Paul Smith, rising second year graduate student in Counseling, received a Richter Award for a summer counseling experience in Malawi. He shares his amazing experience with us.
Observing Counselor Education in Malawi
My first few moments in Malawi were filled with dreary introductions, new sights, and smiles as far as I could see. After my jet leg diminished, I slowly became aware of the beautiful place and people by whom I was surrounded. My purpose in coming to this wonderful country was multifaceted although primarily focused on observational research into the nature of counseling and counselor education in the context of the southern African country of Malawi. Whilst I came with many research interests, I intended to limit my focus to the educational facility known as the Guidance, Counselling, and Youth Development Centre for Africa. This center was formed in the 1999 after a conference in Burkina Faso in West Africa with the continent’s education ministers. The ministers were unanimous in their support of a unified African center that would educate and support the development of counseling in the continent. The impetus for developing a central and primary facility was intentional as to use it as a source of support for other counselors in the other nations. I realized the collaborative nature of this effort when my primary supervisor, and the executive director of the center, came back to Malawi after visiting and consulting in 20 different African countries.
The center provided much support to me in my studies and with my desire to know more about counseling in Malawi. During my time with them, I sat in on many of their classes and interviewed many of the professors and lecturers. Although I was only there for a short while, I was able to grasp the focus of the education program and themes of counseling in the country. Visits to other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) helped provide additional information about the counseling profession in Malawi.
As a counseling student myself, the initial research question I had was regarding the nature of the counselor education program at the center. I wanted to understand similarities and differences of the classes offered, approaches of the professors, and reasons why students were engaged in this type of program. Thankfully, during my first few weeks in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi, classes were in full swing, which gave me the opportunity to sit in on the lectures and discussions.
I quickly found out that many of the students were already employed and were taking the classes during time off. A slight majority of the students were teachers in the area (Lilongwe and surrounding villages). The other students were primarily employed at various NGOs. The classes were offered at periods of time in which teachers were not in session. The timing of the classes was intended to coincide with scheduled time off from other employers, but the assignments distributed in the classes could be completed within a predetermined timeframe that extended beyond classes. The professors described the structure of the classes as a blend of face-to-face and distance learning.
As one might deduce from the demographic of people coming into the programs, the students were planning on continuing on the same professional track as they were on, but the counseling program offered additional training and often resulted in a higher salary from their employer upon graduation. For example, the Malawian government had certain pay scales for teachers based on the level of education. As such, many of the teachers sought additional training to add to their experience as well as be eligible for a higher salary.
Since the economy in Malawi, by-in-large, cannot support full-time counselors, people are trained to be counselors within another professional field. I was told that within the schools and NGOs, the entire staff was briefed about the training program so they could refer people to the person on staff who was trained in counseling.
One of the most notable differences in the counseling education program compared with the US was the content of the classes. The topics of the classes during the session I attended were: Software Application, HIV/AIDS and Human Rights, Group Counseling, Youth Development and Management, Mental Health Facilitation, Adolescent Reproductive Health, Research Methodology, Counseling Practicum: Theories and Practices, and Gender Sensitivity Counseling.
The material in the classes was presented in such a way as to educate the students but also to help the students pass on the knowledge to colleagues and future clients. Much more so than in the US, there was a strong psychoeducational focus to the program. The professors also encouraged the students to provide information to the clients (primarily health-related). Due to the numerous heath issues that Malawi and much of Africa is facing, counselors are an avenue for beneficial health information to reach the public. Also, since many of the students were teachers, training them with this information enabled them to better equip their students with life-saving health knowledge.
Focus on the Youth
Within all of the programming, there was a distinct focus on the youth and this focus on one age group stood out to me as a unique feature of the training program. When I asked the staff about why the Center focused so much on the youth in comparison to other age groups, there arose many reasons for this intention. First of all, the adolescent population is a very large part of the overall population due to the shortened life expectancy and high birth rate in Malawi. Inevitably, NGO initiatives will focus more on the youth because they account for a larger percentage of the population. Also, many of the youth engage in risky behaviors and therefore invite some sort of community intervention. When I posed this question about the youth to the executive director of the center, he stated that “It is better to prepare rather than repair.” The significance that he was drawing out was that changing negative beliefs, especially around health issues, are easier to do with the youth.
