We met with three villages this week on three different days in the shade of three great trees. Some women from the village, grannies and mothers, had babies and toddlers with them. Because our hosts always sat on the ground, those of us who were able, declined the chairs we brought from the school to sit with our hosts on the warm, compacted earth.
Two colleagues, both women who lived near Blantyre and worked with the village communities, accompanied us to help translate the conversation. To witness these meetings as part of the process of asset-based community development is inspiring because I now have a deeper understanding of the hope and fear that come with initiative and change.
After each conversation concluded, we all shook hands with each other, Malawi-style: shaking hands, hooking thumbs, and shaking again. After one meeting, the community sang to us; after another meeting, we danced together. Respect nurtures relationships, and from this service learning project, springs a lot of hope and joy.
The purpose of these meetings was to begin planning a business that community members could organize, begin, grow and self-sustain. The communities of all three villages live with poverty. As they are people in agricultural communities that have experienced drought, there is little to eat on days where there is something to eat at all. Despite the daily struggle for enough food, each community is very supportive of the idea of starting a business to build skills and generate income among their people.
A successful business would result in income that could then be used to pay for improvements they would like to see in their community. The BU team was there to listen, to witness, and to support. Ideas were coming from people within the communities; the work is the work of community members and the community will determine how profits are saved or spent. The asset-based framework the BU team is using in this project emphasizes the strengths of the community members.
I am convinced that coming to Malawi was the right decision for me because I see resilience and determination and hope that goes beyond the borders of my own country. Endurance is a universal human quality, no matter where you live. I almost did not participate in this service-learning project in Malawi. I had several opportunities to stop the application process since the initial meeting in January. I was on the fence for a long time. Mainly, what was holding me back was a concern of being perceived, both at home in the US and in Malawi, as just another symbol of “the great white hope,” which I feel is condescending at best and racist at worst. What ultimately pushed me into committing for the Malawi program was my interest in racial justice and my curiosity in seeing a country in Africa for myself. My concern about guilt and helplessness was a waste of my energy.