about impending wrinkles from all the frowning and UV damage. I slather my skin in more sunscreen than I need, more times during the day than necessary. I’m a quarter of a century old. I think about Botox. I feel sad. My stomach makes awful noises. I dig out my makeup case from my luggage and spend fifteen minutes every morning putting on foundation, mascara, lipstick and filling in my eyebrows. I feel a little better. Temporarily. I’m bloated and gassy.

I’m such a walking caricature of privileged misery that even in the depths of it, I realize how ridiculous I must look to someone on the outside. This is like the anguish Kim Kardashian must feel when she breaks a fake fingernail. Or so I imagine.

I walk around to the tuck shop the very same day we arrive on campus. This was my project last year.

The shelves are gnarly and twisted, and there is barely anything on them. The walls look like someone has trickled watery poop all over it. The counter is half the size it used to be.

There was heavy wind and rain I was told and the roof tore off. We had termites everywhere, it was so humid in here that things started spoiling. We fixed the roof and I spent my own money to buy termite repellent to spray everywhere. Then I was told people said, “Asha’s coming, we’ll wait, she’ll fix it.”

No, I almost scream. This is your community tuck shop. Why were you waiting for me? What if I hadn’t come back this year?

Smiles but there is no answer at this point.

Oxcarts and Shiny Trucks

By Ryan Moyer (Bishop’s)

oxcartsYesterday, when I was on an adventure with members of a local research team, I passed by a big office building in Kasungu. We were walking to use the computers at an Internet café that serves dial up internet at 20 kwacha per minute rather than four dollars per latte. The walk there was one and a half hours…the walk back was longer. No one I was with seemed to consume any food or water over the entire 6-hour period. I had a litre and a half of water and two granola bars, and still felt like gravity had eaten more Wheaties than me that day.

Three hours of walking, in the relentless sun, for a total of 42 minutes, exactly, of Internet time. If that doesn’t tell you members of your team is committed, I don’t know what does. Just the fact that many laughingly took part in that walk for such a small amount of Internet time, and ultimately knowledge, made me reflect on our society’s propensity to complain… in groups, on Facebook, everywhere…about everything that doesn’t matter.

I’m writing this while listening to The Suburbs by Arcade Fire on an iPod, and it has made me think of how growing up in the suburbs everyone would complain about the ‘sprawl’, and the subsequent walking times, or bus connections, or this, or that. Walking three hours for some Internet access wouldn’t even cross someone’s mind as an option.

“Grab your mother’s keys, were leaving.”

-Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

Although I am a tad nostalgic for the simple times of growing up in the suburbs, you know… street hockey, running through sprinklers, all that stuff—I do not miss the lack of depth and lack of… really of anything in that lifestyle. The monotonous routines, devoid of any type of human emotion, let alone adventure, gets plastered over by shiny cars and manicured lawns. And some never grow out of this chase for the aestheticization of the transpolitical, or in other words, to appear ‘civilized’. This bourgeois idealism born from the French Revolution just will not die, people will not evolve…always high school, always high school. I saw it yesterday at the office building.

It wasn’t my first time there, I had visited the building last year to sit down with World Vision and visit one of ‘their villages’. It is the one structure in Kasungu, besides the gas station and the hotels, that could pass in a Canadian city. The inside is a dark mahogany style wood and some of the seats have leather. It resembles Canadian parliament, and also Bishop’s University’s main building, so that the bourgeois will feel comfortable! “Oh yes, I know this wood and this leather, I think I’ll get along with these people.”

Outside, the lawns are tip-top…that guy who lived in the house across from me growing up, the one who spend more time on his lawn than with his kids, would agree. The area’s concrete is crackless, and on top of that concrete sits the nicest vehicles one can find in Kasungu; brand new shiny pick-up trucks. And these trucks belong to the NGOs and the Not-for-Profits that are housed inside. The ones that are supposed to be working hand in hand with the poor people of Kasungu. Yet they all drive $40, 000 Toyota trucks. Why? Well, just like high school, you need to look good! But really, it’s just a mask on wheels.

“And all of the houses they built in the 70’s finally fall and nothing at all. Meant nothing at all, it meant nothing.”

-Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire (N/A) The suburbs, The Suburbs

A Long Walk in My Own Shoes

By Vicki Miller (Bishop’s)

shoesThe Transformative Praxis: Malawi group took our first walk into Kasungu town all together yesterday afternoon. It was a beautiful, yet difficult and unsettling experience. I say this because I did not feel like myself on this walk. I felt like there was a large neon sign over my head reading “AZUNGU”, meaning “white person” in Chechewa. We passed through many small villages on our walk into town, and each time we passed, we got yelled at, stared at, or pointed at. At one point villagers came up to us and shook our hands and even hugged some of us.

