This past year was the first that I was able to remain involved with the TPM team through the full year. A project that had previously been five weeks and a couple of fundraisers to me became a major part of my life. There were many highs and lows throughout the year, days that brought me to tears, days that I would run into an office with great news to share, and days with so many mixed emotions. Many of these emotions were sparked by iPhone pictures sent from a colleague living on the campus in Malawi.
When projects began, buildings were constructed, ‘poop trees’ grew, the campus continued to evolve and I would receive pictures to my phone. When we arrived last year I was prepared for a brand new campus; however, this year I thought I knew exactly what I was arriving to. With all of the picture updates I saw through the year I mistakenly thought I was very prepared to arrive on the campus this week. As we got off the bus and I walked towards the two newest buildings, a radio station and a house for the field director, I was astounded with the constructions. The pictures on my phone screen did not do it justice. The radio station was at least twice the size I thought it was. The new home was more beautiful than I had imagined.
As someone who has already been to Malawi twice and lived on the campus for five weeks, I thought I knew exactly what these pictures looked like in reality. The realization of how underwhelming the pictures actually were (no offence to the photographer) made me realize how I may be portraying TPM to others in Canada. When I look at a picture of the TPM Community Center I automatically picture the tuck shop to the left, the beautiful mural on the sidewall, the imposing tree behind where chiefs gather in the shade, the gardens in front, children playing on the porch, committees meeting inside, and the striking sun rising from behind. When I show that same picture to someone who has not had the opportunity to visit our campus, what do they see? A plain brick building and wonder why I get so excited? Going from iPhone pictures to reality this year has made me rethink the pictures I use when showing others what TPM is, what they stand for, what they have done, and what they plan to accomplish. How can I (and other TPM members) take pictures that will show everyone else what I see when I look at a picture of a seemingly plain brick building?
I was texting a friend a few months ago and I just went through my text history to find the conversation for you.
“I have a theory that any major social injustice could be fixed in three generations.”
He replied, “Dying to hear this theory!”
“It’s simple… First generation acknowledges there is a problem, second generation starts the fight, and the third generation accepts the change completely.”
His response, “Fascinating. My generation carried on the fight, your generation is opening us up to the humanistic realities. But there has to be a variable and overlap in the theory which will account for some generations planting the seeds of change?”
I thought about it for a moment and simply replied, “The Gems”.
I realize now that I was being a little naive in thinking once a Gem starts the fight it simply continues to be fought for three generations until the White Hats win. Three generations, that’s it. I know that to live the changes I am imagining in my head it will probably take longer than three generations for Malawi. However, today I want to talk about The Three Gems in Transformative Praxis: Malawi.
The first Gem in Jenny. Jenny is a local Malawian, the TPM Director on the ground, and our Mama Bwana (Boss in Chichewa). Jenny is one of the most kind hearted and strongest woman I have ever met. She is the local Gem who sees that Malawi Education needs a change and is more than willing to spend her time and energy working for the change. Jenny is strong enough to stand up to a group of village chiefs and sweet enough to dig into her own pocket when the project is in need. Without Jenny on the ground I wonder if the project would successfully move forward.
The newest Gem in TPM is Dr. Fintan Sheeran. Fintan is the caring man who threw himself in whole heartedly after learning about Transformative Praxis: Malawi. The health initiative that Fintan is starting from our campus is going to change the Chilanga Region. Not only is he spreading awareness of local health issues, but he is working with a group of Malawian volunteers who will be his little gems and start the change. Fintan is a shimmering Gem but he is turning others into Gems as well.
The final Gem is a combination of five people who have given so much: The Stonebanks. The strongest Gem in this group is Dr. C. Darius Stonebanks who started Praxis Malawi and is the reason it continues. He is the kindest man I know and I have caught myself wondering many times and even asked him on a few occasions, “how can he always be so good?” His Gem stays strong because the most generous Gem, Melanie, supports her husband more than anyone I have ever met. Christopher, Melanie, and their children have all given more to this project than everyone else combined. When issues arrive it is the Stonebanks who always sacrifice whatever is necessary to see the project succeed.
