Tag Archives: change

Looking Back and Gazing Forward

By Dr. Christopher Darius Stonebanks

cds_fanon_blog 3 (2)

cds_blog_3 red (1)

During my latest stay on mount Livingstonia, I had the chance to spend some quiet time and do things I otherwise have never been able to do during my last five (or is it six?) times at the magnificent Lukwe Lodge. In many ways, this chapter of Praxis Malawi represents many firsts for me. This was the first time I did not climb Mount Kasugu with the students, nor did I go to curios with them either, or even walk up to the top of Livingstonia to see the town. That crazy town at the top of a mountain that, to me, has always represented the madness of colonialism as I try and imagine Dr. Laws convincing the Malawians that building a mission at the top of the mountain is a sound idea. I get the escaping mosquitoes and malaria in the higher altitude and all that, but I still would have loved to be there when the local Malawians turned to each other and said, “Is he serious? Did he just say we’re hauling all the materials up the mountain??”

In any case, at this point there’s been enough of a relationship built with community that these sorts of excursions, like the hike up Mount Livingstonia, essentially run themselves and risks have been minimized through the experiences of trial and error. So, this time I hung back and had the time to do things I otherwise never have the chance to do; like take a nap in the sun, read a book, look at the landscape, observe some amazingly colourful butterflies, and investigate the workings of the compostable toilets. Okay, the last part was not that wonderful, but it was informative to the planning of our Campus. I don’t often get the time to read in Malawi. The first few trips usually involved packing a quantity of books that only made sense if my destination was for a conference on “coffee connoisseurs and speed reading”. Add to that my choice of books; not a single piece of fiction, but a stack of academic writings that I was sure to catch up on and revisit, but never do. Sure, who wouldn’t want to ruin a beautiful Malawian sunset while slogging your way through the uncooperative translation of Max Weber? Perhaps the original German writing is more enjoyable, despite the fact I don’t understand German, eh? Nowadays, I have learned to put a bunch of books on kindle so as to save luggage space on all the books I am guaranteed not to read.

There aren’t really many of those deep reading periods for someone coordinating a trip like this. You don’t get to have many quiet moments where you simply get “to be”.  There’s always something that needs to be organized, someone who needs to be reminded of coursework objectives, community meetings to attend (or reschedule and reschedule and reschedule…), finances to be reorganized so we have enough fuel to get the bus back to the airport, and a million questions to field. On this morning, however, the students went up the mountain with a for-real-certified guide, and I was alone to reread Frantz Fanon’s (1961), The Wretched of the Earth.

It’s been many years since I had first read Fanon’s book; in fact, it was probably at the end of my undergraduate years and more than likely a book that I picked up to have the appearances of being interesting when I sat around a campus café or bar. “Can I have a large cappuccino to go along with my book that clearly shows how smart and deep I am? Can you see what I’m reading?” I do remember it coincided with Gulf War One, and Fanon’s analysis of the oppressed Arabs of North Africa was particularly pertinent to me in those days. Even then, I wondered how such an influential book failed to make any kind of connections in any social justice circles in regard to action to a growing human tragedy, beyond the giant papier-mâché manikins of a distorted President Bush (senior), blowing whistles and banging drums at anti-war protests. Years later and Fanon’s book is still relevant … but what has changed? Frustrated, I put Fanon’s book down and ordered a cup of coffee, once again looking over the lush, green valley and trying to capture some of the peaceful moments I had lost when I decided to reread the book. And there “he” was on the cover of Fanon’s 2001 version of The Wretched of the Earth. Wearing old, worn and tattered clothes, emaciated “he” sits on the floor in some common outdoor space, looking away and simply waiting in anguish. I don’t know him, but I realize “he” is still everywhere in Malawi and, again, nothing has really changed.

On this trip of firsts, I try and remember “him”, and as we drive from Livingstonia and back to Kasungu, I see “him” everywhere. Of course, I haven’t just seen “him” through the window of a moving vehicle; I have met “him” as well. We have sat, and talked in brief exchanges, but “he” knows more about me, because this isn’t a first encounter for “him” either. “He” knows I will go somewhere else, perhaps somewhere on the side of a lush, green mountain and take the time to order a coffee and ponder over “his” picture. Even when we look for optimism and, I see “him”. The Chilanga community has already started moulding bricks as part of their “fair labour” contribution to the Campus, with the faith that this effort can turn into hope for their children, and it appears that there “he” is again. I want to believe this time I am mistaken in my recognition of “him”, and for the first time in my years in this area, things are starting to change.

