Today we ran an After-school program collaborating with the Education students based on hygiene and hydration. We showed the children the technique of hand washing to the song of the Macarena. We were then challenged with the option of providing an education outlet for children with disability. Instead of focusing on the school system of education it was proposed to start a temporary program where we can act as aids for the children during the lessons.
I felt unsure at first because a temporary program can end very quickly in Malawi. I thought it wasn’t sustainable as in this area there may be no teachers or no teachers to care to follow up the education that has started for people with disabilities. I also deeply felt that I didn’t have the skills to support these children, to meet their ever- changing needs. I felt and feel inadequate in doing something from my own mind that I couldn’t witness and criticize. Becoming the do-er instead of the audience was really a threat in this instance.
The role of the nurse became so much clearer in such a short time. This outlet of education wasn’t only for these children, but for us too. I hope it allows us to be holistic and focus on all the person’s needs. From a quick visit to the community we had during the week I could already see the need for the children with disabilities to be happy and fulfilled in experiences. Instead here, they are forced to stay at home due to the discrimination they face in the schools and in the villages.
I had an experience as a student nurse in practice where I found it difficult to participate in real communication with clients. I was always better at writing and doing physical work than communicating properly. A senior nurse told me that I could get anyone to participate in anything if I did it with love and kindness. Likewise, if I communicated with kindness I could achieve anything. This means meeting peoples individual needs in their current situation.
I liked her advice.
For someone with intellectual disability it can be difficult for some children to interact and communicate as directly as we would and that’s where my love for this role comes from. Individuals with a disability teach us to listen, to care and have patience, which is so difficult for me to do. I remember in school always being taught and talked at. We never had a conversation with our educators and our opinion wasn’t allowed because of being incorrect to the textbook. This created tension in me as a person because I didn’t feel like I was being listened to or understood.
Having the opportunity to create a space where individuals can reach their own achievable potential in Chilanga is amazing. Being able to focus on ability rather than what the individual may not be able to do is life changing. In an ideal world it should be an aspect of all education and not just for our children with individual differences.
‘Education recognizes energy and potential within each person and each community, and tries to empower them to make their full contribution to the process of building a new society in which it is possible for all people to meet their fundamental human needs.’ (Hope,Timmel &Hodzi, 1984).
Hope, A., Timmel, S., & Hodzi, C. (1984) Training for transformation : A handbook for community workers. Gweru, Zimbabwe: Mambo Press.
Two weeks have passed and the wall is still empty. At noon the wall is hit by the huge African sun and is blasting legit heat waves, it hurts my eyes to even stare. It’s even bigger now with the lime on. When I was painting the top part of the wall, my legs were shaking, one hand with the tray and one with the brush. It was only 5 meters high, but having a phobia for heights, I would say it’s quite an achievement getting myself to even go near that ladder.
The design is nearly ready, with a plot twist at the end when we found out that the wall is not as symmetrical as we thought it would was. The contractor shamed the paint we got, and the roughness of the wall literally devours my pencil when I try to sketch. I realized I couldn’t draw the grids alone, so two of my colleagues and a couple of little Malawian boys were helping me hold the strings and eyeing the straightness; it was fun and rainbows until I realized that the bottom part is also not straight. So I slowly crawl back into my thinking hat to think of a better way to map the design, and probably map my whole plan.
While sitting on the porch of the community center, looking out as the little helpers are playing jump rope with the strings. I would describe the site as rocky, rough, uneven, and full of construction bits and shards. They boys had no shoes on, and every time they land on the ground from jumping there is a huge THUD, THUD, THUD. My initial reaction would be ‘Stop you fools! You’ll all hurt yourself!’ But a part of me was so amazed by the constant laughter and that none of them were bothered by my horrified expression, I just watched. Nothing happened. My background music continued to be laughter’s of Malawian kiddies. As I gazed off at the sunset I realize I need to grow tougher skin, not just on my toes, but everywhere. I must overcome that stupid ladder, but also my mind has to be tougher and more critical.
If I have to describe my approach to art, I would say that I am very stubborn and that I get attached to ideas that lead me being not very open to critics. I take many things to heart and find it hard to believe that there is a ‘better way’. What I need to work on is being very open minded about ideas of others, even the people who are not familiar in my area. I remember having a very strong dislike for abstract art and realizing later that my work has some degree of ‘abstract’ in it.
