Suj in Canada

Recently back from Malawi after 3 months of working with WASH Catalyst. Currently missing those mandazis…

Living in the Temporary

Canada has been permeating my thoughts quite frequently these days. Something about the combination of post-MPR fever and knowing that my placement is over in a month causes me to dream of that taste bud burning Korean food that I’ll have as soon as I can get near Bloor street again.

Yet I know that when the time comes, I’ll miss Malawi very much. My experience here has been memorable and the connections I’ve made are hopefully lifelong.

EWB is currently hiring LTFs and seeing all those postings is making me realize that if I had the chance, I think I’d like to come back again and work for a longer period of time. Like a year. Which is crazy because 3 months had seemed so long in the beginning.

But then again, do I actually want to come back for that long?

I’m wondering if the safety cushion of knowing I only have a month left, of imagining and looking forward to all the Canadian things I miss, is actually the thing that lets me think I can handle more when I can’t. At least at this moment.

Timing really does make a difference. The closer the expiry date of my time in Malawi draws near, the more the days seem to move like molasses. I doubt I’d be counting the days if I were to leave a year from now.

That’s why starting tomorrow I avow to stop counting the days. It’s all relative anyways and before I know it, I’ll be on the flight back. So I’m going to try harder to be in the present. In the now with the people I may not meet ever again.

Today’s Culture Shock: I can’t quite remember the last time I’ve seen my face. Mirrors are such a rarity around here. Especially anything bigger than a hand mirror. Which is why I’m reluctant to wear my new dress out in public. I don’t actually know if it looks as good on my body as it does when laid flat.

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I spend too much time taking pictures of our yard

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Talking to Boys

Situation 1:
Boy: Hello!
Me: Hi.
Boy: What’s your name?
Me: Sujin.
Boy: Susan?
Me: No. Sujin. S-U-J-I-N.
Boy: Sujin! What are you doing in Malawi?
Me: I’m working.
Boy: Okay! I want to be your friend. Can I have your number?
Me: Uhhh…. I left my phone at home. And I don’t remember my number. I have it written down in my phone.
Boy: You don’t keep your number in your head? (Laughs)
Me: Yes! (Laughs) Bye! (Starts walking away)
Boy: Okay bye!

Situation 2
Boy: Sujin!
Me: Hi! How are you?
Boy: I haven’t seen you for a long time.
Me: I’ve been here. Going to work every day.
Boy: So when are you going to come to my house to chat?
Me: (laughs) I don’t know.
Boy: Tuesday? Wednesday? Thursday?
Me: I’m not sure. I might have to go to the field. I don’t know. (Nervous laughter)
Boy: You always say you don’t know! (Laughs) Seriously. When are we going to chill?
Me: I really don’t know! (Laughter)
*phone rings*
Boy: Hello? (On phone)
Me: See you! Bye! (Waves and walks away)

Situation 3
Boy: Hey baby.
Me: (ignores and walks away)

A List of Things I Miss in Canada

We’ve reached the halfway mark and as much as I love Malawi, “There’s no place like home” really does resonate more and more. So here’s a list of all the beautiful things I miss about Canada (mostly food).

– A real Canadian breakfast. Eggs, beans, back bacon/breakfast sausages, hash – all doused in glorious maple syrup.

– Sidewalks. Paved roads. The lack of sand in my shoes.

– Washing machines. Dryers. Even if I have to walk outside of my building to use one.

– Drinking on the patio with friends on a warm summer evening. Or just drinking in public and not being misunderstood for it.

– Spicy food. Specifically Korean food.

– SUSHI.

– Pasta. Creamy pasta. Creamy pasta that I make with seafood and white wine.

– Cooking. Knowing how to use the stove and where to buy groceries so that I can cook for myself.

– A fridge. And cold water.

– Large windows. And my open concept house filled with light.

…. I’ll think of more later. But those are the ones that occupy most of the space in my mind. 🙂

Today’s Culture Shock: Most everyone I’ve met generally don’t believe poverty exists in Canada. To which I explain and show pictures of homeless people (who only really exist in the big cities in Malawi) and everyone is always appalled.

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Bricks used to build houses in Malawi

Village Savings and Loans – Banki Pam Jigo

In Malawi, villages are responsible for raising funds and maintaining their own water points. Sometimes, if funds are scarce, a borehole like this can be out of service for 18 months.

