Arrival in Lilongwe and Lessons in Communicating

First blog post from Africa! We arrived safely in Lilongwe (capital city of Malawi) as planned and on schedule.  The plan has been for the newly arrived Malawi Professional Fellows (myself plus Imran, who is from Ottawa) to spend the first four days in Lilongwe, partly as orientation, partly due to the fact that after four days the entire team has evacuated to Zambia given that there are anti-government protests planned for Tuesday the 16th. So yeah, not ideal, but we’re adapting.

Loading the bags onto the mini-buses

So, key happenings in Malawi so far:

We arrived in Lilongwe around midday Wednesday this week, got picked up at the airport and then went directly to the Golden Peacock hotel, which is the key meeting place for EWB people. About an hour after that, all of the Junior Fellows (EWB summer interns from the university chapters) boarded two mini-buses to leave for Zambia, and in all the confusion my newly arrived main bag got loaded onto their bus and was transported to Zambia four days ahead of schedule. Not the end of the world since I had all my medications, passport, bank cards, etc. with me in my daypack, so the main impact was that I was not able to change clothing for the first six days after departing Toronto. This situation caused much amusement among the other members of the team and it was judged to be an excellent way to get me outside of my comfort zone and force me to improvise solutions based on the local resources. So we went to the market to buy a few essentials, I bought a second-hand shirt for 700 kwacha (about five dollars, which apparently was still too much).

crossing the bridge over to the main Lilongwe market

Used clothing from western countries at the market

In terms of progress on my placement, not much to report on so far since the team leadership has been understandingly preoccupied with evacuating everyone from the country in a safe manner. One assignment that Imran and I did get sent on however was a water point ‘scavenger hunt’ as a learning assignment for us.

Essentially, Imran and I got given a name of a village on the outskirts of the capital and were told to get ourselves to this village via local minibus, find our way around, locate the main water point (or points) in the village, and then find out as much as we could about it, such as how often it breaks down, who’s in charge of fixing it, who pays for fixing it, when it was installed, and so on.  The goal was to give us some on the ground experience in the practicalities of information gathering in Malawi. Key conclusions are as follows:

  • My language skills in Chichewa are in serious need of improvement
  • Asking non-leading questions in the correct format and understanding the context of the answer is crucial
  • People in Malawi are way more understanding about taking the time to answer questions from fresh-off-the-boat foreigners (meaning me) than I probably would have been in their place.

To expand, we found our way to the mini-bus station and the right minibus easily enough. Upon arriving the level of English proficiency was significantly lower than in Lilongwe, so we had to rely on hand motions and Chichewa words of greeting to get around. We eventually went to the church (Presbyterian) which had both English speaking people and a water point (metered tap water), but no one knew anything about said water point. We did however get one other useful piece of information, which was that there was another water point in the village which was at the primary school. One of the church employees then offered to take us to the school, which was very helpful.

Primary School Water Point

Imran at a metered water tap

At the school, we found not one, but two water points! The first was a metered water tap (not standard for rural areas, but this was a peri-urban village that was close enough to the capital that they could tie-in to their system. They also had an AfriDev pump (functional!) on the school grounds as well. Very exciting. We talked with two of the teachers, however the first one in particular had limited English proficiency, and this is where the casual questioning became a problem. Some examples:

Primary school water pump

Question: Is this pump very reliable:

Answer: Yes

Question: Does this pump break down often?

Answer: Yes

Question: When was this pump built?

Answer: I don’t know

Question: How many times in the last year has this pump broken down?

Answer # 1: three

Answer # 2 (after discussion): I don’t know

So not as easy as it sounds. Luckily just as we were leaving we met another teacher whose English was quite a bit better, and she explained that the water meter is just for the use of the teachers, and that they each had to contribute about five percent of their salary (about six dollars Cdn) each month torwards maintaining the water point. Which was a lot but at least they had reliable, clean running water. The water point was for general use, and as such she had no information on it’s history but it was at least functional when we visited it.

We also made an attempt at asking about sanitation facilities in the village, but for this we didn’t get anywhere, since as soon as we said the word Chimbuzi (Chichewa for toilet), all the children in the school started giggling, the teacher got embarrassed and didn’t want to answer, so we got nowhere on that one.

And thus concludes my adventures so far in Malawi. Our evacuation (exile?) in Zambia will be at least one week long, and possibly longer based on what happens in the country. Stay tuned for all sorts of exciting happenings with our week long team meeting and operational planning session!

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3 Responses to Arrival in Lilongwe and Lessons in Communicating

  1. pam jurgens says:

    Kevin, Your reports of adventures and even misadventures are amazing. Thanks so much for sharing, Pam

  2. Jessica says:

    Kevin! Just started reading your blog. I can see you telling all your stories out loud, too funny =D Especially loved the hilarious dialogue in this one!



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