Saturday, March 29, 2008


I was sitting in a one-room brick building in a village a 20-minute drive from the main highway with Jonathan, one of Concern Universal’s Water and Environmental Facilitators. He had just finished running the morning session of a training for two new village water and health committess, and we were eating a nsima and chicken lunch provided by the committee members. We were discussing his job with CU and he looked at me very seriously and announced, “We are much specialized in feces.”

……Ok, maybe he didn’t say it too seriously.

For the past two weeks I’ve been hanging out with self-described specialists in feces – or rather the Water and Environmental Sanitation (WES) project staff at Concern Universal. After a brief stop-in at the CU head office in Blantyre, I headed to beautiful Dedza, where one of the CU field offices for the WES project is located. I spent a week there, and then this week I was at the other field office in Ntcheu.

Now, I can show you these places on a map….

….but that really doesn’t do them justice. I’ve heard a rumour (or is it more?) that J.R. Tolkein visited Malawi before writing the Lord of the Rings, and Dedza is one place where you could believe it to be true. It’s surrounded by mountains, and while the pictures I’ve taken so far don’t do it justice, you’ll just have to trust me that it’s a pretty neat place. Ntcheu has fewer beautiful mountains, since it’s lower in elevation, but it compensates by having riper, more delicious guavas.

In Dedza & Ntcheu I’ve been trying to get to know all the people involved in the WES project and start to understand what they do and how they fit into the monitoring & evaluation system I’ll be working on for the project. In real life that mostly means I’ve been having one-on-one chats with everyone from Health Surveillance Assistants (HSAs), the government workers who help CU deliver and monitor their project in individual villages, to the project and programme managers. I’ve also been trying to get out to the field with project staff as much as possible.

My trip with Jonathan was to sit in on a day of community based management training he was giving to two new village committees. In the morning they discussed the responsibilities of the committee positions they’d just been elected to earlier in the week, and in the afternoon they finished learning to cast sanplats (the cement covers for improved pit latrines). Since the training was in Chichewa I didn’t add much, although I did provide the entertainment – about halfway through the morning session, a little boy who had been sitting in the front corner got up to leave the room. He got to the end of the row, saw me sitting by the door, screamed MAMAAAAAAAA!! (or the Chichewa equivalent) and bolted up the second row to the safety of his mom. His reaction was pretty extreme but it’s not unusual for small children to burst into tears at the sight of me :)

At the moment it’s the lean season in Malawi – the time of year before maize has been harvested when people’s reserves of maize are at their lowest. One of the women in the village I was visiting with Jonathan commented how hungry people are right now, and I’m impressed that people will sit for hours in a hot classroom and are able to learn about committee roles when that’s the case.

My trip to the field with Alinane, a facilitator from Ntcheu, was to check on a school sanitation club (CU works with some schools to build latrines and promote student sanitation clubs) and some existing village committees. It was especially exciting because, on the way back to the office, we stopped in to see a launching ceremony for a tree-planting income generating project. In this video, the women are singing some political songs (I’m not exactly sure what about) before the closing speeches begin. (Video will be posted when Megan gets a better internet link)

In my spare time, I’ve been trying to download Luke Brown’s brain into mine – Luke is the EWB volunteers currently on the project. He’s leaving at the end of this week, which is kind of scary. I’m also excited to start connecting to Malawi more on my own – the last few weeks it’s like I’ve been experiencing ‘Malawi lite’, out of the necessity of handing over everything that Luke knows to me I’ve been spending most of my time with him and have been focused on work. It has been nice to get introduced to a ready-made community of Luke’s friends and to get comfortable in Ntcheu and Dedza before having to find a place to stay, but I think I’m ready for the next steps! I’m planning to spend the second week of April in a village, and I’ve decided I’ll be based in Ntcheu for the next couple of months, so I’ve started putting out feelers for a family to live with. The nice thing about Ntcheu is that even though the centre of town is pretty much a stretch of the main highway, a short walk away from the highway gets you into pretty villages. I plan to go exploring an find a place to live!