What’s in a Word?

By Dr. Christopher Darius Stonebanks

Development discussions

Development discussions

So, what’s changed since last being in Malawi with students in the spring of 2013? Quite a bit has developed, I’d say. But, before we get to that, let’s put aside the usual semantics of word-play in international work for a moment. I used the word “development” and I think that needs to be addressed. Yeah, the meaning, sub-text, etc. of words is extremely important and words like “development” need to be analyzed. What are we talking about when we use the word “development”, do we really mean something growing, evolving and/or transforming from one entity to another? Are we suggesting that a person is not fully human when any sort of language associated with improvement is used? Can we say an acorn is not fully “developed” until it becomes an oak tree? My youngest daughter until she becomes eighteen? A caterpillar until a monarch butterfly? Myself, until my PhD, or from part-time lecturer to full professor? What does “development” mean? It is important to understand meaning to words. However, what seems so crucial in the contexts of academia hyper examination of terms are luxuries ill afforded in locations of extreme poverty, like the rural regions of Malawi. I can read the looks on students’ faces when they hear the word “development” used by local Malawians; somewhere along their education someone has rightfully brought up the discussion that the word denotes a message of not being fully human, and there’s little doubt that this can sometimes be the case. I have noticed that the word “transformative” has replaced “development” in academic language, but to what end? Can’t it be argued that transforming a person from one thing to another is the same process of a top-down, colonial attitude of being the architect of “making a human”? I often don’t know if we have the luxury for such conversations.

Admittedly, I do have little patience for patriarchal language (or even matriarchal language for that matter when it comes in the form of condensation) when it comes to some words. For example, terms like “nos enfants” (our children) when referring to any indigenous communities around the world seems to elicit a critical response from me regardless of the social context. One time a particularly kind administrator of a school board which employed me happily told me that she was pleased when she was told by a secretary that I was Iranian. She mentioned how she had spent a few months in pre-revolutionary Iran, accompanying her spouse who was stationed there working for the Canadian government. She then proceeded to tell me how much she loved the people of Iran, because they were like happy, simple children. It was a statement without the slightest hint of malice, which made it quite hard to process at the time. Over the years I am closer to understanding the underlying reasons for such common responses that are not exclusive to one philosophical leaning or another. With those memories I am conscious of the importance of language, but try to understand intent rather than risk ending progressions of dialogue.  For instance, I don’t quite feel the need to rage against the use of “development” when I understand it is being used locally to describe the improvement of the human condition. Development, even with all its historical baggage, is nonetheless the optimistic buzzword in Malawi right now, spoken with the same vigour as “transformative” is used in Canada. And, if you have spent any real time in the communities we are working with in Malawi, the understanding of the intent and urgency of the word “development” becomes quite clear.

So, back to change: On our arrival in Malawi the case of voter recount was in the courts, with the final decision of President Joyce Banda being replaced by newly elected Professor Peter Mutharika declared as winner. As I understand from the local Traditional Authority (the indigenous governing system), President Mutharika’s party has run on a platform of “development” and the return to Malawians taking control of improving the human condition and working in solidarity with foreign agencies.  We hear in speeches that the days of passiveness, leaving the decisions and actions to NGOs and the like, are over. Wonderful!

Since we last left Malawi in 2013, there was a return trip in January 2014 to meet with the Malawi Ministry of Education and the development (there’s that word again!) of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). By far, the focus of the MoU on the part of Praxis Malawi was the clarity of reciprocity and comprehension of needs. Sometimes it’s better to start a conversation on “what you are not” as opposed to trying to define “what you are”. “What you are” can sometimes leave spaces for interpretation that leads to spaces that simply can’t be addressed, with potential anger and disappointment ensuing. We begin the conversation with the understanding that we are not, in the formal sense, an NGO, a charity group, a volunteer group, a religious group or any of the myriad of well-meaning organizations that are mandated to provide service of change through an often top-down format. Defining words are important, after all. Reciprocity of respectful knowledge transfer is the key to our work; those words are important. Action from that knowledge transfer is although initially enacted through our combined efforts, and the decision for that to leave our space of communal learning is up to the local people. Deviation from these words and the core philosophy attached to them is simply not Praxis Malawi.

