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The last month and a half has been chock full of uncertainty for various reasons.  Most significantly, there has been a fairly significant amount of political conflict and unrest throughout Malawi as a result of President Bingu wa Mutharika’s questionable policies.  When I arrived in Malawi almost four months ago (wow, I can’t believe it’s been that long!), the problems were already relatively apparent; however, things have gotten steadily worse over the months.  Most obvious to the everyday person is the fuel shortage — or, more appropriately, fuel crisis.  There is a consistent (and ever increasing) issue with accessing both petrol and diesel, thereby leaving many people unable to do their work effectively, as well as increasing minibus/taxi prices for the masses.  Other major complaints against Mutharika include (but are not limited to): lack of ForEx available, a bloated cabinet using up government funds, Mutharika purchasing a private presidential jet despite other major internal funding issues, the Malawian currency (the kwacha) being pegged and leading to issues with IMF funding, Mutharika kicking out the Ambassador from the UK (one of Malawi’s largest donors) as a result of some minor leaked criticism from the Ambassador, etc.  (For further background on the issues, here is a good blog summarizing events that have occurred over the past year leading up to recent anti-government protests:  http://habanahaba.wordpress.com/2011/07/16/situation-report-malawi/)

 

Anti-government protests took place last month (July 20th-21st) in various cities across the country and ended up being a lot larger and more violent than most people–or at least I–had expected.  They had originally been planned as a single day, nonviolent protest, but ended up as a two day debacle with 20+ people left dead and many more wounded.  Many houses and cars of people associated with the ruling political party were burned down, as well as other random targets (including a brand new UNICEF funded Hilux Truck at the Karonga District Water Office — which I saw the burned out hulk of first hand).  In the aftermath of the July 20th protests, Bingu made little effort to respond to the demands of the people, and was almost acting worse than previously.  As a result, even larger protests were planned for the 17th of August.  In the weeks in between July 21st and August 17th, things were looking calm and normal throughout Malawi, but rumors were flying right and left about the upcoming round of demonstrations and their increased intensity.  There were even rumors of coups and military protests against the president possible to happen the week before the 17th.  EWB therefore decided to take a “strategic retreat” (aka evacuate our team) to Zambia for the few days surrounding the 17th, at which time we would have our usual monthly team meeting.

 

During the weeks prior to our evac, I spent a bit of time in Karonga District (in the north) following up with Duncan on research he had begun a year ago, a bit of time in Salima checking in with Ge/Maggie (our village mom)/Salima’s District Water Office, then in Lilongwe for a while showing around some new members of our team who had arrived.  Each of these was fun and interesting, but still not moving myself in the direction of any long term goals related my work — which has been an aspect of my past few months that has been quite frustrating.  But in the middle of all of the uncertainty about political protests, uncertainty about work, and some personal uncertainties I had been struggling with as well, came the first moment of clarity:  I finally found out my placement!  Megan, one of our Team Leaders and my coach, went to visit a particular district that seemed like it could be a good fit for me to work in, and was very impressed with the district.  So, after much anticipation, my new home is….. (drum roll please)…. Mangochi!!!

 

The other major moment of clarity was finally getting to discuss with Megan, in significantly more detail, what I would actually be doing in Mangochi and a projected timeline for my work.  I didn’t have the chance to visit Mangochi before leaving for Zambia, but had millions of ideas about it already building up in my head — both excitement and apprehension continuously increasing.  I headed to Zambia with no real clarity, but with at least a light at the end of the tunnel encouraging me to keep pushing forward.  Our Zambia evac itself was filled with little worth writing about (mainly lots and lots of meetings), except for two hilarious border crossings with 15 azungu (white people) carrying way too much luggage/food and looking entirely unreasonable.  The highlight of the week was that the protests in Malawi ended up being called off at the last moment, and there was absolutely no violence on the 17th!!  The protests were replaced by peaceful talks with the president, which he finally agreed to take part in at the last minute.  Although the second wave of demonstrations were cancelled (or rather, postponed indefinitely), it  is still unsure how and when the political tensions in Malawi will be resolved.  There is even talk of protests already being planned for September 17th in case the talks with Mutharika do not go well — and so the uncertainty continues.   (Two good websites to keep up to date on the news are www.malawivoice.com and www.nyasatimes.com)

