Archive for May, 2011

The research that Jordan and Macmillan have been working on in Nkhotakota is something that I am extremely interested in and very much parallels the work that I was doing in Tanzania the past few years.  Just as some background — in both Tanzania and Malawi, community Water Point Committees (WPCs) are put in charge of managing the operation and maintenance of their water system.  They are sometimes, but not always, given basic training on how to do repairs on the pumps; however, they are often incapable of doing larger repairs, limited by funding issues, have difficulty accessing spare parts, etc.  This system has proven to be ineffective overall at producing high functionality rates (both in TZ and MW), and a better system is definitely needed.

In Tanzania, I had been looking at privatization of water point operation and maintenance (O&M) at the community level, by using an individual community member to collect money and do repairs for their water point as a side business.  This private business model increases accountability and allow the community to better understand who is in charge of making sure the repairs get done.  EWB is working on a similar system of privatization in Malawi, but at the district level.  In a few districts, we are trying to set up networks of Area Mechanics (AMs) who work with certain communities (usually approximately 20-50 villages) to maintain their pumps.  These AM networks have proven to be effective in a few districts in Malawi by raising functionality rates from approx 75 percent to around 90 percent; however, the existing networks are heavily supported by NGOs and are therefore not sustainable in the long term.  What Mac and Jordan are looking into in Nkhotakota is if it would be possible to create a purely business focused AM model which would allow the system to function independently, without ongoing support from an NGO or the district government.  We are still unsure if this type of system is feasible, but we think it would have a lot of potential for successfully reducing the time to complete repairs and increasing functionality rates! Is that not as interesting to you as it is to me? haha

So after two week of running around Nkhotakota, I went back to Lilongwe middle of last week for our team meeting, which took place in town Thurs-Sat.  The whole EWB WatSan (Engineers Without Borders Water and Sanitation) team has a monthly meeting to meet and discuss project updates, successes, challenges, next steps in our work, etc.  We had three full days packed with team discussions and a leadership workshop (run by one of the team members’ moms who was visiting).  Then, we ended up extending the meeting for a few extra informal days so that part of the group could continue discussions on issues of community financing (the ability of communities to pay for the repairs of the waterpoints).   I had a blast this weekend listening to all of their work updates and learning more about what EWB is actually doing in the field.   Also, it’s great to finally work with a team rather than independently, which I’ve never done before in my work in Africa.  It gives me the opportunity to regularly talk with other people about water issues and bounce program ideas off of them — something which is extremely helpful for me in brainstorming where to move toward next.

Before getting my placement, I’ll be doing one more month of independent research.  Another one of the projects that our team works on is a tool called the Decision Support System (DSS), which is a basic Excel tool that takes data collected from the villages (generally about their water point type/functionality) and puts it into pivot tables to map out relationships between various factors.  The idea behind this tool, and EWB’s idea of working with districts to adapt the tool, is that  District Water Officers (DWO) will be able to better site new boreholes and target communities that are in the most need if they have better access to district-wide data.  At the moment, most DWOs don’t have the necessary data (or do not have it organized enough) to be able to make effective decisions on where to use their limited funding.  We have been working on promoting this tool for a while throughout multiple districts in Malawi; however, we have recently been coming to a few realizations about the incompleteness of our definition of “borehole siting equity.”  As a result, my research for the next month will be looking into various waterpoints and determining the process by which they were sited there, thereby determining whether that was a good or bad use of resources on the district government’s part.  This will, eventually, lead to a stronger definition on our team about what we deem to be good v. bad waterpoint siting in rural areas.  I’ll be completing research in one Traditional Authority (a smaller area within a district) within Salima District, and Tessa will simultaneously being doing the same research in Lilongwe Rural District.

My research, however, won’t be organized and ready to start until the beginning of next week.  Instead of hanging out in Lilongwe for the rest of the week without much to do, I decided to come up north to Mzuzu with one of my teammates, Duncan.  Duncan has been living in this area for almost a year now and works in three districts surrounding Mzuzu, which is the largest city in the north of the country.  I’ll be here until the end of the week having some more discussions on community financing and shadowing his work.  We left Lilongwe yesterday afternoon, but because the afternoon buses tend to be extremely slow, we decided to hitchhike the 6-7 hours all the way up here to Mzuzu.  It was actually my first long-distance hitchhiking trip, and it was a total success!  It definitely saved us both money and time, and we got to meet a few really fun/nice people — I’ll have to do it again sometime.

