Sunday, July 06, 2008
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Wednesday, April 30, 2008
I’m sitting in the airport in Nairobi – a strange feeling of return, since I wrote a blog entry from here when I was first flying to Malawi. I’m now finished my time in “the warm heart of Africa” – at least for now, and I’m heading home.
It will be a strange experience to go back home to Canada after working in Africa for more than two years. I’m bracing for all the emotions that will accompany my reintegration into Canada, and for the inevitable questions I will face. Questions like, “So, how was Africa?”
How to answer that… I have no quick response. Only a flood of memories and feelings and thoughts:
Of the people I know: I’ve met farmers, entrepreneurs, students, the unemployed, housewives, professionals, athletes, artists. I’ve met the desperately poor and the incredibly wealthy; the whole spectrum in this diverse place.
Of my friends: From the group of youths in my neighbourhood in Tamale who “enskinned me” as a chief, to my co-worker Loti in Ntcheu, to all the amazing EWB volunteers and staff I’ve met – I’ve made too many close friends to count.
Of the kindness: I experienced some of the most heart-warming (and sometimes heart-breaking) generosity of my life here. So many times I’ve been invited into people’s homes for a meal of T.Z. or nsima. I’ve slept on the floors of farmers and in the guestrooms of “extended family” members in Accra.
Of the difficult times: I’ve been frustrated by culture shock, frustrated by the slow pace of development, frustrated by inefficient and ineffective development projects, frustrated by the continual low position of women in African society, frustrated by all the external factors that keep a boot on the neck of Africa. I’ve been sick, stomached sometimes strange food, felt like an outsider almost always (while being blown away by people’s acceptance of me).
Of the weather and landscapes: melting in the incredible March heat of Tamale; freezing in the night-time cold of Malawi. The arid, flat and barren landscapes of northern Ghana and the beautiful green jutting mountains of Malawi. The coast in Mozambique, Lake Malawi, Malawian tea plantations, Lake Bosomtwi in Ghana, the desert in Mali. There is too much beauty here to describe.
Of isolation: I’ve spent too many hours on painfully slow internet connections, or on crackly, delay-riddled long-distance phone calls, all in an effort to stay in touch with friends and family in Canada and combat homesickness.
Of sadness: Always recognizing the incredible divide in power that exists between me and the majority of Africans – in terms of financial, cultural and political power. This fundamental injustice exists, and is something we’re born into without choice. Too many times I’ve heard “It’s easy for you to come to our country, but why can’t we visit yours?” The colour of my skin shouldn’t grant me privileges anywhere, but it’s the sad truth that in the developing world, it does.
Of inspiration: I’ve been inspired by the hard work of too many farmers, scrimping and saving to send their children to school. I’ve been moved by the speeches of academics in Burkina Faso, eloquently describing the challenges their country faces; I’ve met Ghanaian development workers who are pushing every day to improve the lot of their people. I’ve met innumerable women who work throughout the day and into the night, running their households and somehow finding time to generate a little bit of money on the side, almost all of which goes towards their families’ well being.
In the end, I know that Africa is a land of immense opportunity – of industrious people, of incredible natural resources, of rich history. But it’s a land with so many challenges that need to be tackled, so many barriers that need to be destroyed. Some of these barriers are within our influence in the West to tackle (see playyourpart.ca). Some of them require significant internal political reform (see Mugabe in Zimbabwe). Some require technological innovations, some the application of existing technologies, some simple behaviour changes. It’s not simple. It never has been, and it never will be.
At the very least, there is hope: there is always hope. I’ve seen hope in all the African countries I’ve visited – in Mozambique, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Togo, Mali, Zambia, Malawi, Kenya. The industriousness and resiliency and dogged determination of the peoples of these countries are testament to the hope that endures despite so many obstacles.
I want to thank everyone who's supported me over the past two years -- my family (I'm indebted to them in many ways for their constant support), the people who sponsor EWB and make work like mine possible, to the dedicated staff and volunteers of EWB, and to the great people I’ve worked with in Ghana and Malawi.
This is only a farewell for me, I’m sure of it. I’ll be starting law at McGill in September, a school known for its strong human rights and international law components. I know I’ll find a way back to this continent some day.
And I know that, when I get back, I’ll be greeted by the same warm welcomes I’ve come to expect from this continent.
Until the next time.
Friday, March 28, 2008
On Wednesday night we were in Dedza, one of the two districts that this water and sanitation project covers. The project staff there kindly brought Megan and me out to dinner as a farewell gift. Girward, the programme manager of Dedza, attended and was asked to say a few words. He spoke for a couple of minutes, and then apologized for not having prepared a song ahead of time. Undaunted, Maxwell, the project manager, clapped his hands and insisted, “song, song, song!” So Girward led the table in a rousing impromptu Chichewa song of farewell for me. It was very touching.
