By Aaron Thornell (St. FX)
Over the course of my time in Malawi, one reality has become increasingly clear. Through several lessons, very few of them easily learned, I have realized that the presence of outsiders changes things. In some instances, the outsiders are residents of other Chilanga region villages; in others, outsiders are even members of particular families. The most drastic changes occur, it would seem, when non-Malawians (such as myself and the rest of the Praxis Malawi group) arrive on a sub-Saharan scene. The rules of the game, as I initially came to understand them, have changed.
One instance of this came recently. The issue of paying the men who had been working on clearing the football pitch quickly came to the fore. After discussions with a co-learner and other members of the community, a figure of what would be appropriate wages was determined. My co-learner and I then enlisted a prominent community member to aid in the hiring, tracking of workers’ hours and overseeing of the project. At the time of writing this, the men had been working for nine days, with the understanding that wages would be doled out after the tenth. I was initially concerned about the length of this period of time, knowing that some of these men surely had other employment opportunities, or that perhaps the funds would be needed on a more regular basis. My concerns persisted over the period of time during which I was physically separated from the project, although I did learn about the reality constricted communication and the obstacles it poses (I wrote a letter for the first time in quite some time). Upon my return, I found my fears had been unfounded, as the work had continued to go smoothly. A discussion and some reflection helped me realize that perhaps the trust of the workers had stemmed from the presence of outsiders – in particular when these outsiders hold the money. Despite this, however, I also learned that some of the men had expressed concerns that, due to the position of the man we had asked to oversee the project, they would be told the work had been voluntary, as part of a community development project. (This gave me a sense of hope for the future of the Praxis Malawi project, in which voluntary group contributions would begin to assist in the development of the campus.) At the same time, it further emphasized the importance of certain power dynamics present in the region.
The realization concerning the presence of outsiders has also given me cause to pause. I believe most in the Praxis Malawi group were aware of the changes that might arise from our presence in a country such as Malawi. I am only now coming to terms with the archetype we (or at least I) are taking on in some instances. This is sometimes exemplified by children asking (not begging, mind you) for money as we pass by on the road. This does not bother me, but instead has caused me to consider what effect money might have on trust – between Praxis Malawi students and the community, as well as within the community. I have, at times, held worries that trust between me and the community may be lacking. The vision of the field, for instance, was only somewhat conceived of through “common reflection” (Freire, p. 69), although the action planning and construction has been more mutually conceived. The realistic role I hope the field can play is one I presented, pre-conceived, but I feel I failed in encouraging the community members to challenge the idea. I feel as though there would be little opposition to the idea itself, but differences might arise in regards to the role it can play in the community. Perhaps, however, that is the beauty of this project which I’ve been so lucky to take on. Each member of the community feels at liberty to assign their own vision to it – or none at all.