Monday, May 26, 2008

Radio SA SA

(SA being Southern Africa… weak pun, I know) It’s been radio silence around here for quite a while, for which I apologize! To make it up to you lovely people, you get three posts for the price of one! A field-guide to sanitary facilities, a description of my new home life and some bonus musings. A post with details about what I’m actually doing here is in the works, so check back soon. Just to remind you – I’m generally free to chat from 6am to 8am and 5pm to 8 pm my time, so feel free to call or email! (Send me an email if you don’t have my number).

First a mini-update on my life – the short-term volunteers from EWB arrived two weeks ago, and after running around a bit to get them introduced at CU I’ve been back for my first full week in Ntcheu in a while. The major story in the Malawian news right now is the xenophobic violence breaking out in South Africa ( The newspaper reported on the first confirmed Malawian killed last week, although it’s also being reported that a lot of identities can’t be confirmed because people have lost their ids. A lot of my friends here have friends in South Africa who they’re worried about, especially since the violence seems to be spreading to new cities without warning, or who are planning to come home. The paper this morning said the first busload of people organized by the Malawian government returned yesterday. The other huge story is that Muluzi, the head of an opposition part of Malawi and former President, has been arrested on treason charges (

At the moment I don’t have pictures for my post about my family, but I’ll try to post some next week!
Sanitation 101

I spent a week in April in Samanyada village, about a 15 minute drive outside of Ntcheu .It was nice to put day-to-day work on the M&E system on hold and spend some time connecting with villagers involved in the project. Getting to know a community of welcoming, friendly people was also exactly what I needed to feel like I was starting to find a home here in Malawi. It was also good to see Concern Universal’s project from ground level.

Concern Universal works with villagers in Malawi to encourage them to build sanitary facilities that can help protect/improve their health. But what exactly are sanitary facilities? Lukily during my village stay I was able to observe sanitary facilities in their natural habitat, and so I can bring you Campbell’s Field Guide to Sanitary Facilities – Malawi.

The ‘Big Two’ of sanitary facilities in Malawi are the improved pit latrine and the hand-washing facility, which ideally live in close proximity to each other.

The improved pit latrine evolved from the traditional pit latrine (which is also an ancestor of the Canadianis Outhousis), its primary improvement being a cement sanitary platform (sanplat) that covers the top of the pit. The sanplat opening has a cover, allowing the improved latrine to control odour and prevent flies from escaping from its pit and spreading disease. The close cousin to the improved pit latrine, the ventilated improved pit (VIP) latrine, has further evolved a ventilation pipe attached to the pit to further control odour. A fly screen at the outlet of the pipe allows the VIP latrine to trap flies.
The hand-washing facility relies on its forked-stick body and brown clay bowl to help it blend in with the natural environment. It has a plastic cup or bottle with holes punched in the bottom that releases a steady stream of water. The most used hand-washing facilities have developed symbiotic relationships with flowers that take advantage of the water flowing from them. Unfortunately there are some concerns about how many hand-washing facilities are actually used in the wild.
My friend Tinyade demonstrates!

There are, in addition to the ‘Big Two’ supported by CU, a number of sanitary facilities not mentioned in the project document that are nonetheless promoted in the field and measured by the M&E system – sort of the zebra muscles of sanitary facilities, if you will.

Bathing shelters have a distinctive texture due to their walls of grass or reeds. Field researchers have predicted that in the cold months of May and June loud yelps will issue from the bathing shelters as Canadian volunteers experience their early morning bucket showers.

Malawian kitchens can be attached to the main dwelling or in a separate building. They usually contain a charcoal stove or 3 stones to balance pots over an open flame.

The dish rack spends most of its day basking in the bright Malawian sun, allowing the dishes that perch on its back to dry and preventing standing water from collecting.

Finally, the common drying line is found across the world without much variation in population ;)
Home Sweet Home

Adam asked a good question a few months ago, about how it feels to be here and doing things like finding a family to stay with in Ntcheu. I didn’t have a good answer for a while – when I first arrived in Malawi I spent a lot of time with Luke Brown, the EWB volunteer working at CU before me, getting myself up to speed on all the work he and Brett Stevenson had done at CU before I arrived. Since we only had two weeks and were often working at night it made sense for us to stay at the house of our CU colleague Loti, where we had electricity (as well as a fence around the yard, satellite tv and a houseboy who cooked and insisted on doing my laundry). It wasn’t quite the level of integration into Malawi life that I was looking for, so once Mr. Brown headed back to law school in Canada I commenced my search for a family…..
The adventure begins…

There’s a very intriguing road by Loti’s house leading into the villages outside of Ntcheu. One sunny Saturday I headed down it. Down the hill and across a bridge, I ran into a friendly elderly man. We walked along, having a conversation in garbled Chichewa and English that neither of us really understood. (I thought he was telling me he worked at a high school library, I realized later that he thought I wanted to go visit the high school library when he ordered one of his grandchildren to escort me there). Eventually we came to his house, and he introduced me to his wife. She gave me a pumpkin.

