September 23-24, 2013: No worries, she’ll be fine… she’s only a 2+

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When I returned to work on Monday morning, Pattie asked me if she could leave at 3pm to take her 11-year old daughter to the clinic. She had been really lethargic and throwing up the last few days. I of course told her that her daughter’s health should be her priority and to go ahead and leave whenever she needed to. When I asked Pattie the next morning whether her daughter was OK, she said that she was diagnosed as a 2+ but the Dr. said there was nothing to worry about. This is when I got a full lesson on Malaria. I guess Malaria diagnosis are classified as 1+, 2+, 3+ and 4+, with 4+ being the most severe cases, which can kill you if not attended to timely. This was the 3rd time that her daughter was diagnosed with the disease. Then all the members of my team started telling me about their own Malaria experiences. Chicco, who is in her mid-20s said she had Malaria probably about 10 times, which included one 4+ diagnosis.

I guess I stupidly didn’t realize that pretty much everyone in the country suffers at one point or another from this awful disease. Malaria is caused by a parasite in the bloodstream spread via the bite of the female Anopheles mosquito. The disease is prevalent in Malawi, especially during the rainy season, which fortunately won’t start until late-Oct/early-Nov. The early symptoms of the disease include headaches, fevers, tiredness, generalized aches and pains, which could be mistaken for the flu. Other symptoms can include abdominal pain, diarrhea and a cough. Those with an immunocompromised system or pregnant women are definitely at a greater risk and could experience severe impacts even if diagnosed at a 1+ or 2+ level.

The other Malaria-related fact I learned in my conversation with Pattie and others on my team is that sleeping under a Mosquito net is actually a government mandate. I guess I’ve been an outlaw for the past few nights as I stopped sleeping under mine because I couldn’t get comfortable, always finding myself tangled in it because it isn’t big enough to be tucked on both sides of my bed. I’ve kept all my windows closed instead and haven’t had any new bites. I also have been very diligent at taking my antimalarial drug every morning and haven’t experienced any of the side effects associated with the drug I’m taking, which apparently include abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.

Our conversation about everyone’s experience with Malaria revealed how Malawi’s health system is broken. Most Malawians of course can’t afford to go to private clinics so the wait at public clinics is typically in the order of a full day. And I was told that public clinics often have no drugs so one can wait all day just to get a prescription that won’t do them any good since they can’t afford going to a pharmacy. If you have read some of my previous bog postings, you may recall that I visited a clinic (see attached photo) with no running water. Andrea, another volunteer on our team, was telling us at dinner last night that she ran into a clinic with no water and no sanitation facilities. Yet you find courageous and dedicated doctors at these facilities who see hundreds of patients each day, trying to do the best they can with very little resources.

While evaluating a communal water kiosk in a remote village of the Kachere low-income area yesterday, I met a family with a young boy who was obviously very sick. Although not well and in pain, he wanted his photo taken like everyone else (he’s the little boy in beige shorts and t-shirt, siting on the water kiosk’s concrete slab). I asked Pattie to ask his parents if they had taken the boy to a clinic. They didn’t they said because it would take them a full day to walk to the nearest clinic and the boy was too weak to walk this long and too heavy to be carried the whole way. So they just wait … wait, hope and pray he will get better. How messed up and unfair is this!

Thank goodness that these heart wrenching encounters are intermixed with heart-warming ones. During the past two days, Pattie and I have stopped by to visit Josephine (one of Patty’s best friends) and her husband for lunch. The first day we ate in their house, the only 2-story house in the community, which is a very big deal. When I asked Salomon (Josephine’s husband) how many kids he had, he responded “a unit.” It took me a little while to realize that a unit means 10. No wonder why they needed a second story on their house. Salomon immediately made me feel totally at home siting in his living room to eat our lunch while conversing about the tribal structure and politics of the country. The second day we ate with Josephine in the little shop (think convenience store) she operates in front of her house (see photo of Josephine in front of her shop and one with her and I inside). I continue to bring lunch for Pattie every day, which I know brings her such joy. I just need to make sure I keep enough food for my climb of Mt. Mulanje but that shouldn’t be a problem. Anyway, Pattie had Josephine smell her hands after I shared by Purel with her (part of our lunch ritual) and it was so funny to hear her describe the various things we share every day (soy crackers, trail mix, turkey jerky, dried apples and granola bar). When Josephine learned that I was trying to help with the country’s water crisis, she said it was a good thing because she heard that the cases of Cholera at the closest health clinic radically go up whenever water isn’t available at nearby water points and people start fetching water at the river. That of course makes perfect sense since Cholera is caused by a bacteria that is spread by drinking contaminated water.

