Learning beyond Colby: my week in Malindza
It has frequently occurred to me that academic life at Colby is characterized by one fundamental contradiction: On one hand, we have at our disposal incredible resources and the opportunity to learn from brilliant professors and are granted an intellectual freedom that allows us to pursue an education along the lines of our personal interests and values. On the other hand, there seem to be comparatively few opportunities for students to utilize this wealth of knowledge to further advance independent projects that are inspired by the precise moral and intellectual notions that result from their liberal arts education.
Sadly, our classroom conversations and assignments all too often appear divorced from the social and political discussions that affect our daily lives. Thus, when my senior seminar in anthropology afforded me the opportunity to combine an extracurricular project that was very close to my heart with my final course work, I quite literally did a happy dance on Foss lawn.
On December 26, 2011, with Christmas songs still playing in my head, I boarded a plane to Swaziland, the country in which I had spent the last two years of my high school career studying at the United World College of Southern Africa (UWCSA). I was returning to my old school to bring to conclusion a project I had worked on for the past 26 months. In conjunction with three other alumni from UWCSA, I had planned a two-week long workshop on development in Southern Africa. This course brought together 50 teenagers from across the globe, so they could explore sensible approaches to the economic, educational and health challenges facing Southern Africa. However, the most essential component of the course was a five-day community engagement project that gave participants a chance to actively take part in grassroots development work.
Thus, on a humid Swazi summer day, I found myself leading a group of ten “Short Course” participants to Malindza, a small refugee camp located in central Swaziland. As we set out my co-facilitator and I were terrified; we knew nothing about the tasks and role we were expected to take on in the camp. All we had been told was that we would be closely collaborating with the youth in Malindza. Little did I know that my time there would provide me with the unprecedented opportunity to apply many of the insights I had gained during my anthropological studies at Colby to a real life situation.
For those of you who don’t know much about anthropology, here is the bottom line: there is no simple one. Anthropological research can range from an exploration of art in a particular community to an analysis of global commodity chains. Yet, the common denominator of all anthropological engagement is a critical approach to existing social and institutional power structures and a willingness to embrace varying cultural perspectives.
In applied anthropology, such as the field of development, this attitude expresses itself in a strong emphasis on collaboration and community empowerment. As a result of this academic background, I had long believed that when engaging in development projects anywhere, the only way to succeed was to begin by figuring out what a particular community really wanted and needed and base any subsequent action on these conditions. Surprisingly, this is exactly what our little group was able to do in Malindza.
Upon our arrival at the camp, we were welcomed by a young Somali man named Qadar Dririe, who turned out to be one of the youth leaders in Malindza. He led us to a small room where most of the teenagers living in the camp had assembled. As we found out later, the majority of them had come to Malindza in their early childhood from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Mozambique and Somalia, and remembered little about life outside camp boundaries.
After a quick round of introductions, Qadar broke the slightly awkward silence by bluntly addressing the question on everyone’s mind: “OK guys, why are you here? What do you plan to do for us?” Oddly enough, this uncomfortably direct approach sparked the best open discussions about community collaboration I have ever witnessed. After listening to people’s complaints about the uselessness of previous NGO involvement in Malindza, we collectively grabbed pens and paper and compiled a list of activities and workshops Qadar and his peers wished for us to conduct throughout the week. Hence, over the course of our stay, we prepared and ran a session on HIV awareness, First Aid, effective youth leadership and a creative writing session during which people could share their personal stories.
I could fill the next 10 pages trying to describe exactly how each activity was conducted, but that is not the reason I am writing this article. What I really want to convey is the astounding learning process that took place for both parties involved in this experience, and the incredible emotional bonds that resulted from it. Every evening, after our workshops for the day had come to an end, we went to play soccer with all the children in Malindza and had midnight singing and dancing sessions in the courtyard. Qadar and his friend took us for long walks around the camp during which we got to know a few of Malindza’s youths on a truly personal level. Later, they introduced us to some of the camp’s elderly residents who told us about its history. When our stay in Malindza drew to an end, no one involved felt like we had briefly barged in to perform a quick act of charity. Instead, we all felt like we had grown into an improbable group of friends. Our “short course” division had shared knowledge that was largely inaccessible to the residents of Malindza, and in turn Qadar and his friends had allowed us a glance into the human face of displacement and to understand the effects of Swaziland’s refugee policies on the ground. When we left the camp, we carried with us lists of contact details, unforgettable memories and most of all, the promise to do our part to raise awareness about the situation in Malindza. Luckily for me, all I had to do was to step into my anthropology senior seminar here at Colby in order to begin making this promise a reality.
During my stay in Malindza, I learned that the biggest challenges facing the refugees are a lack of awareness regarding the existence of the camp and the absence of educational funds. In response to these problems, I have spent this last semester developing a website that tells the story of Malindza and some of its residents. The site also contains a link to a PayPal account set up to procure individual sponsorship for a few of the children in the camp.
I would like to conclude my story with two essential comments. First of all, if I have at all managed to awaken your interest in my project, please visit my website at www.Malindzaeducationfund.org and maybe even help sponsor one of these children’s high school education. More importantly, however, I hope a more general message came across: the unique and fulfilling character of the experience I had in Malindza lay in the opportunity it gave me to apply the insights I had gained through my formal education to a cause I truly cared about. When we worked in Malindza, there was no separation between research or homework and “real-life” issues of importance; they were one and the same. I believe that in this convergence lies one of the keys to successful social change and I hope to see a lot more work along these lines at Colby.