The next day I came back with Loti in tow as translator to ask if this man knew of anyone in the village (Kandoda village) who might have a room I could stay in. After a discussion with his daughter and her husband, who had a house in the same yard, they decided the best thing would be for me to live with the daughter, Len, and her husband, Mr. Maganga. It took a much longer conversation to convince them I should pay them anything for rent or food, but eventually we agreed that I would move in once I got back the next weekend from my week-long village stay, and that I would pay them 500 kwacha a week for food (that’s $3.60 a week, and I couldn’t convince them to let me pay them more!)

(Adam mentioned that he would probably feel intimidated knowing he had to find a family, and it really struck a chord with me. Finding a house was one of the big scary things I couldn’t imagine myself doing before I left Canada. Even as I was talking to my future host parents I was incredibly nervous, in addition to being excited. A lot of the reason why I felt brave enough to go out and just talk to people was because I knew I had a safe, comfy home base at Loti’s house and could ask him to translate, otherwise I would have been lost!)

Actually, a funny story from the other day proves how lost I would’ve been without Loti to translate. The EWB short-term volunteers arrived in Malawi 2 weeks ago, and a few days ago I introduced Janelle, the volunteer who’ll be working with CU in Ntcheu this summer, to a friendly lady who has a stall in the market. I embarked on a conversation in my rudimentary Chichewa to ask where this lady lives and explain that Janelle is looking for a family to stay with in Ntcheu. She seemed surprised and amused, and said she would let us know next morning. The morning after her husband was waiting as we approached. He came up to Janelle with a big smile on his face, shook her hand warmly, and said “So, I hear you want help finding a husband!”

…the adventure is interrupted…

I travel a lot between the two project field offices (in theory an hour apart in Dedza and Ntcheu, although in practice up to three hours accounting for waiting for a minibus and all the stops a minibus makes along the way to drop off and pick up passengers!) so it was only two weeks later that I was back in Ntcheu and ready to move in with the family. Then Mr. Maganga came to Loti’s house one morning to tell us that he had moved out of the compound he shared with his father-in-law, because he suspected the environment was making his kids sick. (I don’t know exactly what he meant by this, but I suspect that there was no latrine at the compound, something I had forgotten to check when I agreed to move in). He said he had moved into neighbouring Benne village in a house next to his mother’s, and that I was welcome to move into a room in her house. I checked it out, we agreed on a trial period of a month, and three weeks after meeting the Magangas I moved in with them.

… and continues…

I have a very small room in Grandma Maganga’s (I call her agogo, or grandma) house all to myself, with nails to hang my clothes on, a handy hoe handle stuck under the roof thatch to hang my mosquito net from, and a reed mat and blankets for my bed. I sometimes share my room with a cat, the guinea pigs that my agogo raises, or the rooster who seems to sometimes sleep in the house. (It’s my animal magnetism ;) My agogo sleeps in the other bedroom with 3 or so kids, and two other kids sleep in the third room in the house.

My room!
Agogo's houseAgogo Maganga

I rarely spend time in the house though unless I’m sleeping or changing clothes, and I think of the courtyard outside the house as my living room and the veranda-like step that encircles each house as the couches. There are five houses opening onto the courtyard – my agogo’s house, Mr & Mrs Maganga’s house that they share with 4 or so kids, and three other family homes with about three kids each. I’m not actually sure how the other three families are related to the Maganga’s yet – my Chichewa isn’t good enough to ask and the Maganga’s speak barely any English.My living room!

Len has a kitchen building in which she cooks, and the other families cook on hearths on their porches. There’s also a latrine and bathing shelter in the courtyard, made out of grass.
The latrine (on the left) and bathing shelter

Benne village is at the base of Mt. Ntcheu, and usually I arrive home at dusk after the sun has gone behind the mountain. Usually Len has already finished cooking the relish for dinner (relish is anything eaten with nsima. The maganga’s can’t afford much meat so we usually have canola leaves, pumpkin leaves, small dried fish or beans) and is boiling the water to cook nsima. After dropping my bag in my room and greeting everyone else, I usually sit be the fire or on the veranda and try to chat. Sometimes I bring out my Chichewa guide and the kids pronounce words for me. Ayerson is my particular favourite for this – he’s about 10 and as far as I can tell he’s the only one of the kids who goes to school. (I asked Len why the two girls who are old enough don’t go and she said it’s because they don’t feel like it. Ayerson seemed to say it was because they can’t afford the uniform fees, so I’m not sure if I really understand yet.) Ayerson’s English is a bit better, and he sits beside me and tries to translate things for me. (Yesterday at dinner, out of the blue, he piped up with “Baby cow – mwana ng’ombe.” There wasn’t a baby cow in sight, but I’ve stored it away for a time when I need one :)Ayerson washing his feet before school.

