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Two weeks ago was the UN’s Annual World Water Day.  Last year, I celebrated this event in Tanzania and had to travel almost 12 hours by bus to reach the location, but I was lucky enough to have Malawi’s celebrations based here in my current home district of Mangochi this year.  The UN created World Water Day in an effort to raise awareness surrounding water issues, and there is a different water related theme each year — 2011’s theme being Urban Water Supply, while 2012’s was Water and Food Security (i.e. irrigation projects and water used for agricultural benefits).

 

Malawi’s World Water Day celebrations this year were hosted by the President, Bingu wa Mutharika, and thus the celebrations on the whole ended up being more of a political rally than an actual celebration/discussion of Water and Food Security.  That, however, was of lesser concern to me than how WWD represented an obviously flawed prioritization of financial resources on the part of Malawi’s Ministry of Irrigation and Water Development.

 

At World Water Day, there we large amounts of free goods given out — most noticeably t-shirts, polo shirts, hats, and chitenjes (African printed fabrics worn as wrap) all displaying the ‘World Water Day 2012’ logo.  Here is just a rough estimate (and a conservative one at that) or how much was spent on these items (USD$1 = roughly 170 Kwacha):

 

  • T-shirts for general public and all district staff:  300 t-shirts x 400K each =  120,000 Kwacha
  • Hats  for general public and all district staff:  300 t-shirts x 600K each = 180,000 Kwacha
  • Polo shirts for district officials who helped to plan the program, and for higher officials: 100 shirts x 1,000K each = 100,000 Kwacha
  • Chitenjes for women and for all dancers/performers:  300 chitenjes x 700K each = 210,000 Kwacha

 

This is a low end estimate of how many of these shirts/goods that I saw on Thursday, and it adds up to a total of approximately 610,000 Kwacha (roughly USD$3,600).  That’s a lot of money.  And that is JUST on free goods given out to district/NGO/ministry staff and other people associated with the planning of the World Water Day.  That does not even begin to include the other expenses — such as tents, red carpets, stages, microphones, cameramen, security staff, allowances for staff from other districts to come to Mangochi, etc. — that were incurred in order to welcome the president for WWD. 

 

I understand the importance of World Water Day as an awareness raising campaign.  For example, on the few days leading up to WWD, I saw multiple discussions on TV and radio networks centered around water issues in Malawi.  The actual celebration (had it not been turned into a political ploy by the president), would have been a legitimate awareness raising campaign worthy of investing money in.  That being said, spending 610,000 kwacha on free goods is an inexcusable waste of precious funding/resources.

 

The office where I work, the Mangochi District Water Development Office, deals primarily with rural water supply.   It would be logical to think that a country who put so much money into a World Water Day celebration would thus value water projects and well support an office like my own.  Mangochi, like most districts in Malawi, is funded directly by multiple NGOs who have individual projects running; however, most NGO funding only covers work directly related to their specific project objectives. Therefore, if our office wants to do general activities not directly tied to NGO programs — such as routine data collection or follow-up visits to communities having waterpoint maintenance issues — they rely on direct government funding to do these.   Mangochi District Water Office’s average funding received from the Ministry is 106,000K per month (but is often as low as 60,000K depending on the month).  This means that the amount of money spend on free t-shirts and hats is equivalent to SIX MONTHS worth of government funding given to our office.

 

More times than I can count, I have come in to the office just to see the whole staff sitting outside under a tree playing checkers or bawo (an African version of mankala) all day — not because of laziness, but instead because there is no funding for fuel, motorcycle maintenance, or some other necessary item to do their work.  Village meetings should be attended by our staff but are not, borehole drillings should be overseen by our staff but they aren’t, and so on and so forth — all due to lack of funding.  So to see six months worth of funding invested in free goods for a quasi-political rally held under the hoax of World Water Day (which is supposed to symbolize a dedication to actively improving water issues), is frustrating beyond words.

 

What will it take to set the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Development’s priorities back on track and encourage them to fund necessary causes over frivolous ones?  To increase our office budget rather than buy hundreds of free t-shirts?  If only I knew… if only.

 

Peace, love, and politics,

Lisa

Within EWB, there is a culture of admitting failure, accepting it, and learning from it.  By doing so, we are able to move past small failures and consistently improve and innovate on the ways that we are working, thereby (hopefully) avoiding larger failures later on.  We refer to this process of learning from mistakes as “failing forward.”  My first attempted pilot project, which took place right before I went on vacation to Mozambique for Christmas, was the perfect example of failing forward.