I felt as if something was wrong with me, or maybe my hair was crazy or my pants were inside out. I continued to search for a reason why these people held such fascination towards the entire group and myself. I then realized that it was none of those things; it was the color of my skin. It really hurt that entire villages would look at me, point at me, and only see a young Caucasian girl. They did not see me for who I was; they did not see me for Vicki.

I later asked one of my co-learners what the villagers intentions were, because it was hard to determine if they were fascinated, disgusted or afraid of us. Deep inside, I think that it was a combination of a lot of those things, and my co-learner explained that it was mostly out of fascination because they do not see “azungu” every day.

I have been taking a lot of time in thinking about why I am here and what “changes” I am going to make and what experiences I am hoping to get out of my five weeks. During this thinking time, I have been reading Dr. Stonebanks’ Cultural Competence, Culture Shock and the Praxis of Experiential Learning in which he notes that our “living requirement” of living near a rural Malawian village is “to momentarily immerse the most privileged (relatively) in our world to the manner in which the vast majority of humanity lives”. I by no means consider myself very privileged, or even close to one of the most privileged in the world. But, using the word “relatively” changes things, because in my small town in Central Massachusetts, I am an average, middle class, Caucasian, female. Nothing special, no more privileged than the rest of my homogenous white town. The majority of the children attend public school, the majority of them graduate high school and the majority of them attend some form of post-secondary education. To put all this into perspective, the majority of children here in Malawi cannot afford a pair of shoes.  Compared to the majority of people here, I am rich and very privileged. Now that I am surrounded by people living in such different living situations than my own, and who do not all have the same educational opportunities I had, I am more grateful than ever that I was able to have graduated high school, attend a wonderful university, and come out of it all with no debt or student loans. I can thank my parents for all that, but I never had control over when or where I was born, or how much money I would have access to, or what kind of education I would be able to afford.

I have noticed, more than anything, the weight of being an American university student, because as Dr. Stonebanks states, “Canadian and American university students are amongst the most privileged in the world.” That weight has made me stand out and has given me privilege that I never asked to have. Even having the time, money, education and mere opportunity to come to Malawi is something that a lot of people do not have. I believe that what I have to do now is take advantage of these opportunities that I have been given and make a difference here in Malawi.

Things to be grateful for: education and not missed opportunities

Reference: Stonebanks, C. Darius. (2013). “Cultural Competence, Culture Shock and the Praxis of Experiential Learning”. In Lyle, E. & Knowles, G. (Ed.) Bridging the Theory-Practice Divide: Pedagogical Enactment for Socially Just Education. Nova Scotia: Backalong Books.



By Marten Sealy (Bishop’s)

dialoguesI would like to take this opportunity to share examples of some situations and conversations that I’ve experienced here. I’ve had both of these conversations with several people on different occasions, and the exact replies are varied, so they’ve been left out.

I will be glad if this post helps to ‘personify’ some of the portraits found in each issue of National Geographic.


Myself: I’m sorry, I’m not handing out anything material, nor can I promise you any grand solutions.

Friend: *Disappointment, occasionally mixed with confusion, as if to say, “but you’re from Canada.”*

Myself: You see, I could hand out 100 dollars right now, and I’d be fine, but I’d never see that money again. I know that it would be received gratefully, and it could help feed or clothe many people today, but it would do nothing for future generations. It’s tempting, but I have other plans for that money. If I invest that money in Canada, in my education, then someday I may be in the position where I can really help the people of this country.

This brings understanding, but I have to be careful not to make specific promises. It’s definitely one of the most difficult things to communicate.




Friend: *questions about Canada*

Myself: *honest (and modest) answers*

Friend: Canada is a blessed country

Myself: Hmm…I’m fortunate to have been born in Canada, yes, but a blessed country? That depends who you ask. Do you know the history of Europeans coming to Malawi/Africa?

Friend: Yes, they came from the UK, Portugal, France, etc. Wealthy white people.

Myself: Well, if millions of those Europeans had decided to move to Africa, bringing their families in such great numbers that they crowded the black people off of their original land, would you call Africa blessed?

Friend: Ah, you’re from Canada, but you’re not proud of that?

Myself: That’s a hard question to answer my friend. I live a comfortable life, but wealth isn’t everything. Everyone should be proud of their roots.

Friend: That is true. Thank you. [occasionally: I’m proud to be Malawian]

This often concludes with a head nod and a moment of silence.