Suj in Canada

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

Tag: Malawi

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

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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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Host mom and bff/neighbour posing with my Osprey gear

On the Subject of Sanitation…

Disclaimer: Even though I am working in the WASH (Water and Sanitation and Hygiene) Sector in the Malawi, I know very little about the technical aspects since the project I am working on is about managing finances. Therefore, the most I can do is to pass on the personal knowledge that I’ve acquired from my firsthand experiences and in conversation with people.

(ODF) Open Defecation Free

This is a term I’ve heard around which means that a community is free of open defecation (aka people pooping in the bushes). Personally, I’ve never actually seen any human excrement anywhere other than in a latrine so I think everywhere I’ve been in Malawi have been ODF. Animal excrement is another story.

CLTS (Community Led Total Sanitation)

One of the places in Chikwawa where I have collected data is a place known for its CLTS. This means that the community has taken great initiative to have total sanitation. ODF is a given and they not only have latrines but may have upgraded latrines (the definition of which is contentious) among other sanitation achievements.

Hand Washing

Washing hands is a big thing here. Before every meal, people always wash their hands. But the thing is, culturally, people wash their hands with only water. This is an aspect that I’m still struggling with in my village life because I have a sensitive stomach. My host family uses soap for other things but only washes their hands with soap before a meal if I suggest it. From travelling around and talking to people I’ve realized that it is a pretty prevalent cultural norm despite knowledge of hand washing hygiene.

Today’s Culture Shock: Part of the process of helping a community become ODF involves the activity of “triggering.” It’s essentially a shaming activity whereby human defecation found in the village and some type of food are displayed for the community. Flies travelling from the poop to the food is supposed to help foster understanding that open defecation leads to the equivalent of “eating your own shit.” Regardless of how you feel about this shaming process, it does work, indisputably.

Safe Drinking Water

I drink tap water in Malawi. I don’t think I’ve yet been to a place where my only water source has been compromised. My untouched supply of aquatabs can attest to that. Some rural villages may have issues of salty borehole water but even salty water can be safe to drink if it is diluted enough. The only complaint I have is that water is available inconsistently because it is frequently turned off but that’s another issue.

Today’s Culture Shock: As the dry season is coming to an end in Malawi, the levels of the Shire River are getting lower. It also means hydro electricity is in a bit of jeopardy and so the rationing has begun. The country is exclusively reliant on hydro which means that power outages have been more frequent than usual. Also meaning our tap runs dry more often as well…

Becoming “white”

In Canada, I identify as being Asian. In order to not get lost in the multicultural rainbow of the Western world, I’ve clung onto that identifier for 18 years. I am first and foremost, Korean – somewhere lost between generations 1.5 and 2.0. More broadly, I am Asian – East Asian. Everywhere I go I am drawn to my fellow cultural mates. We speak similar languages at home, eat food that smells weird to others, and obsess over the same trends across the ocean. Although we have grown up in Canada, much of our experiences have been shaped by the culture and values brought over by our parents from the old country.

Most of all, I do not identify as being “white.” In fact, the label of “white” in immigrant communities displaces the other identity and all the values and cultural nuances that come with it. In my experience, to be “white” is to reject your family’s culture. To embrace being “white” is to be ashamed of the other identity. As long as I am fully ethnically Korean, I can be Korean-Canadian but not Korean and white. The colour of my skin demands a choice.

As an Asian in Canada, I am part of the minority even though by sheer number alone, certain “minority” races may be a majority. And being a minority means suffering the disadvantages of not being the majority. So we are taught to work hard. Work hard for your parents, work hard for yourself because no matter how hard you work, the colour of your skin may work to your disadvantage. You have to get as far ahead as possible so the net result works in your favour.

But in Malawi, I am white.

Mzungu means “white person.” Everywhere I go, it’s what children and adults call me when they don’t know me by name. The connotations are bigger than skin colour because in conversation, generalisations about “white people” seem to include everybody who is not a dark coloured race.

Exhibit A: “You white people have so much knowledge that we, the Africans, do not.”
Exhibit B: “White people rig the system so that we are always dependent on you.”

But even if I dispute that my skin colour is not as “white” as someone of European descent, I guess I am still “white” compared to the average Malawian.