As I explained in a post a few months ago, one of the focuses of my placement here in Mangochi is to run a series of pilot projects to test and develop a community triggering approach.  The term “community triggering” comes for a widely practiced sanitation process called Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS).   I have discussed CLTS in various older posts, but if you have not read those and/or just forgot, it is a participatory community development technique intended to use shame and disgust in order to trigger communities into changing their behaviors surrounding sanitation.  The intention of my pilot projects is to take this successful community development technique and adapt it to be used for water — specifically to shame and disgust people into not ever drinking from unsafe water sources again.

One of the largest issues with water development in Malawi (as it was in Tanzania) is not actually installation of new infrastructure (boreholes and protected shallow wells), but instead the maintenance and upkeep of the infrastructure that already exists.   Many communities let their boreholes fall into disrepair, are unwilling to raise funds to buy spare parts, etc.  We believe that one major reason as to why communities are unwilling to pay for upkeep on these systems is because they do not actually value clean water, and thus do not see the significance of paying for a system when there are other alternative free (although unclean) sources nearby.  Therefore, the goal of my pilots projects is testing the assumption that if/when communities fully understand the significance of clean water, they will therefore be more willing to collect money for operation and maintenance of their system and boreholes will be repaired more quickly.  Because of this, the process has been named the Water Investment Triggering (WIT) Process.   Although I am specifically focusing on testing this one assumption, our team has many ideas as to what is leading to communties’ lack of willingness to pay — and it is likely to be some combination of them all.  Other major ideas include: lack of role definition (people think that the government or an NGO will just fix it for them for free and don’t understand they are expected to do it themselves), mistrust within the community (whoever collects/collected the money in the village is not considered trustworthy or has blatantly mismanaged funds in the past), and the poor quality of boreholes to begin with leads to abandonment (contractors were not adequately monitored as they drilled/installed the pumps resulting in poor quality, various reoccurring problems, and/or poor water yield).

The WIT process, like CLTS, is pretty much an exercise in acting.  The facilitators act as if they are simply doing research — asking lots of critical questions to make the community members think instead of simply “teaching best practices,” which is generally ineffective at producing improved community management.  There are four main steps to the WIT process (as it is currently being tested by me and my colleagues):

  1. Community Mapping:   We start off in the community by having them draw up a fairly detailed map of the village in the dirt, and subsequently place their homes, waterpoints, and other health/water related landmarks onto the map.  This allows the facilitators (my colleagues from the District Water Office) to get an overview of the village layout, where the protected water sources are located (boreholes, water taps, and/or covered shallow wells), where the unsafe water sources are (rivers, uncovered holes in the ground, lakes, etc.), and who uses water from each source.  This also serves as a good introductory activity to get people involved, in addition to making them excited/intrigued about discussing water issues in their village.
  2. Transect Walk and Unprotected Source Demonstrations:  Next, we take the entire community on a walk across the village, heading to each water point (unprotected and protected).  This should allow us to see each waterpoint (WP) and discuss it while at the actual site, making it easier to point out lack of cleanliness surrounding a WP, wearing parts on a pump, etc.   At the unprotected source(s), we do demonstrations that are supposed disgust and disgrace the community.  For example, asking a random person to take a drink from a cup of water (which they will), then sticking a piece of hair into feces or dirt, placing it in the same cup of water, and asking them to drink it now (which they won’t).  The trick to this demonstration is that the water still LOOKS clean, but people are aware that it no longer is — therefore making them rethink their qualification of what water is/isn’t safe to drink.
  3. Cost Calculations/Comparisons:  Either during the transect walk or after arriving back to the original meeting spot, we discuss with the community the cost of upkeep of their borehole and how money should be collected from community members for operation and maintenance (approx 10-60 cents per household per month).  Often this results in statements like, “But we don’t have any money — we can’t pay for water.”  What that usually means is not actually “we CAN’T pay for water,” but instead, “we don’t WANT to pay for water.”  To challenge this, we compare the average cost of a hospital visit due to water-borne diseases to the cost of borehole maintenance costs.  We also compare the suggested maintenance cost to what the average household spends per month on sugar, salt, hair products, or other everyday products.  This helps to show that they do have money to spend, but they simply deprioritize water as something to spend it on.
  4. Action Plan:  After the community is (hopefully) “triggered” to care more about clean water and be more willing to pay for waterpoint operation and maintenance, then an action plan is created for how they will collect funds in the future (monthly payments v. quarterly payments v.  community garden), how the savings will be stored (in cash v. in a bank account v. in form of spare parts), and other such issues.  The community will also pick dates for follow-ups to be conducted by the district staff in order to check-in on progress.