I apologize if this post was a bit too work-centric for some of you — I promise to write more fun stories in my next post!  Hope all is well back in the US/Canada.




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Two weeks ago, I started off a new chapter of my ongoing African adventures by taking a bus from Dar es Salaam, all the way across Tanzania and down to Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, to start my new job with EWB. I was originally under the impression that this would be a roughly 24 hour bus trip straight on one bus; however, I seemed to have misunderstood the reality of the trip and how difficult it is to get from Dar to Lilongwe. The trip ended up being a total of 40 hours of traveling, including an overnight stay at the border and multiple changes between sketchy Malawian minibuses (rather than staying on the big bus I had started on in Dar). All in all, it was a somewhat disastrous/miserable trip over… but I eventually made it safely to Lilongwe!
For those of you who don’t know (or don’t remember), I did my training for Engineers Without Borders in Toronto during February, and then headed back to Tanzania for 2 months to finish my work there. The two people who I trained with in February who came to Malawi (Genevieve and Jordan) have now been here since March and are well settled into their work here. However, because EWB (and our Malawi programs in particular) are growing a lot, there was another training group in Toronto in March. Those girls—Tessa, Chelsea, and Kristina—all arrived in Malawi on the same day that I did. I already knew Tessa from the EWB National Conference that I went to in January (we met because she is Jordan’s girlfriend), but I met the other girls for the first time when I got into Lilongwe. We then spent the next few days all together trying to figure out our way around the city on minibuses, get phones/internet sorted out, learn how to say a few things in Chichewa, etc. We also had two days of formal in-country training to get us for work. It was a fun, albeit tiring, first couple of days in the country.
Last Wednesday, after training ended, I headed up along the coast of Lake Malawi to the small town of Nkhotakota. Nkhotakota (or as it is nicely abbreviated on many signs, ‘KK’), is the main town in this district—although I’m not sure that it does the term “town” any justice. KK is very small, with a main street of about 20 shops and a cross street that runs down to the lake… and that’s about it. Jordan (who I trained with) and Macmillan (our one Malawian staff member, who is amazing) have recently started doing research in KK District on operation and maintenance of rural water points, and I came to shadow them for a week or two to see their work. We have been/will be working specifically in one Traditional Authority (a section of a district that is run by a traditional leader—something that is very different from the purely government-elected leaders in Tanzania) to see what issues are associated with lack of water point maintenance in that area. I’m especially excited about doing research in this TA after the two meetings that we had on Saturday with all of the traditional leaders in that TA, where over 250 of them showed up (relatively close to being on time!) and were very interested/involved. Anyways, I’ll elaborate more on the actual research sometime soon… but I won’t bore you with it in my first post!
While I am here in Nkhotakota, I have been staying with an extremely nice host family that lives in a village about 15 minutes’ walk from the main street of KK. It is a very nice house for a village, and although there isn’t running water or electricity or anything, I do have my own room with a mattress on the ground. I know that doesn’t seem too nice, but it’s way better than a lot of places I’ve seen out in villages! It’s so great to stay out in the village and have time to relax, get away from technology, and go to sleep by 8:30pm every night. Plus, it is giving me a good amount of time to study my Chichewa, and plenty of opportunity to practice it (since the mama I’m staying with doesn’t speak a word of English and she is the main one who I interact with). It is definitely a challenge going from knowing the local language close to fluently to not knowing it at all… I miss Swahili a lot!! (and continue to randomly speak to people in it and confuse them a lot haha)
The past week for me has been filled with amusing, exciting, and semi-productive work out in the field. Jordan and Macmillan have a motorcycle and Mac is Malawian so he speaks Chichewa… but we can’t fit three people on the bike and we can’t afford to hire another translator. So where does that leave me, you may ask? Exactly where you think. Picture a random white girl who doesn’t speak more than 10 words of the local language, wandering around to various villages by herself via bus/bicycle taxi/foot, asking random people if they know any English, and miming about water pumps… Yup, that’s me haha. I can’t say that it has been the most successful/productive time spent with respect to gathering information for Mac and Jordan’s research, but I am learning a lot and having a blast nonetheless!
I will be in Nkhotakota for another week or so, then will be traveling around and doing another month of research before I find out my actual placement (where I will be living for the next year). I will keep you updated on any details I find out about where I will be working and what I will be doing. I should be writing my blog fairly regularly from now on (pending internet quality and electricity wherever I am living), so keep checking!

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