Sunday, January 27, 2008

From Montreal to Malawi

Sorry for the long delay in posting. I’ve just returned from Canada, where I spent Christmas and stayed for the Engineers Without Borders conference in Montreal.

I’ve been home a few times during my work as an overseas volunteer with EWB, and making the transition back and forth is usually an intense experience. There’s the obvious culture shock – the abrupt transition from home to an entirely new environment. Then there’s the flip-side: reverse culture shock, upon re-entry to my home country. I like to think that the transitions will become easier the more I do them, but it’s still a strange experience.

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.

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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.