We arrived at the WFP office on Tuesday morning knowing very well that this would probably be one of the trip’s toughest days. The first day in the field is always a challenge because team members are not fully trained and a routine has yet to be established. A survey that should take 20 minutes can take up to two hours. I therefore prepared myself for chaos by totally lowering my expectations and taking a chill out pill. Good thing I did because it took us almost three hours to make it out of the office, partly because of the need to retrieve a number of Android survey phones stuck at customs. Those phones were borrowed at the last minute from the WFP-Rwanda office.
Our slow start gave me enough time to sneak out of the office to quickly go exchange US $200, an amount I randomly picked and didn’t worry about spending in the next few weeks. Keep in mind that many of us in SF don’t think twice before spending this much on a nice dinner out. However when I walked out of the bank with 74,400 Malawi kwacha, I realized that the wad of cash I just added to my money belt (which BTW was almost 2 inches thick) was equivalent to about 8 years of income for a Malawian living in a low-income area around Blantyre. So please promise to slap me the next time I feel sorry for myself for not having the latest cool gadget.
When came time to finally get going, two teams were directed to share a vehicle. It’s funny how only the World Water Corps volunteers questioned the sanity of fitting 11 people into a small SUV and ride for over an hour on dirt roads battered with 1-foot deep potholes while in 90-degree heat with no windows opening in the back (which is where I was given my small size). Needless to say I became intimate with the members of my team real quickly during that ride. But I seemed to totally forget about how uncomfortable I was as soon as we made a turn onto the dirt road leading to the Bangwe/Namiyang low-income area. Although I have experienced true poverty many time before in Rwanda and elsewhere, it was impossible to be indifferent to the images of despair hitting me in the face as we kept driving further into what felt like hell. I just started feeling totally appalled by the bleakness of the life conditions all around us. How can we (whoever “we” is) let this happen?
Trying to keep it together as best as I could, I focused on our goal for the day, which was to conduct three surveys – one of each type. We were dropped off at a primary school where we started with a public institution survey. We first looked for the school headmaster, whom we found in a dark, stuffy office filled with piles of old grade reports and totally outdated books probably donated years ago by various well-intentioned NGOs (see photo of my team members in the headmaster office). The school served 5,700 pupils (as they call students in Malawi) who are split into two shifts – morning and afternoon. The survey included the inspection of a water point activated by a hand pump (see 2 attached photos) and 8 dilapidated pit latrines with no nearby water for hand-washing. I entered a classroom to say hello to the children and was shock to find over 100 children sitting on the concrete floor in the dark. I let Patty on my team perform this survey and realized quickly that she would not be able to do this on her own. We talked and she liked my proposal to perform future public institution surveys together.
From there we found the closest communal water point to perform a water point survey. For that survey we interviewed Elise, a member of the local Water User Association. That survey revealed the unfortunate reality of so many new water infrastructure in the developing world. What was before us was a perfectly fine looking water kiosk built interestingly enough by WFP in 2011 (see photo of Elise in front of the kiosk). Water service was apparently available for only about 2 months and the kiosk’s taps have been dry ever since due to the lack of adequate pressure in the City’s water system.
Just as I thought that our afternoon couldn’t reveal more difficult circumstances, we stumbled onto the Mwachande family hanging out in front of their house. Eager to support any efforts that may help their miserable living conditions, they agreed to be interviewed and that’s when I met a charming young man named Hope (I promise I’m not making this up – see attached photo of Hope). At 19, Hope is the oldest of 4 children and he has had to grow up quickly since the death of his dad from HIV/AIDS in 2007. Through the cracked door of their small (maybe 10 ft by 20ft) house, the only “furniture” I could see on the crumbling concrete floor was an older green outdoor plastic chair, which they brought outside for me to sit on as soon as we all started talking. In our first day of training, WFP staff instructed the volunteers to sit if offered a chair. I guess to do otherwise would be considered to be impolite so I made sure to sit, feeling somewhat uncomfortable being the only one in a chair. I learned that Hope was in Secondary Form 4, which is the last grade before college here in Malawi. When I asked him if he wanted to continue on and go to college he responded enthusiastically that he planned to pursue studies in physical sciences.
The Mwachande family household survey revealed something that I had never encountered before and brought a new dimension to the challenges associated with communal water points. First Hope confirmed that they fetched water for the family at the school’s hand pump we had just surveyed earlier in the afternoon. Given the relatively good condition of that facility I was shocked to learn what it took for them to actually secure an adequate amount of water. Since the hand pump in question serves about 15,000 school children and nearby residents, it is impossible to get enough water during the day. Each customer can only get 20 liters at a time and the wait is just too long. So Hope and his mother fetch the 400 liters they need every night starting at about 12 midnight. Since the flow out of the Afridev hand pump is much lower than that of a pressurized tap and because there are still some lines to contend with in the middle of the night, the whole process takes about 5 hours. This gives Hope under an hour to get ready for school, which starts at 5:45am for the pupils attending the first shift of the day. While driving away from the Bangwe/Namiyang low-income area late afternoon, I wondered if a young man named Hope could beat the odds against him and somehow overcome his family’s lack of resources to pursue his dreams and aspirations. How much of a difference can his mother’s obvious pride and love for him make? … because in these circumstances I’m afraid that’s all she can give him …