Tag Archives: challenges

The Power of Romanticism: Fear and Self-Loathing in Malawi

By Ryan Moyer (Bishop’s)

Looking ahead

Looking ahead

“Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without the quality.”

The Speeches and Writings of Che Guevera, p.398

Is there such a thing as action motivated by a moral compass completely emancipated from one’s own desires? Tough question, here’s a half answer; you never truly know someone until you know what they want. As a student, academic achievement is my currency to buy upward social mobility and power. Good grades are respect. Good grades are acceptance. Academic achievement is the beast of burden that carries my dreams of actually doing something meaningful.  With so much appearing to ride on my first real academic endeavor here in Malawi, how do I maintain composure?

Every sports team tryout I ever attended was a failure. I would crack under the pressure like a Pinto’s engine cylinder and either double dribble in front of the coach or throw the pass out of bounds. I stutter every time I approach a woman I’m attracted to, or even men I feel intimidated by. The physiological effects I feel during job interviews could be compared to heroin withdrawal. If I’m ever interviewed outdoors during the Canadian winter my perspiration could form a skating rink.

With embarrassment as a shadow, I began to win and succeed by default; I would not engage with challenges.  Smart right? With so many years of this activity gradually becoming my natural stress response, the duty of emancipating tradition is a trial, an internal one as well as one which is external while working in the Chilanga region. Up until now (maybe still but to a lesser degree) I’ve mostly been asking; Is this the best I can do? Am I asking the right questions?  Will this get me good grades? The egoism is deafening. I’ve been raised and have been complacent in a system that promotes competition, hedonistic activity and romanticism at all costs, like they’re going out of style. Well the cost is lack of progression and solutions, and hopefully those mindsets are going out of style. These traditions allow for the evasion of any type of critical thinking or self-loathing as we float down the lazy river of Western society. Behind the fences of the water park are those who built the place and harvested the pineapples we sip from. But, our drinks have frilly umbrellas and the six o’clock news is doing a segment on puppies, so calm down.

The question has arisen in my research of cooking stoves; If the cooks are aware of all the benefits of the cooking stove vs. their usual three rock fire system, why don’t they use the cook stove? Another question has arisen; Why was I not more engaged in finding an answer before now(Question mark) Tradition most definitely has a part to play in all of this. I hope in finding answers to the questions which mark my own inability to shake tradition, I can reflexively conclude some questions that arise from tradition in Makupo.

If the goals define the action and mine have been; impressing a professor, befriending my peers and getting good grades, then I have been walking the wrong path for three weeks. I have wasted time. I have beat the hell out of any type of personal progression or potential community growth with a continued direction of naval gazing solutions that ultimately were manifested to benefit myself.  In typical fashion the challenge of engaging in knowledge transfer in dialectical form was swapped for knowledge transfer that is one sided in the form of a proposed English lesson.  White ego, white privilege, orientalism, Euro-centric; whatever you want to call it, continues to creep into my praxis. It’s just easy to romanticize neo-liberal solutions, because that has most often been done in these situations and because…well, it provides comfort in the midst of ambiguity and an overwhelming sense of futility. An academic placebo effect.

Ram Dass is a writer and former UC Berkley psychologist that has been monumentally influential in how I conduct my life. His teachings revolve around the perception of time, as the title of his book Be Here Now clearly illustrates. His teachings are relevant, ironically, here and now more so than they have ever been. I mustn’t consider past failures or even future dreams of employment in my current work. If I emancipate traditional practices of hedonism, immediate gratification (cursory solutions) and the fear of failure, only then will I be able to progress. I said at the beginning that academic achievement is the beast of burden that carries my dream of doing something meaningful, but here in Malawi I already am, here and now.

Romance is a wonderful feeling, but one filled with nostalgia for the past and lust for the future, along with acts of false generosity. Love is working on solutions, here and now, with, not for, the people of the Chilanga region. But, to do that, I need to turn off the news, put down the pineapple, get out of the lazy river and climb the fence to work from, not for, the margins of society.

Who’s Supposed to be the Hero?

