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.
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:
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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!