Everson, the baby of the family, is also a complete cutie. He’s about 18 months, and he likes nothing better than playing with my phone. He’s even started saying ‘Hewo, hewo!’ into it, which cracks the family up.
Len Maganga (on the right) with Ever

We sometimes eat in the house and sometimes sitting on the verandah and the ground of the courtyard under the stars (the nenyeze). We dip our hands in a bowl to wash them and eat out of communal bowls of nsima and relish (although Mr. Maganga sits somewhat apart and has his own bowls) I like eating outside the best, with my hoodie on and my chitenge wrapped around my legs tight because it’s getting quite cool at night. Eating in the moonlight can result in some surprises though, since it’s hard to see what the relish is. Once, as I dipped my lump of nsima into the relish I thought I felt slivers of pumpkin, which was quite exciting, but I was bitterly disappointed when I popped it into my mouth and realized it was small whole fish! After dinner we chat for a bit, and then head to bed. I’m usually in bed by 8:30 and asleep soon after!

I usually wake up between 5:30 and 6 am, now that I’ve learned to sleep through the rooster that starts crowing outside the curtain in my doorway at 4 am. I seem to have been given (or maybe I took) the chore of sweeping the courtyard in the morning, which takes about half an hour. By that time, Len has heated the water for my splash bath (she or one of the girls collects it from the borehole pump at the school, about a minute’s walk away), and I bathe, dress, eat a bun and drink some tea, and head out by 7 am. I stop by Loti’s house to pick up my laptop and usually grab another cup of tea, then I head into work for 8. It’s a 5-ish minute walk from the Maganga’s house to Loti’s house, and Mr. Maganga usually insists on accompanying me. Then it’s a half hour walk to work, although I sometimes catch a ride with Loti on his motorbike.
One of my host sisters, Chipililo, sweeping the yard.

The Magangas make clay pots for a living, so Len is sometimes already working on them when I leave in the morning. (Actually, so far I haven’t seen Mr. Maganga working on the pots, so I’m not actually sure what he does during the day, although he’s told me he doesn’t have another job).Clay pots drying in the yard. These will sell for about $1.50

A neighbour smoothing the surface of a pot.

… where will it end?

I’m nearing the end of my month’s trial period with the family and I’m not sure if I’ll stay with them much beyond that. Partly that’s due to work pressure – I think it’ll make sense for me to spend a few weeks in mid-June in the CU head office in Blantyre getting to know the people there, which will mean leaving Ntcheu for a while. Also, I don’t know if this living situation will make me happy in the long run – not necessarily for the reasons I might have expected. The food is great, I feel healthy here, I get a good night’s sleep on my mat and I feel like I connect with my family despite the language barrier. But I also find it difficult to balance my life at the house with my life in town – it gets dark here early and so when I’m home after dark I stay there, which can make it hard to find time for my other friends in Ntcheu. I do really value the look into village life that I’ve gotten with the family – it’s especially neat for me to see how they use water and hygiene. (To give you an example – CU promotes hand-washing facilities to get people washing their hands. My family doesn’t have a hand-washing facility but I have often noticed Len washing her hands with the water soaking in the dirty dishes that sit outside the kitchen during the day. That makes me wonder whether it would be better to work with what people already do, like by encouraging soap use with the dish-water, rather than encouraging new facilities that might be seen as less convenient.) No matter where I end up living, I hope to keep a connection to this family.
Mind the Gap

Most days, I hold two worlds in my head -my life in Canada and my life in Malawi - that seem to mesh together easily. I go to bed on a mat in a mud house, and just before I sleep I have a quick phone call with a friend from Canada. I wake up to roosters crowing, I sweep the yard of bits of clay, stray beans and kernels of corn, chwed bits of sugar cane and a discarded plastic package of Malawi Gin, then on my way to work stop off at Loti’s house and watch the morning headlines on the French news channel he gets by satellite. On my way to the internet cafĂ© to send emails and look up resources for work I buy bananas from women wearing chitenges and sobey’s t-shirts, and we chat a bit in Chichewa. The bright sunlight at noon somehow reminds me of watching baseball games, although I also enjoy it for its own sake. My host family jokes that I should take the baby, Everson, back to Canada with me.

Then sometimes these two worlds jump apart. One night last week, as I was finishing dinner with my family, Mr. Maganga asked me how much it costs to fly to Canada. I ballparked in my head - $1500 ticket, 140 kwacha to the dollar – about 200, 000 kwacha. Shock. Exclamations of disbelief. It was as if I’d just announced that people in Canada sometimes had green or blue skin as well – something completely unimagined and unbelievable, that they were going to have trouble reconciling with the me they saw sitting on their floor. Len’s follow-up question was how many weeks it took to get there, and (I think) whether I went by bus. Ayerson noted that a car costs 90,000 kwacha, and no one in our neighbourhood has a car. A radio costs 1,800 kwacha and I think (although I’m not sure) that the radio that appeared at the Maganga house after I moved in was due to my first rent payment.

(I don’t really have anything to summarize this or give it much meaning, but it was an experience I thought I’d share with you)