By Dr. Christopher Darius Stonebanks
“(S)ome may think that to affirm dialogue – the encounter of women and men in the world in order to transform the world – is naively and subjectively idealistic. There is nothing, however, more real or concrete than people in the world and with the world, than humans with other humans”
(Freire, c2005, p. 129)
Praxis Malawi began with that simple student belief – that collaborative efforts between Canadian university students and community members of Malawi would result in mutual learning and positive, tangible outcomes. A simple statement, but one that has proven to be very difficult to enact. Apart from specific philosophical foundations, like a Freirian model, experiential learning itself seems like a simple enough endeavour as well. The recipe reads: Take three parts foreign context, two parts challenging content, one part motivated learner and mix thoroughly. Add words like “emancipation”, “social justice” and “transformative nature of education” to taste. After an extended period in the field, the learner will have developed a rich and new understanding of the context, plus will have discovered cooperative solutions for thought-provoking subject matter. … Unfortunately, after five years of extended stays in the field, the recipe does not always produce cookie cutter results. Each year, we challenge our students to engage in research over a five to six week period that requires them to consider their academic discipline(s) in relation to local needs as indicated by community members. They are required to live in a rural Malawian village, with all too common conditions of no running water or electricity, which is quite typical for Malawi and for many foreign-based experiential learning projects or study abroad options. The residence arrangements have nothing to do with a “living like a native” experience, rather reflect our commitment to stimulate local economies and the overwhelming realities of day to day life in this region. Moreover, I think we are at the point in cross border endeavours where most of us understand the absurdity of the idea that “living like the locals” is in itself a form of tourism. Years ago I remember overhearing an American woman in Mexico asking a tour guide if he knew of an excursion that would allow her to, as she put it, “not do the typical tourist stuff, but to really be with the people, you know?”. The tour guide nodded his head in agreement and promptly told her, “Yes, that’s possible. But it will cost you an extra $50”. Are there elements of our experiential learning that lends itself to tourist like activities? Absolutely. Still, keep in mind that even academics and activists going to a conference on Marxist theory in Greece (for example), will go see the Acropolis and buy perhaps a Coke. However, In comparison to any kind of tourist endeavour, our experience is messy, it’s a struggle and it’s a long term commitment. It’s certainly a lived experience and not for those who can’t accept that their work is a part of the process, built upon those who have preceded them and those who will follow.
So, how did we get to this point? How did we get here? The truncated story began about six years ago when the Principal of my university invited a group of us to his home to discuss the opportunity for experiential learning in Tanzania. An unfunded endeavour, I was a free agent to inspect the proposed location in Tanzania and come to an uninfluenced conclusion and had the luxury to even compare countries, and I did. A colleague of mine, when he heard I was considering Tanzania, offered to drive me through Tanzania and Malawi, if I agreed to give the location he was working with a fair chance for a possible experiential learning opportunities. Landing in Malawi, we drove up and down this tiny land locked sub-Saharan country and north into southern Tanzania. After about a month and a half, the decision was clear. Although Tanzania’s projects were worthy, Malawi’s needs were clearly greater. Malawi also had many elements to it that would facilitate a five to seven week experiential learning project. Namely, for better or for worse, English was the language of instruction and commerce, and would therefore reduce students’ barriers for carrying out research. And, another important reason, Malawi truly lives up to its reputation as “the warm heart of Africa”.
I am often asked, why Malawi for an experiential learning project? Although my father was born and raised in North Africa, I have no romanticized connections with Africa in any way. The land does not speak to me in a way that it apparently does to others. I was playfully warned by others who had worked on various not-for-profits, volunteer or NGOs that once Africa got under your skin, you always longed to return. I have to admit, my only motivation to commit to Malawi is on a human level. The geography, the weather, all of that is beautiful, but the mystical connection that many talk about is lost on me. It’s the human connection that is the drive of this project and the need is painfully clear. It’s the human connection that, in the end, captures the transformative hopes of both the Canadian students and the local people with which they collaboratively work. Again, it is by no means a recipe like project. It’s messy and, often, it can be emotionally painful. But the students are committed (especially the pre-service teachers) and we have seen some of them, like Kristy, David and Sophie, return to Malawi to continue their work. I speculate that they don’t return for scenery, rather it’s the relationships that they began that is their ultimate motivator. After all, as Freire states, “There is nothing, however, more real or concrete than people in the world and with the world, than humans with other humans”.
In my next blog post, I will continue with the dangers of romanticizing the study abroad experience.