I guess it would be easy to get discouraged by how much needs to be done to improve the quality of life in the low-income areas around Blantyre. On the other hand very little (like just connecting the 4 water kiosks without water we visited yesterday) could make such a big difference we who have the means and capabilities can’t afford to get overwhelmed … but instead just more determined to make a difference. And talking about a difference, check out the Millennium Development Goals displayed in the office of the Heachteacher at the South Lunzu primary school.

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September 22, 2013: Snake on a Boat

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We were all looking forward to having a day off after working for 6 straight days. Upset with my decision to be adventurous and try out all the food Pattie served us the previous day, my stomach rebelled at about 4am. At first I was a little worried that my condition may impact my ability to join the group for a day-long safari but at the same time I was determined to make the trip if at all possible. By mid-morning I felt a lot better. Lucy wearing her stylish goggles (even though I have yet to see a pool in Malawi) waved us goodbye from the Kabula Lodge at 8am

The Liwonde National Park, our destination for the day, is a relatively small reserve set in a dry savannah and forest. The Shire River dominates the park – a wide, meandering stretch lined by palms and surrounding flood plains, woodland and parched scrub that provides prime hippo- and croc-spotting territory. Although we were told that the road to the park was “paved,” less than half consisted of relatively smooth asphalt that was pothole-free. It took us about 2 hours to make it to the park entrance where we were greeted by a park ranger who took about 30 minutes to register us although we were the only one there. I got the impression that not that many visitors come by the gate so when a car full of Mzungu comes by, he makes it a point to be as thorough as one can be.

From the park entrance we drove about 1 hour on a meandering dirt road and across dry waterbeds in an extremely harsh environment before reaching the Mvuu Wilderness Lodge. Despite nature appearing totally parched, we spotted various wildlife along the way including antelopes, impalas, waterbucks, baboons and velvet monkeys. When we arrived at the lodge we immediately made the arrangements for a private boat safari on the Shire River. Given that I have been on jeep safaris in Tanzania and a trekking safari in Rwanda, I was excited about trying out something a little different and observe wildlife from a boat. I was especially eager to see crocodiles in the wild for the first time. When we were taken to the dock, I was a little surprised by how small and low above the waterline our boat was given that we would be floating on croc- and hippo-infested waters and knowing that those are probably two of Africa’s most dangerous creatures. Well no backing out now so there we went on our little adventure. Our guide told us specifically where to sit to balance out the weight on both sides and made it clear that we should not stand up at any time and keep all body parts inside the boat.

Within about 2 minutes we were less than 10 meters or so of a bunch of elephants and hippos … and not long thereafter we started spotting crocs. Seeing some of the crocs enter the water and plunge in the vicinity of our boat was pretty thrilling. But that didn’t end up being the most exciting part of our boat safari. About half-way through our 2-hour ride, our guide calmly asked Steve and I to move with everyone else in the front of the boat. I thought that it was a strange request since we were first instructed to stay seated and not stand up. When I ask why we needed to move, he pointed to a striped sand snake that somehow ended up on the boat with us. Needless to say none of us were thrilled about having this new visitor on board. Our guide told us not to worry that the snake wasn’t venomous but it was obvious that he wasn’t comfortable with the situation. I warned my boat mates that if the snake made it to the back, I’m not sure if I would be able to keep it together. We were all expecting the guide to proactively try to get rid of the snake somehow but it took him about half hour before he flipped the darn thing overboard using a bright orange life-vest. That allowed us to relax for the rest of our ride where we spotted terrapins sunbathing on rocks, as well as waterbucks, antelopes and baboons hanging out by the river.

When we returned from our ride, we had lunch at the lodge where staff was busy running around chasing away all the velvet monkeys trying to get their share of the lunch buffet. We left the lodge late afternoon and didn’t get back to Blantyre until 8pm as the ride back was much slower because of the darkness and chaotic traffic when we would go through small villages in the middle of nowhere. Andrea and I were in the back seat with very limited legroom and a lot of bouncing around on the unpaved roads … pretty painful on my back and knees by the time we made it back to our lodge. Steve and I are not looking forward to having to travel a lot longer on the same route during our last week here to make it to and back from Lake Malawi.

Enjoy the photos of our adventure on the Shire River!

