Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Return of Tracy Chapman.

The process of applying for provincial and federal grants has begun.  
I was shocked into one of the realities of academic research last Friday morning: in order to research, you need money, and to get money,  you need to write convincing and exciting grant proposals.  
For the majority of the people in my program, it appears that this is not a new or intimidating prospect.  They are simply copying and pasting from a variety of undergraduate thesis and grant proposals, or have already received these prestigious allocations, and do not need to bother with it this year.  
For the rest of us, this now requires a scramble to quickly review the relevant literature in our field, produce a 'cogent research question' to investigate, and then devise a plan to actually gather the data.  
For the past six months, I have been planning on investigating the experiences of gender-based violence in the Aboriginal community.  
Ever since returning from Iqaluit, I have been unable to forget the way that domestic violence was visible in the community.  Working at PPSC I used to read through the files during my spare time, pulling out anything coded with domestic or child abuse.  

For the past week I have been wading through my memories of being in Iqaluit and Malawi, and engaging with survivors of gender-based violence.  Two different continents, languages, cultures, skin colours, and communities.  Same problem.   All of this brought me to this Masters program, to the opportunity to contribute to the existing knowledge and research on this issue.  

 Somewhere years ago, I tapped into the violence and pain that is experienced by people just like me.  People who could have easily been me.  It has now taken me half-way around the world, and to remote places in my own country.  It drives my academic pursuits and volunteer activities.  It makes up my leisure reading.  
And now I have to find a way to translate this passion and interest into a scholarly thesis.  It feels emotional. 

Tonight I attended a 'Take Back the Night' ceremony in downtown St. Catharine's.  Take Back the Night is held in communities around the world and offers people a chance to speak out against violence against women, as represented by many women's inability to walk safely at night.  

One woman was holding a sign which read "Women have the right to walk at night".  
Say that a few times.  
Hear the emphasis on right.  
Think about what the sign is saying.  
How can a person in Canada in 2008, one of the countries looked to throughout the world as a symbol of democracy, freedom, and model human rights, have to assert her right to WALK at a certain time of day.  I looked at that sign for a long time.  
It really struck a chord.  How many times have I tried to explain what it feels like to walk alone at night?  How many times have I tried to articulate my own sense of vulnerability, my own fear?  

It was a good idea to go to the event tonight.  Even if my study is not about women walking alone at night, or even about the experiences of Aboriginal people by the time this is all said and done, it is an important issue.  And for whatever reason, it is my issue.  

So tonight was the night to bring back Tracy Chapman.  If you ever listen to her lyrics, you will hear that she sings about equality, rights, minorities, oppression, fear, sadness, women, men, humanity.  They are good songs.  

Thursday, September 11, 2008


It feels like today is a good day to write.  

I read a very interesting article for my methods class yesterday.  It introduces the model of autoethnography.  In many ways, the term is not really definable.  At its core lies the idea that the researcher themselves is able to offer learning and insight through exploring their own experiences.  Through analyzing their emotions, memories, feeling, and thoughts on an experience, they can offer understanding to one experience as part of a greater whole.  Autoethnographies can take the form of poetry, monologues, plays, or personal narrative to name a few forms.  I was extremely excited and engaged by this article.  To think that telling ones story is viewed by a small number of academics to be a truly valid and important way of doing research totally shakes my world.  I was also drawn to the therapeutic aspect of autoethnography.  The scholar presenting her argument made no attempt to rationalize or justify the secondary benefit to sorting out ones emotions through autoethnography.  She instead celebrated it.  I think this idea especially spoke to me because of how passionately I feel about my research topic.  Many of the more traditional social science research methods seem to curb that passion, or moderate it in order to produce the 'distanced and objective researcher'.  

While reading this article, I immediately began to think about my experiences living in Malawi.  I have been struggling for the past year trying to figure out how to best capture all of my thoughts and memories about this altering period in my life.  I have wanted to write, but have not been sure how.  The idea of writing articles for a newspaper or magazine does not appeal to me.  I do not write poetry or music.  I have wanted to write, but I want my writing to have a purpose.  Autoethnography appeals to me.  I think that the material gathered from living and working in Malawi would be very well suited to this method of research.  Not only is the experience deeply emotional, personally challenging, and I believe, an engaging story.  But I also feel that my experiences are deeply rooted in a sociocultural political context.  Many of the overriding lessons and conclusions that I have drawn from my experiences are related to development and colonial theory, the discourse of intercultural communication, and the place of a white woman working in development.  I would love for any writing I produce to help me further uncover these themes in my experiences.  

