Thursday September 14, 2017

Malawi Practicum

For the second time in my three years at the University of Dayton, I had the opportunity to spend my summer living and working in sub-Saharan Africa. Two summers ago I participated in the Center for Social Concern’s Cultural Immersion/Service program in Zambia where I learned about the culture through interaction with local Zambians and also taught a few classes at nearby schools. Over the most recent summer I worked collaboratively with a non-governmental organization called Determined to Develop (D2D) in Malawi, which is Zambia’s eastern neighbor.

The program is called the Malawi Practicum on Rights and Development (link here), which is a both an experiential learning and research initiative for University of Dayton undergraduate students to live and work in rural Malawi. As an Environmental Biology major, my research was focused on, you guessed it, the environmental component of D2D. Deforestation is a major problem in Malawi from a number of constituents, namely the growing population, large amount of agriculture for both commercial and subsistence purposes, and weak governmental regulation. My job was to conduct research for D2D in an ultimate effort to provide them with a recommendation on how to optimize their environmental efforts within their community. I was excited to begin because I was one of the first Malawi Practicum members to undertake an environmental project. In the summer of 2017 I was, geographically, only a few hundred miles away from where I had been two summers prior, but my experiences were light years apart.

One of the biggest influences on my Malawian experience came from none other than an actual Malawian. Forbes Tembo, a staff member with D2D, was my counterpart for my project. We could be seen together at any time of the day, whether travelling to a meeting, conducting an interview, sifting through our data, or, in a general sense, brainstorming for our project. With the endless string of questions I threw at him about Malawian culture, practices, and way of life, I drove him at least a little bit, if not completely, crazy. However annoying I may have been, although Forbes assured me I was no such thing, I was able to find a much better understanding and connection with Malawi from my discussions with Forbes. My thanks go out to Forbes in large part, as this project would not have been able to be completed without him.

An additional contributor to my holistic experience was the amount of travel I was able to do throughout Malawi. In terms of square mileage, Malawi is about the size of Pennsylvania. The small size, as well as small highway system with little traffic, allowed Forbes and I to travel throughout most of the northern countryside. Additionally, the Practicum includes weekend trips to a few tourist locations in Malawi. Through all of this moving around I discovered a dynamic subset of cultures within Malawi, similar to what can be seen in be seen in the US when comparing rural Nebraska to downtown Chicago.

Lastly, given the nature of my research, which was heavily qualitative, and my counterpart in Forbes working as a translator, it was possible to speak with a surfeit of Malawians regarding a range of topics. We spoke about everything from the high rate of forest loss, to marriage, to the values of individuals within the society. In other words, I feel I can firmly grasp what the typical Malawian is all about.

Although my time in Malawi was short, I was able to hear, see, and taste a fair amount of its mores. I came away with one major conclusion, and it’s one I do not raise with levity: It is amazing to see how much an individual in a developing country can eclipse the internal development than that of an individual in a developed country.

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