Tag Archives: Aaron

On the Subject of Empathy

By Aaron Thornell (St. FX)

My attempt to take a deep picture

My attempt to take a deep picture

May I apologize in advance for the corny nature of what you are about to read:

How does one walk a mile in another’s shoes when that person walks barefoot?

I am not sure how to answer this question, although empathy has recently become very prominent in my thoughts, and often does whenever we travel.  I had originally believed it to be an extension on my attempts to conceptualize the subject of trust in the Malawian – and indeed community development – context. I think, perhaps, it is more basic than these theorizations. Perhaps it is a natural instinct to imagine the life and thoughts of a young child in her school uniform, or a woman carrying water on her head, or a young man playing football? Perhaps it is a product of being in a place where one knows that many lifestyles will not resemble one’s own in most ways – as a result one becomes curious of the thoughts that another has. While I am thinking about the Praxis Malawi endeavor and the World Cup and blogs and girls, the other is thinking about … well I don’t know.

On the Subject of Networking

By Aaron Thornell (St. FX)

Trust starts in small groups

Trust starts in small groups

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.

On the Subject of Outsiders

By Aaron Thornell (St. FX)

Who gets to go on the bus?

Who gets to go on the bus?

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.

The Thoughtful Tourist

By Aaron Thornell (St. FX)

Standing awkwardly with awkward animals

Standing awkwardly with awkward animals

While travelling by jeep through the National Park in the alphabetically awesome country of Zambia, I began to think about the tourism industry present here in this area of sub-Saharan Africa – or at least that with which our group has engaged. It differs greatly from much of the tourist destinations present in many of the other parts of the world I have been fortunate enough to visit: the Coliseum of Rome, the Empire State Building in New York, the Louvre museum in Paris, or any of the amazing sights of London. Before I go off writing pieces for Daily Planet’s next issue of “Tourist Sites All North American’s Love”, I will get to the point. All of these aforementioned sites are man-made structures, ancient, somewhat more recent, and new, and draws visitors by the millions every year. The nations and cities where these are found are, of course, also home to natural beauties; here in Malawi and Zambia, I have yet to witness this duality of income-producing possibilities. The attractions that bring a great deal of foreign capital are natural sights and untamed wilderness, for the most part left unaltered by humans. The mountain of Livingstonia and the savannah plains of Zambia have been capitalized by humans – in many cases non-Africans. Both lodgings we stayed in were owned and managed by Caucasians – although one was born and spent a great deal of his life in Africa. The town of Livingstonia, too, was founded by Scottish missionaries.

It is interesting, I think, to consider this dichotomy. Despite the overwhelming European presence in Africa since the mid to late nineteenth century – a time when many man-made structures were being constructed in Europe and North America – there are very few of such monuments found in this region of Africa. Why? I suppose the largest factor was the role Europe envisioned for the African continent. Much of the landmass, in particular that which was located south of the Saharan desert, was designated as a territory ripe for exploitation, for temporary benefit followed by unceremonious discard. How different is my own visit here?

Under the ruse of a much needed break from our stressful humanitarian work (I only italicize because I at times consider how those living in the conditions we are working in are unable to take such breaks) we are treating these beautiful environments in a similar way. The parallels between a colonial occupation and our visit to Zikomo Lodge in Zambia have caused me significant disturbance and led to many questions.

Bathroom Thoughts and Then Some

By Aaron Thornell (St. FX)

Site of outer body experience

Site of outer body experience

I had planned to write this blog post about the most majestic and serene defecation I have possibly ever had. It took place at Lukwe Lodge, beautiful accommodations located partially up Mount Livingstonia. Dusk had fallen as I sat, pants around my ankles, my second or third beer of the evening close at hand. A gas lamp completed the scene, as it provided just enough light to illuminate the tree canopy above me. I could not recall the last time I was at such peace letting loose my bowels…sorry.

The serenity of that moment remained with me for the remainder of our visit, and was capped off by a long but gratifying walk down the mountain from the lodge. It was not until, at the very bottom of the mountain, after becoming caught behind a small herd of cattle that I remembered where I was. As we walked to a shady resting spot, sights and smells of small rotting fish and a hanging pig carcass quickly brought me back to ground-level, real Malawi.

On the drive home, I was lucky to sit at the front of the bus, providing me with a view of the road and all it contained. Malawians of all ages attempting to flag down our bus for a ride, and looking disgruntled when we did not even slow down. Men struggling as they attempted to control their bicycles, laden with what appeared to be an impossibly balanced seventy pound stack of wood. Narrow misses with overcrowded mini buses. I felt a strong sense of gratitude for all that was provided for me during my life. I recalled the seldom occasions when I felt as though I was working hard, although only lasting short periods of time. This was followed by an almost overwhelming sense of guilt – something which quickly transformed into near rage as I felt powerless to do anything about it, and as I sensed that some within our group did not observe the same things or feel the same way.

While that evening was undoubtedly my most emotional one since I have arrived in Malawi, I hope it was a stride in the right direction, as I to direct myself towards a personal understanding of the realities or hurdles faced by those who chose to work in the field of community or international development. I was reminded of the reading of an article for class this past academic year. While I still disagree with many of the things stated by the author, his main point – essentially that the conscious of one working within the margins of society is wrought with self-doubt – has become much clearer to me.

Our trip, while incredible, seemed to have softened some of the group members’ resolve (or at least my own). Upon our return to Makupo, we were welcomed like some sort of heroic troupe by many of the village’s children, although surely not many, be they Malawian, Canadian, or Irish, realized how strange the scene was. In plain fact, we had just spent a large sum of money on this trip, money which could have been put towards any number of things. To say the money was wasted would be false, but personally I continue to have some trouble with the reality of the complication it brings in this place.