18 months.

That’s a year and a half.

I think I use about two buckets worth of water every day at the moment. One bucket for bathing and another bucket for all those miscellaneous things like washing my face, brushing my teeth, laundry, washing my hands before meals…

If the tap in our immediate area broke down, I’d have to carry two buckets of water every day for an extra 10 minutes each (because I’m not that strong) at a borehole that will probably be congested because everyone else will be doing the same (which means waiting around for my turn).

And mine would be a minor convenience of time. The extreme end of the spectrum of a broken water point could be more than year of using a compromised source of water. I don’t think I need to explain the potential risks to health for using contaminated water.

The District Water Office in Chikwawa has an innovation to potentially mitigate such problems. And it’s why I’m here. To help move the project forward.

We’re currently working on implementing Village Savings and Loans (VSL) concepts for water points. It is a community level bank that has been implemented in many villages around Malawi. The difference in implementing it for the water point is that the water point itself will be a member who can lend and borrow money from this village bank. With time, the original pool of funds contributed by the community to maintain the water point can grow with interest. And even if there aren’t enough funds to cover an immediate repair, the water point can borrow the difference and repay it like any other member.

I had the privilege of going to the field and conducting some preliminary research on communities who have already been trained to use this VSL concept for their water points. The results were overwhelmingly encouraging. All the villages I visited had grown their funds in some way and the opportunity to borrow funds has allowed small businesses to grow in their communities. Economic empowerment. Interviewing them was something like a development dream realized.

But the most exciting part of all of this is how much agency this project gives to the people of Malawi. I’m aiding a government led innovation – supported but not dictated by an NGO – which means that there is a greater chance for long term sustainability and follow-up support to these communities. The end result of the program also gives communities greater financial agency as a group and as individuals. Isn’t this what development is supposed to be all about? Helping people to eventually reach a point where they can help themselves?

Today’s Culture Shock: Malawi has some of the most expensive and slow internet on the entire continent. Other JFs in Ghana and Zambia can skype home. Running video is just not an option here. There’s a lot of reasons… government tariffs, private company interests… etc.

An added dimension of economic empowerment and innovation: Borehole irrigated community gardens.

Glass Half-Full

This past weekend was the Mid-Placement Retreat. It officially marked my halfway point in Malawi. Has it really been that long?

The last few days filled me up with so many ideas, dear memories, and now I feel myself overflowing with inspiration and motivation.

Their sources are each and every individual with whom I had the privilege to interact, chat, and share a good laugh. Especially the Long Term Fellows (LTFs). Not that they were especially more awesome than everyone else.

The JFs inspire me as peers. They motivate me to do my best in my current capacity. The venture leaders inspire me in their level of commitment and capacity to manage people at heights that I couldn’t even dream of reaching at this moment. People who did not fit into any of the categories inspire me to be accepting and more adventurous in my efforts to connect with people.

But the LTFs… To me they are the people who I aspire to become more like in the future. The near future as I wrap up my Bachelor’s in the coming school year. They are incredible – commitment only surpassed by the passion that fuels their work ethics. At the same time, I can still relate to them. Recent graduates. Young professionals. The difference is in their choices after University. The experiences that fashioned them at this same time of my life.

When I first came to Malawi, I was looking for some answers. “Is development work what I really want to pursue? Can it be more to me than just a degree?”

The cosmos haven’t sent me a sign and as far as I know, my tea leaves mean little more than compost. And that’s okay.

Because the path to the supreme awesomeness that is an LTF seems to begin with what I am doing here in Malawi. And continuously fuelling that growth by reaching more and more outside my comfort zone. And maybe one day, hopefully someday, I will emerge into the light of a new day as a beautiful butterfly!  (I just built it up so much that I didn’t know where to go afterwards…)

But seriously. Halfway point. I’m still growing. And I’m glad to be here. ^_^

Today’s Culture Shock: People complain less here. They still complain about politicians and how the government should do more but when it comes to minor inconveniences like standing on the bus for 4 hours, people don’t really make a fuss (or they do and I just don’t understand it).

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Salima. Lake Malawi. MPR. At sunset.

