Tag Archives: Christopher

Crazy Canuks and the Creation of a New Civilization

By Dr. Christopher Darius Stonebanks


Naomi our intellectual

Remember the Crazy Canucks? Well, they are back and in Malawi. We had a bus breakdown on the way back from Cape Maclear and what would have been a quick call to CAA and a thirty minute wait in Canada became a six and a half hour “experience” living on the side of the main Malawi highway. Luckily, we all had our share of ideas of what was wrong with the bus and Linden did a great job of yelling out “Check the oil! Did you check the oil? I would check the oil” to make sure everything was covered. Equally lucky was that despite Linden’s gags, the problem was not with the oil…because if it was the oil, we would never live down the fact that we did not check the oil. Personally, I thought it was a problem with low windshield wiper fluid.

This could have been a very, very bad situation and the students did an outstanding job putting a positive spin on something we had no way of controlling. In all honesty, the best laid plans in Malawi can go astray; it’s just the way it is. It doesn’t stop us from trying to plan everything we possibly can, but we have to realize there are just some things out of our control. Fortunately, the bus stopped next to a small village with lots of trees for shade and a water pump. Local villagers had no problem with all of us spilling onto their land to find shade from the hot sun and gave us friendly smiles and simply went about their business. As the minutes passed, a call for a new society was laid out … just in case a rescue bus was never sent. At first Amy produced a mini broom made of discarded corn husks, proudly claiming that her skills would ensure that we had a means to sell a fundamental (and cute!) product that would economically sustain us. After the first hour, when people realized that the replacement bus had not even left the shop…things went all Lord of the Flies.

Corinne our president

Corinne our president

With a knife in hand, I declared myself “The Tool Maker” and fashioned two pointy sticks. Handing the sticks to Louisa and Barbara they became our military, ready to defend us against all things that feared pointy sticks. With security taken care of, spirits were high and people started accepting responsibilities left, right and center. Someone let out a cry, “What will you do for your new country” and people accepted the challenge. Elise took up the essential responsibility of fulfilling the role of “Book Critic” and continued to read her paperback novels. In response to the Champlain student’s noble sacrifice, Brave Arshad then took on the responsibility of “Movie Critic” and watched the arduous four hour film Gettysburg on my Itouch, but the batteries died after an hour and half (btw, I told him the South won, please keep this between you and me!). Roxy became our chronicler, furiously taking detailed notes of everything that occurred around her, so that future generations would know how they glorious new world was built. Jae sacrificed the comforts of our newly found utopia and acted as conduit between us and the rest of the world by staying on the bus, just in the remote chance rescuers ever came. Realizing that this could potentially take decades, Jae put herself in a hibernation like state to assure that someone would be there, a sleeping diplomat if you will, to show the way to what would certainly become a highly successful civilization. A civilization needs leadership and it was declared that whoever could climb the highest in the giant tree that was providing us shade would govern our people, so Corinne became president and Linden vice-president. With a proven track record of being able to make tiny brooms, Amy went on to be the “Minister of Eventual Industry”. Naomi sat at the bottom of the great tree and placed a book over her head, and by using osmosis became our intellectual. With the conjoined Hollywood name of “Rebel”, Rebecca and Annabelle were our counter-culture, “keeping it real”, while at the same time reminding us that our society was a precious thing that needed to be guarded against usurpers. I think Frank stood on the highway and shook his head at us…what purpose this served was a mystery…but nonetheless gave our society mystery, perhaps a new religion?!

Okay, about 43% of what I wrote actually took place.

Seriously, I am reminded of when Melanie and I were offered a short-term contract with a major university with a study abroad program. Our job was to teach basic classroom management strategies for the cohort as they were bound for China to teach ESL classes. Months later, when we ran into the director of the program he exhaustedly told us of countless phone calls he received from students, screaming over the phone that they had just seen a cockroach in their bathroom and demanded immediate evacuation. A lesser group of students would have been overwhelmed by the experience of being stranded on a Malawi highway for hours. This group simply carried on. Crazy Canucks!

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.

Warning: Culture Shock!