It is the Gems in the world that plant the seeds for change, but only the brightest Gems continue to fight the good fight. And it is the Gems in my life who encourage me to be a Gem one day.
A few weeks ago as I was preparing to leave for Malawi and excitedly telling my friends about Transformative Praxis: Malawi I heard your name over and over again. The only time that most of my friends had heard of Malawi was in relation to your adopted children and the charitable work done by your organization Raising Malawi. When I told people I was coming to Malawi I was often cut off with, “that’s where Madonna’s kids are from” or “Madonna built a school there”. I had heard about both of these statements before but never really thought about either or done any research of my own. People at home in Canada make a happy connection when thinking of Malawi and Madonna, so I thank you for making little Malawi known to the world but that is where my thanks stop.
I landed in Lilongwe two weeks ago and have since been living in the Kasungu region of Malawi. When speaking with other educators in Malawi your name does not provoke the same reaction here as it does at home. I was in disbelief when I was told that you have never actually built a school here. Really Madonna? If I was home I would have just Googled this on my phone. But today I had to get a ride to Kasungu Town to the closest internet café. I waited for what seemed like forever as the dialup connection was made because I wanted to know the truth. I opened webpage after webpage and they all said the same two things 1) despite millions being spent the Raising Malawi Academy For Girls project never broke ground 2) you claim to have built ten schools when really you have only renovated and built classrooms on existing government schools. Madonna, it really seems like you are overstating your contributions here in Malawi. I heard about land that was given to you to build your school for girls, I read every word written on the Raising Malawi website, and I even saw the promotional pictures of you laying the first brick, but is that all it was? Promotional? And what were you promoting exactly? Yourself being a philanthropist or the fact that schools are desperately needed right now in Malawi. The tiny eight room school block near our campus site hosts 1434 primary students, so I really hope those promotional pictures were about the desperate need for schools in Malawi and not all about your image.
During my rushed research in the tiny internet café today I found lots of numbers about your budget so I’m going to use the smallest figures I saw to not overstate any contributions (as some of us are here). Your project had a budget of $15 million to work with and you spent $2.4 million before even breaking ground, so now I have some questions for you, because maybe I am confused.
How could you have possibly spent $2.4 million before even breaking ground?
You clearly were not putting the children of Malawi first, so who were you thinking of?
You had $15 million to work with, why were you only planning to build one school?
How do you feel ethically about telling the whole world you’ve built nonexistent schools??
I still don’t get it, how did you waste $2.4 million?
And where is the rest of the $15 million now? Did it all go into renovating classrooms in those ten schools that were already there and you did not build?
Finally, and most importantly…
7. Do you have any idea what I could do if I had a budget of $15 million to put towards education in Malawi?
Madonna, we have one thing in common, we don’t like to hear the word “no” from anyone. For very different reasons I believe. You are the pop star who thinks it’s okay to ask a third world country to roll out the red carpet for you when you wave around money in the name of education. I on the other hand, won’t allow people to say “no” to me when I am doing what I know is right and good.
Again, correct me if I am wrong: You may have come to Malawi with great and honourable intentions, but you got lost and gave up. You promised education to some of the neediest girls in the world and then you took it away. You made a promise of elite education, but then renovated some classrooms instead. You claimed to be dedicated to helping the extreme poor and orphaned children of Malawi, but then spent $2.4 million that cannot be accounted for. You heard the word “no” and then you gave up. This is where we are different. I have been told “no” many times in the field of education, and every time I do it makes me fight harder. I was told “no” when I thought I could not come to Malawi this year, but with the support of amazing people I am here. I was told “no” when lack of funding jeopardized student projects and experiential learning, but I raised money with only a few weeks left before our departure (and I can’t throw concerts for my rich celebrity friends on the North Lawn of the United Nations in New York). I was told “no” when my team was hit with issue after issue after arriving on site in Chilanga, but we found solutions together every time. You may hate to hear the word “no”, but at least it does not take the fight out of me.