My obsession with symbols plays a big part in my lack of critical thinking. I get attached to putting symbols in my work without making it come out naturally between my research. It slows me down most of the time. I find that I work the fastest when I see and hear things from other people, not when I try digging in my brain to find something that is not there. During the period of this course, we put a lot of emphasis on the importance of dialogue. Being engaged in deeper conversations will assist our journey in experiential learning. Being ‘searchers’ instead of ‘planners’ will eventually produce a richer result.
A mentor of mine recently told me that I need to decide whether I want to be one of those guys who brings a Foucault book to the café to pick up chicks, or a real academic who lives his work. If I remain the former, sooner or later, someone who embodies the latter will pose the question;what have you actually done?
A question I think myself along with many scholars do not wish to answer for fear of a definitive lack of a substantial answer. Technically speaking, all I have done in my undergraduate career up to this point is researching and rearranging large amounts of information to manifest some form of a cohesive argument. It has become a science. I go through these motions every class like clockwork. Time for a change. Now that I am here in Malawi, let’s see if Foucault can provide some clarity in reflection.
In 1977 Foucault said that we must look at power not as a “dyadic relation of rulers and subject” but rather a power that manifests through the liberal and humane practices of bureaucracy, medicine, education and the production and distribution of consumer goods. Those involved in these systems of power, like my colleagues and myself, usually do not understand themselves as agents of oppression. Am I an agent? I’m most definitely not wearing a tailored suit.
Now that I am on the ground in Malawi, Foucault’s theories have become animated. One theory that I have been contemplating extensively is his notion that for every group that is oppressed there is one that is privileged in juxtaposition. Most Malawians are continually exploited and marginalized under the unilateral imposition of neo-colonialism, market fundamentalism and paternalistic policies rolled out by the global sharks. This institutional oppression has been written about by countless scholars (Caplan’s The Betrayal of Africa), but what about those acting in an oppressive role who do not realize their complacent agency in the nourishment of oppressive objectification? For instance; those working for charities working under the veil of generosity, but in reality are constraining those they work “for”. What about tourists?
I write this next to a pool at a Safari resort in Zambia, surrounded by rich mahogany and waiters on standby. I could jog to the nearest village where the poverty is violent. This lodge employs some locals and sells a few local goods, but what is it doing for those really on the fringes? What are we doing here? I search for witty anecdotes to impress my professor as these questions tear a hole in my already perforated epistemic fabric. None come, anxiety rises.
The last lodge we visited, Lukwe Lodge in Livinstonia, served as a place of solitude in the depths of human suffering, as it was one built and run utilizing permaculture. I felt as if I was part of the solution while I was there. But here in Zambia I am contributing to the cultural imperialism of the tourist industry, here I am an agent. An agent that just walked next to elephants.
Although omnihelpful (just made that up) in healing the nausea of uncertainty, I have begun to realize that, as Foucault alluded to, conceptualizing this type of exploitation solely in a macro Marxist framework does not do the situation’s depth justice. Let’s analyze a scenario; copper mining in Zambia.
Like Malawi, Zambia gets large amounts of foreign aid from the United States and the European Union, splendid. Splendid like potential partners in the darkness of that dingy club you went to once. Let’s turn on the lights. Natural resources that are extracted from Zambia, like copper, are worth twenty times the amount of foreign aid that goes in. These mining corporations sell the materials internally to avoid paying Zambian tax rates. The materials are funneled like cheap booze at a frat party into the mouths of a handful of multinational corporations-funnel held high by high priced Harvard lawyers, swarms of uneducated citizens, educated African elite and apathetic or unconscious Westerners. The latter being the type of people to travel to Zambia to sit around a pool at a Safari lodge. So who takes the blame; the sadistic elite or the apathetic majority?
Everyone plays a part in the continuation of these abject conditions, or, to use Paulo Freire’s term, dehumanization. How can we be human if our whole lifestyle is served through the systematic exploitation of other human beings? Ask yourself; why do your socks only cost four dollars at Wal-Mart? Ask yourself why the majority of people travel home from work and sit in front of a television rather than making music, engaging in dialogue with their neighbors, making love or making improvements?
What’s my excuse? I need to find one quickly. Bad breakup, sick mother, bullied, I couldn’t be bothered, I was weak. I am weak. I have not faced centuries of murderous oppression and manipulation. My father does not have AIDS. I can read, write and buy three dollar coffees and ten dollar cigarettes to fill the depths of alienation brought about by a steadfast Facebook addiction….and yet I can not engage in daily praxis for the alleviation of human suffering. It seems that this trip may be serving my own healing more so than the healing of the people of the Chilanga region.