 

But on the positive side, after our return from Zambia a few days ago, I took the bus down to Mangochi and have spent the past two days exploring my new home!  Despite the fact that everything about my new life is entirely uncertain — where I will live, who I will be friends with, how work at the district water office will go, etc. — there is still a serene sense of clarity and contentment in simply knowing that this is where I’ll be staying for the rest of my time in Malawi.  I now have an actual picture of what the town looks like and have met briefly with the people I will work with, thereby clearing the fog away at least slightly.  I promise to write more about Mangochi soon — but I’ll just say that, on first impression, I love it.  Looking forward to putting down some roots and finding yet another place, in yet another random corner of the world, that I will happily call “home.”

 

Peace, love, and new beginnings,

Lis

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Although I spent a lot of time staying and working in villages throughout my time in Tanzania, I never actually lived in one full time.  Here are some of the things that I have recently found intriguing/challenging/comical/confusing about village life in Malawi:

Morning Routines

Every morning (Saturday and Sunday included), the whole village wakes up with the sunrise and rushes to do their chores.  Come 5:45, Ge and I get pulled out of bed to start sweeping the house, mopping the floor, fetching water, washing the dishes from the night before (since it had been to dark to do them then), sweeping the dirt surrounding the house (yes, sweeping dirt OUTside) to make things look nice, cooking breakfast/tea, and boiling water for bucket showers.   It is not necessary to do many of these things first thing in the morning at all, such as weeping the house, but even less necessary to wake up particularly early to do so.  And yet EVERYONE does.  The most frustrating part of this routine is that most women (who are obviously the ones doing all the work) don’t really leave the house throughout the day.  They have little to keep them busy all day, and yet they rush to do everything in a half hour before the sun has even fully risen.  So god forbid you happen to “sleep in” one morning and wake up at, say, 6:15?  All eyes will be on you while you sweep your house since it is considered too late by village standards to be doing so!

Borrowing

There are a limited number of items in any given rural African household — namely dishes, buckets, pots and pans, and cleaning tools.  You would think the combination of owning only a few items and only have four relatively bare rooms in which to store those items would make finding things rather easy–but you are poorly mistaken!  Every morning (in my half-asleep 5:30am stupor), I go to search for the broom to sweep the floors or the sketchy plastic rag that we use as a sponge to wash the dishes, but they seem to never be in the same location.  The epic search continues for quite a while, full of aimless wandering around and lots of questioning Maggie, until eventually some neighbor comes by to return said item that they had happened to borrow to do their chores that morning (at an even more obscenely early hour).

Villagers–well most Africans I know for that matter–have very different views on “ownership” than we, as Westerners, do.  If I bought something and you wanted to use it, it would be impolite to just take that item without asking permission first.  Africans, on the other hand, have a very strong culture of sharing all that is available–what is mine is yours, no questions asked.  Despite the challenges that this regularly presents to my morning routine, it is a cultural point that I greatly respect and enjoy.

Traditions

A couple of weeks ago, as I sat on the front stoop of our hut cutting some veggies for dinner, Ge and Dew frantically called me to come to the end of the strip of houses near ours.  “What is it??” I asked, and the response I got was NOT what I had been expecting:  “Come see the chicken men!”

There are hundreds of African traditions, particularly associated with cultural song/dance and dress, but most of these are seen only at celebrations and not on a regular basis.  The exception to that rule, apparently, is June-July in rural Malawi.  At this time of year, there are men that dress up in traditional costumes and are known to be the “bad spirits” of the country.  They run around through all of the villages surrounding town and are supposedly bad luck if you get too close to them — there are rumors of people defying them and then waking up the next day covered in bruises, having things stolen from them, etc.  As a result, their appearing causes everyone to first run in their direction to catch a glimpse of them coming, but then frantically scatter as soon as the “bad spirits” come close, women and children shrieking and hiding in their houses behind close doors.  The silliest part if this, however, is that their “traditional costumes” make them look strikingly similar to large chickens!  As a result, they acquired the nickname “chicken men” by our household/neighbors.   They continue to amuse me, and scare masses of children, on a regular basis.

