Final Placement Thoughts Part 2: Malawi and Engineers Without Borders

Final blog posting about my time in Malawi. Hope you enjoy it!

On Malawi:

Ah, Malawi. How to summarize this country into one blog? The lake is beautiful, let’s start with that. A really impressive lake with clear clean water, beautiful scenery, nice beaches, a complex, self-contained aquatic ecosystem and some of the best freshwater SCUBA diving in the world. So that right there is a pretty good selling point for the country. As far as the above water characteristics of the country go, the cliché description of Malawi is that it is the ‘warm heart of Africa’ which I’ve always thought to be a bit of an eye-rolling phrase. It’s true though, that Malawi is on the whole a pretty peaceful country and (so far) doesn’t suffer from the violence, inter-racial or inter-tribal tensions that afflict many of the other countries on this continent, a fact that I’ve been grateful for during my time here.

Otter Point at Cape Maclear

So it’s a beautiful, peaceful country. But why is it a poor country? Because it is very poor, it’s one of the bottom twenty countries in the world according to the United Nations Human Development Index. Partly it’s due to things that are not really in their control. It’s a landlocked country, so no seaports. It doesn’t have any natural resources like minerals or oil. It’s got a really high population density, which means it’s really hard for any one farmer to have a large enough piece of land that he can farm efficiently and profitably. Subsistence farming of maize and cultivation by hand using basic tools and hoping for a good rainfall are pretty much the norm for the farmers that I saw.

All of these problems are not new, and they’re not going to be solved anytime soon. However, there are other things about the way people live here that don’t have to be the way they are now. Some questions that I was always asking myself while living here:

  • Why is there a fuel shortage when every country that Malawi shares a border with has plenty of it?
  • Why does the electricity go off on a regular basis, sometimes as often as once per day?
  • Why does is the internet coverage great one minute, non-existent the next, then back up and running again five minutes later?
  • Why does the urban water supply system just not function on random days of the week?
  • Why is there no garbage collection, forcing people to burn their trash (including plastic)?
  • Why do you need fifteen police officers to sit around manning a police checkpoint all day every day when all they do is peer into the windows of passing minibuses at random? Is that really a good use of scarce resources?

Lineup for the gas station in Mwanza for the one day in the month we had fuel -- not fun

There are undoubtedly specific reasons for why each of these happens to be the case, but the macro-level answer is that this is a dysfunctional country. Things don’t work properly here, and they never really have. So this is a pretty critical area to work on, and there is no fundamental reason why the way things are right now has to be the way it will be going forward.

So after my experiences in development and in Malawi, I look at it as that there are two fundamental causes when solving these types of issues:

  • Insufficient resources available to them
  • Inefficient use of the resources they already have available to them.

Solving the first one is tough. Likely necessary in the long run, but tough. That starts getting into things like the unequal distribution of the world’s resources, developed world agricultural subsidies, protective tariffs, effective free market policies, and so on. Just thinking about all the politicians, special interest groups, etc. who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo gives me a headache. So let’s leave that one alone for the moment.

The second item is where I see there are key opportunities for advancement in the short to medium term. For those who have read some of my previous blog posts you may have noticed a recurring theme that not everyone in Malawi always works up to their full potential. There’s a lot of down time and inaction going on, and even when people are working hard, it’s typically in the form of inefficient manual labour that we in the western world moved on from long ago. So focusing on finding ways of getting people in this country to make the most of what resources they have already seems to me to be where we should be focusing our development efforts.

To articulate that with an example, there is currently one Water Monitoring Assistant (WMA) in Mwanza district, population ~94,000 (probably about 80% of that is rural and thus within his jurisdiction). A big part of his role is to coordinate with local Community Water Point Committees to assist with the ongoing operations and maintenance of the water points in the district. Can he as one person effectively carry out this role for the entire district? Not a chance. So should we hand the District Water Office a bunch of money tomorrow so they can hire two more Water Monitoring Assistants? Bad idea. See my previous posts for details on the ways in which the WMA in my district was not working up to his full potential, but suffice it to say that having three employees sitting under the mango tree rather than one is not development dollars well spent.

Instead, what we’re looking at for this particular example is finding ways of motivating existing staff to do more than they are now, and to expand the roles of supporting staff so that they have the tools and skills to carry out more tasks than they are currently. Harder than simply hiring another staff member? Yes, but ultimately more efficient and effective, not only at getting the job done, but also in building up trust and proficiency and credibility such that when the day comes that more money is available, the District Water Office may actually have the track record and experience to use that money effectively. Right now they’re not at that point.

So I think that my single biggest takeaway learning about development work from this experience has been how important it is to ask questions. How is the given project sustainable? What is the follow-up strategy for monitoring and evaluation? Why is outside capital needed for this endeavor?  Why hasn’t this initiative been implemented before now? Is this project being led by members of the local community? There is a lot of development work going on out there, ranging from really effective and worthwhile to things that are making the problem worse, so it’s really important to choose carefully which organizations and which charities to support. And we should be supporting them; just because the road is long and hard and filled with setbacks doesn’t mean it’s not a road worth taking.

On Malawi – The Problems That Make Life Exciting

On a lighter note, living and working in a dysfunctional country sure is way more interesting and blog-able than your standard day living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada! As it happens I’ve had one final transportation adventure that in no way, shape or form could be replicated here in Canada. Which in all honesty is probably a good thing, since I can see that having to do this on a routine basis would get old rather quickly. But as a onetime authentic adventure travel story, accept no substitutes.

So upon leaving Mwanza for the last time at the end of my placement, I had about a five day vacation window before my flight home to Canada. Those of us on the Malawi Water and Sanitation team had previously arranged to spend it together up in Cape Maclear, which has long been the primary backpacker hangout / mecca for Malawi. It’s right on the lake in the midst of Lake Malawi National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has beaches, islands, hiking, kayaking, SCUBA diving, etc.

The beach and islands at Cape Maclear -- pretty good way to spend the holidays!

It’s also infamously difficult to get to. Stories of getting to and from Cape Maclear are the stuff of backpacker legend. And so given that I had finished up my placement and was traveling with my full backpacker pack during this journey, I’ll now add my traveling account to that list.

So Cape Maclear is in Mangochi district, which by all accounts is the most difficult district to get to in Malawi, due to the fact that none of the major highways in the country run through it, and it’s not really on the way to anywhere. You only go there if that is your final destination. So public transportation options are limited and sporadic.

So, starting off in Mwanza. Take the minibus into Blanytre (2 hours), I’ve done this many times, so it’s routine. From there take a short hop over to Limbe, the adjacent sister city of Blantyre where buses to Mangochi depart from. Again, no issues. Having done the first part of this route before I know that the minibuses going from Limbe to Mangochi don’t actually leave from the minibus station, but rather from a gas station / concession store staging area that one has to get off at about five minutes before arriving at the Limbe minibus station. Why this is, I don’t know, but at least I knew that in advance so I was prepared for it.

Find the right minibus and we get going quickly enough. About 90 minutes later we arrive in Zomba (about a third of the way to Mangochi). At this point the minibus driver decides he will take a little rest and relaxation break, and the minibus isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So he ‘sells’ me to another minibus driver in Zomba. Basically what this means is that he gave the remaining part of the fare I paid him to another minibus driver to take me the rest of the way to my destination. I don’t get a say in the matter. The idea that I would actually get the money back myself doesn’t even occur to them. So I’m now on another minibus going from Zomba up to Mangochi.

