Canadian Water Network-Connecting Water Resources Conference 2015

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A couple weeks ago Melissa and I attended the Canadian Water Network’s Connecting Water Resources Conference with the theme of “From Knowledge to Action.” The conference focused on three key aspects of water: Blue Cities, Resource Development and Agriculture, and Small and Aboriginal Communities. Unfortunately this blog post is lacking in water-themed puns but I would like to point out that nearly half the delegates each day did wear blue coloured clothing.

I became interested in water management after a co-op placement last summer with the Tingathe Fellowship, a program started by the WASHCatalysts venture of Engineers Without Borders. The Tingathe Fellowship provides districts who apply with an idea to improve service delivery of rural water supply with a short term embedded support. I worked with the District Water Development Office of Machinga, Liwonde, Malawi with their idea to develop a communication system to motivate and support local Area Mechanics, volunteers who repair boreholes in their traditional authority areas, by utilizing local community structures already in place. Melissa Nielsen, who also worked for Tingathe in Thyolo district, and I presented about our work at the conference during the poster session under the Small and Aboriginal Communities conference stream.

What struck me most during the conference was the commitment of all of the speakers to improving water management here in Canada and how similar the challenges and opportunities here are to those in Malawi. I attended most of the Small and Aboriginal Communities sessions and was inspired by the work of the operators, consultants, government workers, professors, Assembly of First Nations members, and Band Councillors. My key take-away, to quote Keith Smith from the First Nations and Inuit branch of Health Canada, is that “if it’s not driven by the community, it’s not going to work.” This is consistent with the work of WASHCatalysts, and, though it seems to be obvious, forgetting this important concept has led to many problems here in Canada and abroad.

Part of our poster presentation was analysing whether the Tingathe Fellowship structure could be transferred to a Canadian context. I noticed that governance challenges, proper community consultation, and above all, communication, are at the forefront of so many environmental and social concerns all over the world, so perhaps an embedded support staff supporting locally-generated ideas could be beneficial here too. I almost left the room when Cecilia Brooks, Assembly of First Nations Chiefs and Water Grandmother at the Canadian Rivers Institute, noted that sometimes funding from the national level to reserves for water operations can come very late. This is one of the biggest challenges facing districts in Malawi and it seems that the solutions to consistent funding should be so ridiculously straightforward. I do think it is simplistic and orientalist (“othering” of non-‘Western’ cultures) to be surprised that we in Canada have similar issues to Malawi, but it still makes me frustrated that these issues are present everywhere.

Below I have listed some of my “thinking points” and how it relates back to my district’s work in Liwonde. In my opinion, these points are incredibly important for anyone who wants to work in the public service, engineering, consulting, and environmental management.

  1. Heather Castleden, professor at Queen’s University, urged the attendees to question how the work we are doing is actually useful in the real world. I think this is crucial for everyone, particularly those who are at school, because it can be easy to lose sight of actual realities of people on the ground. This reminded me of a question my coach asked me while in Liwonde-is this plan truly the most effective? Sometimes you get excited by an idea and go forward without really thinking if it is truly the “only way”. Though I think it is very important to try new things and take risks, we must constantly monitor and evaluate our work and stay in touch with what is actually needed and wanted in this world.
  2. Smith also noted that co-creation is key. Any development must come from within the community and there must be a local champion to take lead. This is exactly the goal of the Tingathe Fellowship.
  3. Do not be prescriptive. This sums up the first two points. I think when we are in school or in a work placement, we can let our power go to our head; we have been studying or working in a certain field for so long that we start to believe our way is the only way. It’s about respect and not telling people what you think is needed.
  4. Resilience is the main goal. A “systems approach” truly is the only way to make lasting change and this aligns with WASH’s values of continued service delivery.
  5. Do not have any preconceived notions. About the people or context you are working within, but also about the plans or policies that are hoped to be enacted. Too often I think we rely on the assumption that the plan will work or that this is the “best” way, which leads to blind action and challenges down the road.

To summarize, it’s all about collaboration and taking a holistic, adaptive, respectful, and contextual approach. Listening to and allowing whoever you are working for and with to take a lead role and looking far into the future – the “Seventh Generation” principle-is the most important. At first it seems like policy makers, consultants, and extractive industry professionals should go back to kindergarten to re-learn these basic skills, but when deadlines, resource constraints, and the ego of academics and professionals get in the way, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important.

For a process of decolonization, sustainable resource management, and development, it’s obvious that policies of coordination, environmental protection, self-determination, and consent are needed. This must be reflected in policy and companies’ culture where these activities could be incentivized from the upper level, but also must be taught in all courses at school so we grow leaders that have a full understanding of these issues and have humility in their work.

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Good Kid M.A.A.D. Franny

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I’ll probably live longer than you and never fade away
I’ll never fade away, I’ll never fade away, I know my fate

-“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”, Kendrick Lamar

There is a family legend that happened when I was very, very young. I was acting out as usual and, after being reprimanded by my parents (I’m assuming they said “Franny how can you be so cute but so annoying?!”), I apparently said

I’m not Franny, I’m Basia Bastick, the baaaaddd Franny.

This is LITERALLY the weirdest and creepiest thing I have ever heard in my life and it came out of my OWN MOUTH. I think we could unpack this and suggest its implications for my future as a dictator but I’ll leave that for another post.