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September 21, 2013: A Perfect Day in Malawi

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Dancing in the road to the reggae sounds of Malawian gospel music, finding water at most water kiosks, continuing to make new friends with children all over Machinjiri, sharing a meal at Pattie’s house with part of her family and becoming an unexpected guest of honor at a traditional Malawian wedding … I’d say that qualifies for a pretty perfect day!

Just when I thought my immersion in Malawian life was as good as it could get, my friend Pattie made things happen for me that made this Saturday one that I will never forget. The day started like all other ones, enjoying an omelet and bananas while watching the sun rise above the jagged mountains surrounding Blantyre from the lodge’s terrace with tropical birds conversing with one another in the background.

The plan for this Saturday was to start surveying a new low-income area called Machinjiri which is where Pattie lives. Given her flamboyant personality and strong involvement in public life, we couldn’t go 100 meters without her introducing me to someone she knew. Our first stop of the day was a health clinic. With 100+ people jammed in a small, dark waiting room, I felt terrible to take a few minutes of the doctor’s time. She asked a nurse to respond to our survey for her and show us around the clinic so I could inspect the facility’s latrines (my favorite part!). While moving around the clinic, they showed me their “maternity ward,” which consisted of a small room with 2 uncomfortable beds. Apparently many women have to give birth on the hard concrete floor when more than two are in labor at the same time, which apparently happens often since the clinic serves a large area. OK – this part of the day wasn’t exactly perfect but it gets better from here.

When we arrived at one the water kiosks we visited mid-morning a group of young men were washing an old beat up car with Malawian music blasting from the car’s radio. Pattie of course knew a few of the women living close by and next thing I know they are all starting to dance in the road. One of the young men asked me to join them which I did … sorry to report that my rhythm and dancing abilities to African music were not any better.

For the first time we found water flowing at most water points. A few of those points were managed by private companies as opposed to one of the Water Users Associations formed by WFP in recent years. The interesting thing is that all privately operated taps had water, while a number of kiosks built by WFP in early 2013 had no water. At one kiosk we were told that the tap was connected to a pipe that had been dry for 10 years. Now whether this is true of not, isn’t easy to verify. One thing is true however, there seems to be a need to better understand the overall water system delivery limitations, as well as the operating strategies and capital improvement plans of the Blantyre Water Board.

We ended our work day mid-afternoon after visiting a total of 13 water points. From there, Pattie took Chippi (our driver), Joseph (Administrator of Machinjiri’s Water Users Association) and I back to her house for an amazing lunch. First we visited her gardens which are filled with different fruit trees, which included papaya, mango, banana, and peach trees, as well as others with hanging fruits I couldn’t identify. Lunch consisted of nshima (thick corn-based mixture that looks somewhat like polenta), and a number of side dishes which included a few veggie dishes and one with minced beef. I was pretty adventurous and tried them all knowing very well that I may have to pay for it later, which BTW it did but I’ll spare you the details on that. You eat nshima with your hands. You first roll it and then dip the small ball you made in the side dishes. The spices in all those dishes were incredibly flavorful. We ended the meal with a mix of the fruits from Pattie’s backyard.

When we were ready to go, Pattie invited me to join her to a wedding that was taking place close by in her neighborhood. Although I wasn’t at all dressed to go to a wedding reception (the actual church ceremony had already taken place), I couldn’t refuse the opportunity to see a traditional Malawian wedding. As we were approaching the house where the wedding was taking place, you could hear loud festive music and then you could see the overflow of people from the yard where the celebration was taking place. What I didn’t realize is that I would become the guest of honor, finding myself in the wedding line between the groom and the bride standing in front of hundreds of people. Then I was asked to take part in this traditional dance (lucky me given how much I like to dance!) where you throw money in a basket held by the groom and bride while dancing. What an unbelievable experience … I just feel so blessed by all the affection I have received from Malawians … Thank you for a perfect day Pattie.

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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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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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September 17, 2013: A Young Man Named Hope

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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 …

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September 16, 2013: First Day of Work