By Lia Grant (McGill)

June 23rd, 2014

One balloon can bring a smile but as soon as it pops the fun is over

One balloon can bring a smile but as soon as it pops the fun is over

There are so many people here in Malawi in need of help. In particular, I feel myself drawn to helping the children, as they can do very little to help themselves. And there are so many children in need: those who seem most malnourished; those with injuries; those whose teeth are already rotted away; those that cry frequently due to issues of abandonment; and the list goes on.

Most recently, looking at a smaller problem, I have noticed that one of the boys I have been working with in the play has been wearing a pair of shoes that are way past what most Canadians would call “garbage”. They are too small for him – his big toes are protruding out of the front of the shoes – and the sides are completely open. I have seen him trying to fix them, though they are sure to break open again every time within mere moments of mending. After observing this, at the end of a play meeting, as Maxwell and I walked back home to Makupo with the setting sun, not able to get this from my mind, I asked Max how much it would cost to get this boy a new pair of shoes. The answer is approximately 5000 Kwacha (around 10 dollars). More than anything, I want to get him a new pair; I can’t help but picture the look on his face as I pull out a nice new well-fitting set of sneakers from my bag. However, I am also aware that there are many children with no shoes at all, let alone other more serious problems.

The hardest moments for me here over the last four and a half weeks have without a doubt been observing hardships of individuals and realizing that I am not able to help them all – at least not enough. I personally cannot treat Malaria for the duration of every child’s life, I can’t adopt every child who seems neglected, I am not even certified to heal infected wounds, and I can’t buy shoes or toothbrushes for every child. It’s been very difficult for me to face the fact that this is bigger than myself. For every individual child you try to help, there are countless who also need the same aid. Moreover, some help today doesn’t mean help in the long run. Yes, by all means, hold the child who is crying and needs comfort, but understand that you are actually doing very little.

Vast changes need to be made – changes that will help everyone. Even Praxis Malawi is not going to be able to help everyone. It is, however, working towards real and positive change for the people in the Chilanga community, which is a step in the right direction. We are working towards getting the community very actively involved in their own development – through education, health initiatives, and more. People in Malawi, and all over the world, need to feel empowered. They need to be able to help their own children.

Through discussions with Dr. Stonebanks, Ryan, Suzanna, other members of our group, and through readings, I’m even realizing how much I disagree with many foundations (which I will not name here) as well as the nature of the Western “AID” system in general, which claim to be saving countless lives throughout Africa and in other impoverished countries. They like to play the part of the heroes, coming in and helping the oppressed, and specifically children. However, after all the oppression that has gone on, mainly due to colonization, what people really need is not more heroes to save the day but the opportunity to find their own voices, their own strength. (Not to mention the fact that a lot of the money that is funneled into foundations, as well as “AID” in general, does not actually go to the people in need.)

This is not to say we should not try to help on a personal level – not at all – bring a smile to a child’s face if you can. But also realize that people need help, though not in the traditional sense of give and receive. They need the sidekick that supports them enough to see their own strength, not the hero that takes all the glory.

Of Monsters and Men

By Dr. Fintan Sheerin

24th June 2014

Blog 3 redAs I think of yesterday, I am reminded of the title of one of Morrissey’s songs, November Spawned a Monster. For me it might be better titled Monday Spawned a Monster! I am not sure, though, who the monster is and whether it is one of the actors in the events of last night, or the underpinning structures which form the background for our actions as health professionals.