Questionable career paths aside, lately I have been feeling a lot like Basia. I have this distinct, small anger that has been sitting inside of me for the past few months, if not longer, only to be briefly quelled by a cold and glorious week in Montreal before conference surrounded by people I love, good conversation in friends’ living rooms, and lots of dancing. I heard that it’s normal for JFs to feel angry and dispirited after returning from placements, but it has been over six months now. Why the sudden dissatisfaction? Is it that the novelty of being back in Van has worn off and I’m restless again, looking for the next thing? Why can’t I be happy just doing school? Is it a remnant of Mercury’s retrograde patterns as (semi-jokingly) suggested by a Professional Fellow’s moving and eloquent blog?

The last time I felt this lasting hardness was in Liwonde when I heard from Mr. Banda* who had not been paid for over a month because the ORT from the national level was late. As I wrote in my journal that night, “I biked home at sunset with tears in my eyes and fire in my heart.” I remember crying quietly in the bushes over the phone to my mom, hoping no one in my village would hear me. Crying about how unfair the world is. Lately this hardness has overtaken me on seemingly innocent moments: walking home last weekend after a lovely vegetarian dim sum celebration with sun in my eyes and suddenly -whoosh- fire in my heart, the hardness solidifying in me like that last turnip cake. Today walking to the beach with wine gums in my mouth and fire in my heart, a permanent frown on my face ever since. Tears are not going to solve this but I don’t know how to quell this fire. I don’t know if I want to.

People always seem surprised to hear that I love hip hop and rap. I’m not sure what they think I should be listening to, the sounds of waterfalls and bluebells dancing in the wind, baby’s laughter, I don’t know, but I love it. Hip hop is the musical form of a protest, liquid swords and lyrical activism. It is a distinct calling out on what is wrong and a demand to take up space, to matter, to yell out “We as a world deserve better. I deserve better.” I’ve been reading up on resistance literature, and I feel that writing and song are crucial components to any resistance movement, to any social action. Tears are not enough, but communication and listening may be.

As I conducted my bi-weekly Kendrick Lamar meditation (try it) on the island I realized how soothed I am by the forest and the calm quiet. I think I need to be outside more, in nature, away from the city and distractions. Today, in between long forest frolics, daydreams by the beach, and making a lot of quesadillas, I have had two job interviews, written grant applications, started getting shit done. I have time to think for myself and take a break to figure out what I want. This time in nature and productive action is what I miss a lot from Liwonde, other than the connections with my friends and host family and that sense of adventure. Though it was slow, through working for the District Water Development Office I felt like I was contributing. We in the office were a team, all with the common goal of ensuring consistent water access for our district. I miss that feeling of doing something. I’m restless. (I may be romanticizing my involvement.)

Though I’m really enjoying my courses this term I am really tired of talking. I want to take action, though I understand the issues I care about are very very complicated therefor we need to learn, to take time to talk about all sides and perspectives. But I’m tired. I realized why I feel like I’m slipping away from EWB (though never WASH) is because I don’t want to talk about things anymore. That being said, I want to learn from people with different perspectives, from different countries and backgrounds, but I’m tired of talking about the same things in my chapter and at conference. I think that is a very selfish thing to say but I am feeling kind of selfish, indulgent, and crabby, and Basia doesn’t care what people think.

What it is is that I have never really liked forced bonding or forced time to have “deep” conversation; it makes my neck skin crawl. I love discussing these issues and chatting, but only when it feels natural and I think that perhaps the way we frame these issues in our chapter or at other events has the danger of being overly simplistic or too focused on the individual. One member of our chapter said they felt that we were too focused on individual growth and building leadership skills of our members instead of actually focussing on development. I then argued that we have probably shifted away because development has been largely unsuccessful and there is little sustainable, partnership-based action, that can be done by people in Vancouver in such a short time frame. Now I think that is kind of bullshit. We need to invest in our members and provide learning opportunities for people in our community so that when they as leaders take action, they have the skills to do so in a respectful, intersectional manner, HOWEVER I think there are things we can do now. We don’t have to wait until we are in “positions of power.” There is action that we can take here and now I want to find it. Divestment at UBC is one example. The annual Women’s Memorial March is another.

I want to use my emotions as a guide to action, turn the conversations that I sometimes dread with EWB into motivation to make change. Where are my emotions at? I’m angry about how many communities in Northern Canada are STILL on boil water advisories, going completely against the Indian Act and basic human rights. I’m really angry that Harper said there is nothing systemic about the missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada. I’m angry that people still think Africa is a country. I’m angry that UBC aims to increase international student fees by 20%. I’m sad about the floods in Southern Malawi. I’m sad about the Chapel Hill shootings. I’m sad about the recent attacks in Libya. I’m sad that I know at least one person who probably won’t vote in October’s federal election and that I know many who will vote Conservative.

But I’m also sad that the boy I like lives as far east from Vancouver as you can get without actually being in the Atlantic Ocean. I was disappointed that the grocery store didn’t have the scone that I walked there for so I bought wine gums instead. I’m sad that my friend can’t drive me to Tofino to go surfing. These kinds of emotions, some of which are petty and entitled, also exist in my head and I think that this represents the challenge of trying to create change. I often am bogged down with these kinds of “problems” which can distract me from school and volunteering, but they are also what makes life fun. I love gossip! I don’t care! I would much rather watch an episode of Broad City and giggle with my roommate instead of learning about soil infiltrability I’m sorry.