By Dr. Christopher Darius Stonebanks

Culture shock ready to surface at any time

Culture Shock: ready to surface at any time

Family members, friends and loved ones … please step back.  The person you care so deeply about is now experiencing culture shock and can react to otherwise small situations with exaggerated and often overly emotional responses. You may think that the sufferer may act out violently, but luckily it’s usually only verbal and rarely physical.  Culture shock affects everyone and does not discriminate against such factors as gender, ethnicity, orientation or religion. Common symptoms begin with a euphoric sense of wonder, changing to depression, shifting to profound anger towards others, moving into a balance of understanding between your own identity and that of your host culture, to the final, lofty and elusive harmonious co-existence.  Be particularly cautious over the third step of culture shock, it’s a doozy!

Okay, in all seriousness, culture shock is a profoundly debilitating feeling and especially compounded when a student knows they have serious commitments to complete during overseas studies. When social cues, familiar actions and symbolic interactions no longer have familiar meaning, the sensation is that your entire reality, purpose or sense of self is falling apart around you. Unfortunately, in experiential learning courses the length of Praxis Malawi, the students usually are in the phase of anger towards others for a good part of their studies. I know, that doesn’t sound very appealing but there it is. There is some good news, however, if you belong to the village. In the past, when initial studies of culture shock regarding studies abroad came out culminating with the popularity of CUSO and Peace Corps endeavours, the phase in which anger was expressed at “Other” usually meant anger towards the host culture. Now, especially with education students who are required to take some form of diversity/multicultural education, the perception of the student is that expressing anger towards a member of their host culture would be seen as a type of discrimination. However, the anger must manifest in some form and towards someone … so peers, professors and even out-of-reach authority figures within the host culture become targets. It seems to be unavoidable, no matter how much preparation is given before departure.  Manifestations of this type of anger usually correspond with feelings that within a very short time, students FEEL certain that they understand the situation better than others. Efforts to “fix” the perceived shortcomings of host cultures then take on the form of micro and macro aggressions on the work of those who they are either more familiar with, or with those who they don’t risk direct confrontation (after all, if you question the motives of the agriculture minister, for instance, is she really going to care?).

Other ways that this stage can surface is through students feeling that their own education system “back home” failed them in preparing them for “real world” application. My favourite example is from a psychology student (a really, really smart and wonderful person!) who declared after two weeks in Malawi that the people simply did not suffer from such clinical conditions as depression. It just did not exist. After talking the declaration through, the student realized what had just been stated really did not make any sense. For education students, faced with the seemingly insurmountable problems with schools, it is common to hear that anything from filling in simple lesson plans to cooperative learning strategies had never been taught to them. First year content becomes inaccessible as the student suffers from chronic doubt and anger towards others.

Shorter study abroad courses usually attempt to diminish the crippling effects of culture shock by keeping their students in constant motion, always occupied in order to stop them from thoughts that lead to doubt. Longer experiential learning programs, truth be told, usually do not involve the presence of professors or large number of peers and often leave students to their own devices to sort through the mess of the life and work in a foreign country. From a safe distance, institutions of higher education can tell their students that what they are going through is completely normal and that the feelings will pass. When the students are in a group setting, culture shock becomes amplified with each student peaking and falling out of sync, barely giving anyone a chance to feel full comfort. Culture shock within rural Malawi does not really give an opportunity to escape to the familiar; a retreat to a hotel room with satellite television with CBC, CTV, NBC (etc.) is out of the question. If anyone is reading this blog post and thinking stress and the usual frustrations of group dynamics, it is simply not the same.

During this time, recognition of the reality of culture shock is essential. Certainly, students do not want to hear that they are going through a process that makes even the most simple of tasks unattainable, but at the very least, preparing them with the knowledge of the stages allows for some inner dialogue. Support from those around them is essential, along with firm reminders of goals they set out to achieve. In time, the student does emerge from the depression and anger to make meaningful contributions and months after they leave the host country, realize the impact of the experience for all parties.

So, parents, spouses, partners, family members, friends (etc.) of loved ones in Malawi, you may think that you are at a safe distance from the student who is going through culture shock. But … be warned … when they get back to Canada, there’s something called “Reverse Culture Shock” (insert evil laugh!!!!).

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.