The day started well, with three of us visiting a school in Kasungu and meeting with special needs teachers who maintain a resource room for children with disabilities. The meeting was positive and we were made very welcome. It was notable that, although the resources are limited, the teachers work with an enthusiasm, knowledge base and dedication that are admirable. Indeed, the lack of resources is a problem everywhere and, in anticipation of this, Dale and I had brought four large suitcases of medical supplies, many of which, whilst officially past the ‘best before date’, remain viable and usable for many more months. As health care professionals, we are very aware of this fact but note that, despite this, these are routinely discarded to waste in our own countries. The decision whether or not to bring them was essentially a dilemma as I had wondered whether expecting Malawian people to use items which were not deemed usable amongst our Western populations was in some way devaluing the former group. In the end, knowing that the supplies were still safely usable, I decided that the need of the local Chilanga people took priority and met with the ethical principles of non-maleficience (do no harm) and beneficience (actively do good). And so, following the meeting at the school, Dale, Eloise, Suzanna and Shayla visited a designated clinic in Kasungu and delivered the medical supplies in the presence of a large number of local people and health care professionals. It was clear, from their invited tour around the clinic, that resources were indeed scarce and that these materials were a considerable addition to the empty shelves in the treatment room. Following the handover, the girls left feeling very positive. As we returned to Makupo village, the positivity of the morning was tinged with a sense of uncertainty as all afternoon meetings had to be cancelled on account of a local funeral.

Out of the depth I cry to you… (Psalm 130)

The uncertainty reached a nadir of negativity in the late afternoon following a telephone call which left me feeling utterly devastated. A medical official in the clinic contacted us to say that they could not use the ‘expired items’ and asked us to come and collect them. It had been clearly indicated that the medical supplies were beyond their ‘best before date’ but this man indicated that he was worried about the risk to his job if such items were found in the clinic. So, in the face of having no resources, it was deemed appropriate to refuse recently expired but viable resources! In real terms, this could be the difference between a person bleeding out from a wound or being in a position to stem the bleeding! I don’t know, but this did not make sense to me and the central issue influencing this decision appeared to relate to the need to protect one’s back and not to the saving of lives. It led me to question where Hippocrates’ medical imperative of non-maleficience and that of beneficience were in reaching the outcome of this decision. Have we reached the point whereby the protection of the professional and institution is considered to outweigh that of protecting the person? In the light of this event, I found myself at the lowest and most emotional point on this Malawian trip, such that I became very angry and tearful as disbelief and disillusionment grew.

In reflection today, this is not a uniquely Malawian problem but may be emerging here due to globalising commercial and professional forces which are recreating here what is already extant in our Western countries. Thus, in Ireland, the fear of litigation and allegations of professional misconduct have increasingly become the context within which health care is being provided with the need to assign blame when something goes wrong. This is reminiscent of the infamous medical model in which the person, as human being, is reconstructed and objectified as a patient, bereft of his/her identification as a human being. Illich has written extensively about this in his books, Disabling Professions and Medical Nemesis, and has suggested that this objectification of the person creates dependence, disempowerment and loss of individual identity: dehumanisation. This is the result of the development of a bureaucratic approach to health care which, he has further posited, is essentially a major iatrogenic (physician-originating) threat to health. It may be considered that this is evidenced in the creation and maintenance of a small elite of powerful professionals and a much larger mass of disempowered people: oppressors and oppressed.


Despite the negativity that characterised the earlier part of the evening, there was to be yet another twist in the emotional rollercoaster. One hour later, we were approached by another medical doctor who shared our view on the medical supplies and who expressed a desire to obtain them so that he could use them to treat local people in his own clinic. Whilst his actions, in many ways, countered the gloom of the previous hour, there remained in me a disquiet which is leading me to explore and challenge the roles that each of us play in sustaining policies and practices which lead to waste in our countries: both material and human.

The Search for Voice

By Dr. Fintan Sheerin

Sunday 22nd June 2014

Community conversations

Community circle

Some years ago, I found myself at a congress in Greece, during the height of the protests against austerity. This was a critical pedagogy event and was supposedly grounded in the principles of participation, collaboration, social justice and dialogue set out in Freire’s (1996) writings. One of our local hosts asked us to support them in the protest march in central Athens. A number of attendees joined their colleague in solidarity but I did not. When faced with the request, I found myself rooted to the spot, afraid of what might happen. I went to a quiet corner and broke down in tears, unable to explain why I felt so disempowered by fear. Upon reflection, I could only surmise that, in some way, I had inherited the internalised fear of the colonised that is described by Memmi (1990) and Fanon (1967). Despite having grown up in an independent Irish Republic, I had experienced the control of the predominant Roman Catholic religion which had controlled much of Irish life well into the 1990s. Such experiences, whether due to national or religious colonisation, often produce a largely passive or passive-aggressive subject who prefers silence and withdrawal to protest and confrontation.