I think that sometimes when we get stuck on these big global challenges, poverty, water access, gender equality, we forget about the actual people we are trying to partner with and support. We forget that people everywhere are just trying to get by, to go to work or school, wondering what’s for dinner, and doing their level best. I guess that’s what I’ll try to remember while figuring out what I can do to take more action and deal with the hardness. I’ll try to put aside Basia Bastick (even though I’m excited to see where she will take me) for the EWB BC retreat and actively avoid the forced bonding while remembering to be kind, respectful, and listen to others. I think that’s all we can do. I’m looking forward to finding more places where I can take direct action and I hope I can do so from a place of considerate compassion and humility, while being badass Basia who probably wears (ethical) pleather pants and cruises on a sweet banana-handled bike with flames off the seat.

I also did not care for the “Art of Hosting” AT ALL. Does that make me incapable of human connection or what?

*Name has been changed

Daily Life

I wake up early and join the family in the morning activities that start our day. After greeting everyone, asking how they woke up, I start in with a few of the chores, helping where I can. My host mother is busy doing dishes or preparing breakfast while the kids help out, taking time to tease each other and chat. I bathe while watching the sun rise and quickly get dressed for work after taking what seems like forever washing my hair and enjoying the hot water. Though they are on holiday now, when classes were still in session my host siblings would complain about getting ready for school and dawdle with preparing their school bags. I join the family in eating breakfast and brush my teeth. My hostmom and I bike to work, sharing the road with other cyclists and cars, pedestrians and push-bike taxis.

I arrive at work and greet my coworkers, asking how their mornings and families are. Sometimes I sneak in a bit of yoga if I come early and then get started. A lot of my work involves sitting on a computer and typing up reports and weekly learning notes, though the better days allow me to go out to the field with the office to visit ADC meetings and discuss the Area Mechanic report forms and the increased communication plan. Sometimes I attend other meetings for Water Users Associations or District Executive Meetings where I learn more about what NGOs are doing in Machinga District. We have frequent meetings in the office to debrief from ADC’s, discuss the week’s plans, budget and plan using that month’s ORT, and converse about other issues. If I’m lucky I may spend a morning visiting a Gravity Fed Scheme or electric borehole system and chat with the plumbers and board members.

I bike home for lunch and then take the rest of the break to bike around and get some exercise or read in the shadow of a baobab. After the work day is over, I may chat with a friend at the market or get a fanta, but mostly I join the evening commute home and visit with people nearby. My hostfamily finishes up the work around the house and prepares dinner, chatting and laughing with visiting neighbours, and I help out where possible. After we eat dinner as a family, we sit and chat for a bit before retiring to bed.

Life is still life, chores have to be done and people have to go to work, whether it involves a push-bike commute from Chabwera village to the office or a bus ride in Vancouver.

 

Bububu Gravity Fed Scheme

July 17th 2014

Yesterday I went with a friend who runs a few gravity fed schemes (GFS) by the Machinga boma to see the Bububu scheme. There are many ways that people get water in Malawi, but gravity-fed schemes have become increasingly popular, especially because the past president, Joyce Banda, really pushed for their development.

GFS’s are seen as better for people than boreholes because it is easy to treat the water on its way from the river and it already uses the push of gravity to flow downstream so it is easy to build personal taps that do not need electricity to pump the water. I’ve been to a few Water Users Association (WUA) meetings so I had a general idea of how the system ran but I hadn’t actually seen one in practice.

We hiked up through a beautiful village (it’s so much greener on the other side of the mountain!) past mosques and irrigation schemes, surrounded by rice plantations and banana trees. It was clear that the scheme is somewhat supported by the community (more on that later) and what a hard worker my friend is because he stopped to greet everyone and even popped in a few houses, as well as reminded board members about the upcoming meeting. We met with two plumbers and one of the board members who were redirecting some of the water that was leaving the sedimentation tank instead of going into the treatment tank before walking the short path to the source of the water. It was so peaceful up there and after hiking around a bit we just chilled with the plumbers and the board member. The air was full of beautiful white, purple, and orange butterflies and I saw a frog the size of my thumb nail! Women walked down the path carrying huge loads of wood on their heads for charcoal making and we chatted a bit in Chiyao and Chichewa. The night before I dreamed I was in a forest so it was funny to have the dream become a reality and sit in the shade.

The source comes from the Bububu river which is a small stream that cuts down the hill surrounded by jungle-y looking trees and bushes and mango trees. They build a weir to catch the water but let most of it still continue downstream so that the ecosystem wasn’t too disrupted and that the water could still be used for laundry and irrigation. The water funnels into a pipe that carries down to the sedimentation tank filled with sand from Mangochi (sure enough it looked exactly the same as the quartz sand that clung to my feet at Lake Malawi) to trap sediment and mud; smaller particles at the top and larger quarry rock at the bottom.

After the sedimentation tank, the pipes take the water to the storage tank where it’s treated with chlorine and then runs underground down the hill to various public and private taps.

