Tag Archives: sports field

On the Subject of Outsiders

By Aaron Thornell (St. FX)

Who gets to go on the bus?

Who gets to go on the bus?

Over the course of my time in Malawi, one reality has become increasingly clear. Through several lessons, very few of them easily learned, I have realized that the presence of outsiders changes things. In some instances, the outsiders are residents of other Chilanga region villages; in others, outsiders are even members of particular families. The most drastic changes occur, it would seem, when non-Malawians (such as myself and the rest of the Praxis Malawi group) arrive on a sub-Saharan scene. The rules of the game, as I initially came to understand them, have changed.

One instance of this came recently. The issue of paying the men who had been working on clearing the football pitch quickly came to the fore. After discussions with a co-learner and other members of the community, a figure of what would be appropriate wages was determined. My co-learner and I then enlisted a prominent community member to aid in the hiring, tracking of workers’ hours and overseeing of the project. At the time of writing this, the men had been working for nine days, with the understanding that wages would be doled out after the tenth. I was initially concerned about the length of this period of time, knowing that some of these men surely had other employment opportunities, or that perhaps the funds would be needed on a more regular basis. My concerns persisted over the period of time during which I was physically separated from the project, although I did learn about the reality constricted communication and the obstacles it poses (I wrote a letter for the first time in quite some time). Upon my return, I found my fears had been unfounded, as the work had continued to go smoothly. A discussion and some reflection helped me realize that perhaps the trust of the workers had stemmed from the presence of outsiders – in particular when these outsiders hold the money. Despite this, however, I also learned that some of the men had expressed concerns that, due to the position of the man we had asked to oversee the project, they would be told the work had been voluntary, as part of a community development project. (This gave me a sense of hope for the future of the Praxis Malawi project, in which voluntary group contributions would begin to assist in the development of the campus.) At the same time, it further emphasized the importance of certain power dynamics present in the region.

The realization concerning the presence of outsiders has also given me cause to pause. I believe most in the Praxis Malawi group were aware of the changes that might arise from our presence in a country such as Malawi. I am only now coming to terms with the archetype we (or at least I) are taking on in some instances. This is sometimes exemplified by children asking (not begging, mind you) for money as we pass by on the road. This does not bother me, but instead has caused me to consider what effect money might have on trust – between Praxis Malawi students and the community, as well as within the community. I have, at times, held worries that trust between me and the community may be lacking. The vision of the field, for instance, was only somewhat conceived of through “common reflection” (Freire, p. 69), although the action planning and construction has been more mutually conceived. The realistic role I hope the field can play is one I presented, pre-conceived, but I feel I failed in encouraging the community members to challenge the idea.  I feel as though there would be little opposition to the idea itself, but differences might arise in regards to the role it can play in the community. Perhaps, however, that is the beauty of this project which I’ve been so lucky to take on. Each member of the community feels at liberty to assign their own vision to it – or none at all.

Learning To (Not) Be Cynical

By Aaron Thornell (St. FX)

Clearing the football pitch

Clearing the football pitch

Since composing my previous blog entry, I have been in a state of absorption. My initial wonder and wide-eyed mystification has begun to give way to observing my surrounding with a more critical, questioning observance. This is not to say I am an expert in the seemingly endless complexities which surround projects such as Praxis Malawi, and I have only begun to understand the conundrum that is this Sub-Saharan nation. I feel as though I am being taught how to decipher a question in mathematics, a subject already complex enough in my mind, and the answer is constantly being altered through the introduction of new variables. How can one figure out how to contribute to the game when they aren’t aware who all the players are, or rather, what all the players’ motives are?

My solution to this conundrum has been to take things as they come, and remember that only so much is within my realm of control. This has meant grounding myself a great deal, and keeping my expectations, which had run a bit wild in the lead up to my arrival to Malawi, in check. Shortly before my departure from Canada, I was attempting to improve my listening skills. This involved exercises like listening to silence for three-minute periods a day, and attempting to identify the sources of sounds when sitting in noisy environments. With all due respect to my former self, these practices seem somewhat juvenile to me now. As opposed to labelling this as some deep, holistic transformation, I think instead that I have simply learnt a skill many have learned at a young age, but one which remains invaluable, at whatever stage of life it is learnt. The process of listening does not involve hearing the first few sentences of someone’s thought, and then proceeding to formulate one’s response or opinion on the statement. Many individuals, through their actions, have emphasized the value of this. A demonstration of this came when I asked one soft-spoken, yet thoughtful gentleman a question, referring to information found on a single printed sheet of paper. After I had finished speaking, (I concluded with my Westerner-in-a-foreign-place phrase of “Do you understand?”) the two of us sat in silence for about five minutes. On several occasions, I considered repeating the question, asking a fresh one, or continuing to bombard him with my own responses and opinions. Instead, I bit my tongue, and as a result, I was able to hear a well-crafted, thoughtful, and truly informative response. As I listened to it, I quickly made a commitment to wait at least a minute before speaking if a question was asked in rebuttal or return. No question was asked, and so I held onto this minute of consideration for future conversation.