Children

In Western countries, children under the age of, say, 8-9 are culturally expected to be supervised almost all the time and are given relatively little freedom and/or responsibility.  Children in Malawi are a whole different story.   A couple of weeks ago, I saw a group of children (definitely in pre-school or Form 1  — no older than 5 years each) leave school and head to their respective houses entirely independently.   Could you imagine your local elementary school being let out for the day and no parents coming to get their kids? Of course not.  But in rural Malawi, kids are treated like adults from the minute they can stand on their own two feet.

Every day that I spend in the village, I look up to see children doing various things that no American child would ever be seen doing:  running around for hours completely unattended, carrying extremely large knives or other ridiculous things around, going to the market by themselves to buy things for parents/neighbors, tying younger children to their back and carrying them/babysitting them (like a 6 year old carrying a 6 month old), carrying buckets of water on their heads equivalent to the size of their tiny torsos, etc.  It is amazing to me the manner in which children are treated here–not being babied in the way that our Western culture tends to do–and what that does to their maturity and resourcefulness.  Needless to say, a Malawian 6 year old is WAY more productive and helpful to have around than any 6 year old I know in the states!

Group Silence

You know that awkward silence that sometimes happens during a group meeting or conversation, the one which you try to avoid at all costs?  Well Malawians not only embrace that awkward silence, but pretty much live in it.  It is entirely normal for a group of people here to just sit in absolute silence for extended periods of time.  From time to time I find this very welcome because it gives my head a break from the constant effort of straining to understand what is going on in their Chichewa conversation; however, most of the time it continues to leave me feeling uncomfortable and awkward.

In the silence, I’m left thinking about home and the types of things that I would sit around and discuss with my family/friends:  books, world events, interesting things from work, new music, upcoming events, hobbies, etc etc.  But my host mama in Salima, Maggie, and the other women of our village follow the same routine every day and know very little about what goes on outside of their basic lives, leaving those types of topics out of the question.  The thought of this makes me feel a bit guilty, but also gives me an added insight as to why certain cultural tendencies seem so normal to them while being entirely unusual to me.

Never Breaking the Mold

Although every culture has its trends, fashions, and ways of doing things, Malawian village life seems to fall even more strongly into the category of people “never breaking the mold.”  For example, I have been washing my clothes by hand for almost 2 years over the time that I have lived in Africa and have gotten quite good at doing so (if I may say so myself).  Regardless, a couple of weeks ago, our neighbor Juliana came over to give me a half concerned/half disapproving look as she oversaw me washing a few shirts.  She proceeded to push me out of the way and not only finish up the couple of shirts I had left, but also REWASH the other things I had finished.  My clothes were perfectly clean already, but just because I wasn’t using the EXACT same hand motions as the other women, I was obviously doing everything entirely wrong.  The same thing applies to the manner of cooking, the way floors are swept, the way women sit while they talk, etc.  Most things seem to fit into the set mold of what Malawian villagers are used to, and they tend to dislike change.  Every woman wears the same thing day in a day out: a sweater or t-shirt paired with a chitenje (traditional African fabric) wrapped around their waist to create a colorful skirt.  Eating rice instead of nsima (the staple flavorless, gooey food) for dinner is about as daring as they will get… and that only happens about once a month.

Coming from a culture where uniqueness and variation are highly valued, and from country full of people with different backgrounds/traditions/household norms, this conformity is sometimes challenging to understand and frustrating to fit into.  Nonetheless, these strictly followed everyday practices–along with all the other aforementioned intricacies of village life–are what constantly force me to reevaluate the life style in which I was raised and think critically about my own views on Western v. African cultures.  Despite the difficulties and challenges I regularly face in the village, the learning and reflecting opportunities that it provides me with are both endless and invaluable.