The structure of GFS’s management is quite layered. At the top is the District Council who oversees all projects and work in the district. Below is the General Assembly, volunteers elected by the catchment community, and last week I was lucky enough to attend a General Assembly training for the Namikomia GFS by the Malawian NGO PDI so I actually know their roles and responsibilities. The GA appoints members of the Board of Trustees, approves the budget for operation and maintenance, extensions, and/or acquisition of other capital assets, attends AGMs, and receives, deliberates and adopts all annual reports, financial statements, etc.

Below is the Board of Trustees, also volunteers, who must have more roles but unfortunately I forget and I think that what they do hire the Local Operator, plumbers, approve budgets, etc.

Under the Board of Trustees is the Local Operator who I am assuming is the manager (I had to leave the training a lot for other phone calls and also it was mostly in Chichewa so I apologize for the gaps in knowledge) who will ensure the actual running of the scheme. The Local Operator must work with the Treasurer/Accountant and the Fund Collector(s) who gather the monthly funds from each household that use the specific tap(s).

Below that are the Water Users themselves who elect the General Assembly, choose the type of water facility and site, provide labour and local materials for construction, maintaining the environment around the tap and protecting the catchment area, assess and prioritize community needs, etc.

I think in a lot of ways this system could be more sustainable than boreholes, mainly because with the monthly payments by households, the system is creating stable jobs for the fund collectors, plumbers, and treasurer, as well as ensuring that there will always be money around for actual repairs. However it is not without challenges. One thing my friend brought up was that it is difficult to change people’s minds. It might not always be easy to convince people to pay for water when they can get it for free from the boreholes that are already built and established. Though the amount is minimal, I can’t assume that everyone would be able to spare even a small amount of kwacha, and as I said, the community is used to having water for free. I saw a couple taps that had been closed because the communities did not pay for it. He also mentioned that due to NGOs and previous governments (one of the partie’s leaders is from my district) people are somewhat used to handouts and getting services for free. I can’t blame them, but I’ve realized how important continuity and setting clear expectations is in every aspect of life, but especially in development.

Another issue is the environmental protection itself of the area. Climate change is a serious issue and it has been brought up at every meeting I have attended and individuals have expressed their concern to me during conversations quite a bit. As I mentioned, women were bringing wood down to make charcoal, the main source of fuel in the area for cooking and heating water. The mountains surrounding Liwonde are patchy where large tracks of trees have been cut down. But at the same time, what would the charcoal sellers do for income otherwise? And where would the fuel source come from if not from charcoal? These questions are not easy to answer and are debated and brought up at the national level of government right down to the Water Users. There is a Liwonde forest conservation reserve which I have seen the office for, but I don’t know much about it and the District Environmental Office’s role in reforestation or conservation (yet!). Without the forest cover and root systems, water runs off down the mountains into larger rivers and empties into lakes and oceans or is evaporated in the process instead of into the streams used for water or into underground water tables. In water-y BC, with our snow capped mountains and numerous streams and rivers, it’s hard to imagine running out of drinking water, but in other parts of the world it’s very serious.

Anyways as you can tell this explanation of Gravity Fed Schemes went off track but I think it’s very interesting all of the different ways that people get water here! It’s important to note that climate change is a very real and very serious issue, here and around the world, especially while Canada’s Prime Minister does whatever he wants over there in Alberta…

A To-Do List

August 1st 2014

It’s a little hard to believe, but my last day at work is three weeks today, and then I leave Liwonde the day after. I’m super excited because the looming deadline means that the office is more aware of the limited time we have left together and there’s an air of excitement to push through some of the initiatives. We’ll try as much as possible to keep trying new things so that the office can learn and prepare as they continue the activities after I leave.

I made a list of all the things I want to do before I go so here it is, in no particular order…

  • See a hippo (this is ridiculous. I’ve been in Liwonde for two months and, though I have heard them and biked to the river multiple times, I still haven’t seen them. Not even at “Hippo View” lodge where Melissa and I ate chips and scanned the river impatiently.)
  • Hike Mulanje (August 10th!)
  • Hike Zomba or at least the Molosa hills close to me (technically I hiked a bit when I went to see my friend’s gravity fed scheme but I want a proper hike) [check!-August 2nd !]
  • See the results of the brief gender discussion I had at an ADC meeting (aka see the office make a conscious effort to include women in the conversation about borehole maintenance)
  • See at least one handover of the pushbikes for the area mechanics
  • Bake my hostmom, Mariam, a birthday cake (August 17th)
  • Have the Water and Sanitation District Executive Council Meeting happen and see my boss present the work we have done
  • Ask a friend to hang out
  • Go to the community library that’s literally two minutes away from the office (lol)
  • Go out dancing
  • Chat with the Malawian woman I met who works for Red Cross [check! August 4th and it was the nicest meeting of my life, I feel super inspired, and she invited me for dinner!]
  • See the MOUs finalized for at least two ADCs
  • Finish the data collection database with the knowledge that it will be used! Figure out the pathway for information from the field to the office. (this will be a lot of work and if it is successful it means that I know the information will be used far off in the future and that everyone’s hard work paid off)
  • Figure out pivot tables
  • Get feedback from the office on the case study
  • Get the office to write a list of things that can happen if there is extra money
  • Chat with either the District Forestry Officer or District Environmental Officer (this shouldn’t be hard but I’m shy)
  • Read my book sitting on a baobab in the baobab forest [check!-it was lovely but then I got stalked by a bunch of girls]
  • Leave Liwonde knowing that I did my very best, am confident that I am leaving a good impression, and that the office will continue their hard work to ensure consistent access to clean water for all of Machinga district

Privilege

In one of my first blog posts from pre-departure in Toronto I wrote about privilege and oppression. I was thinking about questions from one of our sessions: is an equal relationship between the ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ possible? If a relationship exists where one partner has more power than the other, is that a bad relationship? What is the bigger problem, power or powerlessness?