Despite a lot of effort taken in brainstorming/developing this process, as well as two weeks of discussions/planning in the office prior to going to the field… our first pilot attempt was an absolute failure.  Long story short, pretty much everything went wrong:  the village was selected for the wrong reasons and was not appropriate for this type of triggering, my colleagues were generally unprepared and unsure of how to act, there were kids consistently getting in the way, we lost almost half of the initial audience as the process went on (they became disinterested and left), we never even did the shameful/disgusting demonstrations because we couldn’t find an unprotected source, etc.  BUT there was a silver lining to the whole ordeal.  Being unable to actually help facilitate because of the language barrier, I was mainly an outsider observer who could take notes on all that went wrong during the process.  After we finished the triggering, however, I quickly realized that I was not the only one to see such flaws.  During the walk back to our motorcycles to head home, my colleagues enthusiastically discussed almost EVERY issue that I had written on my sheet of notes, and threw out ideas on how to improve next time.  The initial action of getting out into the field and trying the process not only helped us to see the 100+ things that we hadn’t properly prepared/planned for, but it also reenergized the District Water Office staff and made them much more excited to continue to test/develop WIT.

Our next shot at a triggering will (hopefully) happen at the end of next week and will (hopefully) go over better than the first!  More updates to come later on.  In the meantime, cheers to a New Year (yes, I know, I’m very late) and to me emerging from media darkness to pick up blogging again!  I’ll likely only be here in Malawi for a few more months though, so let me know if there is anything you want me write about before leaving!

Peace, love, and second attempts,

Lis

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I wanted to write about something that I have been particularly thankful of recently.   I often think about and appreciate my college education, and even high school — but something I rarely reflect on is the significant impact that a strong primary/elementary education has had on my capabilities throughout life.  About two months ago, my boyfriend moved to Malawi and began teaching at a rural primary school.  It was at this time that I was reminded of all of the positives that the American education system in which I was taught had to offer — things which the Malawian system is unfortunately lacking.  Here are a few of those things:

 

Teachers as Role Models:

In the States, being a teacher (any level) is a respected profession, and the people who become teachers actively chose to do so because they like children and/or respect the importance of education.  In both Malawi and Tanzania, however, being a primary school teacher is usually a person’s last choice — a job sometimes given to people who barely graduated primary school themselves.  Somewhere between the lack of genuine interest in their profession and the generally low level of formal training/preparation (coupled with government’s tendency to not pay teachers regularly), teachers here often slack off or do not show up at all.  How can you build up the youth of a country into the strong upcoming leaders that they need to be when their base education is provided by people who have little formal education themselves, or rarely even come to the classes they are supposed to teach?  My elementary school teachers were people who I looked up to in every way and attempted to emulate… so if they didn’t ever show up for class, why would I have?  With the poor quality of teaching and such a serious lack of role models available for students to look up to, it is no wonder why school completion rates continue to be low in countries such as Malawi and Tanzania. 

 

The Carrot v. the Stick:

The American education system is generally based off of a system of rewards and recognition for one’s accomplishments.  Sure, every once and a while a kid in kindergarten gets put in “time out” and has to “think about what they’ve done” — but this is a somewhat rare occasion and usually makes the kid feel pretty terrible about hitting Bobby or tugging on Sally’s hair.  What we remember more than that one time out, however, is every glittery star sticker we got for doing something right.  Such a system instills in students the feeling that they are able to achieve something, and will be actually recognized for doing so — the incentive to keep working.  It’s the carrot instead of the stick.  In Africa, however, there are rarely recognitions for excellence.  Instead, there are chastisements for acting out or being bad, and those punishments tend to come in the form of a hit (by hand, ruler, chalk, whatever).  This type of punishment does little to deter bad actions (as children are often hit at home as well and don’t think much of it), and does even less to motivate good work and academic excellence in the future.  There is more to the education system than simply keeping the students in line during class.  It was always the “carrot” that kept me going throughout my schooling, and I appreciate our education system for actually recognizing the fact that encouragement can trump punishment nine times out of ten.