Throughout the past two weeks in Chilanga, we have noticed such responses among local people. This is particularly evident when they are faced with the request for independent thought and action. More often than not, the response is one of silence and acquiescence to anything that is suggested by us. This has been a difficult situation for us, particularly where our work with the villagers is, by definition, grounded in participation. Whilst we see ourselves as researchers, engaged in an educative process of dialogic action, it seems clear to me that our local partners see us rather as teachers, as defined in the banking model of education; bearers of expert ideas and, perhaps, resources. This is not meant to be in any way disrespectful to the local people and is just my attempt to understand the relationships that I am seeing. It is as if the local people have yet to rediscover their own voice; that which was taken during centuries of colonisation, slavery and national oppression at the hands of western powers. They must, as Freire (1996:69) notes, reclaim ‘their primordial right to speak their word’. This is a central piece of the work that we have set out to undertake with the people of the Chilanga region, but it will take time and courage from all involved.

A Balancing Act

By Eloise Sheerin (Trinity)

The beauty of harmony

The beauty of harmony

At home in Ireland I would consider myself to be someone who is a very good judge of character and sincerity. Here I am not so certain. I find myself struggling with contradicting thoughts. It is natural to want to think the best of people but I have found that sometimes this is seen to be naive. I am constantly switching from each extreme of the spectrum. Either I take someone to be genuine and sincere or I am constantly searching for the ulterior motives behind someone’s facade. It is proving hard to find a neutral position.

I feel naive and over optimistic when at the positive end of the spectrum. It is easy to get lead astray into difficult situations when your assumptions were wrong. When we were doing a health meeting in the Chilanga Court I was excited, hopeful and optimistic. I thought everyone understood the approach of Praxis Malawi and how we were trying to empower the community to take matters into their own hands and work together to better their community. We are not here to provide immediate relief but support and long term sustainable relief. We were talking of exchanging knowledge on sexually transmitted infections and family planning. The discussion was in depth and riveting and everyone seemed to be reading off the same page. I felt the empowerment, felt by what I thought was the whole group, but I soon found out that not everyone felt this way. A man came to us and asked us for aid now. I wanted so bad to help him now and give him whatever he needed to get his problem sorted. By doing this I know I am just feeding into the oppression and culture of dependence so evident here. I felt deflated as I dropped my guard and demonstrated naivety.

You can learn to grow a thick skin here.

This kind of experience forces you into a cynical and untrusting frame of mind. I find myself at times expecting that people are lying to get something from me. I start to think that any gesture that appears to be a friendly, nice gesture is just a game to get some prize. I have been pleasantly proved wrong in my thinking thankfully. When visiting the school for the blind, we were warmly welcomed and invited back in the afternoon to observe a choir rehearsal. On returning, the children had changed into nicer clothes and the performance was so breathtaking and moving that I will never be able to forget it. Even while I was sitting watching and listening to this heartfelt and moving exhibition of the magic music can bring to your soul, I was thinking ‘oh sugar’… here comes the request for money. For the last part of the performance, before the electricity cut out and the class was dismissed, I was thinking up possible ways in which they were going to approach us about money or charity. We had deep discussions with the teachers and principal following and not once did they expect or ask for anything from us. Instead they completely understood the approach we had. They discussed how they feel their method of teaching visually impaired students wasn’t adequate for some students who had learning difficulties also. A suggestion was made that they contact the school for learning difficulties and exchange knowledge. They were shocked at how they hadn’t considered this before and wanted to ‘buy’ the idea from us. We assured them it is free and to take initiative and use it. We found out yesterday that they already had a meeting and it was successful!

These experiences boost your trust in humanity. I get a boost and I am back to naivety and over optimism, then I get a blow and I am back to being negative and cynical. This process is cyclic. The problem I have is remaining somewhere where I am prepared for both scenarios. Finding a harmony, like the voices of the school choir. A neutral! I assure you, I am working on it!