 

Peace, love, and chicken men

Lis

About a month ago, I moved in with Genevieve in the village where she stays outside of Salima town.  Ge and I live together with a single woman in her mid-thirties, Maggie, and her nephew, Dew, in a mud hut in the village of Chipsie (just like what they call french fries sold everywhere on the side of the road).  Last week was my 23rd birthday, and to make up for the fact that I am miles from home and my family, Ge decided to plan a birthday dinner for me in the village.  The evening turned into one of the most memorable nights I have had so far in Malawi — but for all the wrong reasons.

Genevieve talked to a bunch of people in the village the few days before and they were apparently planning to make me a birthday feast — including duck (which is rare to eat here) and possibly even a birthday cake of some sort.  We ended up leaving work a bit early to go back to the house and see if Maggie needed help buying anything for the meal or cooking.  When we arrived back at the village, however, Maggie wasn’t home and everyone said she had gone to the market.  So Ge and I took a stroll to the market, but didn’t see Maggie and therefore assumed she had bought everything necessary for our feast and had already headed home.   We left the market without buying anything and made it back to the house.  When we found Maggie and Dew at home, it was soon apparent that the whole “buying a duck” thing for my birthday had gotten lost in translation and wasn’t going to happen, but we figured we would have a regular feast nonetheless.

A bit later, we started cooking some rice, which is a novelty in the village and immediately got me excited.  We eat Nsima almost every meal — the same as Ugali for you folk who have lived in Tanzania, and for those of you who haven’t, it is a thick white pastey food that is made out of maize flour and water, and is thick enough to make into small clumps and use a type of utensil for  scooping any and everything into your mouth.  Basically, it is an empty carb that sits like a rock in the bottom of your stomach and fills you up very quickly for almost no cost.  Anyways, about halfway through cooking the rice, Ge and I ask Maggie about what we should do to start cooking the relish (sauce to go on top of the rice), and got a blank stare in return.  After much miming on Maggie’s part followed by translation by Dew, we finally understand that Maggie hadn’t had enough money to buy anything, so there actually wasn’t anything to make relish with (no cooking oil, no veggies, no fish, etc)!  That meant that our “feast” was actually… plain rice?? Yep.  Not only was this not even close to a feast, but it was significantly less so than what we usually eat on any other day!

There was, however, a pot of left over okra from lunch that afternoon, which Ge and I suggested we heat up but were quickly dismissed by everyone in the room.  This led to an hour long debate (while we enjoyed our plain white rice meal) over whether or not it is acceptable to eat okra with rice: Dew and some neighbors claiming that the two didn’t go together at all, while Ge and I saying that having any sauce would be better than plain rice!  Somewhere in the discussion, my question of “why wouldn’t you eat it [meaning okra] with nsima or rice?” got misconstrued as ” why wouldn’t you eat nsima with rice?” — which quickly prompted the response “Because that would be CRAZY” from all Malawians present.  After much confusion, Genevieve and I finally understood what they had thought I said, and the whole room burst into laughter over the concept of eating nsima and rice together.  For those of you who have ever eaten nsima (or ugali), you can understand how horrible that sounds haha.  The following few hours (and days) were filled with jokes of eating rice with nsima and debates over which foods are and are not appropriate to eat with which staple carbs.  It is times like these when I have to step back and admit that I may never entirely understand the logic behind what Dew and my other Malawian friends were thinking, but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying each other’s presence and laughing about our differences.  So despite the fact that Ge’s attempts to plan a birthday party for me failed miserably (sorry hun!), it was still a fantastically comical evening.

The one success of the night, though, was that Genevieve managed to teach a bunch of the village kids how to sing Happy Birthday and I received a wonderful musical show from them while we cooked the rice!   I also spent the next few days out by the lake with Ge, where we drank wine, watched movies, and made two ACTUAL feasts — including baking a carrot cake!!!  Those positives made up for all of the food failures of the first evening, as did the many texts and emails I received from people sending birthday wishes.  I am thankful to have such great friends, here in Malawi as well as back at home, to make this past week a wonderful one.   And a special thanks to Ge for being amazing 🙂

Peace, love, and white rice

Lis

Since my past few posts have been very work-intensive, I though I would lighten the mood with some amusing stories from my last month. Here you go:

Almost a month ago, I moved to Salima District (east of Lilongwe, near to the lakeshore) to start my field research. For a full week or so at the beginning of my time in Salima, I had a beautiful new red motorcycle sitting in town, just waiting to be ridden. What was the problem, you may ask? I didn’t know how to drive motorcycle.  Karma — 1, Lisa — 0.  So I got myself set up with a translator/driver, Elias, and after introducing myself to the District Water Officer (DWO) and meeting with the Water Monitoring Assistants (WMAs) to hear about their opinions on siting/placement of new waterpoints, Elias and I headed off to the field.