I’ll certainly miss the staff of Concern Universal. They have some incredible people here, and I’m proud of the work we’ve accomplished together.
Basically this work relates to monitoring and evaluation (M&E). CU’s water and sanitation project operates in over 500 villages. With such a large scope, it’s very difficult to tell whether or not you’re on track with your project. An M&E system is intended to help you keep track of this progress and make changes as necessary.
What Brett started, and what I’ve been continuing, is a process for overhauling their M&E system, in conjunction with the two M&E officers.
What is progress?
The first step was to define exactly what it is that we want to aim for. Brett worked closely with project staff to come up with a Project Framework. This is a written document which clearly outlines the targets of the project. It’s very easy to say, “We want all villages to have clean water and sanitation.” But what does that actually mean? How many boreholes does this involve? How do we know if the boreholes are being used, instead of being abandoned in favour of traditional sources of water? How many latrines are we aiming for? What qualifies as a “good” latrine?
In order to figure out if you’re making progress, you have to clearly lay out what you’re aiming to do.
Brett and the CU staff set up tangible indicators for our success, and set out a plan for collecting this information.
It’s been my job to finish designing, and then implement the tools necessary for monitoring. The tools we’re using are mainly written forms which the villages complete on a regular basis, indicating the progress they’re making in building latrines, managing their water points, and holding regular meetings with the rest of the community to discuss issues related to water and sanitation.
One big challenge with this system is illiteracy. Written forms are not the ideal method of collecting information from villages where education levels are often low. For this reason, we’ve enlisted the help of governmental health agents, called Health Surveillance Assistants (HSAs). They work closely with the communities, checking on each village’s progress and helping them keep track of this progress with our forms.
A big part of my role has been to network with as many HSAs as possible, and as many VHWCs as possible. We held workshops with over 150 HSAs, working with them to design an M&E system that would be as clear and useful as possible for the villages. The HSAs went through a huge feedback process with over 100 villages. The purpose of this was to figure out what confused them about the old M&E system, as well as what they liked most about it.
In recent weeks we’ve launched a huge training programme. We’re aiming to train more than 170 HSAs in the new system and over 220 villages as well. The end goal is for everyone to fully understand the forms, and feel comfortable using them. Training is going well so far, with a positive response from the HSAs. In the past they’ve often felt neglected, seeing themselves as only “information donkeys” that transport information from the village to CU. As a result of the efforts we’ve made, they seem to feel much more involved in the entire project; they recognize that their input has made a difference to the design of this system, and that they’re key players in ensuring its success.
What we hope to see
I’ve also been working on developing other tools for this M&E system, including an Access database to track the data we’re collecting, and forms to track progress in schools and overall changes in health in our project area.
In the end, we’re aiming for a system that:
• Let’s us keep track of the progress we’re making in each village
• Encourages the villages to provide feedback to CU. We want to know what’s working for them, and what’s not. Ultimately, we’re accountable to the communities, but it’s tough to stay accountable when the villages don’t have a strong and clear voice.
• Pulls together CU’s staff and gets them working closely together.
CU’s Understanding of M&E
But one of the things I’m most proud of in my work is the changes I’ve seen within CU. Smorden, the district coordinator for the project in Dedza, told me that before Brett and I arrived they hadn’t seen the importance of a strong M&E system.
In the past, staff worked very hard on their own issues. The field officers were focussed on training villages in latrine construction and encouraging good hygiene habits, management was focussed on staying on budget, and the monitoring officers were trying their best to collect useful data.
But now, according to Smorden, everyone recognizes the value of M&E. They see that M&E provides a way to focus and coordinate everyone’s efforts. By setting out clear targets to attain, and by showing everyone on a regular basis what kind of progress they’re making towards these targets, staff can collaborate and assist each other towards a specific goal.
Basically, before, everyone was playing on their own team in their own game. Now, they’re all on the same team, all playing the same sport (probably soccer).
That, in a long nutshell, is what I’ve been working on. It’s difficult to explain everything I’ve been working on succinctly, so please feel free to email me questions or post them here. But I think it’s been valuable work. I’m helping to put in place a strong system that will sustain itself long after I’m gone in this project, and that can also be replicated in future projects. And I’ve helped people become more reflective of the work they’re doing, and to realize the necessity of stronger team communication and cooperation. I’m confident this will leave a lasting effect.
Next week I’ll be off to Mozambique and then Tanzania on vacation. I’ll provide another update soon on my travels, and my final thoughts before leaving Africa.