For impoverished Malawians the excuses are a little easier. If you can’t read or write, how do you understand the legislation put in place to ensure the reduced tax rates for the corporations plundering your resources? The government is speaking in tongues of elitist verbosity, and I speak their language of complacent global objectivity with every breath of Folgers caffeine I exhale. At Livingstonia I’ve seen the coffee plantations from the top of the missionary castle built on the backs of slaves. What a view.
Even if the coffee bean farmers do get “fair wage”, who says what’s fair? Is fair being able to not suffer from starvation while plantation owners suffer from liver cirrhosis and high blood pressure via salty sirloins? I believe I have begun to think critically, as here there is no Facebook, music production capabilities, bars or relationships to provide temporary solitude. This solitude has been wonderful. The conclusions from this lucidity are breath taking…cardiac arresting.
How do you mobilize and animate your brothers and sisters if you do come to these conscious realizations? Charity work is the all encompassing solution for the West, in reality it mostly solves the public relations problem of having its cut-throat geo-political maneuvers criticized. Hand outs from the healthy to the homeless in the form of foreign aid, from the very countries providing solitude for the sinister, in castles adorned with geometric logos and archers armed with litigation and weapons of mass confusion.
Rhetorical question of the day: why is the education system flawed? Maybe because we aren’t taught to ask that question. Foucault, Friere, and my mentor may be on to something.
The more that time goes by, the more I am starting to understand how truly enriching this whole experience has been. I have been living in close quarters with a diverse group of students for three weeks now. During my time here, these students have taught me so many things from step dancing to helping me understand the complex relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor. I have also started thinking more critically about the world around me. I find myself questioning things that in the past, I might not have. I think that I have taken in more knowledge in the past three weeks than I have in the last year. Furthermore, being around students from different disciplines has definitely broadened my view of the world. I find myself analyzing situations from new and more informed perspectives.
My favorite moments of this trip have been when I have engaged intellectual conversations with some of my colleagues. This kind of dialogue often occurs when there are only a few people around, usually early in the morning or late at night. It tends to begin with one person expressing a concern in regards to actions that were posed by the local residents, which do not concur with our beliefs and/or values. I enjoy hearing everyone’s point of view as we try and find the root of the problem together. Most of the time we do not come to a concrete conclusion because the issues that we are faced with here are very complex and multi-faceted. Nonetheless, I think that this kind of dialogue is crucial in order to try and make sense of everything that is going on around us. This collaborative knowledge also greatly influences the work we do here because it helps us better understand the local residents, which in turn, enables us to find more appropriate ways of serving their immediate and long-term needs.
In general, I have found that the roots of the issues involve both: a lack of communication and trust, which essentially go hand in hand. The lack of trust could be explained by the fact that “we in the West are deeply complicit in every crisis bedeviling Africa, that we’re up to our collective necks in retrograde practices, and that we’ve been virtually co-conspirators with certain African leaders in underdeveloping the continent” (Caplan, 2008). Keeping this in mind, who says that they should trust us? I probably wouldn’t if the same people who were claiming to help, had in fact, betrayed them so many times in the past and continue to act in ways that are exploitative of the continent. The effects of this kind of behavior are intergenerational. We must work diligently to gain their trust back.
One way to develop trusting relationships within the community is to constantly engage in good and honest conversations. One component that is essential in developing this is time. We need to show them over and over again that they can trust us. We need to show them that when we say we will do something, we do it. We must not make promises that we cannot keep. This is one of the main problems with some of the other organizations as they work in a certain region for a small period of time and then leave. There is a lack of communication and therefore, there is no trust. Due to this, these organizations usually end up imposing their ideas on the specific communities. It makes it impossible to develop reciprocal relationships. They rationalize by telling themselves that they made a “difference” when in reality most of these organizations only help to serve specific short-term needs by donating money or building a school or helping people grow food. There are usually no long-term benefits that come out of this kind of work thus, the cycle of poverty continues. By this, I do not mean to say that what they are doing is bad. However, time, trust and communication are fundamental to long lasting change. Praxis Malawi, tries to develop this by making this project over a longer time span (approximately 15 years).
Over the years, the communication and trust has gotten better among local residents and the Praxis Malawi group. Nonetheless, we need to keep working on this. Too many issues still arise due to a fear of expressing honest opinions on both sides. A few of the many reasons that could explain this are: language barriers, differences in epistemologies, the ingrained fear of corruption on their part due to their history of colonialism and of course as was aforementioned, the way the West has betrayed them so many times in the past. We need to continually strive towards building reciprocal relationships. I look forward to seeing progress in this area in the future as I think we are on the route towards positive change.
Caplan, G. (2008). The betrayal of Africa. Toronto: Berkeley.
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.