I am not making accusations; these are real questions that I am posing to you. Madonna, I have to ask you again: Do you have any idea what I could do if I had a budget of $15 million to put towards education in Malawi? I’m not quite sure either. But I am imagining it now, and it’s a heck of a lot more than one school for girls that never broke ground.
P.S. Why don’t you take a chance on us and see what Transformative Praxis: Malawi can do with the rest of your $15 million?
I sat as a guest today in a circle of chiefs who were meeting outside under a tree to discuss Praxis Malawi. As I waited for the discussion to be translated to me from their native language of Chechewa I watched the faces of the men. I knew the topics being covered and I could follow along if I paid close attention because English words were often added into sentences when there was not an equivalent Chechewa translation. By watching the faces of the men around me I could see which chiefs were agreeing or questioning the points being discussed.
Beyond the men in the circle there was a well that women were occasionally coming to use, and then continuing along their paths with a heavy bucket of water balanced on their heads. After a few women caused me to look up from the meeting I noticed that they always came and left with the same pail, yet maybe twenty or so buckets and pails were strewn across the ground around the well.
Some time later the after school program being led by Praxis Malawi members across the road from me finished and a group of young girls ran up to the well. I continued to focus on my meeting, but I was distracted by what I had just realized. The buckets and pails had not been abandoned at the well, but rather these girls had dropped them off on their way to school that morning. These girls had gone to school all day, participated in the after school program, and now as the sun was setting they had to fetch water before going home.
It took close to an hour for all of the buckets and pails to be filled, but the girls all stayed and worked together as a team. They took turns pumping the well (sometimes three at a time for the youngest), shuffling the pails under the waterspout, and playing off to the side. Girls could have easily taken their pail home once it was filled but they remained a team. The first girls to leave were the few with babies tied to their backs. Three girls lifted the heavy buckets onto their friends’ heads, then waved and sang usiku wabwino (goodbye) as girls expertly balanced buckets and walked away. Once all the pails were filled, they worked together again to lift all of the pails onto each other’s heads before walking away in all directions of the many paths.
All of these girls were elementary school aged. When I was that age, my only responsibilities were to do homework and play nicely with my siblings. These girls spent their day at school, did extra work in the after school program, and then worked as a team to fill pails of water to carry home. It took more than an hour of labour after a long day to bring home an element so natural and vital that we get so simply by turning a tap.
After hours and hours of travel we finally arrived on campus yesterday. Although I am a returning Praxis Malawi member, I was still arriving into a lot of unknown since this is the first time we have been based on the new campus. As we got off the bus, welcomed by a group of singing women, I was hit by the first phase of culture shock: The Honeymoon Phase. Walking through the new hostel I was amazed with how beautifully everything had been brought together (there was not a roof in the last pictures I saw), and this was the end to the shortest Honeymoon Phase I have ever experienced. After coming in the back and walking through the building I emerged through the front of the hostel and into a construction site. Men were high on ladders painting the cement above the bricks and down on their knees painting the cement of the foundation. This all seemed great until I went to the professors’ house that still was not completed. Men were painting the outside of the hostel while another building, where professors were expected to stay, sat across the campus incomplete. I walked back out of the house, saw the men painting the hostel and immediately thought, “What a waste of time and money”.
I skipped over the depression of the Disintegration Phase and went right to where I left off three years ago into the Reintegration Phase. I was angry. The workers were painting our hostel while other buildings were still not completed. I had to remove myself from the group to reflect and place myself somewhere in “The Five Stages of Culture Shock” (Pedersen, 1995). Maybe the men painting were hired painters who could not help to complete the building? I do not know, because I never bothered to ask.
Understanding culture shock prior to our arrival in Malawi has enabled me to find my direction and help point others in the right direction as quickly as possible. I know why I am here. I have my goals set to work towards, and with such a short amount of time to work I am happy that my experience has helped me to negotiate my way through culture shock and come out facing in the proper direction.