Before leaving for Malawi I had all sorts of angsty privilege rants and feelings. How ridiculous is it that I, a university student, get to waltz on in to another country FOR FREE, do a bit of work and aim to be as long-lasting as possible, but still leave and go home to a cushy city where I can go to school, have the support of my mother and a job waiting for me. In addition, I know that I can always be employed whenever I want (whether or not it is a job that I love, I know that I will always be able to gain some sort of employment). Whose opportunity or employment am I taking by being in Malawi? Whose voices am I silencing when I write, and later, back in Vancouver, speak about my experiences? I had a lot of concerns, and assumptions, despite my best intentions to enter the country with a clean slate. I thought that I would be wracked with guilt and second-guessing every interaction.

Now that I am actually living in Liwonde, privilege becomes a more difficult term to define. I am not constantly battling guilt, though there are specific moments which often remind me. Sometimes it comes at me as a scream, like when a random man escorted me through the first three steps of getting a malaria test and tried to get me to skip the line (I didn’t). Sometimes it’s more of a quiet shout, like when my wonderful hostmom started handwashing my underwear that I had been trying to hide under a sweater while soaking (I basically had to push her to stop and have since started washing them while I bathe in the mornings), or when a man working at the restaurant took my bike from me and lifted it up the stairs for me even though I am definitely capable. Sometimes it’s a whisper, like when all the men working at the bus depot immediately ask me where I’m going and get me on the quickest-to-leave minibus. These men are eager to help every traveller because they may get a little commission from the conductor or driver, but they also make an extra effort with me as an azungu woman (also a lot of them want to date me which is good for me to get on the fastest minibus). Privilege silently when a waiter gives me an extra egg, even when I only paid for one, as a ‘gift’ or when the women in my host community make me sit on a stool and not on the dirt.

Is it simply a sign of Malawi’s friendly culture and respectful attitude towards guests? Is it because I am useless at most things in the village and that people think my clothes won’t be clean after I wash them because I’m so weak? Is the extra care given to me because I am a young, single woman? Or is it just because I am white? In Canada I often am the beneficiary of strangers’ kindness and generosity, due to my age, looks, and friendliness mostly, but also because I am white* and a female. In Malawi I have similar privilege due to the colour of my skin.

I’ve had a hard time writing about privilege since arriving.

I honestly think that at least a large portion of my special treatment comes from the genuine warm heart of Africa, though it is still hard to tell. From my short time here, I have seen that Malawians are truly concerned about the well being of their guests and also treat each other with a friendly, jocular respect. The vibe is all about sharing laughs and “feeling free”. As much as I feel guilty about how well my host family and host community treats me (I still have to force them to let me do dishes), I think that there is a lot of pride in making sure I am cared for. [Actually I shouldn’t assume this, which is me exercising that privilege, isn’t it? As a side note, I’ll try to ask a friend outside of my village about this one day.] Another Jf in South-Western Uganda said that his hostparents don’t want him to help too much with the chores because it will look bad on them in the village, like they are putting him to work.

At the same time, when I think about privilege, I wonder how much having these conversations or concerns actually disempowers people. I think the question about whether or not there can be an equal relationship between the ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ grossly underestimates people in the ‘Global South’ (I put quotes because I don’t think there is a satisfactory term to create a binary between the world and I also am unsure if it’s disrespectful or if it’s necessary). I think we should be aware of exploitative relationships and unequal policies that benefit only certain countries, but also should acknowledge the power, strength, hard work, and possibility that lies within the countries of the ‘Global South’. If we assume there can never be an equal relationship, then I feel like we are discounting and ignoring the value of more than half the world. We are saying that one side will always have more power over the other.

For example, in the very beginning of our time in Malawi we visited some district offices in Mchinji because we could not start working ourselves until after election results were released. We were supposed to go with some extension workers in the Environmental Health Office to a rural village where they were doing ante-natal and post-natal health care and vaccinations. I think most of us, us being the Malawian Jfs, were feeling really weird about the whole situation. We were a bunch of mazungus with absolutely no purpose to being there, no ties to Mchinji or even health care, barging in on a group of women and children. They asked us to go inside the actual clinic while they were giving out shots and we refused. We felt like we were spectators and intruding on the women.

Despite the uncomfortableness, I was also wondering if these feelings and concerns takes away from the autonomy of the women we were so worried about offending. Does my assumption that it would be seen as weird for us to be there completely put words and feelings into people’s mouths with whom I could hardly communicate? What arrogance am I exercising by even thinking that my presence would have an effect? The women were interested and maybe a little curious/bothered? to see us there, but they also welcomed us and we spent a good amount of time laughing and learning Chichewa. If I assume I was exercising privilege by showing up and just as unexpectedly leaving, with no plans to return, am I also assuming that my presence even had an impact, and if so, what right do I have to make these types of assumptions?

