Inclusion in a global setting: trust, vulnerability and engagement

First dinner dedicated to building relationships between Michigan State University and LUANAR students. We split into teams – this is my team, the beautiful people that I have the privilege to work with for the entirety of the practicum.
First dinner dedicated to building relationships between Michigan State University and LUANAR students. We split into teams – this is my team, the beautiful people that I have the privilege to work with for the entirety of the practicum.

Editor’s note: Students from Michigan State University and the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources are exploring frugal market innovations in Malawi. This is one of their reports.

What makes home feel like home?

When we arrived to Malawi, we were dazed. We were smelly. Our only sense of time were the occasional meals served on the plane. (Great meals in my opinion!) When we arrived to Lilongwe, I felt like I should be feeling miles apart from “home” (well, in part because I was). Yet, after setting foot in Lilongwe, I still felt close.

This begged me to start examining the concept of closeness. How much of what feels like “home” is the place, versus the people that you are with? Something that I’ve been reflecting on throughout this practicum is just how interesting group dynamics are. How the feeling of closeness and sense of trust doesn’t just magically appear within a group. It is crafted, shaped and developed continuously with intentionality. Our group from Michigan State University, while all on diverse academic tracks, value the core themes of this practicum. These similarities connect and allow for relationships to strengthen. Building a community takes patience, dedication, and intentionality. Fortunately, it was present fairly soon (probably due to the overall enthusiasm for the trip generated from our engaging class experiences the week before leaving). However, it doesn’t always happen right away and recognizing from past and for future experiences how patience, dedication, and intentionality come into play is important so that expectations don’t start arriving and discouraging the formation of future communities. (I tend to be a person who always thinks critically and cannot just accept that something as good without analyzing other contexts and situations and all of the things leading up to something and all the things that come as a result). The first night we stayed in the city and at around 4 A.M., my head hit the pillow with extreme gratitude for inclusiveness, an eagerness for learning, and a mindset ready for adventure.

Cross-Cultural Collaboration

After waking up, coming to find out that I had slept in with no recollection of the time, we packed up (luggage and all) and headed towards the Bunda College campus. We are staying here for rest of the trip. The excitement to meet our Malawian counterparts filled the bus with a buzz. Upon arriving to the community center, where we were to first meet the LUANAR students, I was overwhelmed with welcoming spirits and happiness. I think one of the most significant parts of this practicum, making it unique to other study abroad experiences, is the fact that we get to work with students from the context in which we are working in. From the start of the online portion of the practicum – we had all been preparing and gaining an understanding of food systems, with vast global perspectives. It has been such an incredible learning experience so far, being able to compare these understandings and learn how to think collectively.

A photo from our first day of conducting informal interviews with vendors at Tsoka market. Pictured are potato vendors who offered their time to talk with us.
A photo from our first day of conducting informal interviews with vendors at Tsoka market. Pictured are potato vendors who offered their time to talk with us.

Yesterday, we had an in class session about conflict mediation across cultures. I found this session to be impactful, and crucial to get my biases in check. The presentation was given by Dr. Mala Mwanjiwa, who is from and currently lives in Malawi AND studied in the United States. Her vast experience in understanding different cultural tendencies and how to challenge assumptions was beneficial to our groups in order to better understand each other when working. She defined a cultural conflict as: “A type of conflict that occurs when different cultural values and beliefs clash”.

            Something that stuck with me from Dr, Mwanjiwa’s talk was to consider the platinum rule: Treat team members the way they would like to be treated. I had not considered just how problematic the golden rule was. The very rule that has been engrained in my head since I learned to speak was. Treat others the way you want to be treated…Treat others the way you want to be treated…Treat others the way you want to be treated. Always recited and repeated. Applying this idea across cultures, perspectives, etc. is impossible and leads to conflict. You cannot assume that a person wants to be treated the same as you.  Additionally, just because you are okay being treated in one way, does not mean that someone else is okay with being treated the same. This example just goes to show how much information we consume – but never take a second to question, challenge and reframe. This relates to the concept of the “banking educational system” discussed in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which a teacher’s job is merely to “fill” the student with knowledge. This system of education has many issues because it fails to engage students in critical thinking, thus robbing students of agency and participation in their learning process.

Our work for this practicum requires us to continuously brainstorm, collaborate, communicate and share ideas and perspectives with teammates across difference – an obvious reflection of life, right? Of course, this isn’t easy and like any team, takes patience, dedication, intentionality in order to successfully work together. It also requires vulnerability in order to hold one another accountable, challenge each other, and create spaces of mutual support.

Market Experiences

Our team was assigned to focus our research on Tsoka Market. Tsoka Market is one of the largest markets in Lilongwe. It is busy and vendors sell a wide variety of products from fresh fruits and vegetables to clothing and electronics. My first impression of the market was, “wow this place is huge and alive!” After a class session about actor mapping, we headed off to the market for the first time with the task of creating a map in order to begin thinking spatially with regard to resources and organization. This task was challenging for me, not only due to my lack of directional skills, but also because it surfaced just how deeply rooted the issues within the food system are for people working in the markets. I knew that our role, given our limited knowledge and time frame, was not to create the solution – but begin unpacking some of the issues and encouraging others to do the same. However, observing the valid doubts that the vendors had upon seeing yet another group of people come in and try to make changes for them was discouraging. The lack of trust with the government that many vendors expressed highlighted just how many problems exist at all levels of the system. At the end of the first full work day, my head hit the pillow with my mind spinning, feeling overwhelmed and lost.

With a reminder from Dr. Stephanie White, that “if we weren’t feeling stuck or frustrated, we are doing something wrong,” we moved into our second trip to the market. This time, we began informally interviewing vendors at Tsoka Market. Our intention for these interviews was to gain an understanding of the challenges, insights and suggestions for improvements spoken from the vendors themselves. Those who are affected the most from the issues existing within the overall food system. Most of our interviews were done in groups of 2-3. I was inspired today by the confidence and trust in collaboration that my LUANAR colleagues showed when interacting with the vendors. I was also inspired by the vendors’ willingness to participate and openness when voicing their opinions. Today, trying to reflect on my experiences thus far – I fall asleep impressed by the innovations that vendors have come up with to improve their overall business and livelihoods, motivated to better understand the issues that the vendors face,  and a greater appreciation for participatory projects that include at all levels rather than exclude. I hope for more projects like this to be done. Realistically, our work barely places a dent when compared to the work that needs to be done. Nonetheless, I am thankful to be involved in this Frugal Innovation Practicum. Thankful for the people I’ve met thus far and for the program’s intentionality in creating inclusive spaces and engaging thought processes from the ground up.

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