 

Critical Thinking:

The first time I came to Africa for more than a vacation was about three and a half years ago, when I volunteer taught in Northern Tanzania.  My students (kindergarteners) would great me every morning with a “Good morning, teacher!” which was always quickly followed by a “Fine, thank you, teacher!”… whether I actually asked them “How are you?” or not.  Similarly, they could count 1 to 50 perfectly, yet if you pointed to the number 16, they had no idea what it was.  It became immediately apparent that the system of learning there was nothing more than repetition and memorization, with no critical thinking involved.  This is something I have continued to observe during my time in both Tanzania and Malawi.  Children are rarely challenged to think for themselves, problem solve, or be creative.  The American education system, however, did that regularly — encouraging thought and creativity from the get go through art, problem solving exercises, challenging games, and many other activities.  Developing a base of critical thinking skills at a young age sets the stage for future capabilities, and thus one’s ability to excel in higher education or in a work environment.   And without such base skills, it would be seemingly difficult (if not impossible) to build a culture of progress and forward thinking.  Thinking outside of the box simply isn’t something that is encouraged in school systems here — a factor that, I feel, negatively affects both the work and social cultures of many African countries.

 

Parental Guidance:

I do recognize that some of the factors I have pointed out above are issues in the states as well as in Africa.  I know that not all school systems in the US, particularly public schools, are as good as the one that I was lucky enough to attend.  There is, however, one factor that I feel affects a child’s learning across the board, in every corner of world — and that is parental guidance, interest, and encouragement.  In Africa, the level of interest that a parent takes in their child’s school varies drastically (as it does in the States), but more often than not, little to no support/guidance is given.  Although becoming increasingly more important as time/culture changes, school is still generally not the primary thought on any parent’s mind — harvesting their crops, buying food, collecting water from the well, and a number of other things tend to rank about this. 

 

That is particularly sad to me because many of the skills that I have and cherish most today are things that I did not learn in school, but that my parents taught me.  Whether in the form of direct support after school (like the hours and hours my mom spent editing papers and helping me improve my writing over the years) or simply modeling certain behaviors (like my dad always encouraging reading, and showing me how to be freakishly organized), I feel that it is this guidance that truly bolsters a child’s education and encourages their efforts, thereby enabling success.  And I am definitely not alone in thinking this; there was a great article from the Times that I stumbled upon last week, saying the exact same thing — parents are the key.  So I just wanted to take a moment to thank my parents in particular for all they have done for me and my academic/learning career, because (despite my usually obnoxious demeanor and the fact that I moved to the opposite side of the world) I really do appreciate all of it.

 

In the end, I wouldn’t be where I am today (or even a quarter of the way there) had it not been for the quality of education that I received starting from a young age.  Having lived in Africa for 2+ years, there are many things about my upbringing/life in the states that I recognize and actively appreciate on a day to day basis — this is simply the one that’s on the top of my mind this week.  Nonetheless, I hope that you take this Thanksgiving to think of more than just turkey and stuffing, and to really appreciate the little things (old or new) that you may otherwise ignore.

 

Peace, love, and dreams of a real turkey,

Lis

 

 

P.S. if you want something a bit more light-hearted/comical to be thankful for today, here’s another great article… “Counting Really Small Blessings”

Today marks the start of Engineers Without Borders Canada’s fifth annual Perspectives Challenge. Over the next month, EWBers (staff, volunteers, chapter members, donors, etc.) will be posting their own personal “Perspectives on Poverty” to raise awareness and funds for our work in Africa. Here is my perspective:

During university, I studied International Relations and was interested in/involved in as many Development Studies and Social Entrepreneurship groups as I could find. As a result, a professor and mentor of mine got me involved with my university’s chapter of EWB USA (at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania). The chapter had been working hard on the engineering side of a water purification/storage project in Pueblo Nuevo, Honduras for almost five years by the time I got involved; however, the community development aspects of the project were in a state of total disrepair. It was at this time when I first realized that good intentions are simply not enough to create long-lasting positive change in a developing country.

Since that time, I worked on water projects independently in Tanzania for a year and then joined EWB Canada’s Water and Sanitation team in Malawi last May. While in Africa, I have seen development project after development project fail due to misunderstandings of what was actually needed by a community, mis-allocation of resources, provision of goods or infrastructure that communities were not able (or willing) to maintain on their own, or any number of other reasons.

I was drawn to EWB Canada’s African Programs because of the unusual approach that EWB takes in our work, as well as the outlook that its staff members possess regarding what produces long term effectiveness in development projects in Africa. Providing infrastructure directly to communities, or funding local organizations to do that, is simple and sexy – you can count (and take a picture of for fund raising efforts) the number of boreholes you have installed or the number of smiling children who now have “access to clean water.” For most NGOs, that is enough. I do sincerely believe that such NGOs mean well when they act in that capacity; however, as I mentioned before, good intentions just aren’t enough.