I felt similiarly when I was taking pictures of my cellphone. People seemed to think it was very high-tech and fancy, which it is, and asked how much it is. It was free because they came out with a new model, but I still wondered if I was showing off my Canadian technology and blatantly shoving my wealth into people’s faces. However, does this mean that I am assuming people are jealous of my phone, that they wished they had something similar? Am I assuming that my phone is better? That’s where my uncertainty around privilege comes in. By worrying about exercising privilege am I making assumptions that state that people are jealous or want what I have, when I have absolutely no basis to make those types of assumptions. Does questioning privilege lead to any assumptions that one party is better than the other?

I just don’t know. I am also a white student who can leave whenever she wants, and is living in Malawi with other people’s money, so maybe I don’t have any right to make any of these questions…

 

*I know we like to think that there is no racism and that our multicultural policy is working in Canada, but I do get at least some privileges, whether I know it or not, for being a white woman.

Leadership

Leadership
July 2nd, 2014
One of my main professional development skills (aside from learning Chichewa and building my confidence and communication skills) is to develop my leadership abilities. I have found myself in leadership roles by choice and sometimes not by choice throughout the years but would really like to build on these skills and improve my capability.

A leadership style that I think I fall into and that I want to strengthen and use during my time here in the district water office is a type of leadership that enables and encourages others to lead as well. I think this style is the most practical and effective in a placement that only is lasting two months and three weeks (now only one month and three weeks!) because my goal is to set-up structures that are sustainable and will last without my input. If I can ensure that everyone is involved with the set-up of these structures and has ownership and a space to create how the Area Mechanic (AM) and Area Development Committee (ADC) plan will go, it’s more likely that people will be invested in it, and it will be more successful due to everyone’s input.

There is a Malawian saying “ichi chiyani kulinga muli awiri?” which means basically that you can know something better when you are two or more persons. That’s how I see my role within the office; creating a space for more communication and sharing and developing of ideas; and within the plan itself because the district will be sharing responsibilities and information with the ADCs and AMs. As I’ve been trying to improve my communication as well I’ve realized that obviously things go better when everyone is sharing openly and are on the same page.

I’ve also been trying to challenge the leadership areas that I feel unsure about, which is not always easy! If you are reading this, I’d love to hear about a time that you have felt compelled to lead due to the excellent leadership of someone you were working with. What inspires you to take charge or start an initiative? I’d also be interested in hearing what your styles of leadership are, or if you have any leadership resources.

Thanks for reading!

Pumpkin Pie

June 23rd 2014
Rocks and dirt dig into my knees as I bend over a metal plate, rolling out pie crust with a weak blue plastic mug that bends at the slightest bit of pressure applied by my sweaty hands. The air is muggy and full of smoke from multiple fires used to cook meals for my host father’s family who are visiting from Mangochi . About twenty women and children watch me intently, wanting to see the azungu akupiga chakudya kuCanada, cook Canadian food.

Deciding to make pumpkin pie the day before my host parents’ wedding was either a really good or really bad idea. Good because it felt nice to be able to give them a Canadian gift to celebrate, bad because it was a little stressful having so many eyes on me, something I am used to somewhat now, and I didn’t mean to take the focus away from the festivities. I had the idea when I was peeling mphkwani, pumpkin leaves, for lunch one day and was asked if we had pumpkins in Canada. I feel like pumpkin pie is the most North American thing I could make, other than pancakes with maple syrup, which I forgot to bring…

Getting the ingredients was a bit of work; setbacks included a group of men telling me pumpkin season was over but I could go to Blantyre, three hours away, and, later, I took a thrilling ride on a bike downhill through the busiest intersection with no brakes and a hard plastic seat permanently tipped backwards. The recipe is as follows:
Have someone else break open two pumpkins miraculously found in the neighbours house and peel them because you appear too slow (and weak). Agogo, grandma, will scoop the stringy bits out of the hard shell. Wonder if the thin flesh will be enough for the pie but go forward. Cut them up feeling empowered because only a few people tried to stop you and show you how to properly cut.

Cook them in a pot over a charcoal fire with an amount of water that you guessed about but still looked confident (you think).

Eventually they will soften and mash them a bit, worry about the amount of water because you have heard that making pumpkin pie from fresh pumpkins is too watery.

Add some sugar. Your host cousin will ask why you don’t use tablespoons and you shrug. Silently apologize to Betty Crocker.

Cook it down, pour off some water, add half a tin of condensed milk punctured open with a knife.

At this point you guess you should make the crust. Ignore every rule you used to believe about only using cool butter and ice-cold water (sometimes vodka from the freezer) and scoop out the sun-warmed margarine into a pinch of salt and an amount of flour that looked to be about a cup and a half (maybe). Use your clean fingers to mix until combined in fine granules.

Splash in a bit of water (ooh you’re really flying from the seat of your pants now!) carried from the borehole that morning and somehow it is the perfect amount. Roll out the dough as described previously, doing it in two sections so it fits on the plate.

Push the crust into a large soup pot. Pour the pumpkin mixture that has thickened nicely on top and put the pot over the mbaula, charcoal stove. Someone helpful will put a lid on top and pile charcoal warmed from another fire on top.