Without one good aerobic workout since arriving to Africa, I woke up at 5am excited to go on my first run.  Although we were told not to walk to town by ourselves, I found a short loop on a dirt road just outside the gate of the Kabula lodge where I thought I would not attract a lot of attention, especially this early in the morning.  It was actually pretty funny to see the face of the two guards at the gate of our lodge when I emerged at dawn in my running gear.  They probably aren’t used to see someone up wanting to go out of the compound at sunrise and I did opt for shorts given how hot it already was.  Since the loop isn’t very long, I had to go around 25 times to keep my heart rate up just over an hour.  It was the perfect running experience.  Watching the bright red rays of the sunrise through the purple flowers of the Jacaranda trees lining the road every time I would come around one section of the loop was totally mesmerizing.  Throughout the run I could hear roosters waking up the neighborhood and as Malawians started lighting up fires for breakfast, the smell of charbon started to spread the air – a total sensory overload!  Daily life in Africa does start much earlier than in the northern hemisphere to take advantage of the early morning cooler temperature.  So it was fun to meet Malawians walking to work and children making the trek to school.  Every time I would come around the short section of my running loop that merged into a well-travelled road, many waved at me and those who spoke English were anxious to show off their language skills with a “good morning” as I passed them by.  Given that this was my first time out and about by myself, I tried to be very aware of my surroundings, and within a few loops I felt myself relax as my instincts confirmed that this was a safe environment.  So my plan for the next two weeks is to repeat the run every other day and do some exercises on a patio of the lodge on the other days.  This exercise routine will then be replaced by going up Mt. Mulanje with a fully loaded pack during my last week here.

A driver picked us up right after 8pm to take us to the WFP office located in the center of Blantyre.  I found WFP’s office space here to be so much better than the stuffy space we crammed in during my last assignment in Rwanda.  We spent the morning meeting the staff of the local WFP office and getting debriefed on their various programming efforts and our assignment.  The key members of the WFP staff we’ll be working with are Ephrone, the Program Manager for the country’s peri-urban water supply and sanitation programs; Muthi, WFP’s local Grant Manager and Logistics Officer for our assignment; and Ivy, the office’s Administrative Assistant who we were told is the ideal person to help Steve and I with our travel plans for our post-assignment adventures.  I was immediately impressed by the energy and knowledge of the local staff.  Their passion and motivation for their work and their desire to improve the lives of Malawians in low-income areas is abundantly clear.  Just seeing how grateful the staff was for our willingness to travel around the world to help them out totally reinforced once again why leveraging my skills in the developing world is so important to me … not that I need any additional motivation.  Continuing to support the critical work of WFP is something I’m passionate about and I am incredibly grateful that MWH has committed to support that passion by sponsoring my future annual volunteer assignments.

Ephrone and Muthi went over the scope of our assignment in our morning meeting, which will involve the survey of over 800 communal water points, 850 households and all public institutions (public schools and medial clinics) spread over 21 low income areas around peri-urban Blantyre.  This is pretty ambitious so there may be a need for us to work during the upcoming weekend.  Members of the partner organizations that will help us out with those surveys joined us late morning.  They include representatives from 10 Water Users Associations, the Blantyre City Council, and two local NGOs.  We all re-assembled after lunch and the best part of the day was when we played a signing game to divide up everyone into 5 teams, each to be led by a World Water Corps volunteer.  We had to pick a name and slogan for our team.  My team is named “Ukhondo,” which means health or hygiene in Chichewa, and our slogan is “Building a Better Future for Generations to Come.”  Attached to this post are photos of members of my team – Patti (board member of one the Water Users Associations), Chicco (with the NGO Hygiene Village Project), Andrew (on the Blantyre City Council) and Jimmy (with the NGO Association for Rural Community Development).  Only Jimmy has taken part in similar WFP surveys in the past so it will probably take a few days for our team to be functioning at full speed.  We were assigned 3 low-income areas – Bangwe/Namiyang (population of 42,000), Basiyolo (population of 23,800) and Mzedi (population of 16,400).  We spent the rest of the afternoon training all team members on the Android phone technology used to collect all surveys.  Three of the four members of my team had never used a touched screen before so it was fun to see them discover how it worked.  Our day at the WFP office ended just after 5:30pm.  On our way back to the lodge we made a few stops to pick up cash, beer and cortisone cream (for bug bites).

Speaking of bug bites, mine don’t seem to be increasing in number but they sure are starting to hitch pretty badly – thus the need for the cortisone cream.  My new strategy at night is to sleep in pants and a long sleeve shirt.  A little though given how hot it is but sure better than waking up with an exponential increase in red dotes on my skin.  When we finally got back just before 7pm, the lodge was pitch dark.  We were told by other ex-pats staying at the lodge that it was either due to a rolling power outages or simply the lodge owner not paying her bills.  The good thing about cooking on a charbon fire is that the lodge staff was still able to serve us a warm meal with candle light on the outdoor patio.   

Well-fed and still not able to line up more than 4 hours of sleep since our arrival, I couldn’t stay up much past 8:30pm.  I just had enough energy to do some laundry and hang my wet cloths on a cord I installed across my room before I cocooned myself under my mosquito net


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