About halfway there, at Liwonde, the minibus is out of gas. The driver had been expecting to find some there, but there wasn’t, so now he can’t go any farther. Again I get ‘sold’, this time to a Matola (aka truck) driver who has a big wooden boat strapped to the back of his truck. Due to my elite Mzungu (white person) status I manage to get a seat in the cab. Others are not so lucky and have to squeeze on to the back of the truck in with the boat. We continue on our journey. As it turns out, this truck is continuing on past the town of Mangochi itself and up to Monkey Bay (which is still in Mangochi district), which I know to be the key transit point I need to get to in order to reach Cape Maclear. A stroke of luck! So I agree to continue on with them past Mangochi to Monkey Bay.

About halfway between Mangochi and Monkey Bay, the truck starts running low on fuel, so the truck driver takes a detour off the highway and into a village to go buy some black market fuel from someone he knows. He takes a shortcut through a soccer field where it clearly had just been raining the day before. We feel a lurch, then a drop and a feeling that we’re slowly sinking. The truck has gotten stuck in the mud. We’re not talking a little bit stuck here, we’re talking that truck isn’t going anywhere for hours if not days, or maybe not until that field dries out. So I get my bag and my pack out and have to walk back to the highway in the hopes of catching another ride to continue my journey.

The truck I was traveling on stuck in the mud. Excellent navigation on the part of the driver...

At this point it’s past 4PM and I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere on the highway waiting to get a lift. It’s totally dark in Malawi by about 6:30 and traveling at night is really not a good idea, so I’ve got two and a half hours left to get to Cape Maclear. After a while a truck comes along. It’s carrying a bunch of people already and is clearly in the passenger transport business today. The truck stops and the driver jumps out and tells me to get on. I ask him how much. He says 1000 Kwacha, which I know to be way too high a price for a trip to Monkey Bay that is only about 40 minutes away. He’s stubborn and won’t lower his price easily. I ask the other people on the truck how much it should be to Monkey Bay, but the driver quickly says something to them in Chichewa, and based on his tone and body language I’m going to guess he’s telling them not to tell me the real price at pain of getting left behind. At any rate they won’t say anything. We eventually agree on 800 Kwacha, which is still too high, but it’s getting late and I’m at a disadvantage in the negotiations and we both know it. So I climb on the truck and we’re off again.

Less than ten minutes later, we arrive at the next village along the highway. There are minibuses there that are just loading. The driver of the truck stops, tells me to get off and proceeds to ‘sell’ me to the minibus to take me the rest of the way to Monkey Bay. The minibus that is just loading is really packed (even by Malawi standards), and it’s clear that not everyone is going to get on. This is where the truck driver actually comes in handy though, since he pushes his way to the front of the lineup with me and my bags in tow, shoves people aside and gets me on to the minibus ahead of several other women who are none too pleased with this development and start yelling and screaming at him for denying them a place on the bus.  So we’re on our way again.

At 5:30 I’ve gotten to Monkey Bay, and as luck would have it the last truck for the day going to Cape Maclear is only about ten minutes away from departing (minibuses don’t go there at all). I jump on and we take off along the unpaved dirt road from Monkey Bay to Mangochi just as the sun is setting behind the hills as we drive through Lake Malawi National Park. Beautiful! Arrive in Cape Maclear at 6:15 just as it’s getting dark and just in time for a lovely pizza dinner with the other WatSan team members. See, isn’t traveling in Malawi fun?

As far as departing from Cape Maclear goes, that was a piece of cake. Two hour wait until I could hitchhike on a truck, then another hour waiting in the hot sun before catching another truck to Golomoti, then a quick minibus change to Salima, overnight stay in Salima in the midst of a city wide power failure, then a minibus to Lilongwe the next morning. Easy as pie.

Engineers Without Borders and Last Thoughts:

As for Cape Maclear itself, well, that was spent hanging out with the Malawi Water and Sanitation team, or at least the people on the team who were still in Malawi over the holidays (about six of us). I haven’t really talked much about the team in these blog posts, and that’s sort of been intentional since I’ve wanted to keep the focus on the work we’re doing as much as possible. But at the beginning of these blogs I started off by talking about the team and Engineers Without Borders, so I think it’s a nice full circle that I finish up by talking about them.

The team in Cape Maclear over Christmas

So my total amount of time on the ground in Malawi where I was actually able to be effective was about four months. That may seem like a lot of time to be off volunteering, but it’s really not, particularly when you are over there to do a job that is every bit as difficult as that one you’re getting paid for back in Canada. And that’s where the team comes in. During my time in Malawi there have been eighteen members of the Water and Sanitation team, sixteen of whom are long term volunteers (meaning a minimum commitment of at least one year, and generally extendable to two or three years). These are the people who do the real meat and potatoes work on the team. Like any job, it takes time to get up to speed on the work, all the more so when that work is taking place in a brand new country with all sorts of cultural barriers to figure out. I know for my placement, the only reason that I was able to get anything accomplished was the fact that I had people on the team supporting me and helping me out every step of the way, which was hugely appreciated. So a big thank you shout-out goes to everyone on the Malawi WatSan team that I worked with over the course of my placement.

The EWB Malawi Water and Sanitation team, circa October 2011; thanks to all of you!

The whole sector team framework is relatively new to EWB. They’ve only been around for about four years, before that it was individual volunteers working on individual projects. Having been around EWB for all of those four years, I can definitely say the evolution and sophistication of the teams and the work they are doing over those four years has been pretty impressive. They’ve basically gone from ground zero to having a comprehensive strategy in place for having impact in both the water and sanitation sectors in the country, which is pretty impressive.

And this is due to the people on the team. A really great group of people that it’s been my pleasure to work with over the last four months, and I have complete confidence that they are going to continue to do good work with the team they have there running the show. ‘Course nobody’s perfect and I would be the first person to say that there are definitely places where Engineers Without Borders can grow and improve on its current performance. But there is a time and place for such constructive criticism, and this blog isn’t it.

So finally, was this worth it? Am I glad I went on this placement and do I feel it was worth the financial and other sacrifices that were required to pull this off? For me the answer was undoubtedly yes. Opportunities to do something like this don’t come along every day, and I am very grateful that this opportunity came along for me and I was able to take it. A really awesome confluence of traveling to a fascinating part of the world, participating in a useful and important development project, and being able to work and interact with a really great group of people.

Anyway, I hope everyone who’s been reading these blogs has been enjoying them and has gotten something out of them. I’ve enjoyed writing them, and if in any way I’ve inspired anybody to think more about or perhaps even take action on some of the major challenges that people are faced with in this world we all live in, then I consider that mission accomplished.

Farewell Malawi!

Take care everybody! Until the next adventure…

Kevin Hanson
Calgary Chapter Professional Fellow
Malawi Water and Sanitation Team
Engineers Without Borders Canada
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Final Placement Thoughts Part 1: Mwanza and the District Water Office

Wow, so after about four and a half months I’m pretty much at the end of my time here in the district and in Malawi. The time has gone by really fast, so I’m already at the point of having to wrap up my work, wrap up my thoughts and start the transition of moving back to Canada and resuming my life there. I’m going to split this up into two parts, final thoughts on Mwanza specifically and final thoughts on Malawi generally.

On the District Water Office:

So, the place where I spent most of my working hours, and the key focus of my placement, so to a significant extent the success of my time in Malawi can be measured by how well I accomplished my goals here in the office. A mixed bag to be sure. In terms of the role that the District Water Office plays in the water sector in Malawi, I can definitely see why EWB chooses to partner with them. They are a critical lynchpin to the ability of the Malawian government long term to be able to provide water support services to people in rural communities, so their being able to carry out that mandate effectively is pretty important.

