Archive for November, 2011

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,




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”


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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!


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The Little Things

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!)

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,

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