I spent the next two weeks bombing around the district on the back of my motorcycle, interviewing villages about their understanding (or lack thereof) of how to get a borehole from the district government. Lots of exciting information gathered and case studies written up (all to be analyzed at the end of the month), but one thing was still bugging me–my inability to actually move my bike from one location to another if need be (or just for the fun of doing so). After much whining and complaining, I managed to convince a teammate of mine to come to Salima and try his patience while teaching me to drive. In the field that I originally practiced driving circles around, I was immediately amused by the faces of children staring at me wide-eyed from nearby houses; however, the real treat was yet to come. I have since been practicing driving non-stop and am getting relatively good, despite my occasional issues with starting off in first gear. Unrelated to the quality of my driving though, I have gotten a collection of fantastic looks from people that I pass on the street. Apparently the concept of a woman, not only on a motorcycle but driving a motorcycle, breaks all “appropriate” Malawian gender roles and makes me seen as a groundbreaker… or a maybe just a crazywoman. I have a phenomenal library of mental images relaying shock and awe from passersby, which continue to stack up day in and day out. Needless to say, people’s reactions have made my learning to drive even more exciting/enjoyable than the actual ability to move around on my own — although that does come as a close second.  Karma — 1, Lisa — 1… not so  bad, right?

In the midst of all my research and motorcycle driving, I managed to make it to the lake a few weekends for some fun and relaxation. My first weekend in Salima, I went to meet a few other EWBers in Senga Bay and had an awesome evening by the lake — complete with campfires, bongo drums, boxed wine, and all that jazz. Senga Bay holds a particular place in my heart because it is the same place where, almost one year ago, I happened to meet Mike and Megan (the team leaders of our EWB WatSan team) in a random hostel and first heard about EWB Canada. Had it not been for an impromptu trip to Malawi/Senga Bay last summer (thanks Nat!), I wouldn’t be living in Malawi now! Back to the point — in the midst of my distracted galavanting on the beach, a slew of things got stolen out of my bag, most notably my phone and prescription glasses. This resulted in multiple days of bus trips back and forth to Lilongwe to activate a new phone and get fitted for a new pair of glasses so that I was not left semi-blind for the remainder of my year in Africa. In the end, all was successful and I am back to seeing perfectly (although with a slightly uglier set of glasses than before).  Two weekends later, I took a trip down south to another spot by the lake, Monkey Bay, and got extremely excited by the fact that our hotel had a trampoline at it. When is the last time you jumped on a trampoline?! That excitement, however, turned rather quickly into dismay as I proceeded to jump/fall/be catapulted off of the trampoline and seriously bruise myself in multiple places (including my ego — I mean really, who falls off trampolines?).  Karma — 3, Lisa — 1… ugh.

Then, this past weekend there was a team meeting in Lilongwe, which was attended by not only our usual group of 15 African Programs Staff (APS) but also by our team of Junior Fellows (university students here on their summer break) from both Malawi and Zambia. The usual team meeting was therefore followed by a 2 day retreat for the JFs at a hotel in Senga Bay, which some of the APS attended as well. I had the bad luck of getting sick with malaria halfway through the team meeting and have that continue through most of the JF retreat. That meant a full weekend spent being malarial by the lakeshore. For those of you who know me well, you know I have already had malaria about 5 times… and I must say, near a lake is probably the best place to get it if you must. Nonetheless, the boat trip to an island to go rock jumping and late night campfires with the JFs would have been significantly more fun sans-malaria. Karma — 4.  Moral of this whole story: Lake Malawi is a wonderful place to visit, BUT it apparently distracts you with its beauty and makes you especially prone to injury, disease, and irresponsible behavior that leads to your things being stolen…. or at least it does for me. Either way, I think I’ll stay home from the beach this weekend and just hang out in the village. Maybe I’ll have better luck with that!