Wait a long time, play with some kids, help with a few chores, shell peas, etc. until the pie is probably ready. Share it with approximated thirty members of your new family and feel accomplished! Canadian grandmas of the world unite and bow down to your new leader, Pie Queen Franny V.

Somehow it all worked out and tasted delicious. I am constantly reminded of my favourite Malawian expression, feel free. Basically I see “feel free” as a simple reminder to chill out, have a laugh, and everything will work out, just like the pie. I’m incredibly grateful for and inspired by how welcoming, friendly, and understanding my new community is. My hostparents’ wedding deserves a post in itself so eventually I will try to describe how wonderful and funny the weekend was.

Tio nana!

Malaria Dreams

I’m taking anti-malarial medication called Doxycycline. Some people have crazy side effects from it, including extreme sensitivity to the sun and super vivid dreams. My only side effect that I’ve seen after taking it three times (Kenya, India, Malawi) is that I do have vivid dreams, though they are becoming less vivid as time goes on. In Kenya I dreamed once that a man was standing beside my bed and then woke up to hear a bunch of men yelling outside of the home I was staying in. It was so real that I searched around the room for him with my flashlight.

I haven’t had anything like that happen yet but I have had some pretty realistic dreams, a lot involving water and friends back home. In the beginning of my time in Malawi the dreams were so realistic that I was tired when I woke up because I felt like I had been doing so many things.

  • Running through the forest in the trail by Kilarney lake on Bowen which was so realistic cuz I know that trail so well
  • Having a party at Mireille’s “apartment” (not in reality) that was three stories high and her sporty, grumpy roommate got mad at us for being too loud and in my dream I laughed sooo hard at her and that might have been one of the times I apparently slept-laughed
  • I was dating some random guy and then we decided to fly to France (I keep dreaming about flying to Europe)
  • (this was during elections) being in Cairo and there was some election conflict so myself and the rest of the WatSan team had to stay at a big house on a field by the water and one day I looked out the window and saw the Zambian and Ghanaian Jfs coming and later the Ugandan ones and I was soo excited. We all played the circle tag game that we played with the kids in the village in Okongwa but then the violence got to be too much so I flew to Georgia, USA.I was with some random men and we tried to make friends with the community. Then we used a public washroom but there was a loft with a creepy man living there so I freaked out and then pretended to be a man and then we met some teenage girls and they told us they had a sailboat so we walked a long a peninsula trying to steal it.
  • Living in a pond with a bunch of people from high school that I rarely hang out with in real life. Having an “ADC meeting” in the pond. Hahaha this one was weird
  • I had dreams about joining UBC’s swimming team two nights in a row
  • Growing black chest hair (this was the worst dream so far)
  • Being with WatSan somewhere in Malawi by a small creek and there were many snakes. One was a “corn snake” and looked like a python made of corn on the cob and then Alyssa, one of the permanent staff, walked into the water and clapped to scare it. My friend Paula who lives in Ecuador showed up and we had to run away from other snakes. Then someone who used to work for WatSan that I have never met showed up and had a thick Irish accent (he’s Canadian)
  • Being with my ex-boyfriend and all of his friends in a big old house comparing retainers and then I almost missed my flight to India
  • Dreaming that I was looking at the hippos at the Shire Lodge with the other Jfs but then later my hotel room was broken into by a man who threw a towel over my head
  • Being in Cape Town with the other Jfs on a long, half-moon shaped beach with really hazy sunny morning light and looking at Table Mountain as well as another hill that looked exactly like the island across from the beach in Cape Maclear

Independence

July 6th is Malawi’s Day of Independence. We received a long weekend because of it and I spent the day introducing two of the other Jfs, Mariam and Melissa, who were visiting for the weekend, to my host community and, later, in the national park watching impalas, water and bush bucks, monkeys, and warthogs run around. (We also saw an elephant hugging a palm tree through binoculars and a python in a bush!!)

When I asked my boss at the water office about Independence Day, he told me it used to be a huge celebration. The national government would budget quite a lot of kwacha to throw huge festivities including traditional dance and music performances. Even at the local Traditional Authority level, villages would put on parties. However things have changed since Malawi became a multi-party state and independence is not really celebrated anymore, or at least so thoroughly. One reason that my boss said was that because Malawi is so dependent on foreign aid and NGOs, its citizens don’t really feel like Malawi is truly independent. I have heard this criticism from people and in newspapers here for awhile, especially towards the old President and her political party, who were criticized for being too under foreign organizations control.

It kind of turns the whole idea of “helping” people in countries in Africa through aid on its head, doesn’t it? We assume that the smiling child on our refrigerator is grateful for our support, that communities will be so happy once we pay for a well all the way from Canada. It’s interesting that the ‘beneficiaries’ of foreign aid resent this type of relationship and feel, understandably, that it is undermining their sovereignty.

Over time and especially after being more involved with Engineers Without Borders, I have come to the opinion that quick-fix, donation-based aid organizations are not really working with the people they are trying to support on a partnership level and therefore are not very sustainable. EWB often speaks about changing the systems that lead to poverty and inequality, which is unlikely from just building one latrine or giving away a goat to a family. Here with WatSan, the Malawian Water and Sanitation venture of EWB that I am working for, we are trying to support the government and the system as a whole to ensure service delivery and provision of clean water is long lasting and led by the government itself. The aim is to coordinate to provide these services, coordinate within district offices, within different levels of government and community groups, between sectors and NGOs.

