September 20, 2013: A Day of Many “Firsts”

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Being immersed in Malawian life has been by far the most rewarding part of this trip. What a gift to have the ability to interact so intimately with the residents of these low-income communities. I wasn’t able to get as much personal contact with both children and adults while in Rwanda. Everywhere I go people are greeting me with “Moni … Muli bwanji” (hello, how are you?). They say that Malawians are probably the friendliest people of the entire African continent. I have only been to four African countries, but based on my limited experience, I feel like they are definitely deserving of the enviable moniker “The Warm Heart of Africa.”

Today was a day of “firsts.” First time wearing a chitenje, first time cooking nshima, first time making children cry, first time going over river crossings, first time putting a 20-liter jerry can on my head and most importantly first time finding communal water points with water.

The big 5 animal that is hardest to spot is the leopard … But even harder to spot is yours truly in a skirt. So enjoy the few photos of me wearing a chitenje because chances are you won’t see it again! Patty is the one who suggested that I wear the chitenje in some of the more remote villages to blend in more … like I have any chance in hell to blend in.

I got my first nshima cooking lesson. Nshima is Malawi’s staple diet. Villagers typically grow their own corn and they go to the mills to get it grinded into corn flower, which is mixed in boiling water to make nshima. Let me tell you that it takes strong arms to mix nshima. The consistency is really thick. I guess I failed my first cooking test. They were all pretty discouraged with my mixing abilities.

Since the communities we visited today were more remote than any of the others we had been to this week, many children had never seen a white person before. So my presence scared the bejesus out of a few kids. See photo of young boy with blue shirt in his mother’s hands. He just couldn’t stop crying when looking at me … you would have thought that he had just seen the devil he was so scared.

When we were dropped off in Mzedi today, Elise and Patty asked if I was OK going over many “river crossing.” Even though I didn’t know exactly what that met, I said no problem. Well first what are considered rivers here are more like streams, at least now in the dry season. The banks of those streams were filled with women washing clothes … hard to believe one can actually get their clothes clean in such filthy water (greenish-gray color with foam on top) with record high fecal coliform counts I’m sure. Although the crossings were not that wide, some were pretty scary to go over because of how unstable and uneven they are. No engineering calculations performed here to verify structural adequacy. There’s one in particular that was a bit scary. It was an old abandoned railroad track, where the planks were so far apart, it would have been easy to fall between them. Elise actually chose to do a big detour to avoid it. When Patty proceeded across I decided to follow her. I’m not sure if I was more scared of the potential fall from about 20 meters in the air or just to end up in the murky water below. I was glad when we finally made it across.

For a long time I’ve wanted to try to put a 20-liter jerry can full of water on my head and I finally got a chance to do so today. I just wanted to get a feel for what it’s like to carry 45-lbs of water on one’s head. OMG!!! I could barely get it to stay up there for about 10 seconds using my two hands. It totally stressed my neck in back right away. Now women walk on average 5 kilometers a day carrying 45 lbs of water on their head, balancing a jerry can or other container without even holding it. Here in Malawi, many women actually carry water in 40-liter buckets to minimize the number of trips they have to make … that is 90 lbs on their head!!! I just can’t imagine what that must feel like given my experience with the 20-liter jerry can. When I started getting involved with WFP, one of the statistics that totally struck me is that women in sub-Saharan Africa spend an average of about 200 million hours per day fetching water, and a whopping 40 billion hours per year!

Ending on a positive note, the best news of the day is that I saw water flow out of a communal point for the first time. To be exact, water was available at 3 of the 13 communal water kiosks were visited. Although a majority of the kiosks had no water at the time of our visit, water was apparently available at a number of them late at night when system pressures are adequate enough to push water all the way to those kiosks. You see what happens is that during the day, when upstream users pull water out of the system, the remaining system pressures are not sufficient to serve those in the downstream sections of the system. To address this system pressure issue, we were told that the Blantyre Water Board does implement a rationing strategy, whereby water is available only in a certain parts of the system on a daily rotational basis. So if you’re luck, water may make it to a nearby communal water point, but you may have to fetch your water between 12midnight and 5am. And when I think that our Silicon Valley customers complain to the SFPUC when the blend of our Hetch Hetchy to East Bay water changes, which is sometimes necessary for system maintenance … we definitely live in two very different worlds.

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