Two other funny stories: first, while hitchhiking out of Salima to get to Lilongwe for the team meeting, I happened to leave a small bag of mine (with nothing overly important in it) in the back of someone’s truck. Malawians (and all Eastern/Southern Africans I know, for that matter) have this cultural thing where they love to call any and everyone many times for no real reason other than to just say hello… which is nice sometimes, but gets annoying rather quickly. In order to avoid such a situation of incessant calling, I had unfortunately given the driver an incorrect phone number (for the first time in my 1.5+ years living in Africa) and he therefore could not get in touch with me when he found my bag. After resigning myself to the thought that I had lost my stuff, I ran into the guy on the street in Salima a week later and he promptly returned the bag! Lisa — 2… nice! Is my luck turning around? Ummm no. Story two: took my motorcycle to mechanic yesterday to get the horn fixed because it wasn’t working. I know, a horn doesn’t seem overly important to you if you are driving in the states. In Malawi, on the other hand, a horn is a must in order to shoo away crossing goats, men with absurdly large loads of things on the back of their bicycles, etc. So I take my bike to get fixed and leave my translator with it while I go to do some work. After a few hours of waiting, I return to find that the mechanic was actually drunk (at 2:30pm) and screwed up my bike more than it was before while not even managing to fix the horn.  Things that would only happen in Africa… very frustrating (although admittedly somewhat funny in retrospect).  Karma — 5, Lisa — 2.

I have another few days left in my research, at which point I will have visited approximately 30 villages and will have enough data to (maybe?) make some conclusions about water point siting in Salima. Then it’ll be on to a week or two of analyzing all the data that I collected and trying to make some sense of how that information affects EWBs strategy with respect to water point siting and Evidence Based Decision Making. That makes me tired just thinking about it… maybe it will be more fun if I do it by the lake?? Or maybe that will just lead to me breaking a finger while typing.

Anyways, my research is quickly coming to a close and the question on my mind, and probably yours, is “what’s next for me?” And the answer is yet another issue of bad karma. That has to do with the three leaders of our team, coaches for my research, and planners of my placement all having been/will be back in Canada at some point or another between last month and next month, causing some organizational set-backs on the ground here in Malawi. Long story short, I have no idea where I’m going next. End score for the month: Karma — 6, Lisa — 2.

So will the stars align and make my next month a little less disaster prone than my last? Let’s hope so. In the meantime, I’ll continue with my research and keep having a blast, despite all the minor setbacks. Because let’s be honest… at least I don’t have an office job!

Peace, love, and trampolines,

Lis

Last Friday, while up in Mzuzu, I went to my first CLTS triggering.  CLTS (Community Led Total Sanitation) is a method of sanitation promotion that shames communities into better understanding the results of poor sanitation practices and tries to get them to become open defecation free (ODF).  CLTS is the main sanitation related program that EWB works on in Malawi, and we currently have a growing team of people working to promote this tool within the government and the national sanitation policy.  Jolly Ann, Tessa, and Chelsey (the CLTS section of our EWB WatSan team) were in Mzuzu last week for a training session funded by Unicef to get District Officers more interested in CLTS and capable of implementing it in their districts.  There were multiple triggerings being done as part of that workshop, so Duncan and I decided to tag along with our other teammates to see the process first hand.

