Tag Archives: Aaron

Learning To (Not) Be Cynical

By Aaron Thornell (St. FX)

Clearing the football pitch

Clearing the football pitch

Since composing my previous blog entry, I have been in a state of absorption. My initial wonder and wide-eyed mystification has begun to give way to observing my surrounding with a more critical, questioning observance. This is not to say I am an expert in the seemingly endless complexities which surround projects such as Praxis Malawi, and I have only begun to understand the conundrum that is this Sub-Saharan nation. I feel as though I am being taught how to decipher a question in mathematics, a subject already complex enough in my mind, and the answer is constantly being altered through the introduction of new variables. How can one figure out how to contribute to the game when they aren’t aware who all the players are, or rather, what all the players’ motives are?

My solution to this conundrum has been to take things as they come, and remember that only so much is within my realm of control. This has meant grounding myself a great deal, and keeping my expectations, which had run a bit wild in the lead up to my arrival to Malawi, in check. Shortly before my departure from Canada, I was attempting to improve my listening skills. This involved exercises like listening to silence for three-minute periods a day, and attempting to identify the sources of sounds when sitting in noisy environments. With all due respect to my former self, these practices seem somewhat juvenile to me now. As opposed to labelling this as some deep, holistic transformation, I think instead that I have simply learnt a skill many have learned at a young age, but one which remains invaluable, at whatever stage of life it is learnt. The process of listening does not involve hearing the first few sentences of someone’s thought, and then proceeding to formulate one’s response or opinion on the statement. Many individuals, through their actions, have emphasized the value of this. A demonstration of this came when I asked one soft-spoken, yet thoughtful gentleman a question, referring to information found on a single printed sheet of paper. After I had finished speaking, (I concluded with my Westerner-in-a-foreign-place phrase of “Do you understand?”) the two of us sat in silence for about five minutes. On several occasions, I considered repeating the question, asking a fresh one, or continuing to bombard him with my own responses and opinions. Instead, I bit my tongue, and as a result, I was able to hear a well-crafted, thoughtful, and truly informative response. As I listened to it, I quickly made a commitment to wait at least a minute before speaking if a question was asked in rebuttal or return. No question was asked, and so I held onto this minute of consideration for future conversation.

Learning to listen, and think before answering, had come particularly in use with the array of the information I have been privy to, much of it contradictory to many of the premature conclusions I had formed. Conversations, often held in more casual environments than even the closed semi-formal group discussions sometimes held between my colleagues and I, have revealed the numerous subtleties of participating in a process such as this. Even in regards to a project as simple as mine, namely, the construction of a football field, it has led to the realization that there may be many curves in the road as we proceed towards our goal. Something as simple as the installation of metal goal posts involves the consideration of creating some sort of mechanism that allows for easy removal of said posts, to facilitate their storage, a necessity if the community wishes to prevent their theft. A discussion of the confusing and controversial (to put it lightly) national elections slowly morphed into a confidence-shaking conversation regarding inter-village politics in the Chilanga region. I have a great deal to learn, much of which will not be pleasant, and will undoubtedly shape the way I think about this project, Malawi, and perhaps even Africa as a whole.

It is interesting to consider the differences between typical conversations in a Western society such as Canada’s and within a developing nation like Malawi. Recently, we learnt about “Malawi time”. When a meeting is set for one o’clock, for example, those invited will show up anywhere between two and four. This relaxed, albeit sometimes frustrating, aspect of Malawian culture has struck me as characteristic of the nature of the country’s attitude. While this may be a quick judgement, it has been one of the more pleasant aspects of this new country. To contrast it with my own country, one might associate the rapid, sporadic, and even forced nature of many a Canadian conversation with its societal expectations and dynamics. To be sure, there are many, noticeable differences between Canadian and Malawian culture, most of which I have yet to catch on to. This one, however, is one I do hope to inherit and spread.

Once again, I do not wish to express that I have developed any sort of expertise of the nation of Malawi or the issues which plague nations like it. I do, however, feel as though I have begun to wade my way through the quagmire of information, undoubtedly a necessary step for those who wish to engage in reciprocal knowledge transfer as part of a community development project. Learning how differing motives intertwine and how they affect the actions of individuals seems to be essential, albeit difficult, to many members of our group, as well as those within the Chilanga community we are working with. On a macro scale, it is and will be interesting to consider how exterior influences such as altruism, capitalism and globalism, and many other isms express themselves.

