With under a month remaining in this fellowship, I find it to be an appropriate moment to put into words a matter I’ve been reflecting on since prior to my arrival in Chilanga in September 2015. In reality, it’s a question I’ve been debating since I began considering an application to the OceanPath Fellowship. Its prominence in my mind has ebbed and flowed since that time. In many ways, however, I think my mind was up before stepping on the plane that brought me here to Malawi.
The question I’ve been pondering is as follows: Can one (although for the purposes of this blog I seek only to speak on my own behalf) effectively play a role in community-driven development endeavours taking place in communities outside of what one considers “home” – or, in a community that I do not consider myself a member of?
Before proceeding, this is obviously a multi-dimensional question, so I feel I must explain how I understand it. To begin, the term “effectively” should be addressed. I think that “playing an effective role” in community development constitutes contributing in a meaningful and positive way, particularly by drawing upon the various assets and knowledge one possesses. Regarding the phrase “community-driven development endeavours”, I am of the opinion that this could encompass any activity, action, or discussion taken on by a community with the hopes of sustaining or improving their collective livelihoods. I also identify strongly with the definition offered by Alison Mathie and Gord Cunningham (2002): “Community-driven development may not necessarily be the collective action of all in a geographically circumscribed area, but it is activity that is based at the community level and is conducive to building active participation in, and a sense of responsibility for, the prosperity of the larger community.”
These two aspects of the question are fairly easily addressed, though I recognize that others may have varying interpretations of both. It is the final feature where my interest lies. Everyone, I’m sure, has differing opinions about what communities they are truly a part of, and what constitutes being a part of a community, be it geographically defined or united by a common interest or experience. The questions that could undoubtedly be posed to delve into this is: Who are you? What communities to you identify with? These are great questions to reflect upon, though in the interest of brevity I’ll focus on the subject of community-driven development at hand.
I have recognized that for me this is an extremely emotionally charged question to consider. Indeed, I’ve never to be a true member of this community. There have been moments, to be sure, but on whole I’ve felt like a visitor here in Chilanga. This feeling, I believe, is a result of my own actions as much as it is a product of the actions of others.
For my part, this fellowship experience has been one full of learnings, joys, frustrations, and reflection. Yet, a theme or feeling that has left me for more than a moment since my arrival is the longing to return home. It was as strong in September as it is today. This, I think, has led to many realizations about myself that surely gives me pause. I can certainly recall feeling this same home-sickness in past experiences, be they at school, or while working away from home. They have never been as inescapable as they have been during this fellowship. Try as I might to remain in the moment, there was not a day that went by during which I didn’t wish that it was my last here in Chilanga.
There is something important to be said about how one feels and how this allows them to interact with the wider community. Within the context of community-driven development, this is a critical component, given the central role that relationships play. There have certainly been good times here, I cannot deny this. But at the end of these times, or even during them, I find myself reminiscing or imagining future happy moments back home, shared with those I hold most dear. I believe that begs the question some fellows considered during our three weeks together in June of 2015: Is 9 months a long enough time to form meaningful relationships and friendships? I believe it is, as I think that I have been able to form such friendships with both colleagues and others within the community. Yet, in the back of my mind, I knew these to be, in all likelihood, temporary. How does that mindset affect one’s comportment? On top of that, in reflection I have been forced to ask myself what role cultural difference plays in such relationships. One thing that makes me smile when I think of my closest friends and my family members back home is that within a few minutes of being reunited after being apart – be it for a day or for a year – I feel as though I’ve never left. In all honesty, I just don’t know if such relationships have been formed here.
This is not to say that the bonds on friendship must be this strong with everyone that one works with in a community development context. Indeed, the terms “work friends” and “real friends” comes to mind. But if I return to my experience within the context of Chilanga, I consider how many people who would call me “friend” truly view me as that, and who would see me as a visitor in their community. Please don’t get me wrong, I don’t hold any contempt for any community members here, and I recognize that one can’t be friends with everyone. What I’ve come to ponder a great deal, however, is how one might might be precluded from forming strong relationships due to one’s status (in my case, one that is obviously perceived) as an outsider to a community.
What has begun to form in my mind is the consideration of what it is like to be truly part of a community and to participate in various community-driven endeavours (be they based around “development” or not) within said group. I’ve spent a great deal of time considering what communities I’ve been a part of in the past, and what that has felt like. From sports teams, to the staff of a university newspaper, from a family, to the small group of students who share an academic discipline. These are all communities where I’ve felt that I could make contributions based upon the position I wanted to occupy in these various groups.
During this fellowship, I do feel I’ve found opportunities to occupy such a desired position. But too often, I’ve found myself in roles where I don’t feel I can be of much use, or roles that could and should be occupied by others. At times this is by choice – a choice perhaps taken due to various pressures or even because I fear the role will go unoccupied if I do not take it. In other instances, it has come about due to the perceptions of others – here, the titles of “donor”, “boss”, and “teacher” come to mind.
I do recognize that at this time I am likely coming across as being quite the whiner. I wish to acknowledge that the sometimes uncomfortable roles that I’ve occupied during this fellowship have taught me invaluable lessons. I also wish to accept that there are times when things need to get done – when one needs to “channel one’s achievement-based mentality” as a mentor once put it – and that sometimes this means stepping well outside my comfort zone.
What has become clear of late, however, is that sometimes, when taking on certain tasks or roles in a community that is not one’s own, it can lead to community members feeling undervalued, or can strip them of a degree of agency. Indeed, a colleague told me that this is the effect that some of my actions have had during my time here in Chilanga. For her honesty in this regard, I can never thank her enough, for it truly opened my eyes to a stark reality. Despite the fact that many of these actions and roles were taken on with the best of intentions, in the future I must pause and consider how inhabiting such roles might affect colleagues or fellow community members. In fact, it leads me to this: can I really call myself a proponent of asset-based, community-driven development when some of my actions serve to directly counter that paradigm? Herein lies the conundrum, the crux, of the question posed at the outset of this piece.
This is a sign I pass most days when biking into town – it always brings to mind the question posed at the outset of this blog.
And so I return to this question. I believe it is possible to play an effective and indeed positive role in citizen-driven development efforts in communities where I feel like a visitor. As my mother pointed out to me, the concepts are much the same even if the communities are very different from one’s own. Undoubtedly, one finds relationships at the centre, and one can establish the very same values that can be used as guides throughout. One can focus upon the assets of the community, and can place an emphasis upon endogenous development.
With all that said, however, I long for the opportunity to put into practice what I have learned in a community where I consider myself a true member, and not just a visitor. Perhaps I will find myself confronted by similar challenges and frustrations as those that I have encountered during this fellowship. Indeed, I am not so naive to believe that all will be smooth sailing just because I am participating in community-based development endeavours in my own backyard. But, as I say, I am incredibly eager to have such an experience, and to take what learnings may come from it.