 

The “triggering” component of CLTS is the first section of a multi-stepped community level process, when facilitators actually go to the community and do an informal workshop with the villagers to increase their understanding of sanitation issues.  They do this while playing off the exercise as a research/learning tool for the practitioners so that the villagers do not get the impression that they are being “taught” something by outsiders.  The triggering usually takes a few hours and involves multiple steps, engaging all members of the community in the learning process (including the children, who play an integral role in identifying locations of open defecation because they are less embarrassed to admit the truth).  The process usually begins by having the community members draw out a map of the village in the dirt, labeling all major landmarks and each of their houses, and then next using maize meal (or some other powder) to identify the areas where people defecate in the village.  Then, the villagers usually walk around to those sites that are named all together (especially those where open defecation is occurring) and a sense of shame occurs within the group.  Afterward, a few other “experiments” are done, including bringing fresh human excrement into the center of the community, placing it next to a plate of fresh cooked food, and having the group watch the way that flies move easily between the two, thereby contaminating the food with fecal matter.  There are a few other similar methods used to disgust the community, but I won’t go into any more detail at the moment.  If you are interested you can read more about the whole process online (http://www.communityledtotalsanitation.org/resource/handbook-community-led-total-sanitation)!  Nonetheless, it is a really interesting and innovative technique for sanitation promotion that has proven to be successful in many countries.  Although I have read a lot about CLTS in the past and heard about it being used in Tanzania, I had never seen a triggering in person–and it worked extremely well.  The community reaction was amazing to watch, and the outcome was nothing less than a total understanding of the need to build better latrines and improve the quality of waste management.  I was very impressed.

 

After the triggering, Duncan and I had a very exciting Friday night in Mzuzu… consisting of cooking omelets for dinner (thrown together with whatever food was available at his place), drinking boxed wine, and taking a first stab at the new Knowledge Management System for our WatSan team.  Nothing like a weekend evening spent brainstorming database options and writing code in excel!! haha

 

On Saturday morning, Duncan had a big meeting planned with the District Coordinating Team of Rumphi District to discuss a project  that has been in the works for almost 9 months now, which will focus on mapping all of the functioning and nonfunctioning water points in the whole district.  The project will most likely be funded by two major donors in the water sector–WaterAid and Water For People–however, EWB brings an entirely different service to the table.  EWB is unlike most INGOs (international non-governmental organizations) because we do not have any funding to put directly into projects, we only provide volunteers and consulting on program implementation.  It was especially interesting for me to watch Duncan in his meeting and get a better understanding of the impact we can play as mediators in the WatSan field, rather than people who are able to provide funding.  When funding is not even in the picture, it produces a very different dynamic between the District employees and the consultant/volunteer–one that was apparent in the meeting I attended in Rumphi.  I was not only impressed by Duncan’s understanding of the problem at hand and his ability to advise on what would best suit the needs of the district, but also by the level of trust and respect that the district officers had for Duncan as a part of their team.

 

After the meeting in Rumphi, Duncan and I rushed back to Mzuzu to meet Devon and Jordan for a fast-paced and highly productive meeting on the next steps for our EWB team with respect to community financing, and then rushed over to Nkhata Bay (an hour or so away from Mzuzu, where Devon lives/works) for the most important item on the day’s itinerary — the UEFA Champions League Final game between Barcelona and Man U!!  We made it there early enough to get first row seats at the bar, got take-out rice and beans delivered right to us at the bar (making most other people there jealous of our foresight), and watched the game with a huge slew of cheering Malawians and ex-pats, who fairly evenly split between the two sides.  It was a beautifully played game–at least for Barcelona!  The game was obviously followed by dancing and other celebrations, which made for a fantastic Saturday night in Nkhata Bay.  And just to make the trip there even better, I got to spend the next day and a half “working” by the lake… and inevitably taking periodic breaks to stare out at the water, go swimming, have meals right on the beach at awesomely sketchy local restaurants, etc. etc.  What a rough life.

 

I headed back down to Lilongwe on Tuesday, met with Mike (one of our Team Leads) about my upcoming research, and then come over to Salima (which is also conveniently close to the lake!) yesterday afternoon.  I will be spending the next month here traveling to a bunch of villages, completing my research on equitability of water point siting, and hanging out with Genevieve (who is placed in Salima Town).  Right now I am headed over to the District Water Office to start setting up meetings for the next week, so cheers to the official start of my research project!!

 

Miss you all and hope all is well!  P.S. if there is anything you want me to talk more or less about in my blog, feel free to email me or leave a comment…

 

Love,

Lis

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.

Cheers,

Lis

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!
Cheers,
Lis