If you are looking in from the outside, providing infrastructure (such as new community boreholes) seems like the perfect act for boosting development — but who will maintain that infrastructure? Who will continue to provide boreholes after the NGOs move onto the newest trend in development and away from borehole drilling? Or when NGOs run out of funding altogether and pull out of Malawi/Africa? Who will have the capacity to handle development of the country in the long term?

EWB actually thinks about these tough questions, and therefore chooses to act in a tough way. In Malawi, for example, we provide staff to directly support district government water offices, as well as using our relationships/experience to lobby for positive change within the norms of various development partners and within national government structures/policies. Actions like these aren’t easily measurable for success and take far longer than basic infrastructure implementation. But in the end, we have seen infrastructure provision and the old types of “easy” development projects fail time and time again – so why keep repeating them? Why not, instead, take a step off of the beaten path and head deep into the mess of the wilderness (which is exactly what the bureaucracy of working within local government feels like at times!) if it will mean more effective development work in the long run?

Something that I respect and appreciate most about EWB—and one of the key reasons why I joined this organization—is its willingness to take the hard road. Or better yet, to take on the challenge of trailblazing an entirely new and more appropriate road.

If you are interested in supporting EWB, you can donate here — any amount helps!  Thanks for all of your support!

Lis

In Malawi, many things in daily life prove to be a challenge in one way or another (particularly recently, due to various political/economic issues). As a result, one tends to savor the “little wins” a bit more than you would back at home. There are a few things in my life here that, simple as they may be, make me crack a smile every time they occur (some more often than others). Here are a few of those things:

Electricity karma
In a country where rolling blackouts are an everyday occurrence and you never know when the electricity will go out or for how long, there are definitely times when then electricity gods seem to act in one’s favor. Last week, I was in Lilongwe (the capital) for 4 days for our monthly EWB team meeting, and arrived home to lots of complaints. Apparently the power had been out in our neighborhood for almost 3 days straight — which is particularly killer in the summer (right now) when lack of power means lack of a functioning fan. About 20 minutes after I arrived home, however, the power magically came back on. Success. I got lots of hugs from my neighbors for “bringing the electricity home with me.”

Bike taxis
In Malawi (and in Tanzania), people have taken full advantage of the concept of “doubling” on bikes — meaning letting a person sit on the rack over the back tire of a bike. “Bike taxis” are a staple in any town or trading center across the country. You can pay someone (usually a young, fit guy… but sometimes even an old, possibly shoeless man) to bike you a few kilometers around town (or really anywhere) for about 25-50 cents. And, on top of being a great deal, it’s amazingly fun. It may be one of those things that you don’t really understand until you ride one… but trust me, you can’t not smile on a bike taxi. The real “win” though, is when you manage to snag a bike taxi with a big fluffy cushion on the back of their rack AND flaps hanging down from the side to stop puddle water from coming up to hit you during the ride.

Photo: Taken by Genevieve Parent.  Featuring Ashley Meek as bike passenger

And for further bike taxi discussion/comedy, see my friend Jordan’s blog post: http://whatyoumightbemissing.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/pimp-my-ride-malawi-edition/

A View of the Stars
Needless to say, the majority of houses in Malawi don’t have running water. Those who live in rural areas get their water from a local borehole, shallow well, or other unprotected source, while those in town often have personal or communal automated taps provided by the Water Board. Either way, showers always come from buckets and are usually taken outdoors in some sort of grass/reed/cement/brick hideaway. On nights that aren’t cloudy, which happens quite often, one ends up with the luck of a warm bucket shower under the most stunningly full sky of stars you can imagine. Believe me, you haven’t really seen the stars until you’ve seen them from the middle of nowhere Malawi with no light pollution anywhere close by. So next time you get in your shower and look up at the tiles on the ceiling of your bathroom — just think about how much you would rather see the stars there.

Tailor successes
African countries are chock full of beautiful, colorful fabrics (called chitenje here), which then become beautiful, colorful chitenje clothes… IF you can find a good tailor to make those clothes. Tailors here, however, are all too often lacking the skill/understanding of how to make anything decently cute (or even wearable for that matter). Somewhere between my (or any other azungu’s) broken Chichewa explanations, poorly drawn sketches, and desire for a semi-western style, it is almost always a failure in some capacity. For every one lovely chitenje outfit that you see on an azungu, there are inevitably 7 other relative failures hiding at the bottom of their closet. So here’s to the successes which, although few and far between, are usually worth all the hassle. (And here’s to my hopefully visiting West Africa at some point where I hear the tailors are much, much better!)

