Suj in Canada

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

Tag: International Development

There is a famine in Africa… again.

Two weeks ago I learnt that my host father in Malawi was facing some financial difficulties.

This week my friend told me that his mother in Malawi said that there is a food shortage in the country.

Today I realized that the two were related. But I don’t think I would’ve cared about the latter if it wasn’t for the former. 

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Actually, Malawi isn’t the only country in Africa that is currently facing a food shortage problem. Many other countries including Ethiopia are affected as well. The relatively poor harvests of last year are partially to blame as are the irregular weather patterns that bring floods and disease. Perhaps the government also bears some responsibility for the sufferings of some of its citizens because they manage the apparently abundant food reserves yet some people are feeling the strain of last year’s poor harvests. That is not to say that everybody in Malawi is on the brink of death – some people are managing just fine. However, food insecurity as a country is reportedly one of the worst in the last few years.

However, none of this is reflected in the mainstream media in Canada or the United States. I mean, sure, food shortages aren’t exactly domestic news material and there is so much going on in the world internationally that something like this is probably difficult to slip in among the crowded boxes of an 11.75″ X 21.5″. Yet that is exactly the problem. A man dying of starvation in Malawi is not “new” news. Why is that? Is it because it’s “just another famine in Africa?” Or is it because the famine is not severe enough to be a famine but is merely a food shortage?

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One of my former colleagues from the Chikwawa District Water Office challenged me today when I inquired about the food shortage. He asked me if I was asking because I wanted to donate. My immediate internal reaction was defensive.

‘I’m still a student. I don’t have a steady income and a ton of loans. Besides, doesn’t donating just create systemic dependence?’

I skirted around the uncomfortable question with some unsatisfactory response about not having an income or knowing where to donate to which he said something along the lines of ‘If you ask, you will find a place.’

And that made me uncomfortable because, in some ways, he was right. If I really wanted to donate, I could probably find a way. So instead of saying “I can’t donate,” a more honest response would be “I don’t want to donate,” as uncomfortable as it may be to say that.

I don’t want to donate. 

My reasons are legitimate, for me. I DO have student debt and I DON’T have a secure income at the moment. I DON’T WANT to risk being financially insecure in the immediate future so I’m being selective about my spending habits.

Yet I think I need to acknowledge that I’m not going to contribute financially to this problem out of CHOICE and live with the uncomfortable feeling of that decision, regardless of any moral judgment.

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I’m not really sure if there was a point to this blog post. I just felt like I needed to organize my thoughts because I had a lot of strong feelings about the issue this week.

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For people who wish to donate or help 

in some other capacity, I strongly urge doing research so that you can have the most positive impact. From just the news articles I’ve seen after a preliminary google search, it seems like the World Food Programme (WFP) and Unicef are trying to alleviate the situation. I’m not too sure what kind of methods they are using for this particular issue but it’d probably be a good place to start.

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A view of the beautiful gardens in Chikwawa

Muyende bwino!

On my way to Lilongwe for the JF huddle this weekend, I stopped in Blantyre for a night.

After being the only mzungu (white person) in Chikwawa for a while, it was an interesting experience to be surrounded by other non-Malawians at the guesthouse.

I stayed at Doogles, which is known for being an expat location and true to its reputation, it was teeming with mostly development workers from the UK, America, Japan…

Talking with some of the other lodgers, it occurred to me that even though EWB’s work in Malawi is facilitation and not as a donor or implementer, I was essentially the same as so many of the peers I met that night. University students spending a few months between studies at a developing country. Working in the international development field. All of our projects sounded so innovative and hopeful. But isn’t it always like that on the surface level? What kinds of ripple effects are we actually leaving behind? Or rather a tidal wave since there are so many of us?

I actually felt a bit out of place being in such a Western setting again and spent most of my time speaking to the Zimbabwean bartender rather than to try to be social with the other azungu (mzungu plural). Perhaps this is what reintegration is going to be like? I don’t know if I’ve ever believed in reverse culture shock before but yesterday made me wonder… Maybe it is so very real.

Anyways. I’m at the bus terminal to board the coach to Lilongwe. These were just some thoughts that were running through my head last night.

Today’s Culture Shock: Rastas (Rastafarians) smoke weed. Some people also smoke weed and chamba. Chewing chamba is also a thing. The guard at my office snorts Tobacco. Some men smoke tobacco. Women usually snort tobacco rather than smoking it apparently. Chewing tobacco is not really a thing. And nobody seems to understand when I ask them about getting “high.”

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Random unrelated monkey picture from Salima

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.

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