(Posted by Megan’s Dad, her internet connection is none too swift)

Thursday, March 06, 2008

It turns out the rainy season in Malawi isn’t quite over. I’m writing this on the porch of a backpacker’s hostel in Lilongwe, and the heavens just opened. I’m hoping it stops soon because I want to walk to the clothing market to buy some skirts for work (and possibly an umbrella ;)

Rain or not, I’m really happy to finally be in Malawi! We (me, Brett, one of the directors of Southern Africa for EWB, and my fellow new volunteers Graham and JP) arrived 2 nights ago. Before that, we spent a week in Lusaka with the rest of the new Southern Africa volunteers getting over jet-lag and learning a bit more about Zambia and Malawi and the work EWB volunteers do there.

My favourite parts of training were the days when we left the hostel and explored Lusaka. One day we went on a scavenger hunt for stories and pictures, and another day we were sent out to learn about the maize value chain and how it could be changed to help market nshima vendors be better off. (Nshima is the staple food in Malawi & Zambia – it’s made of maize flour and it kind of resembles mashed potatoes except thicker. You eat it with meat or vegetable relishes, which are really good, and unless I mention otherwise you can probably assume that I’m eating it everyday from here on! Value chains capture all the steps that add value to a product like maize, as well as the inputs and supporting institutions that make the steps possible. Hans will be working with value chains with PROFIT)

I was nervous about going on the scavenger hunt because I had a bit of a vision of ‘scary, unsafe Zambia’ in my mind, and because I wasn’t sure how people would react to being asked about the things on our list. I mean, one of our items was to visit a compound clinic (a compound is like a suburb of Lusaka) and ask about HIV testing and counseling and I wasn’t sure if people would even want us to ask about HIV.

As it turned out, it was a wonderful, fun experience. Graham and I went to the Kalingalinga compound (fun to visit AND fun to say!) and almost everyone we met was happy to talk to us, and polite if they didn’t. I met Hicks on my way out of the clinic. (I have pictures of these people but unfortunately can't upload them at the moment!) He’s a member of a support group for HIV positive people, and just went on antiretrovirals. (My understanding is that now that Zambia’s debt has been cancelled, antiretrovirals from government clinics are provided free for anyone with a CD4 count below 200, which I’ve heard is comparable to Canada’s standard for providing the drug. I hope I’m not getting that wrong…) He had just been out in the fields trying to convince people to get testing and counseling, and kept emphasizing that the most important thing for him is good nutrition, since otherwise the antiretrovirals aren’t very effective.

On the minibus back from Kalingalinga Graham and I accidentally started a debate between two gentlemen about whether Motorola or Nokia is the better cellphone, and by the time we got off the bus we had two volunteer guides to help us around the market. After so much kindness, when we went out to talk to nshima vendors a few days later I was less surprised when Sofina, one of the nshima vendors, told us all about her finances and then escorted us around the market to see where she buys her maize flour and her charcoal. (She and a few other nshima vendors we talked to said one of their big difficulties is that they can't buy maize flour or charcoal in bulk).

So tomorrow I meet my new boss at Concern Universal and I’m a tiny bit terrified. I’ve started hearing about some of the really exciting opportunities in this job (helping ensure the pilot project for the monitoring & evaluation system is sustainable, spreading the system to other projects, and EWB possibly getting a grant in the summer to look at the impact of a Water & Sanitation project a few years after the project has finished) but I can’t imagine yet how to actually work towards any of them! At any rate, I should have lots to share with you soon.

PS – for anyone who wasn’t reading this blog while I was in the Philippines, the defining moment of my first week there was when I flooded a bathroom. (The story’s in the archives). I am EXTREMELY happy to report that thus far I have not damaged any Zambian or Malawian property, nor have I created any waterfalls in any more bathrooms. Of course, I’ve got a whole year here, so we shall see…..