Coca-cola
Water is, surprisingly, not all that easy to get your hands on when traveling around Malawi. After a few hours out in the field, driving around on a motorcycle in the hot sun, one tends to be quite parched and go in search of some water… usually with little to no success. BUT, no matter how far out into the village you are — miles away from the closest tarmac road (or road period) — you will ALWAYS be able to get a coke. And the best thing is that coke here is made with real sugar cane, making it significantly more delicious than it’s American corn syrupy counterpart. In the end, there is really nothing better than finding some tiny village shop to buy and enjoy a cold coke at under the hot African sun.

Full Buses
In NYC (or pretty much any major non-African city), any bus or subway car will run all the time, no matter what. Therefore, getting on one that is close to empty is usually a huge bonus. In a country like Malawi with extremely high temperatures and a lack of air conditioning, you would think the same thing — empty buses equals success. But no. Buses here won’t actually leave the depot (or the random village they happen to be stopped at part way along their journey) until they are entirely packed full. God forbid there is one inch of space left for you to breath or stretch your legs? Nope, fill it with a live chicken or someone’s bag. Long story short, you can end up smushed in the corner of a minibus somewhere, not even moving, for ages and ages waiting for the last seat to fill. As a result, the absolute best thing in Malawi is when you run up to a minibus, squeeze yourself into the 6 inches of space between a big mama and someone’s bag of charcoal/tomatoes/groundnuts/whatever, and the bus leaves immediately. Who cares how much space you have if the car is actually moving!

Photo: Taken by Tessa Roselli.  Obviously not a public minibus judging by the number of azungu (it’s actually my whole team shoved into one during our evacuation to Zambia in August), but this is an UNcrowded bus by Malawian standards.  Just so you get the picture!

Despite all the frustrations and challenges of living in a country like Malawi, it definitely opens your eyes and makes you appreciate the little things — something I feel that we don’t do near enough in our cushy western lives.

Peace, love, and sugar cane sodas,
Lis

Often when you go hiking, you find yourself looking above you at the beautiful trees, out at some view in the distance, or way up at the mountain ahead of you. Certain trails are like second nature — they are simple enough, or you have done them enough times, that it is seemingly impossible to get lost. But every once and a while, often on the most exciting/new/challenging of hikes, you find that all those distractions have led you to lose the trail.

In a similar fashion, I have had a lot of distractions over the past few weeks that have pulled my mind out of the work loop and made me lose direction. Some of those distractions have been lovely (such as having a very special person from home recently join my life in Malawi), while others have been challenging and confusing (like trying to figure out what exactly I want to do when my contract finishes next May). Being distracted — by both the immediate beauty and fun of life here and by the somewhat frightening grey area that is my future — in addition to running into some challenging situations/roadblocks in my work, has led to frustration and a lack of full concentration on my part.  Unfortunately, in a work environment that is very much self-driven, this is a huge challenge.

My work here is focused around two major programs — the first directly supporting the District Government to improve their work, and the second indirectly supporting them through community level pilot projects and providing information from field research (neither of which they have the time/funding to do themselves) . The first chunk of my time is centered around building capacity within the staff of the District Water Development Office (DWDO), and helping them to improve the processes that they follow with respect to water projects throughout the district. For the most part, this is focused on improving the way that the DWDO collects and manages data in order to use that to make informed decisions on future projects. For example, if the DWDO is given funding from UNICEF next year to drill 30 new boreholes in the district, it will be challenging to place those new boreholes in the communities that really need them most. If, however, the DWDO has access to correct and up-to-date village level data related to the status of water and sanitation in the district, they may be able to do a better job at siting those new boreholes. This data collection/management initiative is one that various EWB staff members are working on within multiple different districts in Malawi, and usually takes the form of a comprehensive yet simple database used for organizing and regularly updating village waterpoint information. In addition to data management, I will also try to support the improvement of other DWDO processes–such as how they monitor and evaluate their programs–in order to make the most of the small amount of funding that they receive.

