Please allow me a quick moment to unpack a quote that I have found intriguing, before I reflect
upon another subject which is, for the most part completely unrelated.
“The greatest mistake is to throw answers, like stones, at those who have not yet asked the
– Ivan Illich
This quotation has stuck in my mind since reading it in June. It has certainly been something
I’ve tried to keep in mind as I entered the Chilanga community, and as I’ve begun to engage with
community members. It became all the more pronounced to me today, as I felt something like stones
being tossed in my direction. Albeit, these stones were soft, and harmless – a group of young boys
telling me how to say various body parts in Chichewa as we watched a football match together.
Granted, had I been in a different mindset, I may have taken the opportunity to brush up on my
anatomical diction. But at the time I was more interested in the game, and the words, which I admit
escape me now – I tuned out when the focus shifted to male genitalia – felt to be pestering and pebble-
like. Despite the pronounced innocence of these boys, and their genuine intentions, I could not help but
think of the aforementioned quotation. As the wonderful Jannika often reminds us, we can learn a great
deal from younger generations. I must say, I didn’t expect this to the medium of knowledge transfer. I
will do my utmost to recall this experience when entering dialogues with community members. It is
learnings such as these that not only provide unique pieces – cobblestones, even, if you’ll allow the
geologic analogy to continue – that make up the road of this enriching and learning fellowship.
On patience and funerals
Today, as I begin my third week here, I’ve been reflecting a great deal on what values I hold in
highest esteem, as these will serve as a guide for my actions and my intentions during my fellowship.
Patience, although it may not be mentioned by name, intersects with many of the values that I have
determined to be most important to me – respect, understanding, love and kindness. And yet, I’ve found
that despite my best efforts to show patience, a certain degree of frustration, for lack of a better term,
has been worming its way into my mind. This has been borne out of an inability to find a time to sit
down with the women’s cooperative operating on the community campus.
Before I begin sounding like some jaded, fed-up visitor, I must pause. I am aware of how
unproductive and misplaced, even inappropriate, this frustration, this exasperation is. For one, it is
critical to recall that I have been present in Chilanga for a mere two weeks, and while I’ve felt
increasingly comfortable with my surroundings and those who call this community home, many folks
may not share this sense of familiarity. Phrases we repeated verbatim during our preparatory courses
come flooding back: “Meet them where they’re at.” “Relationships are the work.” To be sure, these
require patience, among many other things.
Recognizing and trying to understand the context one finds oneself working within is something
critical, in my mind, to community development and positive social change. As I was recently
recounting to a fellow Fellow, since my arrival on September 16th, there have been several funerals – as
many as seven, including the most recent one which took place today. The ceremonies that accompany
loss of this nature hold great significance in Malawian culture, particularly those in rural communities,
such as Chilanga. Associations, be they familiar, recreational, geographic, or otherwise, mean that
individuals will often attend funerals taking place far away from home. I’ve been told that the recent
frequency of these ceremonies, which typically last for the better part of the day, is higher than usual.
In moments of foolish egocentricity, I’ve found this aforementioned frustration rustling within
me, as meetings have been rescheduled due to funerary commitments. My mind, in its warped state, has
gone so far as to fail to recall the impact that these losses have been having on various members of the
community. In such times I try to return to the knowledge that grounds me, a mindset that I know to be
productive and positive. Therefore, it is all the more important that I meet these women and other
community members “where they are at”, and above almost all else, be conscious of the context I am
operating in. I should not – I cannot – wade into this quagmire of frustration when things like meetings
are rescheduled. Answers will be arrived at, in due time. In fact, in many instances, the questions have
yet to be asked.
With what I hope will be a maintained trend over the course of my fellowship, in times such as these, when challenges of various designations arise, it is critical to search for learnings, as opposed to problems. In this case, I must harken back to the weeks and months leading up to my arrival in Chilanga. A source of significant stress was a reoccurring feeling that I lacked knowledge of the context I would be entering. I could read all I wanted about rural life in Malawi, but once “on the ground”, I was sure to gain a much clearer and more accurate conception of this setting. These realizations – and the frustrations sometimes associated to them – are all part of this context. These come as part of a greater learning, which teaches that learning about various contexts can be a tumultuous process, full of growing pains and joy.