Monday, November 05, 2007

I’ll Alight at the This Thing – Luke in… Malawi?

November 1, 2007

I’m writing this entry from the airport in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s a nice airport – clean, modern. There’s a coffee bar just to my right, a digital display showing flight times to my left. From my experience in Accra and now Nairobi, African international airports seem to be notable only for their “ordinariness” – modern enclaves for global jetsetters, positioned amongst some of the worst poverty in the world.

But I digress. The reason I’m here is that I’m in transit to Lilongwe, Malawi, in central Africa. It’s all happened quite fast, but I’ll be spending the next 5 months there working on a water and sanitation project.

EWBer Brett Stevenson has been volunteering with a British NGO called Concern Universal (CU) since April 2007. She’s now moving into a management role with EWB, and so someone was needed to continue her work with CU.

I had recently completed my diagnostic with CBRDP. I won’t go into the details here on the findings, but basically I recommended several workstreams that an EWB volunteer could pursue. Given the short time I had left (less than 2 months), it made sense to propose that a new volunteer take on these workstreams from start to finish over a 13 months placement, as opposed to me starting the work and leaving it so soon after.

So I agreed to take on a new challenge in Malawi and add on a few months to my time overseas. I’ll be helping to develop and implement a monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system that Brett began.

An M&E system is basically a system used to track the progress of a project as it develops. This is necessary in order to gain the knowledge necessary to tweak (or radically change) the project for the better. It’s often tough for the management in charge to know exactly what’s happening on the ground: a good M&E system should make sure that the people and processes are in place to bring good information from the field, to the decision makers (and vice versa). For example, field staff need to be well trained, and have the right tools (both physical, like bicycles or motorbikes, as well as clear report formats and instructions) to acquire this data and provide the feedback that management needs to improve a project, or to make the changes themselves.

Brett has been working for the past 6 months to help CU build such a system for one of their water and sanitation projects. This project is intended to bring water and sanitation facilities to over 500 communities in Malawi – so it’s a project with a large scope, and thus a comprehensive and strong M&E system is definitely required.

More details to come, of course.

My goodbyes in Ghana were sad, but I’ve left the country with too many fond memories to count, and so many friends I’m glad to have met. In a future blog entry I’ll have to describe my enskinment: to say goodbye, my friends in my neighbourhood made me “Chief of Settling Disputes” (or Malgunaa in Dagbani). The ceremony involved over 150 people, 5 drummers, countless dancers, and a man firing off a ceremonial rifle.

For now, I’d better try to figure out what time it is where I am. I don’t want to miss my flight to Lilongwe.

November 5, 2007

I’ve now on my fifth day in Malawi, and I’m enjoying it quite a bit. There are some obvious (but superficial) differences between here and Ghana. In Malawi: women strap their babies over their shoulders instead of around their chests; mini-bus drivers don’t strap any luggage (or goats) to their roofs; the weather is very pleasant – balmy, almost; the food is quite different, with French fries readily available on the street; the people are much more reserved than Ghana (when stepping off the plane in Malawi, I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t confronted with cries of “Saliminga!”, or extreme but short-lived shouting matches between taxi drivers and airport staff); Ghana expressions aren’t used (“Oh, Charly!” makes no sense here).

In any case, I’ll describe these surface details in more detail in the months to come, and hopefully start getting into some of the deeper issues too: for instance, trying to understand why Malawi is at 166 on the Human Development Index, whereas Ghana is 30 countries higher.

One thing is for sure: Malawi is beautiful. I’ve included a few pictures here to prove it. (The first two are tea fields in the Thyolo district. The third is the view from my guesthouse in Blantyre, the commercial centre of Malawi.)