I would like to take this opportunity to share examples of some situations and conversations that I’ve experienced here. I’ve had both of these conversations with several people on different occasions, and the exact replies are varied, so they’ve been left out.
I will be glad if this post helps to ‘personify’ some of the portraits found in each issue of National Geographic.
Myself: I’m sorry, I’m not handing out anything material, nor can I promise you any grand solutions.
Friend: *Disappointment, occasionally mixed with confusion, as if to say, “but you’re from Canada.”*
Myself: You see, I could hand out 100 dollars right now, and I’d be fine, but I’d never see that money again. I know that it would be received gratefully, and it could help feed or clothe many people today, but it would do nothing for future generations. It’s tempting, but I have other plans for that money. If I invest that money in Canada, in my education, then someday I may be in the position where I can really help the people of this country.
This brings understanding, but I have to be careful not to make specific promises. It’s definitely one of the most difficult things to communicate.
Friend: *questions about Canada*
Myself: *honest (and modest) answers*
Friend: Canada is a blessed country
Myself: Hmm…I’m fortunate to have been born in Canada, yes, but a blessed country? That depends who you ask. Do you know the history of Europeans coming to Malawi/Africa?
Friend: Yes, they came from the UK, Portugal, France, etc. Wealthy white people.
Myself: Well, if millions of those Europeans had decided to move to Africa, bringing their families in such great numbers that they crowded the black people off of their original land, would you call Africa blessed?
Friend: Ah, you’re from Canada, but you’re not proud of that?
Myself: That’s a hard question to answer my friend. I live a comfortable life, but wealth isn’t everything. Everyone should be proud of their roots.
Friend: That is true. Thank you. [occasionally: I’m proud to be Malawian]
This often concludes with a head nod and a moment of silence.
This has been such a detour. I used to look at a thick book and wonder where the author found the fuel to fill many pages. I was an avid young reader, but I often worry that the time might come when I would be called upon to contribute back to the pool of knowledge from which I quenched my thirst. I was intimidated. I’m a perfectionist, which means that the nozzle controlling my flow of thought onto the page is slow. Some unseen power is confining me to a sad little leaking dribble. Give me a fire hose. Let me soak everything. It’s frustrating. Woe is me. I’m reflecting now, and realizing how silly that fear of authoring a big book really is. Have some humility, Marten.
The truth is, a “fire hose” would do me no good. What reservoir do I really have to pull from? I walk around, eyes wide open and head held high convinced that I see a lot, but I’m a little bit full of myself! Patience Marty, you’ll be an elder someday. Keep those eyes open, but don’t worry about preaching at the ripe age twenty. You’ve got to be young and dumb before you can ever hope to be old and wise. Perhaps someday I will organize myself and decide upon a collection of thoughts cohesive and important enough to be ‘book worthy’. For now, let me share what has perked my senses recently, coupled with some modest insights.
The lackadaisical pace here is deceiving. The Malawians I’ve met tend to speak slowly and take frequent breaks, which frustrated me at first. Punctuality is a foreign concept here, and after they arrive, you still count on people to predict how long a job will take. Now, let’s put that into perspective…we’ve been here eleven days and a lot has been accomplished, jobs are done eventually. As much as I like using deadlines as a motivator, they cause stress, and I dislike stress. I am learning to embrace this culture that paces itself.
North American athletes are spoiled. We’re three games into a six villages tournament, and the first two matches didn’t have lines on the pitch. The ‘pitch’ is dirt, with slightly crooked goal posts, and only half of the players wear shoes. There’s two (dangerous) stumps that still have to removed, and there’s no netting or backstop to keep the ball from flying in the deep grass (home to snakes and thorns). An entire village often shares a single ball, which costs an average week’s wage, and only lasts two to three months. Despite everything, the footballers here are easily on par with strong players from Canada. I can still wow them with my juggling tricks, but probably because I’ve had the opportunity to get touches on the ball alone. That privacy doesn’t come easily here. When a ball comes out, it is usually swarmed very quickly.
At the football pitch yesterday, some young girls were selling ‘ ndas’ (Malawian bannock). I admired their entrepreneurial spirit, and attempted to purchase something to eat. I presented my 1000 Kwachas note (just over two dollars). The poor little girl frowned, and I realized that they were unable to make change for the 1000 Kwachas. When you order a beer in Chilanga, it’s upwards of 500 Kwachas, a Coca Cola is at least 160 Kwachas. I had to find someone that could break my one, one thousand note in half, and then someone else to split a five hundred note further. Finally I was able to do business with the girls, who are only asking 20 Kwachas for two pieces. Pennies.