Generally speaking, at this point the district has many of the basic resources they need to be successful at this, but they don’t have the skills, experience and motivation necessary to effectively make use of them. So embedding volunteers at the district water office to help provide them with said experience, skills and motivation seems like a pretty good strategy to me, but having to be the one to implement it can be holy crap frustrating at times.

Generally for any job I’ve had I’ve tried to take the view that if you don’t have any work to do then you’re not looking hard enough, which has been at times difficult to reconcile with people sitting around and not doing anything unless they are given a specific task to do, which is so often what I’ve seen over here. Waiting around for things to happen is pretty much a way of life for many, many people that I’ve seen, and it’ really hard to change that over to a mindset of taking the initiative on improving something and taking personal ownership of making it work better. There have been many times in the workplace these last few months here I’ve had to grit my teeth and remind myself that there are a lot of fundamental underlying reasons as to why things are the way they are, and if I had been raised in this environment I likely would have turned out the same way. So pointing fingers at individuals and identifying them as lazy is totally unfair, but man is it tempting sometimes.

Hard at work at the office

So given that general context, I’m actually pretty happy with where we ended up at the end of three months that I spent in the Mwanza District Water Office.

On the water point mapping project, after eight long months of working at it (summertime Junior Fellow Ali, then myself), including numerous setbacks and two rounds of data collection, there finally exists a functional, working database for Mwanza District! Key progress in the last few weeks in the District:

  • We found a data entry clerk working in the Office of Planning and Development who was able to get all the field data entered in really quickly and efficiently.
  • Did a full review with Water Monitoring Assistant Willard on all the hardcopy water point functionality field survey forms, both to ensure the data was correct, but also to get him comfortable with the process so he can do this himself once I’m gone
  • Sat down with the district’s Water Officer, Health Officer, and Director of Planning and Development and gave all of them a copy of the database and went through it with all of them and talked with them on how it works and ways they could use this information in their work going forward. They were all very enthusiastic about the tool and the information that it was providing them. I was particularly impressed with the Director of Health’ reaction, which was to request that we expand the database to include key sanitation indicators on a village by village basis along with water. This is already something that is being done in other districts (notably Salima), but the fact that he brought up the idea himself rather than having it suggested to him is a really good sign that he is looking at how best to make this tool work for the needs of his district, so that gives me hope that this tool is going to be used.

Functional Mwanza Water Point Database!

To be sure, we haven’t declared full victory on this one just yet. There are still a bunch of places where this could fall apart going forward, so some level of ongoing support and follow-up from EWB will still be needed to ensure these gains are solidified and built upon.

  • The water office needs to be able to carry out a data collection and data entry round on their own without EWB handholding them every step of the way
  • Expected staff turnovers and transfers could erode the gains we’ve made in this area.
  • Any customizing of the spreadsheet tool will likely require outside support (i.e. EWB), at least in the short term
  • The district still needs to demonstrate that they will actually use this tool when doing real decision making on how and where new capital is allocated. An opportunity like that hasn’t come up just yet…

On the field research I was doing regarding the underlying reasons for broken water points and why they’re not getting repaired, clear wins are a bit more difficult to point to here, simply because this is a pretty new area for us, and we’re not as far along in figuring out this focus area. After doing a lot of back and forth between the members of the team who are working on this area, we’ve narrowed our focus down to a few key areas where we think we can have leverage in helping District Water Offices do a better job of working with communities to repair water points.

For last few weeks of my placement specifically, I was able to take key steps forward for two of these areas that the team will be able to build on going forward:

  • Duncan and I managed to get the District Health Officer to put together a proposal for formalizing the role that Health Surveillance Assistants can have in communicating information back and forth between the Water Office and Water Point Committees in rural parts of the district. This is building off of the arrangement that is already in place with the water point functionality surveys, but we want to expand this arrangement to be broader in scope and cover more areas, since what we’ve been seeing is that the issue of water point committees not knowing what to do or who to contact in the event of a breakdown is a key area of concern. This isn’t really something that can be implemented ad hoc in a single district though, so it will need to be reviewed by other districts and then potentially brought forward to the national government as a potential policy change, but this is a really good first step.
  • District Water Officer Edgar and I also put together a draft document regarding who is responsible for purchasing specific spare parts (communities or the district government) in the event that spare parts are needed for a repair. This has been a major point of confusion in all the interviews and so on we’ve been doing among both the District Water Offices and rural communities. Everyone points fingers at everyone else and say that someone else is responsible, with the end result being that no one step up and pays for the part, and the water points remain broken. Try as we might, we’ve been totally unable to locate any sort of official document or policy that clarifies this situation, so we’re looking to work with  communities and the district to create a role definition document and get it adopted and adhered to by all parties. So this is the draft we’ve come up with so far. Everyone in Mwanza likes it, so the hope is that we can move forward on this area as well and get more communities to step up to the plate and take responsibility for raising money to buy parts and thus repair their own water pump. So we’ll see!

Water Pump Spare Parts Roles and Responsibilities Document

But yeah, that was my time at the Mwanza District Water Office. I said my goodbye to everyone at the office in the day leading up to Christmas, everyone was very appreciative of the time that I spent working with them in the office and in particular expressed their appreciation with the fact that I was able to make tangible improvements during my time here that they can see have potential to improve the way they do their jobs.

On Mwanza:

More generally about Mwanza, I’ve enjoyed my time here in the district living in a village and with my host family Mr. and Mrs. Juma. I spent a total of about three months in that living arrangement, and it was a really good experience. Not everyone who goes overseas with EWB has the opportunity to do a village stay for such a prolonged period (some placements lend themselves better to it than others), but I think I ended up with a good balance between authentic Malawi village living vs. having access to the resources I needed to carry out my job effectively.

Mwanza itself is not the most overtly scenic district in Malawi, it’s nowhere near the lake, and the district capital (they’re called Boma’s) isn’t particularly impressive as far as Boma’s go. But it grows on you somewhat as you live there for a while. Mwanza is one of the more hilly areas of Malawi, which for one thing makes for really nice sunsets. Also, the town is very spread out along the highway, which does make for long walks sometimes, but that can be a really nice thing when, say for example it’s 5:30 in the afternoon, things have cooled down, the sun is setting behind the mountains and there is a long colorful stream of people walking home along the sides of the highway.

Sunset walking through the village

Anyway, my final days in the village went something like this. For my last evening in the village, I finish up at work around 5PM, and walk back along the highway to the village turnoff where I’m living (it takes about half an hour). Stop in to say hi to Mr. Juma at his store, and then head back to the house in the village while it’s still light out. I’m familiar enough with the route now to be able to walk back home after it’s dark out if necessary, but if I walk the route home at about 5:40 PM, I can hit it just at the right time when the sun is setting behind the hills just as I am descending into the valley that runs through the village. I arrive back at the house and say hi (in Chichewa) to Mrs. Juma who’s just getting back from the market with food for dinner, change out of my work clothes, grab my book (The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski – highly recommended) and sit out on the front porch of the house reading the last few chapters while people walk past me on the village road (i.e. dirt path). Before long there’s a crowd of local village kids (around 5 to 7 years old) that have gathered around me to watch me read.

The village road at sunset

This happens often. Doesn’t matter what mundane activity I’m doing (washing clothes, polishing shoes, reading my book), the fact that I am a mzungu doing this makes it apparently quite exciting. Some of them chatter on to me in Chichewa, I reply back to them in English, they can’t understand me and I can’t understand them, but they seem to enjoy the exchange.

