A Day in Sujin’s Village Life

This is a post I wrote in August 2015, near the end of my time in Chikwawa, Malawi with EWB (Engineers without Borders Canada).

I don’t remember why I didn’t post it two years ago, but I found it collecting dust in the mess of my drafts and decided that it deserved to see the light of day.

There are many things that I loved about that time in my life and many things that I regret. I experienced a peace and happiness living in the village that I have never experienced again, if only because I am not as naive as I had been then. This post embodies some of those feelings.

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A rooster’s crow pierces through the haze of my slumber. I open my eyes to the light streaming in through my uncovered window which filters onto my bed through the blue mesh of my mosquito net. It must be 6 o’clock. Sleepily, I rise and wrap a chintenge (African cloth) around me like a skirt, tucking the ends tightly so that they won’t slip while I sweep the yard outside. So begins my morning at the village where I live, in Chikwawa District, Malawi.

The first chore of the morning, for any household, is to sweep away the remnants of yesterday’s activities. And it just so happens to be my job. As I rhythmically circle round the yard, huge dust clouds choke the air in my wake. The distinct patter of water splashing into a bucket is the sole accompaniment to the shushing of my broom. Reluctantly, the village around me stirs and comes alive.

Breakfast is almost an afterthought in the morning. Before the cooking fire is lit, already the yard is swept, last night’s dishes washed, and laundry hung out to dry. At our house, most days, the cooking fire is set for the tea. That word is synonymous with “breakfast,” but it is also the word for hot water saturated with copious amounts of sugar. Another thing I’ve gotten used to here.

On weekdays, my shoes fill with sand as I walk to the Chikwawa District Water Office. It is dwarfed by the surrounding unkempt yard partially occupied by rusting play pumps. The building is a sad comparison to its neighbouring government counterparts, with its cracked walls sorely in need of a new paint job. Inside, there is a wealth of motorbikes and PVC pipes, a computer at a table, and an oddly placed spare office desk that had been dragged out of the boss’ room for me. Aesthetically, the office doesn’t amount to much but it has proven to be completely functional otherwise… when there is electricity. And the staff are some of the most hardworking and passionate government employees I’ve ever met.

At around half 4 (16:30), I trudge back across the sandy bumps and winding paths to our yard. As long as the sun is up, the routine is like clockwork. I fill a basin with water and carry it from the tap, through the house, and into the bathing stall in the backyard. My hair is strategically dowsed first and I use my little red cup to immerse the rest of my body in methodical sections. Outside the bathing stall, my host cousin is watching the fire, waiting patiently for the water to boil to cook that day’s last meal.

After brushing my hair and hanging my towel out to dry, a number of things may happen before dinner is ready. There are days when I try (and fail) to help my host sister cook nsima (staple Malawian food made from maize flour). Sometimes I waste away the hours chatting with friends. Perhaps I brought my laptop home with me and all the village children crowd around as Disney cartoons faintly glow in the otherwise darkened yard. No activity happens in solitude. There is community buzzing all around until the last of the candles are snuffed out at 9 and everybody is soundly sleeping in their houses.

The few minutes in my room before I drift off to dreamland are the ones when I am the most alone. Although I am usually too tired from the day’s activities to collect my thoughts properly, even in that moment. So I let my mind slip further and further… and I fall asleep to the sounds of night. The last thing I usually remember is the bray of a cow, or the bark of a dog – underlying it all are the even breaths of my host sisters sleeping on the mat next door.

Good night

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I will remember you…

We numbered 7 in my send-off party. Since I only had 3 pieces of luggage plus a helmet, I really felt the love from my friends and family.

The 10 minute walk to the main road stretched into a ridiculous 15 as our rambunctious group paused and posed every so often for the unofficial village photographer – my host brother.

Nobody cried. We were all smiles. Yet it will remain in my heart as both the happiest and saddest moment of my short time in Chikwawa.

I already miss them all.

Before we left the house, I remember giving little Bridget the biggest hug – worrying that she’ll remember me and have abandonment issues, worrying that she’ll forget the brief encounter from her 6 year old mind.

In the morning, one of my newest friends gave me an ice cream cone that he had specially bought and kept from the day before. Just for me. I was touched and ecstatic that he knew me well enough to give me the perfect gift. I was also disappointed that it was not a gift I could keep to remember.

All these moments, the feels, the look, the smells, the sounds… I wish I could preserve them in a capsule forever because I’m so scared of the wear and tear that they’ll undergo with the passage of time.

In a global era, keeping in touch is possible. But what about when my friend doesn’t have a phone, an email account, or a home address?

Having to say goodbye for probably the last time to people who have become so special to me seemed to underline this particular development frustration that I have with Malawi. The lack of communication or information infrastructure to connect Malawi to the world.

But today isn’t the day for such musings. Today is a day for goodbyes.

So goodbye. I’ll miss you all.

**I realized after originally posting this that it sounds like none of my friends have phones. Most of them do and they use WhatsApp. My host parents do not and I have a few friends who are in their teens who do not yet have phones. The home address thing is pretty universal for my friends, however.**

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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.

#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

This is it.

My coach left yesterday. I’m really all on my own now. Starting tonight I’ll be sleeping at the same compound as my host family Mr. Banda, his wife Mary, and son Happy. Their village seems friendly and nice and I am grateful that my host family is willing to let a stranger share their home for 3 months.

But I still have anxieties and slept fretfully. I’m on my own without Gabe to translate and I’ll have to figure out how to get by on my own. I’m essentially going to do a village stay for 3 months and while that seems like such a short time, I’ve only just begun to adjust to Malawi in general. My mental health is really being pushed to constantly handle more and it is exhausting.

I want to end on a positive note because that’s what this whole experience has been teaching me so far – looking to the bright side always. Monique (our LTF) has been telling me that “you can always control how you react.” It’s become an unconscious mantra for the past few days. So today is the first day and it will be a good day. 🙂 Wish me luck!

Placement Update: Chikwawhat?

A couple days ago, I received my placement information. I wanted to blog about it as soon as I received the email but it’s just been so busy lately. I almost wonder if I should’ve taken the last week off work to get myself organized. Between the full-time hours, last minute medical checkups, packing, shopping, and planning for NYC… there just isn’t enough hours in a day. Most of the time I end up doing overtime into the next set of 24 hours.

But I received my placement!!!! Yayyyy!!!

*Drumroll*

I’m going to Chikwawa!

………..

Wait. Where is that?

Our returning JF Lauren had given me her handy lonely planet guide book and according to it, Chikwawa is a small town located near Blantyre – the commercial capital of Malawi. Chikwawa is also the name of the district the town is in. It’s located in southern Malawi, near the border to Mozambique. The area was one of the ones hit hard by the severe floods that hit Malawi during its rainy season this year. I’m expecting to see some relief NGOs or at the very least, a level of government relief. Which will be a weird thing to see since that never happens in Canada…

I’ll try to post more details of what I’ll be doing at a later time. For now, enjoy this wonderful map of Malawi!