Shortly after arriving in Malawi, and at these early stages of introduction to the realities of Malawi, stress becomes an overwhelming emotion; students will often feel the pressure of expectations and succumb to uncertainty and Malawi participants become equally uneasy of their role as leaders in this joint endeavour. Part of the stressors with the model we are developing (damn, I wrote that word again!) are the moments in between times of close in-field collaboration. When the airplane leaves to Canada, momentum is often lost. The initial optimism that existed when university students and professors work on our Campus projects slowly become replaced with fear of risk and self-doubt from all participants, regardless of their citizenship. Whether you are a Canadian or Irish university student, or a Malawian community member, you want to see movement that will alleviate human suffering in a sustainable and meaningful way. Of course people want to see development (ugh, I can’t stop myself!) no matter where you reside, but it’s not easy. Authentic change is slow and can often be painful. At every step there is the temptation to try and go for the quick fix and lose your focus. I know that giving the man or woman begging for money on the side of the street will not solve Malawi’s problems of poverty, yet I often can’t help myself and the man throwing starfishes back in the ocean story does not provide comfort in this context.  Development, or transformative education doesn’t feel or look like time-elapsed films of seeds growing to flowers or caterpillars turning into butterflies. Sometimes you wonder if your transformative moment will end up on the cutting room floor, just like all the caterpillars and seeds that don’t make it out of their respective shells. Maybe that’s why we focus on defining words in academia, which seems much more manageable and attainable.

It Matters

By Megan Blair (Bishop’s)

Pangono pangono

Pangono pangono

The first time I ever travelled to a developing country to do humanitarian work, I was told not to expect to change the lives of millions of people. It is important to keep that in mind when doing this type of work due to the fact that it is often a long and difficult process that requires a grand amount of time, patience and dedication. Thinking back on what this individual had told me, I am reminded of a story I had once heard that has stuck with me over the years…

The story features an old man and how every morning at low tide he would walk the sandy beaches of his hometown. One by one he would throw in the starfish that had washed up on the shore overnight. One morning, another man happened to be walking those same beaches around the same time. He watched curiously as the older man picked up the starfish one by one and threw them back into the ocean. This went on for a few minutes. Moments later, the man walked up to the older gentleman and asked “Sir, what are you doing, if I may ask?” “Why I am throwing the washed up starfish back into the ocean. If they remain on the beach they will dry up and die”, he answered. The younger man stared at him with a confused look then responded “You do realize that there are hundreds of thousands of starfish along this beach, right? You won’t be able to save them all.” There was a moment of silence and the older gentleman replied “Yes, I am aware. But it matters to that starfish.”

Now, you may be wondering the relevance of this story and how it ties into my time and work in Malawi. Well, it’s easy to lose focus when conducting humanitarian work, in a context of extreme poverty. It’s easy to get discouraged and it is quite common to start questioning your work, as well as the results of the work that you are conducting. We often forget to take a step back and remind ourselves of the bigger picture. Furthermore, we have a tendency to expect immediate results because as Westerners, most of us are used to instant gratification. In the case of humanitarian work, results are gradual and often cannot be perceived in early stages.

There are times on this trip that I have struggled with this. In my case, I will not see the effects of my work until further down the road. The reason for this is that I am creating a pamphlet that will provide a detailed description of the different projects of the campus as well as allow potential donors to get a complete picture of the different project needs. In the long run, this document will help raise awareness of Praxis Malawi, more specifically the Campus Approach, and how all the different projects are crucial to the campus, as well as how they will benefit the people of the Chilanga region. If I am able to properly portray the importance of the different projects, the hope is that people will see the importance of donating to the organization.