Kid from the village. He has no idea what this shirt signifies

After about an hour or so it gets dark out, the kids go home, Mr. Juma comes home from the shop, and we sit down and have dinner. Dinner tonight is pretty standard, nsima, brown beans and rape (greenish vegetable similar to lettuce only darker with presumably more nutrients). No utensils, everything is by hand. By the time we are finished and everything is cleaned up, it’s past 8PM and that means time to go to bed. It’s my last night in Mwanza so I first go outside to take a last look at the night sky. It’s a perfectly clear night (no clouds at all in the midst of the rainy season, nice for me but turning into a bit of a disaster for the rain dependant farmers in the village), so I’m able to see every star in the night sky since no electricity means no light pollution. I say good night to everyone, go into my little room, arrange my mosquito net around the bed then go to sleep on top of the sheets (generally it’s too hot to sleep underneath them).

Mr. Juma in his Sunday best clothes

In the morning I finish the last of my packing, sit down for a last breakfast at the house (tea, bread and rice porridge), and we say our goodbyes. I present them with a little beaver statue that I had brought with me to remind them of Canada, along with the maple syrup I had already given them when I showed them how to make French toast the weekend prior. I thank them very much for having me in their home for the last three months, and they reply that they were very happy to have me stay with them and that they will miss me once I am gone. Mr. and Mrs. Juma then both walk me to the highway and help me carry my bags, we do a final farewell there, and then we part ways with me heading off on to my final few days vacation before heading home to Canada.

The path leading away from the house for the last time...

One more blog to go on my final days in Malawi and final reflections on my placement. Until then…

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Malawi Transportation Encyclopedia

OK, so this is a bit of a stand-alone blog I’ve been putting together in my head for a while now, so I figured I should post it. The key bottleneck has been getting photos for some of these, since taking out one’s expensive camera in the middle of a sketchy bus station isn’t always a good idea, but I managed it. Transportation is always one of the more interesting experiences in getting around Malawi (or anywhere in Africa), so it’s probably good to give everyone a sense of how things work over here. Thus, some key transportation options are as below.

The key theme for pretty much all of these is PATIENCE. The concepts of efficiency, punctuality and effective time management don’t always resonate strongly with people in Malawi, and so one has to adapt to things not happening quickly.

Buses (full size):
Pretty standard mode of long distance transportation anywhere, although in Malawi the catch is that with the exception of one bus company, there is no set schedule for when the buses leave. The bus leaves when it is full, and not before. Full by the way means every seat filled along with all the standing space in the isle filled as well. So if you’re getting on the bus at a bad time, say late morning or early afternoon, you could be waiting there on the bus for several hours in the hot sun before it actually gets going. Once it does get going, the whole concept of an express bus is foreign to them, and they will stop anywhere and everywhere along the way to drop people off, pick people up, let people off to take a crap in the bushes, stop so people can buy food from the street vendors, etc.
It is an excellent way to see the whole cross section of Malawian society though. On two occasions while traveling on one of these buses we had travelling preachers on the bus who gave an impromptu sermon, followed by passing a hat around and asking for contributions, then singing church hymns. Basically it’s about 50% Sunday church service and 50% travelling snake oil salesman (the flashiness of one of the guy’s ties was insane), but quite interesting regardless.

Big bus at the station waiting for passengers

These are pretty much the backbone of public transportation in Malawi. Essentially they are extended minivans that have four benches in them in addition to the front seats, meaning they can take fifteen passengers (children don’t count) in addition to the driver and the conductor (he lets people on and off). Fifteen is thus not the maximum number of people that they can fit on, but rather the minimum number of people that need to be on the bus before it sets off on its destination. They will always find room to pick up more people along the way. As with the big buses, there is no schedule and they leave whenever they have enough people on them.
These buses get used both for intercity transport and for transport from smaller villages and towns into the big regional centres. There’s usually a set price that is known to regular travelers, but if they see an opportunity to price gouge someone (i.e. an unaware foreign traveller), they will definitely take it. The minibus drivers all compete with one another as well, so more than once I’ve had arguments break out over who gets my business. Luggage is always an interesting issue since there is very little space set aside for it. Usually it will end up on people’s laps or under the seats. If it’s a particularly problematic piece of luggage (really smelly fish or live chickens), then the conductor may charge extra for that.

Minibus that is slowly filling up with people...

Otherwise known as ‘the back of a truck’, these Matolas tend to pick people up on highways, not very well travelled routes or other very outlying areas where there are basically no other options for transport other than walking long distances in the hot sun. As with all other Malawian forms of transportation they cram the maximum number of people that they can on to these trucks in order to maximize profit, so the key is to find a spot in the truck that allows for some sort of hand hold and perhaps being able to sit down.
Due to the number of family members reading this blog I will decline to give a number as to how many times I’ve needed to make use of this mode of transportation, except to say that I’ve kept it to a bare minimum, and only when there aren’t any other alternatives.

Matola loaded up with supplies. These also carry passengers

Border-Border Taxis:
Standard four door sedans that have a bit of a unique set-up here in Mwanza where I am based. Basically, the Mwzana town centre is spread out in an extremely linear manner along the highway, making it not particularly easy for people to walk from one point to another. So there are a whole bunch of privately run taxi cabs that take people back and forth along the highway anywhere between the police border checkpoint and the Mozambique border (about 7 or 8 km apart) for a flat rate that USED to be 50MK per person but due to fuel issues has now doubled to 100 MK . REALLY convenient for getting around although as with everything else they do pack as many people in as they can (up to six passengers per car plus the driver).
Bicycle Taxis:
Similar to the Border-Border taxis in that they are for intra-city or intra-town transportation, except these are bicycles, not cars. They have a second seat built on to them sort of above the back wheel where someone can sit, and sometimes little handlebars as well extending from the back of the main set. You pay the owner of the bicycle a little bit of money, like 20 MK ($0.15), then he peddles really hard up the hills and doesn’t use his peddles (or brakes) at all on the down-hills and gets you to your destination. Helmets are not worn, and it’s always an interesting adventure swerving around holes in the road, pedestrians other people on bicycles and vehicles!

Bike taxis waiting for passengers

Basically a necessity for travelling significant distances off the main highways. Only the main highways are paved in Malawi, and once you get off those you get pretty quickly into what can only charitably be called roads. Packed dirt and rocks that start washing out at the slightest bit of rain that are very difficult to get around in the dry season and are pretty much impassible in the rainy season. Four wheel drive, really good suspension and a skilled driver are thus absolute necessities to get around the rural parts of the district, and even then it’s stressful and nerve racking. This is a photo of the District Water Office’s truck, which runs on diesel, is new and is in good condition since it was provided as part of the UNICEF support that the district receives.

The District Water Office's truck for the field

See the above description for an assessment of why Malawi’s roads make these necessary. Basically small little off-road motorcycles that can carry two people that are also really useful for getting around the district. Not as much range as a truck, but pretty light on fuel, which is a major asset in fuel starved Malawi. Similar to the truck, the water office has two motorcycles which were provided to it by UNICEF, so they are in pretty good condition…

One of the district's two motorcycles

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The Roller Coaster of Development Successes and Failures

So I’m getting closer and closer to the end of my time here in Malawi. Wow it’s gone by fast. As such I’ve been increasingly focussing on ways of wrapping up the projects I’ve been working on and ensuring that everything is in place for these initiatives to move forward on their own without me once I’m gone.

