Tag Archives: Project

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

By Ryan Moyer (Bishop’s)

Looking ahead

Looking ahead

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

The Speeches and Writings of Che Guevera, p.398

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling Optimistic

By Rita Morley (St. FX)

Praxis Malawi Chilanga campus

Praxis Malawi Chilanga campus

Today I just have to say that, despite the many set-backs and tough learning curves throughout this trip, recently I’ve been feeling quite optimistic. Even though we still have time left to go here in Malawi, I can’t help but feel that our group is already making progress. Perhaps this feeling will be a fleeting one, but nevertheless, I’ll use it to fuel my work ethic as long as it lasts. It’s funny though – even as I mention this optimism, I am a bit suspicious of it, as though it could just be the bliss that comes along with ignorance. Maybe the only reason I’m content for the moment is that I’m not working hard enough or that I don’t see the big picture well enough. How do I know that my perspective of myself within the overall vision of Praxis Malawi isn’t skewed?

However, while this bit of scepticism does manage to seep its way into my thoughts, I do trust in the leadership of our group. Dale, Fintan, and Dr. Stonebanks have all exceeded my expectations in their roles as teachers, leaders, and mentors. I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt so supported by a team of educators before and perhaps that is one of the reasons I’ve been feeling optimistic. In fact, it may not be so much external context which has promoted my positive outlook, as my own shedding of self doubt. Our teachers here on this learning experience have really shown faith in my abilities and ideas which has provided encouragement for the continuation of my work here in Malawi.

There are bound to be other conflicts and set-backs during the remainder of our Praxis Malawi visit, but for the moment, I’m going to ride this wave of optimism.

Maybe the Best Group Ever???

By Dr. Christopher D. Stonebanks

Leaving on  a jet plane

Leaving on a jet plane

I do not think there was a single year of my elementary or high school experience where a teacher did not publicly exclaim, “You are the worst behaved class I have ever taught!” Reflecting on that annual experience years later, I am pretty sure these comparisons are fairly common, and I’m also fairly certain that there must be some group out there that was “the best class ever!” … maybe that was the class of 1987; who knows.

I can remember as students we were certainly aware of this ranking, and depending on circumstance, either took great pride or mortification on being at one end of the spectrum or the other.  I suspect it’s still pretty common, because as a carryover, university students often jokingly ask me “Sir, aren’t we the best group you ever taught!”, to which I usually respond with equal sarcasm, “Never mind other groups, teaching your class ranks ahead of the birth of my children and the day I got married, combined!” Praxis Malawi learners are no different, even if the course they are taking are outside of the formal walls of academia, they still like asking questions about past groups.

Well, let me clarify: they typically do not ask if they are “the best group”, as every cohort has shown a deep appreciation that their work is an extension of prior efforts. Everyone has always demonstrated great respect and interest for what has been done in the past. Each group has pushed the vision of Praxis Malawi forward a little bit, and that struggle has always been acknowledged. Rather, when they ask about past groups, it’s more like, “What’s the worst thing that a past student has done in Malawi?” or “What does it take to actually get sent back home?” I imagine that every student that participates in Praxis Malawi creates wonderful experiences in their heads even before they arrive in Malawi, but I am sure they also imagine failure as well. On the positive, there’s the secret romanticized and stereotyped hope that a village thanks you profusely for your presence and maybe you get the Sub-Sahara African version of a Kevin Costner movie and get a new name (that’s not going to happen). On the negative, a Chief expressing that their village committee took a vote, and “that thing you did was so bad, we just want you out of here!” After all, the course outline for Praxis Malawi clearly states that each student must meet the expectations set in the University Student Code of Conduct, with the penalty of being sent home. Holy smokes! What does it really take to be asked to leave a country!?

My guess is that are a myriad of images and scenarios that play in most of our minds of what could go tremendously wrong regarding behavior in sub-Saharan Africa. Maybe an attempt at riding a hippopotamus on Lake Malawi, organizing a coup to become village chief, or perhaps starting a Fight Club are all ridiculous scenarios playing out in our minds long before Malarone induced nightmares can make them worse. When my eldest daughter, Roxy, was in Malawi last year, she had a vivid dream that a little girl from the village followed her home; had she pulled a Madonna and simply taken the child from her village? Was that wrong to take a child home with me? Is that something that would get me kicked out of a country? Is kidnapping frowned upon?