 

An Idea Without Foundation

By Aaron Thornell (St. FX)

Getting a girl into the game

Getting a girl into the game

After only a couple of nights in Malawi, many of my pre-trip fears have been put to rest. While the country has been like nothing I have ever seen or experienced before, I still feel as though, so far, most of my concerns were based off of misrepresentations of the country which I had been exposed to prior to my arrival. A large reason for my high comfort level has been due to the genuine friendliness of the vast majority of Malawians. I have been feeling welcomed almost everywhere I have been, and in large part this has been due to the hospitality of the Malawian population. Additionally, the natural beauty of this country continues to amaze me, and had aided to allay many doubts.

This is not to say, however, that my first few days here have not been without such doubts, negative emotions and lingering anxiety. A great deal of these continue to be, as they were before our departure, associated with the work I will be taking on here. Going into the Praxis Malawi opportunity, I was feeling very anxious about what skills and knowledge I would be bringing, as I desired to play a productive role within the planning of the sports/soccer field process. Following our first tour of the campus, however, this anxiety remains. The area that is likely to be used for the field is still extremely overgrown, and upon seeing this, I was struck that my knowledge in the realm of land clearing is all but non-existent. I fought to quickly rid myself of such nervousness, however, and found comfort in the support of many of the community members with whom I will be working with.

One constant I am banking on amidst all these concerns is that learning opportunities will come, quickly and often, and nothing could be more exciting. Whether it is through private conversation with community members, or open discussion with my peers, I have had no shortage of information to absorb, and I am still attempting to process the majority of it.

One very interesting example (in my mind), was a discussion with a community member concerning the popularity of various sports here in Malawi. As was my guess, football is the most popular. It is followed by net-ball, which from what I understand, is a similar sport to basketball. The interesting information came when I noted that I saw only boys playing football and only girls playing net-ball. This reality was confirmed by the community member, and when I brought this up with Dr. Stonebanks, he offered a likely explanation. Until 1994 and the advent of democratic elections, women were not allowed to wear pants, only ankle-long skirts. This wear would in all likelihood restrict the mobility needed for the game of football, but allows one to still participate in a sport like net-ball. Despite this divide, the community member explained to me that significant attempts were being made to encourage girls to enrol in football teams, although he did not speak to boys playing net-ball.

Introducing the 2014 Group: St. FX University

Aaron Thornell

Aaron Thornell

My name is Aaron Thornell, and I am a student at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. I was born and raised in Ottawa, and am a fervent sports fan and participant. I have played hockey and soccer for most of my life, and have recently tried my hand(s) at rowing at St. FX. I consider myself so lucky to come from an amazing and loving family, and owe an incalculable amount of thanks to my parents and older sister.

During my three years at St. FX, I have studied history and development, and am hoping to enter the field of development in the future. Specifically, my interests lie in the realm of sport, and have directed a great deal of my studies and efforts towards the emerging field of sport for development. I am a firm believer that it is a wonderful way to garner participation, enthusiasm, and cohesion in projects. I think that sports can also be very helpful in conveying ideas relating education and health to young people.

I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to do some traveling, but have never been lucky enough to visit Sub-Saharan Africa. I am extremely excited to immerse myself in the Malawian culture as much as possible, as well as take in the lessons of the people and the land itself. During my time in Malawi with the Praxis Malawi project, I am hoping to continue research in this field of sport for development. I feel very fortunate to have been provided an opportunity to work with members of the community in Malawi in the organization of the campus sports field. I am hoping help in any way possible, primarily by listening to the desires of the community members. Most of all, I believe this opportunity will be a wonderful learning experience, and I am sure I will be discovering a great deal about myself.

Rita Morley

Rita Morley

My name is Rita Morley and I hail from the beautiful province of Nova Scotia, Canada. I have been so fortunate to have grown up in a big, loving, and very supportive family. My own personal development has certainly been influenced by many a kitchen table discussion about community and its multitude of components. Being privy to these conversations of family and neighbours, I have inherited a strong sense of the importance of human rights, social justice, leadership, participation, and the true interconnection amongst human beings.

Building on this foundation, I am now on my way to earning a degree in Development Studies at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia and through my studies I have connected with the Praxis Malawi Project. While in Malawi, I will be researching about what factors are involved in forming a healthy and holistic sense of community. In order to gain some new insight and learn from the village of Makupo, I will be helping to facilitate reciprocity and communication between the various projects of Praxis Malawi and the village leadership.

This will be my first time to the continent of Africa and I am very grateful and excited for this opportunity to learn and grow through meeting new people and experiencing a different culture. I am jumping into this experience with openness and dedication. Wish me luck!