So what happens when an NGO comes into a village without telling the District Water Development Office-DWDO- (or anyone in Malawi) and drills a borehole? Or digs a shallow well? Sure the community is happy and water is available. For a short time. I’m not an engineer, but I know that all mechanical things do break down at some point. By then, however, the NGO will be long gone, digging more boreholes in other districts without telling their DWDOs. If the parts were even made in Malawi and are available at the nearest trading centre, will the community raise the money? Will they know who to contact to fix it? Do these NGOs set-up any sort of Water Point Committee or train community members how to fix the boreholes? Do they utilize the structures already in place to ensure repairs are made?

I have heard of so many organizations in Canada claiming to provide clean water to people, deploring the contaminated water people have been drinking or the fact that women may have to walk kilometres to the nearest river. But indiscriminately digging wells is unsustainable and leads to low ownership and conflicting expectations of what the DWDO can do. It decreases people’s willingness to pay for repairs if they think an NGO might pop up again unexpectedly and build a new borehole. It decreases the efficiency and capacity of the government structures that are already trying to provide these services.

***

I think it’s easy for us in Canada to assume that there is no one doing the work that NGOs advertise they are doing.

People are dying from water-borne illnesses. Families cannot send their kids to school. Small scale farmers NEED training and access to markets. We can help! Donate now!

We forget that there is an entire ministry worth of people dedicated to water development, from the national level based in government to the more remote decentralized area mechanic who happily repairs boreholes for free or perhaps for a chicken or hot meal of nsima nyemba. As if there is no Ministry of Education or Ministry of Agriculture that are also trying to find solutions to these problems as well. I think that even after years of being ‘critical’ of development, I kind of forgot too. It’s easy to see NGOs claiming to “help” those in poverty and assume that without our aid, everyone would be without shoes or nutritious food. Otherwise why would they even be in those countries if there was no one else trying to create solutions?

So maybe I can’t blame the Americans who we met at the national park lodge, well-meaning, eager engineers who are here for two weeks to show surgeons google glasses that will provide a live, hands-on view of a surgery to a surgeon in America who will give tips and advice to the Malawian surgeon over obviously clear and consistent wifi. (Sorry I let a bit of sarcasm in, but I can’t exactly be critical of this idea because it’s not my place or in my zone of knowledge at all.) One of them had been asked by two NGOs to redesign (lol) a t-pump and, after many re-tests and trials and the realization that they should actually have asked the people who designed the original pump why they built it that way and work together, they designed a working pump and the NGOs went around digging shallow wells. I asked what was the involvement and communication with the District Water Development Office. Melissa asked why did they have to redesign the t-pump.

The Americans were kind of surprised to hear about the government’s involvement with providing water to its citizens. The girl who did the re-designing didn’t even think about it. And I can’t blame them in a way, if all you have been told is that there is a need for a redesign by these well-meaning NGOs who are providing water to ‘poor’ villagers. One of the professors (there were two with three of their students) said proudly how he thought NGOs and the government should work closely together, which I agree, but the way he said it was very much that the government should be keeping track. Somehow they should know exactly why every person is coming into their country, even when some lie and say they are tourists or “just visiting” to avoid visas and any complications.

Coincidentally, my boss was called in this morning (even though he had plans) by an NGO in the area that is very well known around the world. They finally were telling him about some boreholes they had drilled in a few TAs close to Liwonde. I asked if this communication was normal and he said no, but it was because of a larger district meeting they had last week and it was part of the follow up. Normally he will have to really push to hear what NGOs are doing in the water and sanitation sector, and he said they treat him suspiciously. NGOs don’t want to be supervised or nagged or perhaps they don’t want to be told that what they are doing is wrong or that they could be doing something better instead. That the village that is close to town with a mostly smooth road already has a gravity fed tap and a borehole and in fact it’s a community much further away along a dusty bumpy dirt road that could use one. Often, they won’t return phone calls or emails or show up to meetings.

There are so many NGOs with offices right here in Liwonde so they can’t use distance as an excuse; this prominent organization’s office is a ten minute walk away from the district office. So then districts may stop asking the NGOs and then the NGOs feel like they can let sleeping dogs lie and continue doing things without telling the district. Sometimes they maybe a slightly decent organization and will at least tell the district after the fact where they drilled the boreholes.

The District Executive Meetings are designed so that NGOs have to tell the district what they are planning on doing and get feedback. It works, but only if the NGOs actually agree to go and listen. Sometimes they will go and present what they will do, but leave after and never provide proof or an evaluation of what was done. Coordination and communication only work when both sides do it. It takes two to tango, or, perhaps a more appropriate saying, it takes two to lift an especially heavy bucket of water off of a person’s head. There’s also a lovely Malawian saying that goes “mutu umodzi susenza denga” – you can’t manage to lift a roof when you are alone.

I’m definitely not a concise writer, so I’d just like to summarize my main two points: firstly, don’t forget that whenever you hear about a problem or situation in another country, there is an entire government and community groups and individuals who are dedicated and care about the well being of people in their communities, districts, and countries and are trying their level best. Secondly, communication and coordination is hugely important. (Thirdly-Americans will make fun of you if you try to talk about constellations and also will tell you that hippos like to eat Canadian girls)