The second chunk of my time is spent working a bit more independently, developing pilot projects to (hopefully) increase villages’ willingness to pay for their community water sources and/or for water purification methods. The district faces a lot of challenges resulting from communities not wanting to collect/save money for waterpoint repair, and the functionality rate of boreholes being quite poor as a result. The DWDO, however, barely has enough funding to do the borehole installations/repairs and basic Water Point Committee training sessions that are required of them, let alone focus on seemingly secondary issues such as long-term community financing. Lack of community level financing for operation and maintenance, however, creates an ongoing negative cycle: poor functionality –> higher need for government support –> overstretching of government staff/resources –> ineffective community trainings and district monitoring of communities –> further decreasing functionality rates. EWB’s plan is to take the community pressure/shaming concepts used in Community Led Total Sanitation (http://www.communityledtotalsanitation.org/page/clts-approach) and apply those to water issues in order to shame people into understanding the significance of clean water, and therefore the importance of investing in it. This approach, called the Water Investment Triggering (WIT) Approach, is based loosely off of a project developed by a past EWB staff member a couple of years ago. That project focused on shaming communities into better water handling practices (covering the buckets where they store water, not putting their fingers in the water, washing hands before water collection, etc.) and was fairly successful in Mzimba, one of Malawi’s northern districts. I am now taking ideas from those pilots, combined with field learnings from recent research I did in Mangochi and research done by other EWB staff/Junior Fellows, to create an updated plan for a village triggering process. Over the next few months, I intend to organize, oversee, and follow-up on these triggerings in order to gauge the effectiveness of this method at inciting people to pay for clean water sources/water treatment.

During the past few weeks, however, I have been somewhat distracted and my thoughts/efforts on both of these initiatives seemed to have slowed, faltered, and gotten a bit off track. After doing some field research on community financing and willingness to pay, I was still stumped by various aspects of the WIT approach planning and was unsure who would be the most effective person to run these pilots (government, private sector, NGOs, etc.) — the trail seemed to be lost under a thick layer of leaves and I was unsure in which direction to head next. With respect to district office support, I had been consistently trying to hunt down people from various district offices to discuss various ideas/topics, but had been unsuccessful at doing so for almost a month. In addition, the fact that only one person in the DWDO knows how to even turn on/work a computer (let alone manage a semi-complex data management system), was continuously nagging me and demotivating me to work on the data collection/management initiative — it seemed as if the path I was on led directly into a rock wall and there was no way to get around it.

However, when I took the time to clear my head, concentrate on where I was standing right at that moment, and think of ways around the apparent roadblocks — I managed to find the trail again.

A series of fantastic meetings last week enabled me to refocus on my work and get back on the path to achieving what I hope to in my work with the district. When I finally hunted down and met with the District Environmental Health Officer, I was given a copy of a relatively new district database, which not only includes village level information on water points but is also intended to be updated bi-annually by the DEHO’s staff (I can’t believe I didn’t know about this sooner!). Then, the (never-ending) petrol crisis allowed me to actually sit down with all of Mangochi’s Water Monitoring Assistants (who are usually too busy in the field to be at the office) at one time and discuss the ways that I can best support them with their data issues. In addition, the WMAs then gave me great advice/guidance on my plans for the WIT Approach and their opinions on who would be best at actually implementing/facilitating those triggerings in the communities. Meetings with various other district staff members — the Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, Community Development Assistant, and District Commissioner among others — also revealed new and exciting opportunities for partnership in my upcoming work.

Each meeting gave hints as to where I should go — eventually not only leading me back to the trail, but also giving me the restored confidence and concentration to keep pushing forward. I guess I have to try to keep my head out of the clouds and on the path so I don’t get lost again in the future.

If you have any questions about the specifics of any section of my work, feel free to comment and/or email me directly and I’ll try to fill in those detail for you! I also promise to write more details about the WIT Approach during/after the pilot process has begun and I have more details to share (it is still very much in the brainstorming/planning phase at the moment). Hope all is well at home — am missing you all dearly!

Peace, love, and trailblazing,
Lis

At 4:00AM, I awoke to the sounds of drummers and women singing.  Confused and sleepy, I ignored the noise for a few minutes because it was seemingly far away.  When it was obvious to me that, not only had the singing/drumming moved closer, but it was actually immediately outside my window, I was both intrigued and admittedly slightly scared.  So I dragged myself out of bed to look out the window, and saw a pack of 50+ women in  the space behind our compound dancing in circles, singing, drumming, cheering, and whistling.  Five minutes later, they started moving as a pack away from our compound, and the sounds faded again.  Unsure of what just happened, I went back to sleep and somewhat forgot the situation.  In the morning, however, as I drank tea in my neighbors’ living room, the sounds came again.  When I asked what all the noise/dancing was about, my neighbor simply said — “Chinamwali.”  After a few minutes of my trying (and failing) to understand a lengthy Chichewa explanation of what that meant, I finally decided to just go look the word up in my dictionary.  As it turns out, the Chinamwali happens once per year and is a celebration of young girls’ transition to womanhood.  Over the next two weeks, I have observed these celebrations going on at various different times throughout the village, each variation of the festivities filled with the same level of pride and excitement.  These celebrations happen throughout much of Malawi (from what I understand), but I had the privilege to experience them in my new village, Ntagaluka, near the main town in Mangochi District.