Fast forward 3 months later, I’ve gotten used to being called “white.” The kid who calls out “mzungu!” as I pass by on a bicycle ultimately has no malicious intent. But I hated it the first time. Because I’m not white. To claim that identity had too many negative connotations for me as someone who grew up in an Asian immigrant community in Canada. Furthermore, I didn’t want to be associated with the history of “white people” in Malawi, in Africa. My ancestors didn’t pillage and purge the cultures of their colonies on this continent. My ancestors weren’t even colonisers. We were the colonised.

Except in the end, colonial history really doesn’t matter in this context and I was the one who was ultimately afraid of the negative connotations to my newfound identity as a “white girl.” In fact, most foreigners who come to Malawi probably don’t even have direct ancestors who were colonisers. And even if they did, it’s not as if they should carry the sins of their ancestors. It was unfair of me to guilt a group of people under a generalised label just because of their skin colour (even if I only did it in my mind). Especially when I am clearly unsettled at being the subject of such generalisations (ie. Mzungu).

However, carrying the “white girl” card is certainly a special thing here in Malawi and the associated privilege should not be taken lightly. I can claim the most comfortable seat on the minibus while everybody else is squished 5,6,7 to a seat meant for 3. I can also walk into almost any government office in my district for a chat with people who are far more qualified and busy than me. There has not been a single day that I have not been reminded of this privilege whenever somebody called out “mzungu!” However, it is privilege that I realized I needed to challenge and claim as my own. As much as it belongs to the identity of a “white person,” it also belongs to me since “mzungu” is what I am to everyone else. The two identities are one and the same and I’ve finally accepted that.

In a world of labels and categories, the names that other people call me don’t necessarily have to be the ones with which I identify, personally. In fact, adhering to labels at all – whether given by others or by myself – is limiting. I can be so much more when my potential isn’t confined to a box because the inside of a box, no matter how big, is such a finite space. But what Malawi has taught me is that it is also important to be aware and reflect on labels that are seemingly foisted onto me by others. Yes, I can be more than my labels, but I do not exist in isolation of them.

As EWB would say, it is all a part of a system. ^_^

In conclusion: I spent 3 months in Malawi as a white girl. I’ll be returning to Canada in a couple weeks with a severe identity disorder but I’m sure it’ll all sort itself out in the end.

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I've actually gotten quite tan in Malawi

Today’s Culture Shock: Mostly in the cities, there’s a fair number of Chinese businessmen and Japanese aid workers (JICA). So sometimes I also get called “China!” or end up being greeted in Japanese.

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

Useless Talents are, Nevertheless, Talents

There have been countless times in Malawi that I’ve been grateful to my lucky stars for the bag of useless talents I’ve managed to acquire during my 22 years. Case in point: I cooked impromptu pasta yesterday. Translation: I boiled some linguine and made sauce using cans of whole tomato and whatever vegetables I could find seasoned with curry powder. It was delicious. My host family now thinks I’m a cooking guru. I owe my thanks to the cooking lifestyle belonging to University student poverty.

The following is a list of my other skills, similarly useless but rather useful in Malawi:

– Awkward turtling like nobody’s business
– Having grown up with a love, and thereby immunity, of questionable street food
– The ability to hold my hands in an awkward, vertical stretch, behind my back
– Knowing the partial choreography of a handful of Kpop songs
– A short stature
– Being able to have a superior sense of balance
– And having a superior ability to stretch in every which way
– Knowing how to pretend I’m Japanese
– I can do the cup song
– Having hands that move like an eel despite a body that fails to imitate
– Spinning like a ballerina
– Remembering the ONE set of Irish footwork Ariana taught me in grade 9
– The ability to spin any long, straight object like a kungfu master
– Likewise, I can spin my pen like a true Asian
– Watching too many Korean dramas
– Asking obnoxious questions
– Knowing how to braid my hair
– Ability to eat corn cleanly off the cob in rows
– Remembering how to do laundry using the stomping method
– Keeper of the magical 9 times table finger secret
– Speaking (a bit) of French

***Disclaimer***
Upon my return to Canada, I will NOT be able to demonstrate any of these useless abilities by request

Today’s Culture Shock: Many people wash their hands all the time… Without soap. It isn’t necessarily a matter of being able to afford soap. Everybody I know bathe every single day and you need soap for that. And people know that you should wash with soap. Restaurants generally have tons of soap by the sink. But especially in the villages, washing hands with only water is a cultural thing. And it’s difficult to break people’s habits.

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The pasta I made with my useless skills

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

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.