• Born to Follow

    August 12th 2016. Frederick Schwarzmaier blogs from Mzimba, Malawi and our partnership with Girl Rising Malawi.

    “Next, you join the what?” asked one facilitator of the participants to check whether they understood the exercise. “The group,” somebody responded. The facilitator would repeatedly ask the same question until the participants revealed all steps of the exercise. We would constantly pick up these kind of fill-in-the-blank questions while running our program in Mzimba, a remote town located in the northwest of Malawi. Instead, the facilitator could have asked the question in open ways. In the way he asked, he limited the way to find an answer, leaving no room for discovery and creative thinking. In the Mzimba district, children are raised with such phrasings. Adults make even the smallest decisions for their juniors, habitually imposing onto them what is right or wrong, often paraphrasing a book written thirty-five hundred years ago; they are limited in their perspective and trapped in a perpetual, cultural legacy. This legacy seems to rub off in people’s personality traits. In simple games that we played, where participants had to make their own decisions, they postponed their move until somebody else acted whom they could follow or imitate. So is it that these kids were born to follow?

    Undeniably, following is important, but what if there is nobody to lead? Or even worse, somebody leading who is not qualified to lead? The above example from Mzimba shows, it needs more gritty young leaders. Leaders, who know their rights, practice integrity, stand up for equality, perpetuate social responsibility, challenge outdated social structures, don’t mind starting over with lessons learned and persevere when they fail. It ideally raises a new generation whose individuals switch between leading and following at different points of time for more dynamic, diverse and equal interactions. In order to cater for this, we need to equip societies with the right knowledge and methodology. Leadership is not born or rises like a phoenix from the ashes but develops in response to following the leading actions of fellow beings. With our ideas, we wanted to set an example in Mzimba.

    Our approach to Self-Directed Learning was entirely new to the participants. Instead of dictating the only right way, we gave the participants space to test different approaches to find an answer, invited them to be creative and work collectively. Simply speaking, we started with a problem and then gradually progressed to the solution in a way participants could explore. One participant vividly described the CAC method with a metaphor. “You don’t get the fried fish on a plate but you get the knowledge how to catch a fish and prepare it,” he said in front of the group. They got the message. It was just a matter of a couple of days until the youngsters started to vividly express their ideas and challenge different cases. Despite their fashion, they finally spoke up.

    In Mzimba, we also encountered participants claiming that specific superstitious practices (in this case that a herbal string which when attached around a woman’s waist would prevent her from pregnancy) as fact based and safe – in front of a large group of kids and teenagers. Not limited to but because of the previously stated inclination of children to follow, we feared that the children would believe these superstitious beliefs. It is only in such instances that we deviate from our approach and dictate factual knowledge – the truth. Although we are all promoters of Self-Directed Learning, we need to acknowledge that every methodology has its limitations.

    For the third time I had the privilege to travel with Coaches Across Continents to underprivileged communities across Africa, listen to the people’s stories and tackle their concerns. Every encounter with people as well as with other members of Coaches Across Continents enriched the scope of my mind. I gained the opportunity to do something bigger than myself and find ways to help others while learning and growing in my own development. These experiences ignite an inner urge to challenge almost everything. With every trip, I keep asking myself “why” and “what if” more often. I become more self-aware. At the end of the day, I do not want to be defined by what I did not know or did not do.


  • Malawi. The Warm Heart of Africa.

    August 1st 2015. Mike Mazzullo writes about his time in Mzimba, Malawi working alongside fellow Columbia University alum and CAC Staff, Nora Dooley.

    The first time I heard that Malawi is the Warm Heart of Africa, slight worry nagged me. Even though it’s winter, the thought of a “warm” place in a continent that has some pretty warm places was alarming. Of course, “warm” probably refers to a generous spirit, but one can never be too careful when it comes to high temperatures. After a week in Mzimba, the double meanings of “warm” Malawi can be safely confirmed.

    To set the stage a bit, this was a first-year program in Mzimba, which is a medium-sized town in central Malawi. Most of the economy is agricultural. It’d be hard to find better tomatoes. Our participants, who come from Mzimba and the surrounding communities, number about 65. The majority of them are teachers, and thus share a special place in my own heart. I learned of their challenges in the classroom. 90 kids per teacher? Small classrooms without fans, in the African summer? Lack of basic materials like notebooks and pencils for everyone? Hard for me to imagine.

    The hope is for CAC’s philosophy – using soccer to teach life or academic or any type of skills – to equip educators with another tool.

    That doesn’t mean we can’t have fun. Let me explain the Cucu Dance. It’s used as a form of good-humored punishment.

    The Cucu Dance. (Cucu = chicken.) It’s a CAC favorite, and easy to learn. With a slight resemblance to a chicken, you: bend knees, flap elbow-bent wings, and shake your angled legs in and out. Stupid grins are recommended, and tend to come naturally. The whole thing is patently ridiculous and makes a mockery of anyone’s desire to avoid looking like an idiot. It’s a combination of the Charleston, dougie, and Kevin Nolan’s goal celebration. The participants in Mzimba go bonkers for the Cucu Dance. Any awkward silence, on the field or in the classroom or during snack, became an opportune moment to spontaneously break out into full fledged limb-clucking. It’s equally hysterical and shocking. Nora Dooley deserves credit/blame for the proliferation of said dance globally.

    Besides the group’s  willingness to have fun (often at their own expense), there was also a willingness to address the serious social issues in their community. Take something that stirs little laughter: HIV/AIDS.

    One great game to teach about sexual health is the pebble test (officially known as “Can Adebayor See HIV?”). Split your team into two lines, a few yards apart, and facing each other. Everyone put their hands behind their backs. Eyes closed. The coach walks behind the blind rows and quietly places one pebble in a player’s hands, and repeats for the other line. When you shout “eyes open”, one player from each row should be holding a pebble, but make sure everyone keeps their hands hidden. By the way, the pebble represents HIV. Select a player to start the guessing. He or she selects someone on the other row in the hope of revealing the mighty pebble-holder. If the chosen is pebble-less, he or she is the next to guess from the other line. And so on and so on, until finally both owners of the rocks are exposed. What’s the point?

    The pebble test is a simple game with a simple message. Like trying to guess if someone is hiding a pebble, we are blind to someone’s HIV status. You can’t see HIV. Don’t judge someone’s sexual health by using the “eye test”- the way they dress, their reputation, or the supposed guilt on their face.

    The participants in Mzimba loved the set of HIV/AIDS and sexual health games and identified them as a high-point of the week.

    Sexually transmitted diseases are so prevalent, deadly, and misunderstood. What can teachers/coaches/leaders do? Maybe simple classroom instruction is not enough. Maybe some kids need musical songs, other kids need visual aids, others the game of soccer. It’s something worth thinking about, and solving.