In the moments I feel discouraged, I think back on that story and remind myself that, I may not be able to change the lives of millions of people, but to the few people whose lives I can have a positive impact on, it matters to them. On another note, even if the results of my work are not easily perceived at first, small things such as making someone smile because you took the time to sit and chat, and show an interest in their lives, is extremely rewarding. We meet so many people along the way that it is so important to take the time to appreciate those moments, as small as they may be.

Band-Aids are Not Enough

By Dr. Christopher Darius Stonebanks

Children not in school

Children not in school

How many school visits does it take in Malawi to be able to finally say, something is wrong? The pre-service teachers made their way to multiple schools last week to get a better understanding of the reality of the public school system and I am pretty confident there is a realization that the education system in Malawi is in a desperate situation. There are certain harsh realities connected to economics that can’t be underestimated; outrageously high class sizes, low pay (often no pay), zero resources, poor (if any) support for teacher housing, hungry students, and the list goes on.  Not to discount these financial realities, it is hard to not then turn to the curriculum and ask if it’s meeting the needs to promote a future of hope to smash the seemingly endless circle of poverty. I’ve talked with a number of teachers and administrators, good people and diligent professionals, and many have a strong understanding that the colonial system of education that they have inherited by force is faulty. A “top-down approach” does not do descriptive justice to what is predominantly being enacted in schools, but with a ratio of one teacher to one hundred plus students, are there other options available? If so, no one to their knowledge has come to their school community to demonstrate how it can be done. At what point do we admit that the circumstances presented to teachers are setting all educational stakeholders for failure? Although teaching still falls within the category of “quasi profession” (in Canada for example), I often challenge my pre-service teachers to consider their field of study in comparison to other professional fields. At what point would a surgeon working in an emergency room declare that, if you are going to send me one hundred urgent cases a day, I am going to lose patients. Perhaps twenty-five percent? Thirty percent? Forty? Fifty? At what point would the medical profession demand radical change? What about lawyers? How many cases could they take on before failure to serve their client, the courts, society and their profession would take a critical moment to force change?

What do we know about education in Malawi? We know that the drop off from elementary to secondary is very high. We know that the literacy rate hovers at 60%. We know that a conservative estimate is that of an overall population of 14 million, over 315,000 children are out of school. We know that 55% of children complete primary school. Do we know yet if the system is broken? Given the effort we see from children, teachers and administrators in the ministry of education, to say that something is broken is heartbreaking. At the very least, if we are not going to admit something is terribly wrong, can we at least admit that some retooling is required beyond bricks and mortar?

With this information, we are at the point where we have had to make some fundamental choices when developing curriculum for our experimental school. The first is that, although bricks and mortar are important, without a pedagogy that offers the real possibility of hope, it would just be repeating what we have concluded (perhaps know) does not work. The Malawi government itself has admitted as such with bold appeals to their teachers that they need to make use of local resources to teach concepts. The TALULAR (Teaching and Learning Using Local Resources) guidelines handed out to teachers pretty much admits an economic reality that needs to be addressed by teacher creativity. In brief, there is an admission that if teachers are going to be teaching about the concept of “force”, for instance, they can be assured that there will be no possibility that boxes of magnets or vials filled with chemicals needed for combustible experiments will be made available. Instead, it’s up to the teacher to use local resources to teach the concepts creatively and that sounds like good pedagogical practice to me. The problem, however, appears to me that the inclusion of effective teaching practices appears to be Band-Aid solutions to a bigger problem.

The curriculum itself requires a major change, allowing the teacher to be more autonomous, more creative, more accountable and more professional … yet it’s hard to observe how successfully the machine built on the British model can adapt to such shifts. Let me be clear when I refer to the British model, I am NOT writing about UK curriculum implemented in 2013, rather, it seems to be shockingly familiar to a scene one would see in a film set in the 1940s, England where children fear corporeal punishment for talking out of turn.  Repetition and memorization are the rule and as a British colleague remarked as he reviewed the Malawi educational system, “they are using a pedagogical practice we abandoned decades ago.” We are not going to simply build a school and then replicate a curriculum that has not fostered much needed change. After years of dialoguing with community, it’s clear that local educational stakeholders don’t want this either. Critical thinking, creativity and entrepreneurship (a word that frightens many academics who are oddly secure with their university salaries) are the key global outcomes that they expect their schools to foster in children. A swing from the passive to the active citizen is called for, recognizing (of course) that no teacher ever says, “My teaching is designed to create a passive citizen that will await orders from those who are in power”.