At least that’s the goal. I had some interesting experiences this week that sort of illustrate the ups and downs of how tricky that is. Over the last few days we had two really inspiring successes for the projects I’ve been working on, and two equally demoralizing setbacks. So it’s been a pretty interesting week as far as work progress goes:

Inspiring Success #1:

So as you may recall from one of my earlier blogs, I spent the first few weeks of my placement up in Nkhata Bay district working on some Area Mechanic advertising support initiatives there. At this point it was about time to do a three month follow-up assessment of those initiatives and see how well they were proceeding on their own without my active support. I would have done this follow-up myself, except that Nkhata Bay is way up at the other end of the country from Mwanza where I am now, and I just didn’t have enough time remaining here in the country to justify taking a week or more to go up there and come back.

So instead, one of my coaches Duncan McNicholl went and did the follow-up. First initiative to check on was the Area Mechanic business cards that I had put together. What he found was that the District Water Office had taken the business card template that I had given them, adapted it for each and every one of the 41 Area Mechanics in the district, and at their own expense printed off a starter set of 10 cards for each Area Mechanics and distributed them out! A great of example of the District Water Office taking an initiative, making it their own, and without any further encouragement from us needed, scaled it up to their entire district using their own funds and their own resources in a totally sustainable way. Really exciting! Duncan also talked with some of the specific Area Mechanics we had given business cards to as a pilot project, and they reported good success with it, the cards were being widely distributed, and their business was increasing, and they were getting new calls from villages they had never been to before as a result of the business cards! So a win-win scenario for both the mechanics who are getting new business, and the villages who are having their water points repaired as compared to before when they weren’t.

To be sure, not a complete success since the printing shops we had given the template hadn’t seen any business yet of Area Mechanics coming in and asking for more copies of the business cards (why would they if the District is giving them cards for free?), but definitely a major step in the right direction.

Demoralizing Failure #1

So the other initiative from Nkhata Bay that Duncan checked up on was the Area Mechanic advertising sign that had been painted for Herbert (he’s the person I stayed with while I was up there). As you may recall for this one, the sign had already been partially painted by the time that I got there, and for a number of reasons I won’t get into here the full cost of painting that sign thus far ended up getting covered by EWB (Hebert didn’t have to pay anything for it).

Going forward, we had resolved that for sustainability and ownership reasons that we would not subsidize the cost of completing this sign any further. This was Herbert’s sign, and if he was ever going to take ownership of it, now was the time and he was going to have to take the lead on finishing this sign. So before I left I sat down with Herbert and gave him exactly that message, that this was his sign, it was his responsibility to finish it and that we would not be finishing it for him. I said this to him in person, and again several times in follow-up phone calls.

Three months later when Duncan checked up on it this week, the sign still isn’t finished. Herbert hasn’t lifted a finger to get it finished during this time period. Upon more detailed questioning by Duncan, there was no specific problem preventing him from finishing it (he had access to all the resources needed, and sufficient cash available to pay for the sign completion), so when Duncan asked him why he hadn’t finished the sign yet his response was “Am I Supposed To Pay?”

When Duncan told me this over the phone, I pretty much flipped out (swear words were involved), and it was possibly a good thing that I hadn’t done the follow-up in person on this once, since I don’t know if I would have been able to keep my temper after that little gem of a response. Basically it seems like he’s gotten the idea into his head that if he waits around long enough, a nice Mzungu (white person) will come around and finish the sign for him and he won’t have to do anything himself, because that’s exactly what happened the first time when the sign was originally painted. If there’s a better example of why simply giving things to people when doing development work is a bad idea, I haven’t heard it.

So at this point Duncan has reiterated firmly (again) to Herbert that this is his sign and his responsibility to pay for finishing it. As far as EWB goes, hell will freeze over before we give him another cent to get that sign finished, because all that would do is reinforce the notion that other people are always going to come in and solve his problems for him. Whether or not Herbert gets that message and finishes the sign on his own is anyone’s guess at this point, but we’ve pretty much given up and declared failure on this one. REALLY frustrating…

Inspiring Success #2

Now back to Mwanza District. One of the projects I’m working on here is the water point functionality mapping project, and this was a big week for it. As you may recall from my last blog, Round 1 of getting the survey forms back from the field staff happened in August and we only got 16 back out of ~140. So pretty disappointing. This second time around we tried this again, and this time I worked closely with the District Water Officer and District Health Officer to make sure we did a really good job on the form orientation to the health office field staff. We identified already scheduled field staff meetings that would work well for these orientations and then arranged for one of the key district people (the Water Officer, the Health Officer, the Water, Environment & Sanitation Coordinator) to personally attend these meetings and do the survey form orientations. We had a really good prep meeting where we went over the problems encountered with the forms in Round 1 and identified ways of resolving them in Round 2.

As a result, the orientations went really well, all the forms got distributed, the field staff asked thoughtful questions that indicated they actually intended to fill them out, and we collected them this week. 105 forms out of 140! A major improvement over Round 1 and we may still get a few more trickling in! The District Water Officer (Edgar) and the District Health Officer both showed excellent leadership and collaboration during this initiative, and it was their willingness to communicate directly to the field staff that this was an important initiative that needed to be carried out played a major role in successfully getting these forms filled out and collected.

Demoralizing Failure #2

So it’s pretty evident that the next step in this water point functionality process is to enter all of the hardcopy form data into the spreadsheet so that we can take a look at the data, analyze it and start drawing conclusions from it. This last week would have been the perfect week for this task too, since Edgar the District Water Office was out of the office all week at a conference giving a paper, so the computer was available all week for me to train up Willard, the Water Monitoring Assistant on how to do the data entry for this initiative.

This didn’t happen. Willard flat out refused to do it. I talked to him about it repeatedly, and he kept coming up with excuse after excuse for why he wouldn’t do this. There was no power in the office (we had already moved the computer over to another building that did have power) The computer was too far away (it was 50 metres away in a country where everyone walks everywhere). It was too hot out (the office was the coolest place anywhere in the vicinity), and so on. Eventually on Friday afternoon the truth came out, which was that Edgar had not informed him in advance that he would be away for the week and had not provided him with any tasks to do, and as such as some sort of payback, he was not willing to do any work that week, preferring simply to sit around underneath the mango tree the whole time.

The underlying cause of this tension is that Willard the Water Monitoring Assistant is the older employee with lots of field and practical experience but very little formal training, and Edgar the District Water Officer is the young, ambitious, up and coming guy with a fancy university degree under his belt, but not a lot of time spent on the ground or in the field. So the two men don’t like each other very much, and this week it came to a head, and this initiative we’ve been pushing has been the casualty of petty, childish office politics. Definitely not one of the things I came to Africa to experience.

The only positive is that this initiative we’re pushing is at present a bargaining chip in this disagreement, not the cause of it, so the hope is that this is just a temporary setback and nothing more. Definitely though another tear my hair out moment of frustration.


So yeah, a pretty mixed week, and it sometimes seems like for every step forward we take in one place, we end up taking a step backwards somewhere else, but I’m still confident that over the long run, these success add up and we overall are making forward progress, it’s just REALLY slow going sometimes.

Anyway, three and a half weeks left in my placement! My flight out is on December 28th, so I’ll see if I can get in at least two more blogs during that period. Thanks for reading!

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Ahh, the Elusiveness of Field Level Change

OK, a Mwanza district work blog at long last! So here follows a rather long blog that is all about the stuff I’ve been working on here in Mwanza District in Malawi. Either before or after you read this though, I would also definitely encourage everyone to check out the following link to my Perspectives fundraising campaign for Engineers Without Borders Canada, which is the organization I’m over here working for. A large chunk of the money that is needed to fund the Malawi Water and Sanitation team, along with all our other operations, comes through charitable donations, so any support you feel you can provide to continue the work we’re doing would be really appreciated! Thank you so much!