When passing by rural villages, people stop and stare. Babies often cry and hug their mothers. Children with more confidence might swarm you, and/or chant. ‘Asungu Asungu!’, which is basically a slur for white people or foreigners in general. It can feel like you are some sort of alien visiting a sheltered planet.
It has become a fundamental objective of mine to share genuine interactions with the villagers. This is not as simple as learning local customs and talking about football. These topics are safe and comfortable, but meaningful conversations require a departure into the unknown. Have you ever really connected with someone who’s lived in a mud hut all their life? I don’t mean to discourage; it’s very possible. The dusty soil is perfect for scratching our illustrations. In Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he identified an inaptitude of many well-intentioned volunteer aid workers to truly trust and have confidence in the abilities of the oppressed. He writes: ‘to consider oneself the proprietor of revolutionary wisdom – which must then be given to (or imposed upon the people) – is to retain the old ways’. I’m doing my best.
Friere, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. NY, New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Canada seems such a distant place already. I’ve been absent in my role as a “westerner” for a week so far, cocooning, preparing to return home a new person. What happens in the cocoon, mind you, is a very active process.
Living on the new Campus, which is still under construction, is a bizarre sort of stark utopia. The hostel in which we are living is at the heart of the Campus, and during the day it is surrounded by locals whom have been hired as cooks, cleaners, carpenters, painters, security, and more. The employees work hard, but it is not uncommon to find several workers taking a break in the shade between jobs. I’ve found it very rewarding to join them and converse about whatever happens to be on my mind. People tend to have uniquely interesting perspectives which surface as soon as you switch off autopilot, and I’m having no trouble at all achieving that. I think people in any setting strive for genuine human interaction, but colourful ads and screens can distract them. People here don’t get distracted.
My co-learner, a phys-ed teacher and football coach at the local secondary school, loves to discuss the differences between his country and Canada. We share a rich dialogue. I practice honesty and modesty, admitting that our wealth can bring comfort to life, but preaching that full bellies and big TVs aren’t the holy grail that they’re built up to be. If there is a life of ultimate quality, then it contains something far more profound.
As a footballer, I’ve had punctuality drilled into my head as a key element of respect. Multiple coaches have reinforced: If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. You can show a coach that you’re worth their time by being well nourished, rested, dressed, warmed up, and otherwise fully prepared both mentally and physically before they even arrive. The attitudes in Malawi are different. My co-learner and I have begun referring to the two mentalities as “African time” and “Canadian time”. When deciding upon a meeting time we make sure to distinguish which mentality will be used. When my co-learner arrives before me, he might tease, “today I was the Canadian and you were the African”. These are obviously massive generalizations, but I laugh and accept the title with pride.
The reason that 1pm can casually turn into 2 or 3 or 4pm is not just due to a lack of clocks and watches. I walked with my co-learner to visit and deliver a message to six villages yesterday, and it was a great chance to practice my greetings and conversational Chechewa. We stopped to chat with villagers somewhere between 50-100 times along the way. Greetings in Chechewa are very thorough. When you run into a group, you often greet each individual separately, and when a group is meeting with another group, the time taken is multiplied.
Even though we had a lot of ground to cover, there wasn’t the faintest sense that we were in a rush. We’ll get there when we get there. We walked for hours in the hot sun, and my legs became tired, but my mind was still fresh. My thoughts were racing the entire time, but distance covered is not what tires the mind. It is the burden of stress that saps the mind of its energy – I vow to be forever weary of accumulating stress after I return to Canada.
Day three in Malawi, and I am full to the brim with positive emotions; satisfaction and optimism. My fellow Canadian students, all twelve of us, appear to share a sense of fascination in our everyday encounters among the people and places that we will be spending the next five weeks. The children are wildly enthusiastic, our local colleagues are hospitable to say the least, and the panoramic sub-Saharan landscape is serene. I advise anyone who enjoys gazing at the sky to treat themselves and visit this land. The sun sets between 5-6pm, followed by an impressive display of southern hemisphere constellations (the big dipper is upside down). I suppose this is what Pederson (1995) calls the honeymoon phase.