When I am asked about past groups and how they fared on the “conduct while representing the University” front, my usual response centers on questioning whether or not the student is genuinely concerned of prior history, or if they are trying to figure out the limit of risky experience and conduct to create some sort of legal defense. I wonder if I am going to be faced with appeals such as “Sir, the course outline didn’t say that I wasn’t allowed to take home a Green Mamba in my carry-on” or, “Before you say that I acted inappropriately, maybe you should have clarified more than once that starting a crocodile wrestling side show was frowned upon”. Sure, they want to take some risks and create some memories, and who can blame them. But, I am mindful that my responsibility is to repeatedly tell them not to run with scissors.

So far this group should be proud to say that they rank with all the others as an amazing group of students who actively and collaboratively want to work with the Chilanga community. They’re no class of 1987 mind you, but they are pretty darned good!

Just Another Perfect Day

By Jae Oh

Making breakfast mandazi

Making breakfast mandazi

I open my eyes with the sounds of roosters and distant church bells letting me know it is 6 am. I stretch a little inside the warmth of my sleeping bag and take a peek at the daylight coming through a window. ‘Another exciting day is about to start!’ I struggle with the bug net as I get down from my bed and step out though a creaking door. Only some dim sunlight fills in the hostel but that is enough for me to start reminiscing about yesterday in my journal. One of the kitchen ladies brings in hot water bottles for tea or coffee, fresh fruit which are mostly bananas, and hot steaming mandazi, local donuts, for breakfast. The smell of fresh brewed tea and sweet bread wakes people up one by one and soon the breakfast table is bursting with conversations about last night’s dreams or plans for the days to come. A typical morning in Makupo Village begins.

Hard at work

Hard at work

The curriculum development crew, eight passionate Canadian university students with Francis, Thomas, the new teacher at the new school, and a prospective high school teacher, Cynthia, get together from 9 to 4 at our working room in Chilanga High School. There, we gather our brains to build unit plans for a grade one curriculum merging with the Quebec Education Program to suit the culture and needs of the local people. The new school site has been decided and foundations are already set in place encouraging us to catch up. At first, the task in front of us seemed so big and impossible to finish in time; however, once the crew got into the rhythm, the momentum started to build. Two weeks went by like a flash and we are already looking into editing and finalizing what we have accomplished. We separate into smaller groups and work on several units at a time and share ideas and suggestions when problems arise as a big crew. Any ideas and parts I overlook, others will lend helping hands and vice versa; we became the real example of entrepreneurship, creativity, and critical thinking that we aim to portray through the new curriculum.

Mouthwatering nsima and sides dishes

Mouthwatering nsima and sides dishes

After a hard day’s work comes a delicious meal. For lunch or dinner, either rice or nsima is served with various side dishes, such as beans, green mustard leaves, peas, cabbages, eggs, goat or beef meat, and the new addition, soya pieces fried in tomato, onion, and curry base. Some are similar to Korean cuisine, but much greasier, which is understandable considering meat is not a part of the daily food for many locals and they need an alternative source of fat. I helped out in the kitchen a few times, making mandazi or cutting vegetables and the ladies are always glad to have extra hands and stories to share. The only rule is to never touch rice because it has been a problem where people occasionally find rocks breaking their teeth.

De-stressing is another important part of the day to get replenished and energized for the work ahead. After dinner, people gather around the sofa, checking up on each other and sharing light conversations and jokes. Some break away from the group to have a relaxing time on their own, by writing journals and blogs, reading books, or listening to music. Once in a while, we get to reconnect with the outside world through internet and phone calls. Whenever I receive calls or emails from the beloved ones, my heart warms up the way it never did and I appreciate the memories we share. Funny thing is that I’m describing a typical day but for three weeks, not a single day went by the same as other days. Each day has been a special day. One night, we all danced around a bonfire and built closer ties with the Makupo villagers. By a lucky chance, we had a rainy day which is very rare during this dry season. It looked more like mist than rain but the sudden weather change and drop of temperature reminded us that it was, in fact, winter in Africa. When the day comes to an end with the moon rising among millions of starts, another perfect night in Malawi starts with wishes of good night and snuggling back into the sleeping bag, drifting off into adventurous dreams. Usiku Wabwino! Good night!