So anyway, I’m here based in the Mwanza District Water Office for a period of about three months to work on two different initiatives here. More on those in a bit, but first a little bit of background on what the Water Office and its staff are like:

The Mwanza District Water Office where I'm working

Mwanza district is actually quite a small district, and so the water office does not have a huge number of employees. In fact they number a total of five, which are as follows:

  • Edgar is the District Water Officer (DWO), so he’s in charge and is the key decision maker for all water related matters in the district, so he’s the key person I’m working with on the goals of my project.
  • Willard is the Water Monitoring Assistant (WMA), has been in the district for 15+ years and has extensive field knowledge of the district and where all the water points are, so he’s been the person I’ve been going out to the field with whenever I need to do research.
  • Charles is Borehole Maintenance Overseer (BMO), which is actually a position that no longer exists, but because a job with the Malawian government is basically a job for life, he’s still working in this job until he retires. Essentially his role is to repair broken water points, which is a function that is now supposed to be filled by private sector Area Mechanics.
  • Joseph is the driver for the water office’s truck, along with the two motorcycles the office has (all provided by UNICEF).
  • Winter is the office janitor

Edgar the District Water Officer and myself

So when I got told that I was going to be placed in Mwanza District, I was given explicit assurances that this was a ‘High Functioning District’, which I now find to be a somewhat terrifying idea when I then think about what a low functioning district would look like. Basically a standard day in the high functioning Mwanza Water Office looks something like this:

  • I arrive sometime between 8 and 8:30 in the morning. Often I’m the first one there. I get the key from Charles who lives right next door, and with that his role in the office is basically finished for the day.
  • Edgar is usually in by 9, everyone else is usually in by 10. Edgar and I set to work in the office, the rest of the staff get out the office benches and radio, place them nicely under the shade of the Mango tree outside, and proceed to relax in the shade for the rest of the morning.
  • At noon, everyone locks up and goes for lunch. I go to one of the nearby restaurants, they tend to go home and have their wives cook them lunch, and they are almost always back in the office by no later than 3PM.
  • After a few more afternoon hours of Mango tree shade time, everyone locks up for the day right at 5PM, we hand the office key (key singular, there’s only one copy with no backup) back to Charles and head home, satisfied with our good day’s work.

The District Water Office staff in the office

So you may be forgiven after reading this that the people in the office are very lazy and not good for anything, which is actually not the impression that I want to give. Instead, there are serious institutional problems with how Malawi functions that discourage people from working to their full potential.

More specifically, when you get a job with the Malawi government, you basically have that job for life. Nobody ever gets fired or laid off from the Malawi government. Also, as far as I can tell there’s not really any such thing as a performance review. So what happens is people are locked into a situation where there is no incentive for hard work because there is no avenue for advancement, nor any consequences for poor performance. Thus you get this ongoing status quo situation where everyone just carries on with the motions of doing their job, content to be getting their steady pay cheque which is a valuable commodity in this country.

It’s interesting though that when properly motivated, these same people can end up becoming quite useful in their jobs. Everyone has been very helpful to me and is always ready to take on tasks if there is something they can help out with the work that I am doing. Willard the WMA in particular has spent long hot days out in the field with me to help me on my project, which has been quite useful. The difference here is that they care about helping me, not because they are motivated by the goals of their job description. Similarly, there are individuals in the system who are high performers (Edgar being one of them, which is why I got put in this district), but where this happens it is despite the system, not because of it.

The building manager, Willard the WMA and me

An interesting episode that happened last week is that apparently one of the water points in the home village of the local Member of Parliament broke down. At this point, the people in the village, rather than doing what they should have done, which is have their local Water Point Committee contact a local mechanic to come and fix the water point and then pay him for the repair, instead bypassed the system and contacted their Member of Parliament directly. Apparently then the MP then went and contacted the District Commissioner to demand that this water point be fixed immediately, the District Commissioner had to come in from vacation to deal with this, and then the staff of the water office had to put everything else on hold to immediately go out and repair this water point, which it turned out was a minor repair that the village could easily have dealt with on their own.

Aside from the issue of politicians wielding power they perhaps should not be wielding, the speed at which that water point got repaired was quite impressive. Probably less than 24 hours from the point the district found about it to the time of repair. Obviously an extreme situation, but it served to illustrate to me that there is nothing fundamentally preventing the water points in the district from being in working condition, provided the correct resources and motivation are in place.

Which is of course the crux of the problem, and solving it is not a trivial matter, otherwise it would have been done long ago. During my time here in the district I’m focused on making progress on two little pieces of this puzzle, which are as follows:

Water Point Mapping & Analysis

So it’s the responsibility of the District Water Office to ensure that the rural areas of the district have a sufficient number of functional water points that are effectively distributed so that as many people living in the district as possible have access to safe water. Fundamentally, that mandate is pretty hard to fulfill if the water office has no idea where all the water points are or what their state of functionality is. As such, a self-evident first step is to create a database and/or map of where all the water points in the district are and what their status is.

As always, easier said than done. The district on its own doesn’t have the resources to pull off something like this, and there have been many attempts by NGOs and so on to do this over the years, generally resulting in failure. In taking a look at these past attempts, a key commonality has been that high tech ‘Western’ approaches such GPS mapping have been used which are not all that well suited to the on the ground situation in Malawi. Regarding GPS for example, there are probably about 10 people in the country that have the tools, training and experience needed to analyze and manipulate GPS coordinate data, so to expect the district water staff with their one computer and two people capable of using it to keep such a database up to date over the long term is just not realistic.

Instead what our team is trying is a low tech approach that the district can move forward with and maintain on their own without outside support. Basically it looks like this:

Once the data's collected it gets compiled into this pivot table

Once the data's into the pivot table, it get's put on to this neat color coded map of the district (this is the Salima district map, not Mwanza)

So a pretty basic excel based spreadsheet with some snazzy pivot tables in there do to some basic calculations and visual color coding to denote good vs. bad water point coverage. It’s also got a color coded map to show you which parts of the district need more functional water points and which don’t.  So going forward, when the district has a decision to make on where new boreholes should be drilled or which water points are most in need of repair, this is a really good tool to refer to, in contrast to the standard procedure for picking locations which includes the following:

  • Which villages are closest to the district capital and main highways, and thus easiest to get to
  • Which villages complain the loudest
  • Which villages have the most powerful politicians

‘Course, in order for this thing to be useful, it has to be populated with accurate and current information. So that’s the other part of the challenge is collecting field data on a regular basis using current district staff to make it sustainable. So on that front we have a hardcopy water point functionality form looks something like this:

The form that we're giving to the District field staff. Mainly assembled by my predecessor Ali Molaro

The idea here is that every quarter we get the Health Surveillance Assistants (HSAs) from the District Health Office to fill in this form. HSAs are ground level health workers who are embedded in the villages and can thus figure out how many boreholes each village has and what their condition is without too much trouble.

So this is what I’ve been trying to in Mwanza. Basically set up a system where data collection forms get distributed to the field staff once per quarter, they get filled in promptly and accurately, the forms are handed in on schedule, the information is entered into the database correctly, then the results are analyzed and conclusions are drawn from this data set.