Perhaps there will be a point to this past year after all.  A synthesis of sorts.  

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Love My Job?

This seems like a completely normal statement for most North Americans in the working world. And I have found this to be one of the biggest differences between work culture in North America versus Malawi. I have grown up with the understanding that I should explore a variety of fields of study, and try out different professions, until I find my true passion. It is a reasonable approach in university to base your major on whatever excites and interests you most, and to change that major when the interest wanes. Like many recently graduated individuals, I am on the hunt for that perfect job. One that makes me excited to get up to go to work and that makes me feel engaged on a daily basis. Perhaps it is because the financial reality of life has not yet set in, but I feel entitled to take the time to find that job, before turning to something less satisfying in order to pay the bills. In Canada, it is a perfectly normal to ask someone if they enjoy their job, how they came to it, and what they get out of it.
From what I can tell, none of the above assumptions apply in Malawi.
I ask people if they like their jobs, and most look at me like I am crazy. The response is usually ‘sure, I like my job’. The reality is that for those Malawians who do have jobs, it doesn’t matter whether they like them or not. They are in it for the money. They have not grown up cultivating the idea that they are entitled to a job that they love, and that they should hold out until they find it. In most contexts, work has an entirely different meaning.
This question about feeling passionate about your work has been coming up a lot in my office. As my organization is in the process of restructuring and re-strategizing for next year, there have been many many long (very long) meetings about the work that is done at CAYO and how people feel about it.
This past week, my director led a discussion about what would make people more excited about coming to work. The staff were very divided about the motivations that they have for coming to work. For some it is clear that they love working with youth, and for others, money was the primary reason for working. Nothing wrong with that, they are simply differences in opinion.
For me, I am extremely passionate about working with youth and on the issue of gender-based violence, so it is hard for me to understand other reasons why people would choose to work in this field other than genuine interest in the issues. These interests are what got me on that plane. So it has been an extremely humbling experience to realize that my belief in the necessity of loving your job is a very privileged one. To come from a world where learning and exploration to uncover what excites each person is encouraged and supported is rare. And should be appreciated.

A Different Standard.

Last week one of my Malawian friends paid me the greatest compliment (according to a Malawian woman) – she told me that I “was getting round”. Also known as putting some extra padding around the hips ;)

My mouth literally dropped open and a shocked look spread over my face. But before getting upset I remembered to “unpack the situation” as I learned in my course on Inter-cultural effectiveness, and try to understand why she would have said that.

I explained to her that in Canada, that is probably one of the most insulting things you could say to a woman. She was extremely apologetic and tried to explain that in Malawi – this was a huge compliment. She was trying to tell me that she thought I was looking great. In Malawi (and many other East African countries) the ideal shape of the female body is round and padded, with a very large bum. She explained that a woman gaining weight signifies to others that she is doing well financially and can afford enough food, and that she is healthy. She said that if you saw a woman losing weight, or looking thin, you would assume that she is very poor or sick. My friend said flat out that a person who is losing weight probably has AIDS. Because people don’t try to lose weight in this country.

It is so interesting to see how different cultures view and construct beauty. As someone who has grown up in North America, it is almost impossible for me to understand why a woman would want to be ‘fat’. Where I come from, woman and men have eating disorders, people undergo invasive and dangerous procedures to alter their body, and those who model our fashions are overwhelmingly clinically underweight. In contrast, in Malawi women are injecting fat into their hips and bum in order to make it bigger (at least those who can afford it).
I am not suggesting that that is a healthier option – just simply driving home that point that standards of beauty are completely constructed in the culture that we live in. And that there are crazies all over the world who go overboard in their attempt to reach that standard.

I find it so interesting that a comment that would send most North American women up in arms actually comforts and compliments Malawian women. I guess the question to ask now is what being thin represents in North American culture?


I find that I shy away from most confrontational debates about issues directly affecting CAYO’s policies and daily functioning. It is a combination of not having the interest or the energy in engaging in the debate.
These are the three possible reasons I see for not engaging in the discussion:\
I simply do not have a confrontational personality (partially true, but also a bit of a cop-out at the same time)
I do not feel personally invested in the organization to want to give input on the decisions being made
I do not feel like I have the right to steer a decision in one direction when I am not the person who has to live with that decision in the future (since I am leaving soon). And that as a foreigner I almost do not have a right to an opinion.