Friday, March 14, 2008
In any case, I stayed one night with Jean Paul in Kabindiza village in Dedza district. The next day (Sunday) I made the long trek back to Dedza, going by bicycle taxi and then mini bus.
My bicycle taxi ride was a memorable one. Our friend in the village, Gift, arranged for a bike to take me to the roadside. My driver was named Mufutu, a kid about 16 years old who wore a collared shirt and blue flipflops. His bike wasn’t actually a real taxi: it wasn’t registered with a licence plate. And it didn’t have the standard padding on the rear passenger seat, or foot rests for the passenger. But it had two wheels and could move – and with remarkable (but terrifying) grace, as I was to discover.
We started out along the long dirt road that links Kabindiza to the village. I was told the ride would take about an hour. As we began our journey, I began to worry about this length of time.
The road was bumpy. Heavy rains and passing mini buses had resulted in deep ruts in the earth. Mufutu skilfully wove his way along the road, picking the smoothest spots but terrifying me with his sudden changes in direction.
We began to chat. He spoke at great length and with energy, looking back and smiling. Unfortunately he spoke only Chichewa, so I didn’t understand what he was saying. I responded in great length in English. He smiled and nodded his head, but I came to realize he had no idea what I was saying either. We continued like this for several miles, hitting it off quite well. At least, from my perspective we were. Who knows what he was saying about me.
Ten minutes into the ride, we came to a fork in the road. He gesticulated to me, asking which way to go. I had no idea, so I randomly pointed to the left, expecting us to follow the road in that direction. Instead, Mufutu veered sharply, taking us off the main road onto a narrow path, where women were walking. They jumped aside as we flew by.
Because there were no foot rests on the bike, I had to struggle to keep my sandals from bouncing into the spokes of the rear wheel. At least I had braking power, if I so needed it.
We suddenly began to move down a sharp hill. Mufutu stood on the pedals and pumped his legs furiously, aiming to build up enough speed to take us up the next incline. My feet struck the pedals as they dangled limply there. I hung on to the back of the seat until my arms ached.
Thirty minutes in, we rounded a bend around a large hill and I gasped at the vista that was revealed. Rolling green fields dotted with beautiful grey-rock mountains, covered in pine and indigenous trees greeted me. Dedza is a truly beautiful district.
I noted that we were approaching a town, based on the number of people and animals that start appearing on the previously deserted road. Mufutu’s riding was truly skilful, if somewhat frightening, with all its bobbing and weaving – like a champion boxer. By my count, we nearly struck the following things:
• 1 cow
• 1 goat
• 4 deep patches of mud
• 1 group of women standing in the road chatting
• 1 other bicycle taxi, complete with driver and two passengers. I’m sure they were playing chicken with each other.
But somehow we always stayed up. It was as though Mufutu was a gyroscope. We moved gracefully through the small town as people stood by smiling and laughing at the white stranger who was zipping through their community.
Fifty minutes in, we passed over a bridge and I knew this to be a landmark. We were almost there.
At this point I’d knocked the bike’s chain off twice with my sandal, and become convinced that I’d never be able to have children as a result of the metal seat and rutted road. But I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the M1 highway.
Mufutu dropped me off, and I paid my $1.85 fare with an extra 40 cents for a fear factor bonus.
Mufutu, the driver.
Some friends along the way.
Thursday, February 28, 2008
But today, I thought I’d throw out a couple of the small small differences that I’ve noticed between Ghana (still dear to my heart, still in my blood) and Malawi (my new adoptive home).
• The Hiss: In Ghana, a common way to get someone’s attention is through “the hiss,” in which air is sharply expelled through the teeth. (E.g. “Hissssshhhhh, waiter, bring me a Fanta!”). This is used in Malawi as well, but much more sparingly. And its intensity is different, too. The Ghanaian hiss is loud and cutting -- like opening a pneumatic tire pump at the gas station (indeed, many were the times I would stroll past a tire centre, hear the hiss of a pump, and swivel my head towards it in the mistaken belief someone was trying to get my attention). But for Malawians, the hiss is slow and gentle -- like a small leak in your bicycle tire.
• Outgoingness: Perhaps the phenomenon of the hiss points towards the difference in people’s outgoingness in the two countries. People in Ghana are very open and outgoing, whereas in Malawi they tend to be more reserved. In Ghana, I became used to walking down the street and being called to multiple times by curious strangers, interested in a chat. “Saliminga, hello!!” was the soundtrack to my life outside of home. It sometimes made it difficult to get anywhere without feeling rude – if I were to stop and greet everyone, a simple 1km walk would likely take the whole week. In Malawi, this rarely happens. People smile shyly, but rarely initiate contact with me – although it should be noted that, once I make contact, strangers here are as generous and friendly as anywhere else I’ve been.