Crawling up the Mountain

By Farah-Roxanne Stonebanks

At the top of Mount Kasungu

At the top of Mount Kasungu

I’d like to start off this blog post by just letting everyone know: I climbed Mount Kasungu. While I didn’t climb it in 29 minutes (which I was informed, was the fastest time a Canadian has climbed up the mountain that they knew of), nor was I the first one in our group to get to the top, I still made it. It’s an achievement for me, and I’m proud of myself for sticking through it and making it all the way to the top.

I hope that by the end of these five weeks, the same can be said for my project. (The statement about sticking through it, of course. Not the one about finishing it all in 29 minutes because then you would know there’s an obvious problem with your work).

This week marked the beginning of my project. And the birth of a little, evil voice in the back of my mind, whispering malicious things to me about the outcome of my final product.

“You’ll never finish on time,” it says as I try to write a schedule of the work that needs to get done.

“That will never be enough footage to make anything useful,” it scoffs as I worriedly check the amount of tapes i still haven’t used.

“And you thought it would look even a little professional,” it laughs as I watch the video-camera’s screen as the interview takes place.

“Do you honestly think this is going to make a difference in anyone’s life?” it questions me as I lay awake at night, self-doubting every decision I had ever made that led me to this point in my life.

I do realize that stressing out won’t help anything and certainly won’t help any work get done. And I understand that pretty much everyone who has taken place in this project has gone through the same feelings of self-doubt once they start their work. There’s that worry that maybe you’re not focusing on the ‘right’ thing. Does your work even matter in the great scheme of things? I had a moment of great self-doubt after I finished my first day of work and decided by the end of it that I should just stop making little videos and save all the dogs in Malawi instead. Which was so unlike me, since I always scoff at the commercials that plea at you to save all the animals in the world, while there are still so many human beings in need.

But there I was, bursting into tears as I told people about the tiny, malnourished dog that came to sit near me while I was conducting one of my interviews.

“There were cactus needles all over it,” I exclaimed to which ever poor soul unfortunately asked me how my day went. “Why wouldn’t they just take the needles out!? Why did they just ignore it?!”

Now that I’ve calmed down, I realize that maybe saving all the dogs in Malawi and taking them home with me wouldn’t be the best thing to do (sorry Mom). I do understand that my project is important and that I should stay working with my original focus. The problem is that stress finds a way to make you feel that whatever it is that you thought would be a good idea, is now really really extremely unimportant and won’t help anything or anyone.

Now that I’m actually going out and interviewing people (both in the village of Makupo and in other villages) I’m aware of just how much this project puts me out of my comfort zone. Meeting new people everyday and asking them if you would be allowed to talk with them as a rather large camera is facing them a few feet away, especially when both of you speak two different languages, is something I never thought I would be doing.

The whole task of doing the interviews has taken me on an emotional roller coaster. It will start off with Elise, our co-learner and I choosing who we’re going to interview next. Then we’ll spend a bit of time writing down notes on what questions we should ask him or her as I worry that our questions aren’t good enough, or that we’re not asking enough questions, or (my worst fear) that our interviewee would find our questions too snoopy and would refuse to answer. What if the individual sees me as some nosy girl from Canada with some fancy, expensive camera intruding in their lives.

Once I get past the first meeting and the general uneasiness I feel whenever I meet someone for the first time and start the actual interview, my fears and worries just melt away. So far every person that I’ve talked with has been so nice and open to being asked all these questions and being recorded. And by the end of every interview, all my old worries aren’t anywhere to be seen. Of course, they are sitting and ready to return for the next interview, but that’s just something I’ve dealt with my whole life unfortunately. Who knows, maybe by the end of these five weeks I’ll have an easier time talking to new people (maybe, hopefully, possibly).

I do love my project and I’d like to make sure no one thinks otherwise. Yes, it’s a lot of work. And yes, it does cause me to stress over it a tad. But I’m getting a very up-close and personal look into Makupo and the other villages surrounding it. And I get the pleasure of being able to hear and share the voices of Malawi that would otherwise go unheard.

Just like climbing Mount Kasungu, this project is going to be difficult and the end won’t necessarily seem like it’s near, but finishing it will feel like such a great personal accomplishment and in my opinion, all the work will be worth it.