By Aaron Thornell (St. FX)
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.