Pyschoeducational and Directive Approaches to Counseling
The title of the Center begins with the word “guidance.” Embedded in the education program is a more directive and guidance approach to counseling when compared to many programs in the US. While in the US, there seems some resistance to overt advice giving to clients in counseling, in Malawi there is no hesitation about giving advice to clients. The roots of this mentality seem to go far back in the history of counseling in Africa and Malawi. Dr. Hamwaka, the Executive Director of the center, mentioned that counseling has its origin within the community, village, and family structure. Intuitively, the elders and parents have historically been the source of direction and counsel for the youth. Through social changes, guidance for the youth now comes from many sources and the pressures on the youth are, in many ways, greater now than in the past. Counseling services have arisen to help the youth meet these new economic, health, and societal challenges.
Due to the focus on curtailing risky behavior and promoting healthy alternatives in counseling at the center, I did a brief staff development lecture on Motivational Interviewing. Motivational Interviewing (MI) has been proven a highly efficacious approach to counseling that is highly researched especially in the fields of addiction and other risky health behaviors. The staff seemed to be very receptive and interested in this approach to counseling.
Excursions Outside the City
During my month-long stay in Malawi, I had the opportunity to travel on two of the weekends. My first trip was to the striking and expansive Lake Malawi. I traveled to the northern beach of Nkhata Bay, known for its relaxed, backpacker feel, to spend a few days kayaking and soaking in some of the African sun. The lake lived up to its great reputation and, despite the ten hour, oh-so-cramped bus ride, the trip was worth every minute. There is a saying in Malawi that if you touch the waters of Lake Malawi, you will surely return to the country. I must say, the beautiful and therapeutic waters of the lake make a strong case to return and enjoy them yet again.
During the second excursion out of the city, I went to Liwonde National Park in the south of the country to see the famous Shire River and view some of the local wildlife. Many people do not come to Malawi to visit the national parks as the animal parks and sanctuaries in surrounding African countries are larger and contain much more wildlife. As a budget traveler such as myself, the parks in Malawi are a mere fraction of the cost of the sizable parks in South African and Tanzania so are much more enticing in other ways. The campsite I stayed at was on the bank of the river so the surrounding wildlife was literally at my doorstep. At night, I could hear the elephants passing my tent about 30 feet away! Let’s just say, I was a light sleeper that first night as I did not want any proverbial elephants in my room.
The next day, I went on a sunset game drive to view the animals. The elephants were making their way away from the river to their nightly resting place. As the elephants in this park were unusually aggressive, we had to keep our distance. In addition, the park was filled with impala and wildebeests, but Liwonde is most famous for the birdlife so our guide was pointing out species after species of birds flying overhead.
On the day that I left the park, I hopped on a canoe to do a sunrise tour of the river. This timing allow for stunning views of the emerging sun over the river and small hills. Also the hippos showed their faces during these early hours. They enjoyed staying in packs, and like with the elephants, we carefully stayed at a distance. On my way back from this arid yet beautiful park, I visited a UNESCO World Heritage site with rock paintings believed to be over 2500 years old.
Memories to Cherish
As I reflect on the overall experience I had in Malawi, I am overcome with waves of gratitude. Being able to observe counseling in such a setting as Malawi was an honor, a pleasure and a joy especially as I move through the counseling program here at Wake Forest. Seeing the excitement for counseling around the globe enhances my passion for the counseling profession as well as my knowledge of issues being faced in other locations. As I am beginning my second year in the counseling program, I find myself more motivated and excited about this direction in life I have chosen: becoming a counselor. Remembering the people I interacted with in Malawi, I am still astounded by the hospitality and generosity that was given so freely and so often. Many refer to Malawi as The Warm Heart of Africa, not only because of its geographic location but due to the utter kindness of the people. I can attest to the accuracy of such a title. Dr. Kenneth Hamwaka opened the doors of the center so I could come in and share experiences while learning about counseling Malawi. I was treated as an honored guest and every need and desire I had for my time there was met by the center staff.
I also cannot thank enough the Richter Scholars Program and the administrators of the program. Creating the impactful experience that I had in Malawi could never be but a mere hope without the funding and support of you. The influence of this opportunity will echo throughout my career, personal life, and developing worldview of counseling. It is quite necessary to thank the Wake Forest University Department of Counseling as well for their support of this project and help making contacts. My travel to and within Malawi is an experience that leaves behind many debts that are impossible to ever repay. For everyone that had a hand in this journey, I offer the most sincere gratitude. Thank you. And to my friends in Malawi, until next time.