EWB does this wonderful (yet challenging) thing where they let African Programs Staff figure out our own housing in whatever town we are assigned to live/work.  This allows you to live in however nice or sketchy, public or private, central or distant location as you want.  As a result, I showed up in Mangochi four weeks ago entirely homeless and unsure of what to do.  I spent my first few days wandering aimlessly around town (which is quite big compared to most District capitals) and trying to discern one dirt road filled with shops from another seemingly identical street.   On my second afternoon, I wandered in a new direction out of town and came to a stunning sight: a beautiful clock tower roundabout leading to a bridge over the Shire River (which flows south from the base of Lake Malawi) with stunning, jagged mountains in the distance.  My first thought was, “I want to walk over this every day.”  So I ventured over to the far side of the river, through a bustling local market, and out into the villages that line the shores of the river.  Needless to say, the random azungu (white person) wandering through the village asking in broken Chichewa for a “place to live” caused quite a commotion, and multiple people took time out of their day to drag me to various locations where I might have been able to stay.  After a few semi-promising, but not perfect locations, I found the one.  I was led by some kids into a compound owned by a richer family in Ntagaluka (now my neighbors) who rent out three rooms in a separate building in the back their house, all of which have a shared courtyard, water tap, and latrine.  I was greeted by the smiling faces of my adorable 3 year old neighbor (Yankho), her mother, and the 70 year old landlord who speaks little-to-no Chichewa (the language that I’m still struggling with at this point) and was immediately joking about the need to teach me Chiyao instead (the local language here).  I realized that here I could have my own room (to escape and have alone time when need be), but still live the village lifestyle, be surrounded by Malawians all the time, and have cheap rent (literally $10 per month).   In addition, the place is very close to the market, within walking distance to my work, and even has electricity!  I was immediately sold.

My next few weeks were filled with my getting to know the neighborhood, making friends with my neighbors (i.e. anyone and everyone within about 500 meters of our place), trying to understand my role at the District Water Office for work (which is going great, but I’ll explain more about that next time), and simply getting settled into a routine.  My neighbors within the compound, Amai Yanko (meaning “mother of Yanko”) and Kenneth, have somewhat adopted me — we cook together, eat every meal together, watch horrible Nigerian movies and other ridiculous things on their TV at night, etc. — which makes my life even nicer/simpler.   In exchange for their hospitality, I bring home food to cook a few times per week and bring Yanko to nursery school in the mornings (which is on my way to work).  My other neighbors in the compound, Esnta and Tom, are a couple close to my age who have a beautiful 3 month old son, Fortune.  Kenneth works at the fish market and Tom is a primary school teacher, while the two women spend most of their time around the compound cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the kids.  There are always people in and out of our compound (Amai Yanko sells charcoal so women are constantly coming to buy form her) or hanging out next door at our landlord’s house.  There are kids playing, young educated people close to my age, old ladies who only know Chiyao, and every other type of person around.  I can focus on integration and improving my language skills with the women, have actual intelligent conversations (rather than hilarious half Chewa half sign language conversations) with the English speakers, or just retreat to my own space if need be — I have access to the best of all worlds.

Pictures:  1. The view crossing over the Shire River on the way to my village (this does not do it justice though — it is stunning in the afternoon/evening light!);  2. My room;  3. Our courtyard and building — my room is the door on the far left, Yankho and her parents are in the center, and Fortune and his parents are on the right;  4.  Amai Yankho putting charcoal into small bags to sell

Despite having only been here one month, Mangochi already feels like home — from the comfort I feel when I walk into my compound each evening, to the jokes and routines I share with Yankho, to the random kids around the village changing their greeting from “Azungu – bo!?” to “Elisa – bo!?”.   I am continuously reenergized by what I do and the experiences I have my day-to-day life here, as well as the confidence I now have in circumstances that would have seemed daunting to me three or four years ago — like finding a home on my own in a random Malawian town, starting to learn my third African language, and/or dancing along with passing Chinamwali ceremonies.   Such things just seem like part of life now, not something to be confused or scared by.   And since I still have at least seven months to spend in Mangochi, I am endlessly excited by the fact that this month was just the beginning of my life here.

Peace, love, and 4AM drumming

Lisa

 

** Title credit for this post goes to JF Soubliere (one of my friends/co-workers) who drew a hilarious rendition of my “activities on an average Monday” as part of a check-in at our last team meeting, and titled the drawing “Crossing the Shire”  🙂