Human Rights & Positive Environment Diversity Column: Learning from working in Malawi: a student’s cross-cultural experience

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One objective of this column is to explore the cultural diversity among us, and learn about one another. This week we are fortunate to hear from John-Eric Teehan, a student who worked abroad in Malawi under the Students for Development Program with the Centre for Property Studies. Here is an excerpt from what John-Eric said about his experiences.

Barbara Roberts: What has working in Malawi done for you in terms of personal knowledge and growth?

John-Eric Teehan: Working in Malawi challenged many of my preconceived notions of what life in Africa is like, and what working in the field of development actually entails. In Malawi, I was challenged by navigating complex cultural and political landscapes, and living in an environment where malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and malaria affect families on a daily basis.  However, despite the complexity of these challenges – or perhaps because of them – my resolve to pursue a career within international development has only become stronger.

BR: What did you learn that surprised you, in a positive way?

JT: I figured that my level of affluence relative to the locals might generate some hostility or resentment. This simply was not the case. I never felt threatened and only received the warmest of welcomes – sometimes into the homes of complete strangers. Day after day on the dusty morning hike to our NGO in Kauma village, I would be mobbed by hordes of smiling children darting from their huts and wrapping their arms around me. On one occasion, the crowd reached roughly 40 kids and followed me through the village maze all the way to work, apparently singing songs about harvesting vegetables in the garden! It was a surreal experience. Malawian hospitality and friendliness only exceeded its already glowing reputation.

BR: What is one cultural element or social value of your host community that you learned to understand and appreciate?

JT: What really impressed me about Malawi in general was the diversity of ethnicities and religions that coexisted quite harmoniously. When you think of Africa, the most common images that come to mind are often those of ethnic strife and conflict. However, from my experience in Malawi, Christians, Muslims and traditional religions lived side by side in mutual respect and tolerance. It was surprising to find such a level of religious tolerance in Malawi when it doesn’t necessarily exist in the western world.

BR: Is international experience a valuable learning experience, and why?

JT: International experience pushes you from the comforts of your own culture and thrusts you into an alien environment. This is very much a character building experience that can leave an indelible mark on your personality. St. Augustine once said, “The world is a book and those who do not travel only read a page.” The result might be getting introduced to new food, a language or maybe even an alternative way of life. It forces us to broaden our horizons and comprehend the possibilities beyond our doorstep […]. Experience abroad has the effect of breaking down […] cultural and racial stereotypes that we tend to subconsciously consume and internalize at home. It deepened my conviction to pursue social change and improve the disparities that exist between the developed and the developing world.

BR: Thanks for sharing your perspective, John-Eric. And thanks to Veronica McGinn for connecting me with John-Eric.