• The Rains: In northern Ghana, the rains terrify people. They are absolutely torrential, beating down with a ferocity that strips away umbrellas, pelts the skin, threatens to remove clothing, and blinds the eyes. When it rains in Ghana, people run for cover and don’t emerge until the last drop has fallen. In Malawi, the rain is much more moderate. I was astounded the first time it rained here, and people still went about their businesses outside.
• Clothing: Local clothing is much more common in northern Ghana – likely the result of a more hands-off colonial approach by the Brits, who seem to have firmly left their stamp on the western-style of clothing adopted by most urban Malawians. Fridays in Ghana were “local-wear” day, in which Muslims would dress in long flowing prayer robes, and non-Muslims would wear smocks or brightly-coloured batik prints. And any other day of the week was still appropriate for interesting Ghanaian clothing – long-sleeved shirts with lightning bolt patterned neck holes, dresses and matching headbands made with shining green and yellow fabric.
When I moved to Malawi, I had to ship all my Ghanaian clothing to Canada. If I were to wear it to the office in Malawi, my dress shirt-clad co-workers would laugh me out the door.
(Director of Community Water and Sanitation) and me are typical to northern Ghana.
Trevor Freeman and I luxuriate in the cool refreshing Victoria Falls, Zambia.
Those are a few of the differences. I won’t answer the question “which do you like more?” Life is definitely more comfortable for me here in Malawi, and I enjoy it for all its beauty and quiet welcoming. But Ghana is still my first love, with so many fascinating quirks and friends that I know I’ll never forget.
p.s. I'd like to welcome the 6 new EWB volunteers in Southern Africa (John Paul, Megan, Hans, Mark, Graham and Ashley), and 5 new ones in West Africa (Jen, Nick, Jean-Francois, Mary and Shea). I’ve added links to their blogs on the right.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
This time I arrived back in Malawi on Tuesday afternoon and was met by my co-workers at the airport. They drove me back to Ntcheu, and the next day we started a three-day field visit to Salima and Machinga. So I stood, slightly in shock, in a rural village in Salima district as a group of women and children sang a joyful welcome song to us. You can imagine that this contrasted intensely to where I was just 3 days before – the Hilton in Montreal, alongside 700 other EWB
volunteers in the dead of winter.
I’m not complaining. I realize that I lead a privileged life in so many ways. This transition can be inspiring. I was able to go from a Canadian setting in which people are driving for positive change in international development, direct to one of the villages that so rightly deserves such changes.
Direct from the airport, our car stopped on the side of the road so my co-worker, Smorden, could buy mangoes. I got out of the car and we were immediately swarmed by a group of young women with baskets full of fresh fruit. There were over 20 women, all trying their best to catch our attention and earn a little bit of our money.
And it truly is a little bit of money. I didn’t know who to pick from – I finally settled on one young woman with a large basket of mangoes on her head and a baby on her back. I bought 5 mangoes and paid 30 kwatcha – roughly 20 cents.
As I handed over my money, I was struck by the simple fact that this isn’t a life of opportunity for these women. There were dozens of them on the side of a major highway, all competing for a small business transaction from privileged passers-by.
Never mind the necessities -- money to pay for school fees for your children, to cover health care costs when you or you kids inevitably get malaria, to buy extra food when the rains fail or when they come in torrential downpours. How can such a roadside livelihood provide the opportunity for advancement – capital to build a market stall and stock it, for instance?
I realize I’m operating on very few facts here – these women may very well have other income-generating activities beyond occasional fruit selling. But I can’t help but feel that so much potential wasn’t being met, and couldn’t be met, in the external circumstances that face so many Malawians – drought, gender imbalance, international trade barriers, first-world farm subsidies, disease. These barriers are stumbling blocks for the entrepreneurial spirits of so many people I encounter here.
I believe in fundamental freedom for all. When you’re relegated to the side of the highway, devoid of opportunity, your freedom is minimal.
I’m here to try to help increase the options – the degree of freedom -- available to the 85% of Malawians dependent on agriculture to make a living. It’s heartening to be able to juxtapose this with 700 young Canadians who are fighting for the same cause from across the globe.
Here are some pictures I took from the field this past week.
Benson, a farmer, stands in front of harvested tobacco (being air-dried). Tobacco accounts for 68% of Malawi’s exports.
A small child stands in front of Benson's tobacco.
A net slung below a chicken coop collects their droppings, which are then used as fertilizer.
A boy herds goats across the road.