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…..