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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