About Poverty

“Poverty” is such an ugly word. “Poverty” in the West is unconsciously synonymous with sad children who have flies buzzing around their saucer-like eyes. Yes, poverty exists in Malawi. If poverty is defined as living below a certain monetary line of income or not having enough to eat sometimes (or all the time), it is a reality for many people. However, “poverty” can also be a smiling toddler with a swollen belly. “Poverty” is also the respected elder in the village church who may also be a landlord. “Poverty” is hungry, angry, and cast out from society but can also laugh under the stars surrounded by family. “Poverty” doesn’t have a single story and I feel that the word has come to carry many negative connotations that it is not a dignified enough word for the people of this country – of any country.

Instead of “poverty,” I embrace the “absence of opportunity.” I’ve realized that in Canada, I am so very lucky. Growing up as an immigrant, I was very aware in all the ways that I was more disadvantaged than somebody who had been born in Canada. For someone who was not a visible minority. So I worked harder to make up for my handicaps. But the fact is that even if my parents couldn’t afford to put me through 4 years of University, a combination of government loans, scholarships, and part-time jobs makes it possible for me to attain a degree. Social mobility. I can achieve social mobility in Canada with a bit of luck and hard work. Although unemployment is a problem, I am confident that I can at least find a job to achieve the bare minimum of feeding myself. Or I can get another degree. The point is, I have options.

Many people in Malawi don’t seem to have so many options. Some of the most privilege shattering experiences I’ve had were conversations about the future with bright, hard-working individuals brimming with potential. They’ve settled their hopes and dreams to what are affordable – casting aside any luxury of dreaming for more. And I sit there with them in silence because I can’t contribute to the conversation. To offer encouragement to dream bigger seems like a mockery whereas sympathy for the situation would only further add to the sense of defeat. This is a land where for many people, sometimes working hard can only get you so far.

For me, every conversation has been a heartfelt reminder of why development work exists. It’s a curious realization. The discouraging landscape of NGOs and development work in Malawi is now, in my mind, juxtaposed with very obvious reasons why development work is still needed. For the first time, I truly understand the concept of “an absence of opportunity” with my heart and it angers me.

Today’s Culture Shock: Most of the schooling in Malawi is taught in English. At some point from either Standard 6 or Standard 7 (Grades 6 & 7), all the subjects in school are taught in English except for Chichewa. It’s curious because even though all of their school notes are in English, most kids at that age have great difficulty at speaking or understanding the language.

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My favourite spot in Chikwawa overlooking the Shire River

“I am the anti-Midas”/Picking up the pieces

A long, long time ago, Midas was a king who had the ability to turn everything he touched into gold. The moral of the story proved to be very disheartening but that isn’t what this post is about. This post is about how I’ve become the anti-Midas. Everything that I touch becomes ruined.

One of the common JF frustrations that I’ve heard about is harbouring expectations of how they will contribute only to realize that they cannot contribute meaningfully in the short amount of time their placements last. I had thought that since I had no expectations from myself for this JF placement than the bare minimum, I was effectively shielding my ego and mind from potential disappointment.

I’ve now realized that a new problem has arisen with that kind of thinking. I’ve set the bar so low for myself that I’m supremely disappointed – and even ashamed – of my personal efforts.

Upon the realization that I’ve been in this country for a month already, I’ve compiled a list of things that struck me as the results of inadequate effort on my part (in that I really could’ve tried harder and these are not affected by externalities)

  1. My Chichewa sucks. For having been immersed in the language for a month, I think it should be better than what it is and I know that I haven’t been trying as much as I could.
  2. Progress on work has been underwhelmingly stellar. I really didn’t have much expectations for myself but I thought that we’d be beyond JUST a plan by now. A plan that we wrote up in the first week that I was here. And I KNOW that there are more ways that I could’ve pushed progress if I hadn’t been such a scaredy cat.
  3. Sometimes talking to people is like bashing my head against the wall. I’m realizing the limits of my communication skills. I simply do not have enough patience sometimes or the tact to diplomatically broach sensitive topics and navigate the politically charged waters.
  4. Laziness is a chronic illness. Lately I’ve just been so demotivated. And I have no legitimate reason as to why I’m not trying my best every day.

In other words… I suck.


The disparaging content above was actually written a week ago.
Things have changed since then. Most importantly, my perception has changed.

The great thing about the EWB venture (WASH Catalyst + WASH Coordination) team in Malawi is the unbelievable support. And so when I was feeling so very low, I had people to help me pick up the pieces and move forward.