This sounds easy enough from a Canadian standpoint, but from a Malawian standpoint here are some of the challenges I’ve been facing:

  • None of the field staff has an e-mail account or access to a computer, nor would they know how to use a computer even if they did have one. So everything has to be done by hardcopy forms, and if those forms get lost, then the data is lost
  • There is a grand total of one computer in the District Water Office, with a total of one person with a computer experience level of anything more than simple data entry (Edgar).
  • We had a lovely occurrence where one of the Health Zone Supervisors swears up and down that he turned his forms in to the Health Office, and the Health Office swears up and down equally as much that they did not receive any such forms. The hardcopy forms are now lost.
  • This project is a collaborative effort between the District Water Office (who needs the information) and the District Health Office (who has the staff needed to collect the information). So two different government departments and bureaucracies that don’t naturally work together, being asked to work together for the greater good.
  • As always, getting the staff in the district to take ownership of this project and move it forward without my help is crucial. If this initiative falls apart as soon as I leave, then I’m not doing much good here.

So where we are now with this is we’re presently at work with Round 2 of the form distribution to the field staff. Round 1 was done back in August, but unfortunately we only got 16 out of ~135 forms back. So we’re trying again, but this time really pushing to ensure that a proper orientation gets done so the field staff understands the importance of filling in the form and making sure they know how to fill it in properly.

Understanding the Causes of Non-Functional Water Points

So then the other area I’m working on is investigating the causes as to why broken water points are not getting repaired. This is where the field research comes in, since we’ve been trying to get out to as many non-functional water points as possible to interview members of each village. Each water point is supposed to have a Water Point Committee (WPC), and it is their responsibility to maintain and repair the water point as problems occur with it. So we’re looking at situations where this is not occurring and trying to understand the underlying causes of why.

Which means field research! We go out by either truck or motorcycle to far flung parts of the district where we have information that there is a non-functional water point, find a member of the local water point committee, and then interview them about the causes of why the water point is broken, what they’re doing to fix it and so on.

Non-functional borehole out in one of the villages

All sorts of challenges with this as well. Some of the key ones being:

  • Translation. I speak English, they speak Chichewa, so I have to rely on Willard the WMA who comes with me to translate, which is a less than perfect set up. More than once he’s started rambling on in Chichewa for an extended period with the village member, then I get a five word reply back from him in English…
  • People in the villages telling the rich, white Mzungu what they think he wants to hear, rather than what is actually happening with the water point.
  • People intentionally giving the wrong answers for cultural or political reasons

Here’s an example of this last issue. Actual conversation between me and Willard (the Water Monitoring Assistant for the district):

Me: Willard, how far away would you say this broken pump is from the nearest working water point?

Willard: Oh, about one kilometre.

Me: Willard, that can’t be right. We just passed another water pump coming over here. It’s right over that hill, it can’t be more than 200 metres away.

Willard: Oh no, it is one kilometre away

Me: No, that’s definitely not right. We could walk over there in less than five minutes. I’m writing down 200 metres for this one.

Willard (after long silence): It is because the government says that water points must be distributed one kilometre apart, so I do not want it recorded that we have two water points so close together.

After that little episode I had to have a discussion with Willard about the importance of having reliable information when making decisions, and then had to go back and take a second look at my ‘distance to the nearest water point’ data and try to figure out if it was even still usable. Sigh.

Willard at a Malda pump (shallow well) checking to see if it's working

So after gathering as much information as we can from the district on this subject, the goal then is to identify the primary causes of water point non-repair and potential solutions for them. Some of the causes we’ve been investigating are:

Communities lack the ability to pay for repairs

This is sort of the cop out, ‘we’re too poor, we need you to give us money’ answer that is often the obvious first response that people give. This is definitely where knowledgeable questioning and follow-up interview questions come in handy, so as to determine if this is actually the case, or if they’re making use of the fact that a white westerner with (they assume) money to spend has come asking them what they need. There are indeed cases where it is true that communities are just flat out too poor or too small to afford to raise money for a repair, but it’s not nearly as common as one would think at first glance. Even for a community of say 250 people where people make $2 a day, they are still capable of coughing up $30 for a typical borehole repair, that’s only a one time cost of twelve cents per person for a basic necessity of life.

The broken boreholes are of little value to the community, who are thus unwilling to pay for repairs to them

This is the scenario where the non-functional boreholes have something wrong with them (other than the fact that they’re broken J). This could be things like they’ve dried up or are producing very little water, or the water is salty and thus undrinkable. It can also be things like they drilled the borehole right next to another borehole, so what’s the point of repairing it if it’s right next to a functional one? Or, it could be just a lemon of a borehole that keeps breaking down every time you repair it, which really kills enthusiasm for spending money on yet another repair.

So this definitely comes up as an issue, but it’s not the top reason, at least not in Mwanza. Also, a lot of times these types of problems are the result of mistakes that got made when the locations of the boreholes were originally being picked, and remedial action once they’re actually drilled is pretty difficult.

Trust me, there are more things wrong with this one than just the handle missing...

There is confusion regarding who is responsible for repairing water points (the community or the district), and consequently they don’t get repaired at all

This problem stems from the fact that there are all sorts of different actors in the rural Malawi water sector, such as communities, districts, politicians, NGOs, and so on, and they’re very often not on the same page as to who should be doing what in terms of repairing water points. Some problems:

  • Communities think someone else should be repairing the borehole when they should be
  • Districts refuse to help for simple repairs because it’s not their responsibility and they don’t have the resources anyway
  • Politicians get involved and force the districts to spend precious resources on low priority repairs in politically important areas (see the example I gave above)
  • NGOs come in with budgets to spend and go off and repair a bunch of boreholes for free, thus driving the local Area Mechanic out of business.

The community doesn’t have the capacity or institutions in place to effectively raise money and repair the water point

This is another significant problem in the district, relating to the fact that communities don’t always do a good job fulfilling their role of being responsible for water point maintenance, even if they know it is their responsibility. For each rural water point there is supposed to be a Water Point Committee (WPC) that is in charge of maintaining that water point. These committees are made of up volunteers, so their capability varies greatly from one village to another. Sometimes they’ve fallen apart altogether, sometimes they’re functional, but half the members of the WPC have little to no reading or math skills, which makes it really hard for them to be effective book keepers on how much money has been raised.

Anyway, those are some of the key things we’ve been finding from the field research so far. Of course, identifying causes are just the beginning, and identifying solutions comes next, which is what we’re working on right now.

Whew! So yeah, that’s my ‘What is Kevin working on in Malawi?’ blog. Hopefully this has made for interesting reading, and if any of this is unclear, feel free to write back and I’ll try to clarify. Thanks!

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On the Subjects of Heat and Rural Village Remoteness

So I’ve finally been getting out into the field to do research! This should have happened earlier in my placement, but this is Africa and nothing works here the way it is supposed to. The most recent delay has been fuel. There are major fuel shortages all across the country, predominantly it seems due to supply management issues and the lack of foreign currency available, so actually having fuel to take the trucks and motorcycles out the field has been a major challenge.

Out in the field at a water point

Definitely an eye-opening experience that provides new insights through once I actually got out to the field. Despite the fact that this is overall a pretty poor country, there is still quite a hierarchy of different levels of wealth and development depending on where one is in the country, which I can sort of summarize into four categories:

Major cities

  • i.e. Lilongwe or Blantyre, they have western style supermarkets and shopping areas, upscale restaurants, etc.

District towns and trading centres

  • i.e. Mwanza or Nkhata Bay where I’ve been working with the water offices, they have markets, electricity, fresh produce, etc.