I spent the month of May in the university town of Lennoxville, QC. Lennox was peaceful, as much of the loud Bishop’s crowds had retreated home for the summer. This environment allowed for long days of reflection on the life that I’ve led so far, and contemplation on my future endeavors. Better yet, my stream of thought during this time was guided by weekly conference calls with the professors and future participants of this year’s effort with Transformative Praxis: Malawi. These virtual meetings, despite technical hiccups, were informative and contributed greatly to my mental preparation. I’ve put a lot of thought into some of the themes introduced in these meetings… particularly in the final session where we discussed the 5 Stages of Culture Shock (Pederson, 1995): Honeymoon, Disintegration (anger at self), Re-integration (anger at others), Autonomy (overcoming negative feelings), and Interdependence (truly integrating oneself into the host country’s).
If we assume a linear progression from 1-5, then the typical gung-ho western humanitarian aid worker is infatuated at first sight. They are destined to go through a period of great stress, self-doubt, and anger as they become accustomed to the cultural differences and harsh underlying realities, but with persistence they have the potential to emerge as an increasingly competent member of the host society. This forms a sort of bell curve, with a treacherous peak splitting the comfort of one valley, with the accomplishment of the other. It’s a useful model, and one that has helped me make sense of my experience so far.
It seems to me like a case study of others’ past experiences though, and not necessarily a predictor of what lies in my path. I don’t believe in accepting a fate that doesn’t satisfy one’s own ambitions. I could accept the profoundly character building experience of labouring that sharp mountain if I had been plucked off my couch in Canada, Play Station™ controller still in hand, and air dropped into rural Malawi… but that is simply not the case. I began preparing for this project in January (five months prior to departure), and with a final month dedicated towards calm meditation, I really believe that I am arriving with an arsenal of wisdom from stories shared with me, and an open mind capable of fully absorbing new experiences without retreating into a shell of doubt. I want to believe that my preparation will allow me to hike up and down, continuing in the direction of autonomy with relative composure.
Only time will tell though. I have no crystal ball; just blind presumption. It may be with great humility that I have to make my next update. Only time will tell.
Pederson, P. (1995). The five Stages of culture shock: critical incidents around the world. Westport, C.T: Greenwood Press.
My name is Kirsten Dobler and I am a third year Elementary Education Major with a Minor in Music from Bishop’s University. I’ve become very invovled with the School of Education at Bishop’s and I hope that this project will help me to link my learnings to real life. The value of education is something that is very important to me and I hope that by sharing and learning together we can make the world even just a little bit better.
I come from a small town called Powell River, just about as far West Coast as you can get. I ventured east for the first time in 2011 with a volunteer program called Katimavik and soon after I made my way to Bishop’s and I have called it my home ever since. I’ve recently began au pairing in Italy during my time away from school and I have had the pleasure of traveling around Europe on my weekends off. I hope to continue my worldly adventures and making a postitive impact as I do so.
As I mention before I greatly value education, especially in places that have different ideas and ways that we do. I also understand the importance of respecting the people and land that we will be sharing in Malawi. I hope that we can make meaningful connections with the people of Malawi. I am very excited to meet the challenges that we have ahead.
My name is Natchasiri but everybody calls me Froy or full out Froy Choi! I was raised in a beautiful island au tropicale Phuket, Thailand. I lived there my whole life, so coming to Canada is a very exciting step for me! I have been here for my second year at Bishop’s University studying Fine Arts and I am having the best time of my life! I grew up in a British school with amazing multicultural background friends, so my favorite thing to do is adapt and learn new things! My interest circles around from photography, painting, writing, cinematography, science, astronomy, to cooking! I joined Praxis Malawi so I can experience a whole new culture that I know very little about and along the way make a difference for the new soon to be friends. I know that my contribution will count in the long run.
My father, who works as a plastic surgeon, always stresses to me that I am the citizen of the world, and compassion and selflessness is what we do best as humans. I am blessed with the lifestyle I have, enough to eat, enough to use. Therefore giving back and sharing is the wisest thing someone could do, whether it’s knowledge or dreams. When I look back and compare Canada to Thailand, or perhaps any countries I visit, I see one obvious similarity that there will always be people that are enthusiastic enough to lend a hand. My purpose for this trip is not to only find myself, but mainly to bring life into the community as much I can, and I can’t wait to discover everything and to share! I also can’t wait to meet my team!! See you soon.