In a nutshell, there’s our challenge and we have turned to the Quebec Education Program to connect with the Malawian curriculum and direction for change from local community. At some point, rest assured that I will tackle our use of the QEP. The kneejerk reaction for those who have not read the QEP is that it is once again another imposition of a foreign curriculum on the Malawian people. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a standardized curriculum and, quite the opposite, empowers teachers to develop their teaching and learning strategies to their students’ particular needs.

So, how many visits to schools does it take to admit there’s something wrong? I have no idea, but I am convinced the situation needs more than a Band-Aid solution.

Study Abroad: Moving from Romanticism to Reality

By Dr. Christopher Darius Stonebanks

Educational dialogue in Malawi

Educational dialogue in Malawi

With the study abroad volunteer, romanticism is understandably never far behind. It’s an understandable association, but one that needs to be carefully considered if crossing borders endeavours will ever move from what Praxis Malawi participant (who is now doing her graduate work on the research she stared in Malawi) Kristy calls, the difference between “doing good and feeling good”. Understanding that the “… growing trend of the “globalisation of poverty” which has its roots in the polarisation of incomes both within nations and between them; the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer” (Dine, 2001, P. 81), the need to move beyond romanticized ideas of “helping” or “saving” that seem to help and save very few is urgent.  A serious consideration to examine the seemingly circular matter realistically and honestly is needed, so that working with communities abroad can be striped of the failings of romanticism, along with its connections to paternalism and … yes … even maternalism when it comes in the form of condescension (Waaldijk, 2012).

In the not so distant past, organizations in the 1960s like Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO) and the American Peace Corps were steeped in the noble and happily naïve convictions that sending the relatively privileged abroad to volunteer in the most economically moribund economies, would eventually benefit from prolonged contact … eventually. Over time, however, modified romanticism shifted from the belief that the individual could do something for the village, to the village being able to do something for the individual (del Mar, 2011). Mirrored in Hollywood blockbusters, from Lawrence of Arabia (1962), to Dances With Wolves (1990) and then Avatar (2009), we see a popular trend in which whereas at one time the newly arrived individual in the village once aspired to the idea of helping “the natives”, now the dream is that the village will help the individual. The romantic idea of the individual traveling abroad to spread their knowledge to the less fortunate, has now become fused with a sense that a spiritual void can be filled by returning to a “simpler”, almost anti-modern life. Whatever ideas of commitment between university agencies and community may carry objectives like “transformation”, but who it is transforming is not entirely clear. Clarity in regard to dedication towards mutually agreed upon goals has now become an openly discussed notion amongst Canadians and Malawians and it’s clear that we are often far apart.

Two years ago as we began discussions with local community stakeholders, (the very meetings that forwarded the idea of the construction of an experimental school that would focus on critical thinking, creativity and entrepreneurship), a teacher revealed his perceptions on why so many educational development projects fail and what needs to be done to move forward.

There should be dedication. And, there should be trust. Because when you’re doing things with two parties (pause) sometimes some people can … cheat. Trust, dedication and we should also (long pause) it should be open to everybody. So that everybody should see what is happening. (pause) Now I think it’s going to be more open. (Mr. J, 2011)

The transparencies that Mr. J spoke to stands at the forefront of moving towards change, and that openness has certainly not been a part of past relationships. Chronicling his statement reminds me of another made in a documentary on overfishing (The End of the Line, 2009), when a scientist noted that he didn’t really need data to acknowledge the obvious. He said “Even a number of quality scientists will tell you that statistics are, in some ways, the icing on the cake when you do your science”. Meaning, he could clearly see that the oceans and lakes were quickly, perhaps irrevocably being depleted of marine life and he didn’t need stats to prove the obvious. In many ways, Mr. J’s comment simply acknowledged what we had all pretty much understood, albeit silently, about the effects development projects had produced in Malawi. But, it was nice to put aside the romanticized apparition of the relationship and now get to the type of committed work necessary to get something done.