Friday, March 28, 2008

The Final Days (or: What I’ve Been Working On)

My time here is almost over. Technically I finish on March 31, at which point Megan is taking over. We’ve spent the past two weeks trying to download my brain into hers so she can pick up the work smoothly.

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.

Fredson (monitoring and evaluation officer), me, Smorden (district coordinator) and Maxwell (project manager)

Loti, me and Fredson (Loti and Fredson are the monitoring and evaluation officers)

Friday, March 14, 2008

A Ride in the Countryside

This past weekend I brought one of our new volunteers, Jean Paul Portelli, out to a village. He wants to spend two weeks there to learn more about rural life in Malawi. I would have liked to stay for longer, but unfortunately I only have two weeks left of work and there’s a lot to do to wrap things up. Megan Campbell has just arrived to transition in to Concern Universal, so I’m starting the process of disengaging myself from CU.

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.

As I stood waiting for a passing minibus, Mufutu spoke at length, saying goodbye in his native Chichewa. At least, I think he did – it was a lot of words, so maybe he was angry at me for knocking off the chain twice. I waved to him, and he sped off into the distance, significantly lighter.

Mufutu, the driver.
Some friends along the way.

The rutted road.