This internal confusion brings me back to the old question about how much I can and should be saying/doing as a Canadian intern in a Malawian organization.
On the one hand, I most definitely care about the direction that CAYO will take and want to help them shape a positive plan for the future. But I am always hesitant to overstep the invisible boundary that I feel between what is acceptable for the foreigner to comment on and what is off bounds. Another thing to look as also is the process of how an intern from a different country comes to be invested in the organization they are working for. The issues of time and cultural differences clearly play a part in creating obstacles for that investment to take hold. But I also think that there has to be a conscious effort made to help integrate the intern in the decision making processes, while giving them permission to take positions on the various issues at hand.
I am very lucky to have been given a lot of input into strategic changes that are currently taking place at CAYO. But am still unclear about how to reconcile those three issues competing to direct how much input I give and how to give it.


The biggest highlight of the past few months was my vacation to Kenya. One of my friend’s from McGill grew up there and her parents still live there. They graciously took me in on their family vacation. Nairobi is like another world compared to Lilongwe. I didn’t feel like I was in a developing country that often. Nairobi is large and very metropolitan. There are condominiums popping up on every block, in contrast to the very few number of buildings in Lilongwe that are more than two stories. The city is almost fully paved with street lights. I went to a wide variety of excellent restaurants, better than I have had in Canada. There are ‘real’ shopping malls and coffee shops with wireless internet. Fantastic. Best part was the movie theatre! When buying your tickets, you also get reserved seats. Highly organized. Unfortunately, there was not a lot of choice, and my weakenss for romantic comedies steered me wrong when I chose “enchanted”. A disney movie come to life. Complete with singing animals. Not good. Christine needed popcorn and chocolate simply to stay with it.

We spent Christmas in Nairobi and then went to an island off the coast for New Year. The island is called Lamu and it is fascinating. It developed into a trading centre many centuries ago as it is right on the Indian Ocean. There is a very large Arabic influence on the island and it is expressed through the most incredible architecture. The majority of people are Muslim and the women wear burkas when leaving the house. There are no cars on the island and donkey is the main mode of transport. Swahili language and culture began on the coast and then moved inwards on the continent. Therefore, many people argue that Lamu is that last place where Swahili is spoken in its true form.

We flew into a small airport made out of grass and bamboo (I am not kidding – the waiting room has a thatched roof), and then took a boat to Lamu. We stayed in Lamu town which is a small, bustling town with many narrow winding lanes and streets. Each day we took a boat over to the other side of the island to go to the beach. For someone who has not taken many ‘hot vacations’ - this was an incredible treat. The beach is white and the water is turquoise. There are gorgeous sand dunes covering the length of the beach and the water is so warm. One afternoon, we hired a dhow, a traditional Swahili sailboat, to take us snorkelling. The dhow is made entirely of wood. Aside from the anchor, there is no metal or plastic aboard. Once I became comfortable with the extreme heeling in the wind, the sail was great! The dhow was captained by two Kenyans who were extremely entertaining. We sailed over to another island and did some snorkelling over a small coral reef. Good, although I had to fight feelings of claustrophobia with that mask on!

I extended my stay three times (much to the chagrin of my hosts ;) ) The last time was to network with some NGOs in Nairobi working on gender-based violence and youth issues. It was great to hear what other, more developed, organizations are doing in these fields. It quickly became clear how far ahead of the game Kenya is on addressing human rights issues like gender-based violence.
So instead of returning on the 2nd as planned, I came back to Malawi on the 10th. All in all, an excellent three and a half week vacation. I am sure you are all wondering about the political situation in Kenya. I was always safe, so that was never a problem thankfully. We returned from Lamu right after the first of the violence. Nairobi was a ghost town; with groups of riot police walking the streets (they strongly resembled purple teenage mutant ninja turtles). We were under self-imposed house arrest for about four days. Christine and I were extremely antsy after four days of watching the L Word (fantastic show by the way) – that we volunteered to do the three store family shopping just to get out of the house. One of the most interesting aspects of the situation was the disparity between the headlines my parents were reading in North America versus what was actually happening in the country. Considering the newspapers internationally were announcing “memories of Rwanda” and “tribal warfare”, I give my parents credit for remaining so calm. From everyone that I spoke to, the general consensus was disappointment that after a peaceful election last time, things have turned to violence.

Apologies All Around.

I apologize. I haven’t written anything in over a month.

No excuse. I got lazy. Blogging is a tiring business.

As a peace offering, here are few new posts :)