I still have some reservations about work. Communication at home and at the office is still difficult. Self-motivation is still a daily challenge but the important thing is that I can accept the good days with the not-so-good days in stride. One of my fellow Malawian JFs, Brett, gave me a great tip in counting at least one win every day. So I’ve started to do that.

Today is similarly a disappointing kind of day but I can count at least one win.

Today’s Win:  I have data from my field outing on Friday that can be analysed. 

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Some of the WASH team support network plus myself

Quick post about everything Malawian that is also Korean

– Squatting on the toilet sometimes
– Using respectful pronouns
– Prevalence of traditional gender roles
– Homophobia
– Using both hands to shake
– Using both hands to give and receive money
– Everything and anything can be bought at the market
– Paying for highschool
– TB
– (Almost) everybody goes to church
– Food is sold on the road to passing cars
– So. Much. Street. Food.
– #formercolonyrepresent

Today’s culture shock: There is a kind of internal brain drain in the country in that the NGOs pay so much better than the government and therefore attract more talent. The result is a very different power landscape than Canada.

#Villagelyfe

I’ve been at the village for a full week now. And I really love it.

Maybe it’s because I know that the minor inconveniences are temporary… They don’t bother me that much.

Every day after work, I look forward to coming home. Even though I can’t communicate well with my host family, they’ve been so welcoming. Yesterday, when my host brother dangled a dead mouse in my face and laughed at me, I really felt like part of the family (not a sarcastic comment).

Even though there aren’t any lights save for phone torches after 17:00, there is still so much to do. I think I’ve learnt three different hand games, 2 songs, and watched people dance and laugh. And the stars… So many stars…

People here are truly open and genuine. Village life is difficult – I’ve seen more than one child running around with a stomach bloated from hunger. But people never fail to greet you with a warm smile and laughter despite not having much money. Although I don’t actually know if that is indicative of a positive mindset.. Yet it inspires me to be a better person nevertheless.

Today’s culture shock: Long fingernails are a fashion statement for both men and women.

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Picture of our shared yard from the house

Minibus adventures

There are many ways to travel between districts in Malawi. Road transport by bus seem to be pretty popular. Someone in Balaka also told me about a train – a ghost train that I’ve never seen but whose whistle I keep hearing. There are two kinds of buses that one can take. The biggest is basically a greyhound-esque bus. I’ve never actually been on one but it looks nice from the outside.

The second option – and the only one I’ve experienced – is the minibus. It’s always bigger on the inside.

The most people I’ve travelled with at a time has been 31, including the children and babies. So probably more like 23 people.

As you can imagine, the first time I travelled by minibus, it was overwhelming. My personal bubble was effectively popped and never given a chance to recover.

But since that first time, I’ve learnt a few things:

1. Malawians are creative.

The minibus culture fills a niche in transportation that is both affordable and flexible. If you’re a farmer without a vehicle and you want to transport a bag of seeds, the minibus seems to be a cost efficient and viable option. You can also catch a minibus anywhere as long as you are on the side of a road so it is quite convenient.

2. Malawians are organized…

… In a chaotic sort of way. Minibuses have predetermined routes and it seems that you can be dropped off anywhere along that route. And if you enter a bus depot, you only need to say your destination and you somehow end up on the right bus.

Transfers to a new bus along the route or onto a different route are also straightforward in my experience. If you just go where they tell you to go, you end up at your destination eventually. And drivers pay each other when you transfer so you only pay once per route.

3. Time is a relative thing.

The time you leave and the time you arrive is a mystery. By accommodating so many stops and pickups, and waiting around at a stop for the bus to fill up, the day goes by in the blink of an eye.

4. People are really friendly here

Despite being squished in like sardines, from what I’ve seen so far, nobody gets territorial about his or her space. And whenever somebody needs help, people cooperate and accommodate – be it passing around a baby or playing musical chairs on the bus. The mood is never hostile. There was an incident when a baby was crying and people seemed to make jokes and laugh about it for the most part.

I think my fellow WASH Cat Anita summed up the minibus culture in the best way, “it’s not about a different concept of personal space. It seems that people are willing to give up their own space.”

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Balaka has the best minibus system. They line up by routes and fill up one at a time.

Today’s culture shock: There’s a lot of Indian people here. I don’t know why. I just know that you can find decent Indian food in Malawi and Indian bread at the grocery store.