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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