My name is Alexandra (Alex) Bernier and I am a second year Mathematics and a first year Education student at Bishop’s University. I was born and raised in the beautiful green state of Vermont in a French-speaking home. I chose Bishop’s for its small size, because it’s not too far from home and I have dual-citizenship. I enjoy playing volleyball, road biking, and playing the ukulele (even though I have not come close to mastering it yet). This summer, after the Praxis Malawi project, I will be returning to summer camp for the fifth year as a counselor. Camp has been a big part of my growth along with being a personal care aid to a young girl with disabilities during my last year of high school. I am enthusiastic, open-minded, and my friends tell me it is easy to approach me when they need to talk about things. I believe good communication is key for a healthy relationship and a healthy life style. Through my own struggles in life, I have found that inner-peace is really important to find clarity and to be happy. Ways I have found help me are by surrounding myself with people that challenge me and are respectful, being active, doing yoga, listening to music, reflecting, and meditating.
My Name is Kate Newhouse. I am a third year Elementary Education Major and Psychology Minor at Bishop’s University. I am from Oakville, Ontario, which is about 8 hours away from Bishop’s. I love to be involved here at Bishop’s and so from first year on I have joined many different clubs and I am now a Dance Club Coordinator, Competitive Dance Team Choreographer and Dancer, Fashion Show Choreographer and Dancer, A part of Big Buddies and a Stage Manager for plays in New Plays and TheatreActiv festivals, I am part of the BU Blog Project as well. I am organized and up for the challenges that this opportunity will surely present.
Howdy, My name is Marten. I was born in Ontario, but I’ve never lived there. I was raised on a trapline on the Alaska Hwy, near Whitehorse, Yukon. I’m not scared of bears, but I don’t know if I’ll ever feel comfortable driving on a freeway. A pivotal point on my timeline was at age 5, when I was introduced to soccer. The next landmark was at age 9, when my siblings were born. Since then, my story has been a combination of the great outdoors, soccer, and trying my darndest to be a real role model for each person I meet, particularly the young ones. These days I’m a player/coach/team manager for the Bishop’s Men’s Soccer Club. Bishop’s is treating me well, but it is by no means a final destination for me. I’m really motivated to indulge in this project in Malawi. I know it’s going to be transformative. Hopefully we can contribute to something more long term as well.
My name is Victoria (Vicki) Miller and I am in my 3rd year at Bishop’s studying Elementary Education and minoring in French. I am originally from Holliston Massachusetts, which is about 45 minutes outside of Boston, so as expected I am a die-hard Bruins, Red Sox and Patriots fan. I spent my junior year of high school studying abroad and living with a family in the Alps of France and was able to travel a bit around Western Europe. It was amazing being immersed and learning so much about another culture and life-style. I speak fluent French and it is a huge part of the reason why I am here at Bishop’s and in the province of Quebec. In my free time I like to read, skate, listen to music and practice karate. I love working with kids and meeting new people. In fact, I am going back to a camp in Central Maine for my third summer after our Malawi trip. I am so excited to meet everyone and go on this amazing adventure together!
Hello everyone, my name is Jessica Fobert and I am a second year Education student at Bishop’s University. I spent two years studying in my hometown at St. Lawrence College in Cornwall, Ontario. I loved the feeling and opportunities that small schools provide, so I chose to come to Bishop’s University. I have a major in Social Studies (history and geography) with a minor in Psychology. If I could choose, I would continue to add more disciplines because I have a passion for learning. That is one reason why I want to teach is because my students will continuously be providing me with new knowledge and secondly, I am passionate about helping others out. My mother comes from El Salvador, a third world country, and she never got the opportunity to get an education. I want to provide learning experiences for those who do not get that chance. As a future educator, I plan to travel and teach, so that I can learn more about other cultures and how other groups of people live. I plan to share my experiences with my future students so that they can learn about and respect the diverse world we live in.
I am very proud to say that I have the privilege of returning to Malawi for a second year. My name is Ryan Moyer and I am attending Concordia University in Montreal to continue my studies in sociology at the graduate level. As last year’s trip was extremely motivating and transformative, I am very excited to return to Malawi and I am looking forward to building on past relationships in order to get things done.
It is really exciting to be returning the year that the new campus is going up, as it seems metaphoric of opportunities for new meaningful change to arise. I am enthusiastically beginning to work in the field with the concept of adult education/life-long learning. University was the most transformational experience of my life thus far, and I would really be honored if I could add any input towards making adult education accessible in Kasungu.