Praxis Malawi: Where it All Began

By Dr. Christopher Darius Stonebanks

“(S)ome may think that to affirm dialogue – the encounter of women and men in the world in order to transform the world – is naively and subjectively idealistic. There is nothing, however, more real or concrete than people in the world and with the world, than humans with other humans”

(Freire, c2005, p. 129)

Praxis Malawi 2010

Praxis Malawi 2010

Praxis Malawi began with that simple student belief – that collaborative efforts between Canadian university students and community members of Malawi would result in mutual learning and positive, tangible outcomes. A simple statement, but one that has proven to be very difficult to enact. Apart from specific philosophical foundations, like a Freirian model, experiential learning itself seems like a simple enough endeavour as well. The recipe reads: Take three parts foreign context, two parts challenging content, one part motivated learner and mix thoroughly. Add words like “emancipation”, “social justice” and “transformative nature of education” to taste. After an extended period in the field, the learner will have developed a rich and new understanding of the context, plus will have discovered cooperative solutions for thought-provoking subject matter. … Unfortunately, after five years of extended stays in the field, the recipe does not always produce cookie cutter results. Each year, we challenge our students to engage in research over a five to six week period that requires them to consider their academic discipline(s) in relation to local needs as indicated by community members. They are required to live in a rural Malawian village, with all too common conditions of no running water or electricity, which is quite typical for Malawi and for many foreign-based experiential learning projects or study abroad options. The residence arrangements have nothing to do with a “living like a native” experience, rather reflect our commitment to stimulate local economies and the overwhelming realities of day to day life in this region. Moreover, I think we are at the point in cross border endeavours where most of us understand the absurdity of the idea that “living like the locals” is in itself a form of tourism. Years ago I remember overhearing an American woman in Mexico asking a tour guide if he knew of an excursion that would allow her to, as she put it, “not do the typical tourist stuff, but to really be with the people, you know?”. The tour guide nodded his head in agreement and promptly told her, “Yes, that’s possible. But it will cost you an extra $50”.  Are there elements of our experiential learning that lends itself to tourist like activities? Absolutely. Still, keep in mind that even academics and activists going to a conference on Marxist theory in Greece (for example), will go see the Acropolis and buy perhaps a Coke. However, In comparison to any kind of tourist endeavour, our experience is messy, it’s a struggle and it’s a long term commitment. It’s certainly a lived experience and not for those who can’t accept that their work is a part of the process, built upon those who have preceded them and those who will follow.

So, how did we get to this point? How did we get here? The truncated story began about six years ago when the Principal of my university invited a group of us to his home to discuss the opportunity for experiential learning in Tanzania. An unfunded endeavour, I was a free agent to inspect the proposed location in Tanzania and come to an uninfluenced conclusion and had the luxury to even compare countries, and I did. A colleague of mine, when he heard I was considering Tanzania, offered to drive me through Tanzania and Malawi, if I agreed to give the location he was working with a fair chance for a possible experiential learning opportunities. Landing in Malawi, we drove up and down this tiny land locked sub-Saharan country and north into southern Tanzania. After about a month and a half, the decision was clear. Although Tanzania’s projects were worthy, Malawi’s needs were clearly greater. Malawi also had many elements to it that would facilitate a five to seven week experiential learning project. Namely, for better or for worse, English was the language of instruction and commerce, and would therefore reduce students’ barriers for carrying out research. And, another important reason, Malawi truly lives up to its reputation as “the warm heart of Africa”.

I am often asked, why Malawi for an experiential learning project? Although my father was born and raised in North Africa, I have no romanticized connections with Africa in any way. The land does not speak to me in a way that it apparently does to others. I was playfully warned by others who had worked on various not-for-profits, volunteer or NGOs that once Africa got under your skin, you always longed to return. I have to admit, my only motivation to commit to Malawi is on a human level. The geography, the weather, all of that is beautiful, but the mystical connection that many talk about is lost on me. It’s the human connection that is the drive of this project and the need is painfully clear. It’s the human connection that, in the end, captures the transformative hopes of both the Canadian students and the local people with which they collaboratively work. Again, it is by no means a recipe like project. It’s messy and, often, it can be emotionally painful. But the students are committed (especially the pre-service teachers) and we have seen some of them, like Kristy, David and Sophie, return to Malawi to continue their work.  I speculate that they don’t return for scenery, rather it’s the relationships that they began that is their ultimate motivator. After all, as Freire states, “There is nothing, however, more real or concrete than people in the world and with the world, than humans with other humans”.

In my next blog post, I will continue with the dangers of romanticizing the study abroad experience.