‘Satellite’ villages near the highways or trading centres

  • where I’ve been living, they have the proximity and transportation options that give them access to the services in the towns

Remote villages with little to no road access

  • This is where the field research has been happening

Remote village up in the hills of Southern Malawi

So this last category is not something that I had experienced before, and is not something that I had fully realized existed since I had sort of been assuming that a village is a village. As it turns out though, not all villages are created equal, and once you start moving away from the main roads and into the countryside on dirt tracks, the level of wealth starts dropping off dramatically due to the lack of infrastructure and access to services. In a village near the highway they may not have electricity or running water, but they do still have access to things from outside their village (manufactured goods, food that they didn’t have to grow themselves) as a result of being near that road. The villages out in the middle of nowhere have vastly diminished access, and it shows.

This is as good as it gets for roads

One key thing I noticed was the health of the people in the village. This is the first time in Malawi that I’ve seen children with the really large stomachs that one sees on the ‘please donate’ TV segments. This is a result of malnutrition because they are eating food that has little to no nutritional value and so it is not getting processed. The main food in Malawi is Nsima (ground up Maize), but in and of itself it doesn’t provide a lot of sustenance, it’s the meat and vegetable relishes that go with it that provide the nutritional value. In these remote villages though, maize is all they grow, so that’s all they eat and it’s not a particularly healthy diet since they don’t have access to market sold goods.

People in the villages we've been visiting

In addition, as it happens this field work I’ve been doing has been right in the middle of the hottest part of the year here in Malawi. October and November are getting into the summer season, but it’s not yet the rainy season to provide cloud cover and cool things down, so the temperatures in the country have been getting up into the upper 30s and lower 40s.

Key survival strategy during Malawi in the summertime

Which has led to some other interesting observations regarding heat and the challenges required to function at a high level in the middle of the day in this type of heat and remote living conditions. It should be noted that this is not something that Malawians generally do (particularly not in the villages). Basically when it gets this hot they find a shady place with a breeze and sit under it to conserve their energy. Which is not to say that they are lazy, what it means is that with their level of income and the resources that they have available in the villages, that’s pretty much their only survival option. Particularly in the case of the villages I was going to which had non-functional water points, and thus no easy access to safe drinking water.

Contrast that against the measures that I had to take to do work in that environment, which included drinking ridiculous amounts of water each day, several cokes (for the sugar), juice and yoghurt and other food that actually had nutrients, plus traveling around in a motorized vehicle that provides for air flow and shade in the case of the truck. All of these items (which cost money) go a long way towards enabling work to be accomplished, and the absence of having them is one way to get trapped in a cycle of poverty where people don’t do work because they have no energy, they have no energy because they have no energy providing food, they have no food because they have no means to buy it, and they have no means to buy it because they haven’t been working.

And all this in turn lead me to another interesting observation in regards to poverty and levels of income. As a volunteer here in Malawi I’m getting a ‘salary’ of $19/day, which by Canadian standards is basically nothing, but by Malawian standards is a fortune (I think three times what the Malawians I work with would be making). When you get out into the really rural areas there are people who have to make do on less than $2 per day, which even after living over here I still find it inconceivable that anyone could survive on that little money for a prolonged period of time. Basically living on that little money means that 100% of all your time and effort is devoted simply to basic survival and there is nothing left over to devote to understanding root causes of poverty, the reasons for inequality in the world, or even for investigating options for improving your state in life. So as far as overseas volunteering goes, how much money to live on is an interesting balancing act between being close enough to the ground level of poverty to be able to understand the challenges people like that are facing, which still being sufficiently far above it so that one retains the ability to be objective and identify causes for those challenges.

Which is a good lead-in to what exactly my field research is about and what specific challenges we’re working on, but this is already a pretty long blog, so next time. Thanks for reading!

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New District, New People

OK, so Mwanza District. My new home for the next two and a half to three months. About eighteen hours worth of travel time by bus to get there from Nkhata Bay where I was before. Slightly different in terms of geography. Instead of Nkhata Bay which is right on the lake and has resorts and is a pretty touristy location, Mwanza is nowhere near the Lake, there are no tourist attractions and I am reasonably certain that I am the only Mzungu (white person) in the district. In fact, when I got told I was going to be in Mwanza I took a look at my Malawi guidebook for information about Mwanza and found out they didn’t even have a section for it.

Not a big deal though since I’m not in Malawi to be a tourist. Mwanza District is to be my home base for the rest of my placement through to December, which is nice since lugging my big bag around with me all the time for the last six weeks has been getting a little old.

As far as accommodation goes, similar to Nkhata Bay, Mwzana district had an EWB summer student living here from May to August (her name was Ali, from Regina), and it is her work that I am following up on. Making use of her contacts, I’ve ended up staying with the same family that she stayed with, which is a young couple named Mr. & Mrs. Juma (I still don’t know their first names, they’re big on formality). They live in a village that’s about a ten minute walk from the highway, which is then about a half hour walk from the District Water Office where I’m to be working. They’re both in their late twenties / early thirties, but they’re holding off on having kids until they can finish building their house and save up some money (very responsible of them). Pretty standard village setup, no electricity or running water. Cooking is done using a small little charcoal cooking stove outside (firewood is rather scarce in this part of Malawi), and they have a covered latrine and bathing/washing area. They also raise pigs and chickens for extra money in their back yard.

Mr. & Mrs. Juma's house in the village

My room in the house, mattress and bednet!

View of the pig pens from my room

The covered latrine outside the house. Bring your own toilet paper.

Also, I have my own little (lockable) room with a mattress and bedframe! Also, since I’m going to be here for a while I’ve taken the liberty of buying few creature comforts like bed sheets, a blanket and a full size pillow. It’s quite remarkable how much a few small items like that can increase one’s comfort level. As far as food and rent goes, even though I explicitly offered to pay rent, Mr. Juma wouldn’t accept that and insisted that splitting the food costs would be sufficient. So basically the arrangement is that we’re going to sit down once a week and figure out what food to buy for that week and then split the costs. Food wise they seem to be pretty compatible. I asked Mr. Juma what sorts of food they usually ate and he replied that they liked eating fish, chicken, pork and beef, so at the point I figured this had a chance of working out well.

One amusing story regarding food preparation is that this week they bought some spaghetti to cook for dinner, not because they normally eat it but as a courtesy to me. The problem is that they had no idea how to cook it since it’s not really part of the culture here. Basically they were trying to cook it as one would cook rice by using a little bit of water and then covering it and boiling off the water until all that was left was a big lump of food. Upon realizing what they were doing, I essentially had to intervene in the process and sort them out by directing them to add about three times as much water and then drain the water and take the spaghetti out after twenty minutes. Apparently they had tried cooking it once before long ago, but because they hadn’t cooked in properly it had been a bit of a disaster. This time though it turned out quite well, and Mr. Juma was so impressed by the spaghetti that he told his wife that from now on they would be eating pasta two times per week! We’ll see if that actually comes to pass though, I think Mr. Juma gets exited easily by these types of things.

In terms of employment, Mr. Juma used to work as a coordinator at the local hospital for international VSO volunteers, so because of that his English is quite good, but the funding for that program ran out, so since then he’s started up his own printing shop business (things like photocopying, scanning, CD burning, photo printing, basically anything requiring a computer). He’s got customers coming in, but right now what he needs is capital infusion so that he can buy a big printer that can compete in terms of printing cost per page. Right now he’s using a small and slow one that requires him to do photocopies at a loss in order to build up a reputation and client base. This is where a small business start-up loan would come in handy, but alas I don’t think such things exist in Malawi. My plan is to round upwards generously in terms of the amount I give them for food, which I’m sure would be appreciated.

Outside view of Mr. Juma printing shop - right on the highway

Mr. & Mrs. Juma inside their shop

So yeah, that’s me in Mwanza district thus far. Still doing well out here in Malawi, I’ll do another work related blog sometime soon. Take care everyone!

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