What’s in a Word?

By Dr. Christopher Darius Stonebanks

Development discussions

Development discussions

So, what’s changed since last being in Malawi with students in the spring of 2013? Quite a bit has developed, I’d say. But, before we get to that, let’s put aside the usual semantics of word-play in international work for a moment. I used the word “development” and I think that needs to be addressed. Yeah, the meaning, sub-text, etc. of words is extremely important and words like “development” need to be analyzed. What are we talking about when we use the word “development”, do we really mean something growing, evolving and/or transforming from one entity to another? Are we suggesting that a person is not fully human when any sort of language associated with improvement is used? Can we say an acorn is not fully “developed” until it becomes an oak tree? My youngest daughter until she becomes eighteen? A caterpillar until a monarch butterfly? Myself, until my PhD, or from part-time lecturer to full professor? What does “development” mean? It is important to understand meaning to words. However, what seems so crucial in the contexts of academia hyper examination of terms are luxuries ill afforded in locations of extreme poverty, like the rural regions of Malawi. I can read the looks on students’ faces when they hear the word “development” used by local Malawians; somewhere along their education someone has rightfully brought up the discussion that the word denotes a message of not being fully human, and there’s little doubt that this can sometimes be the case. I have noticed that the word “transformative” has replaced “development” in academic language, but to what end? Can’t it be argued that transforming a person from one thing to another is the same process of a top-down, colonial attitude of being the architect of “making a human”? I often don’t know if we have the luxury for such conversations.

Admittedly, I do have little patience for patriarchal language (or even matriarchal language for that matter when it comes in the form of condensation) when it comes to some words. For example, terms like “nos enfants” (our children) when referring to any indigenous communities around the world seems to elicit a critical response from me regardless of the social context. One time a particularly kind administrator of a school board which employed me happily told me that she was pleased when she was told by a secretary that I was Iranian. She mentioned how she had spent a few months in pre-revolutionary Iran, accompanying her spouse who was stationed there working for the Canadian government. She then proceeded to tell me how much she loved the people of Iran, because they were like happy, simple children. It was a statement without the slightest hint of malice, which made it quite hard to process at the time. Over the years I am closer to understanding the underlying reasons for such common responses that are not exclusive to one philosophical leaning or another. With those memories I am conscious of the importance of language, but try to understand intent rather than risk ending progressions of dialogue.  For instance, I don’t quite feel the need to rage against the use of “development” when I understand it is being used locally to describe the improvement of the human condition. Development, even with all its historical baggage, is nonetheless the optimistic buzzword in Malawi right now, spoken with the same vigour as “transformative” is used in Canada. And, if you have spent any real time in the communities we are working with in Malawi, the understanding of the intent and urgency of the word “development” becomes quite clear.

So, back to change: On our arrival in Malawi the case of voter recount was in the courts, with the final decision of President Joyce Banda being replaced by newly elected Professor Peter Mutharika declared as winner. As I understand from the local Traditional Authority (the indigenous governing system), President Mutharika’s party has run on a platform of “development” and the return to Malawians taking control of improving the human condition and working in solidarity with foreign agencies.  We hear in speeches that the days of passiveness, leaving the decisions and actions to NGOs and the like, are over. Wonderful!

Since we last left Malawi in 2013, there was a return trip in January 2014 to meet with the Malawi Ministry of Education and the development (there’s that word again!) of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). By far, the focus of the MoU on the part of Praxis Malawi was the clarity of reciprocity and comprehension of needs. Sometimes it’s better to start a conversation on “what you are not” as opposed to trying to define “what you are”. “What you are” can sometimes leave spaces for interpretation that leads to spaces that simply can’t be addressed, with potential anger and disappointment ensuing. We begin the conversation with the understanding that we are not, in the formal sense, an NGO, a charity group, a volunteer group, a religious group or any of the myriad of well-meaning organizations that are mandated to provide service of change through an often top-down format. Defining words are important, after all. Reciprocity of respectful knowledge transfer is the key to our work; those words are important. Action from that knowledge transfer is although initially enacted through our combined efforts, and the decision for that to leave our space of communal learning is up to the local people. Deviation from these words and the core philosophy attached to them is simply not Praxis Malawi.

Shortly after arriving in Malawi, and at these early stages of introduction to the realities of Malawi, stress becomes an overwhelming emotion; students will often feel the pressure of expectations and succumb to uncertainty and Malawi participants become equally uneasy of their role as leaders in this joint endeavour. Part of the stressors with the model we are developing (damn, I wrote that word again!) are the moments in between times of close in-field collaboration. When the airplane leaves to Canada, momentum is often lost. The initial optimism that existed when university students and professors work on our Campus projects slowly become replaced with fear of risk and self-doubt from all participants, regardless of their citizenship. Whether you are a Canadian or Irish university student, or a Malawian community member, you want to see movement that will alleviate human suffering in a sustainable and meaningful way. Of course people want to see development (ugh, I can’t stop myself!) no matter where you reside, but it’s not easy. Authentic change is slow and can often be painful. At every step there is the temptation to try and go for the quick fix and lose your focus. I know that giving the man or woman begging for money on the side of the street will not solve Malawi’s problems of poverty, yet I often can’t help myself and the man throwing starfishes back in the ocean story does not provide comfort in this context.  Development, or transformative education doesn’t feel or look like time-elapsed films of seeds growing to flowers or caterpillars turning into butterflies. Sometimes you wonder if your transformative moment will end up on the cutting room floor, just like all the caterpillars and seeds that don’t make it out of their respective shells. Maybe that’s why we focus on defining words in academia, which seems much more manageable and attainable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please enter the information before posting *