Learning to listen, and think before answering, had come particularly in use with the array of the information I have been privy to, much of it contradictory to many of the premature conclusions I had formed. Conversations, often held in more casual environments than even the closed semi-formal group discussions sometimes held between my colleagues and I, have revealed the numerous subtleties of participating in a process such as this. Even in regards to a project as simple as mine, namely, the construction of a football field, it has led to the realization that there may be many curves in the road as we proceed towards our goal. Something as simple as the installation of metal goal posts involves the consideration of creating some sort of mechanism that allows for easy removal of said posts, to facilitate their storage, a necessity if the community wishes to prevent their theft. A discussion of the confusing and controversial (to put it lightly) national elections slowly morphed into a confidence-shaking conversation regarding inter-village politics in the Chilanga region. I have a great deal to learn, much of which will not be pleasant, and will undoubtedly shape the way I think about this project, Malawi, and perhaps even Africa as a whole.

It is interesting to consider the differences between typical conversations in a Western society such as Canada’s and within a developing nation like Malawi. Recently, we learnt about “Malawi time”. When a meeting is set for one o’clock, for example, those invited will show up anywhere between two and four. This relaxed, albeit sometimes frustrating, aspect of Malawian culture has struck me as characteristic of the nature of the country’s attitude. While this may be a quick judgement, it has been one of the more pleasant aspects of this new country. To contrast it with my own country, one might associate the rapid, sporadic, and even forced nature of many a Canadian conversation with its societal expectations and dynamics. To be sure, there are many, noticeable differences between Canadian and Malawian culture, most of which I have yet to catch on to. This one, however, is one I do hope to inherit and spread.

Once again, I do not wish to express that I have developed any sort of expertise of the nation of Malawi or the issues which plague nations like it. I do, however, feel as though I have begun to wade my way through the quagmire of information, undoubtedly a necessary step for those who wish to engage in reciprocal knowledge transfer as part of a community development project. Learning how differing motives intertwine and how they affect the actions of individuals seems to be essential, albeit difficult, to many members of our group, as well as those within the Chilanga community we are working with. On a macro scale, it is and will be interesting to consider how exterior influences such as altruism, capitalism and globalism, and many other isms express themselves.

 

An Idea Without Foundation

By Aaron Thornell (St. FX)

Getting a girl into the game

Getting a girl into the game

After only a couple of nights in Malawi, many of my pre-trip fears have been put to rest. While the country has been like nothing I have ever seen or experienced before, I still feel as though, so far, most of my concerns were based off of misrepresentations of the country which I had been exposed to prior to my arrival. A large reason for my high comfort level has been due to the genuine friendliness of the vast majority of Malawians. I have been feeling welcomed almost everywhere I have been, and in large part this has been due to the hospitality of the Malawian population. Additionally, the natural beauty of this country continues to amaze me, and had aided to allay many doubts.

This is not to say, however, that my first few days here have not been without such doubts, negative emotions and lingering anxiety. A great deal of these continue to be, as they were before our departure, associated with the work I will be taking on here. Going into the Praxis Malawi opportunity, I was feeling very anxious about what skills and knowledge I would be bringing, as I desired to play a productive role within the planning of the sports/soccer field process. Following our first tour of the campus, however, this anxiety remains. The area that is likely to be used for the field is still extremely overgrown, and upon seeing this, I was struck that my knowledge in the realm of land clearing is all but non-existent. I fought to quickly rid myself of such nervousness, however, and found comfort in the support of many of the community members with whom I will be working with.

One constant I am banking on amidst all these concerns is that learning opportunities will come, quickly and often, and nothing could be more exciting. Whether it is through private conversation with community members, or open discussion with my peers, I have had no shortage of information to absorb, and I am still attempting to process the majority of it.

One very interesting example (in my mind), was a discussion with a community member concerning the popularity of various sports here in Malawi. As was my guess, football is the most popular. It is followed by net-ball, which from what I understand, is a similar sport to basketball. The interesting information came when I noted that I saw only boys playing football and only girls playing net-ball. This reality was confirmed by the community member, and when I brought this up with Dr. Stonebanks, he offered a likely explanation. Until 1994 and the advent of democratic elections, women were not allowed to wear pants, only ankle-long skirts. This wear would in all likelihood restrict the mobility needed for the game of football, but allows one to still participate in a sport like net-ball. Despite this divide, the community member explained to me that significant attempts were being made to encourage girls to enrol in football teams, although he did not speak to boys playing net-ball.