September 18-19, 2013: NO Water for People

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According to recent reports from UNICEF and the World Health organization, approximately 80% of people in rural areas have access to safe water. This statistic is grossly inflated if you ask me based on what I’ve experienced in my last two days in the field. We surveyed 2 clinics and 6 primary schools and only two of these public institutions had water. At one school, a religious organization dug up a well in March 2013 and two months later the well was no longer functional. Immediately focusing on its next well project, the NGO is no longer available to ensure a sustainable outcome for the school and the investment made was a waste. Now are you ready for this … out of the 20 communal water points we visited none had water … none as in zero. A few had water for an hour or two early in the morning but all had insufficient flow to satisfy the water needs of the communities that they are supposed to serve. The exact reason(s) for this deplorable water shortfall has to be confirmed but the assumption is that it is a system capacity and water pressure issue. The limited amount of water available at communal points has forced many to satisfy their water needs by fetching water at nearby polluted rivers. It seems to me that before building all these new water kiosks in low-income areas, there needs to be targeted efforts spent on boosting the capacity and delivery reliability of the existing system operated by the Blantyre Water Board. A discussion my World Water Corps colleagues and I intend to have with the WFP-Malawi staff before we leave the country.

To bring to life my last 48 hours tramping around from one remote village to another in one of Africa’s poorest countreis, here are a few images and stories.

Each day starts with a prayer in Chichewa from James, an older, traditionalist gentleman who follows us in the field in a three piece suit, a tie and dressy shoes.

I’d like you to meet my new best friend – Patricia (she actually likes to be called Pattie). An ex-netball champion, she’s not afraid to tackle the steep hills of Bangwe even though she’s probably 100 lbs overweight. A few days ago she wore a bright red Molson Canadian Beer hat in my honor (see photo). For a living, she bakes wedding cakes and serve as a master of ceremony at weddings. In addition to her own 5 kids, she has taken in 3 orphans. Every place we show up and meet someone, we tell them that we are twin sisters and ask them if they think we look alike. She’s been extremely protective of me as wherever we go I’m the only Mzungu (white person), which brings a lot of attention, most of which has been very positive but then again there are always exceptions. Her favorite time of day is when we sit down for lunch and I share with her the various treats I brought with me. It’s been a lot of fun to see her discover trail mix, dried apple, thin crackers, protein bars and turkey jerky. She usually saves a little to bring back home and show her husband.

Unlike at other school, the head-teacher (equivalent of school principal in US) at the Bangwe Catholic Primary School didn’t seem too excited to see us. Thinking it may help, I told her I was catholic … I have to admit that this is the first time that I tried to pull the “catholic card.” But it totally worked – we were given preferential treatment for the rest of our visit. I however struggled to find a valid answer when she asked why I wasn’t wearing a chain with a cross.

With very low attendance rate in schools, a program was started to feed each child a cup of porridge a day (see photo of women making porridge at school). The kids are so hungry that they go to school just to be fed. The sad part is that many of them walk home with their cup still half full so they can share with the rest with their brothers and sisters who are not of school age yet.

Talking about being hungry. The house adjacent to one of the water points that we surveyed had piles of little brown balls laid out on a mat by the side of the road. It was obvious that the brown balls were for sale as some were already packed up in small plastic bags. When I asked what it was, the answer totally surprised me. It is baked dirt … I guess a special kind of dirt that I was told is addictive like tobacco. Once you start eating it, you apparently can’t go without it. But be forewarned, it apparently is full of parasites that may make you sick. Doesn’t that sound appetizing?

While on the subject of appetizing, I’ve spend lots of time in school latrines the past few days. And why is it that the camera on my survey phone always seem to malfunction when I’m standing in a floor covered with piss trying to take a picture? Not one school had adequate latrines. First there is no water to flush and clean the floor and more importantly for children to wash their hands after using the facilities. Something that is kind of critical given that there doesn’t seem to be any toilet paper in the low-income areas. Now try to satisfy the needs of 8,000 school children with 10 latrines … you get the picture.

Not much more uplifting was my visit to the Bangwe Health Clinic. When we arrived first thing in the morning, the line of patients was already out of the front door. Looking for the doctor or clinic administrator, we had to make our way around or over bodies laying all over the hard concrete floor of the medial facility. Now how do you run a clinic without water? It had been three weeks since the last time water came out of the clinic’s tap.

At our last visit of the day, while signing the visitor’s log of the Chisombezi Primary School, I all of a sudden heard wresting around and the scream of a chicken. Here was the deputy head-teacher trying to catch a chicken he was keeping in a closet of the school head-teacher’s office. He left the office with dinner in his left hand.

But no image is more vivid and representative of my trip so far than the smiles of children. Despite the horrendous conditions of the low-income areas they live in, children are cheerful. In fact, I only have seen one child cry since I’ve been here. I’m not sure if it is their innocence that is saving them from this hell they live in, but it’s hard to comprehend that they seem to be more content than children back in our privileged part of the world.

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