Friday, September 5, 2008

Oh There They Are! (the mud huts)

At long last I found them. Just before leaving Africa I had the opportunity to stay in a village, Katimba (it’s in the north-central part of Malawi, just west of Lake Malawi), that had mud huts and thatched roofs, just like what I had envisioned in my mind. I slept on a mat on a mud floor, had nsima for dinner under the stars, washed my laundry in the river, and was forced to all but abandon English in the all-Chichewa neighbourhood… but all was not as it seemed in the village of Katimba.

One hut over, was Mr. Mbewe who had nice couches in his living room; there was cell phone coverage in Katimba (but since there was no electricity in the village, people would go to Mbewe’s house to charge their cell phones using a car battery); the clothes that the girls washed in the river looked a lot like something from Winners; and there were a few people who spoke English. Now Katimba is about an hour-long bicycle ride on a dirt road from the tarmac near the small town of Nkhotakota in the central region of Malawi. But that didn’t stop the people of Katimba from being influenced by life in the city. No matter how far I tried to get away from the cities, I could still find some traces of the western life. I couldn’t find the completely isolated, rural village text-book definition of poverty.

So what is poverty? What is it that I have been trying to battle for the last few months?

LWS: I think the more appropriate question for me is who is poverty?
I have seen many different people who are struggling to overcome challenges that are preventing them from leading the life that they aspire to. To quote my friend Graham Lettner, “I see [poverty] almost everywhere - even in myself, even in the people of Canada. To me, [the poor don't] have power - economic, political, or of another form.” Here, in Malawi, these powerless people have many faces. Below are some of the people who represent poverty to me.

Benjamin: Benjamin is this lanky kid, about 14 years old, who lives in the house across from where I stayed in Katimba. He is one of the most curious boys I know. He did not speak English (although he learnt some in school), but that didn’t stop him from asking me countless questions in Chichewa about life in Canada, poverty in Canada, life in the Malawian city of Blantyre where I was working, and many other things about the world outside his village. When I asked him about his school, he brought out all his notebooks, and I saw that he was an excellent student, who got good grades in all subjects (except English!).
He is in standard 4 (many kids seem much older than their average Canadian counter-parts in the same grade), attending a primary school in the village. The primary school education is free, so I am pretty confident he will finish it. But I don’t know if he will ever get to go to secondary school (grades 9 to 12), which can cost about $200 per year. The closest secondary school is also about a 2-3 hour walk away from the village. And chances are he may be asked by his father to get right into work and take care of their farm.
I feel that if his family did not live in abject poverty and if there was an affordable school closer to the village, he would have the opportunity to get a good education and the power to make more educated decisions, get a good job, and support his family…

Abigail: One of the sisters with whom I am living in the shanty town of Chemosa in Blantyre, is a waitress at a local hotel/restaurant. She is one of the most cheerful people I know. There have been so many instances where I’ve said or done something awkward (which I generally attribute to cultural differences, but it might just be me!), and she would laugh the most genuine laugh for about 10 minutes. It was quite a shock for me to finally find out how terrible her work was – the jobthat she went to almost every day of the week. She was mistreated, paid very little (about $2/day, half of which went to pay her rent), and summoned to work at odd hours of the day (sometimes at 4:00am) without any compensation. In spite of all this, she would always come home and greet everyone with a smile, and then proceed to make some of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had. I instinctively asked her why she didn’t just quit her job and get another one. But then she pointed out how hard it was to get a job when you are competing with so many other unemployed people. This made it easy for managers like hers to frequently abuse their workers. “But Binnu,” she said to me with her unending cheer, “some day I want to open my own restaurant and make all the recipes my mother taught me.”

I would really like to see Abigail get the dignity she deserves, to get a pay that would enable her to have dinner every day, and to some day open the restaurant that she has always dreamed of owning.

Justin and Thamo: Justin is an illegal brick maker. He makes and fires bricks in the shanty town of Makata in Blantyre, although firing bricks is illegal in the city due to the government’s new rules to conserve the firewood that would be used in the kiln. His wife, Thamo, invited me to stay at their house one day. It was a modest little place with no electricity or running water. It had just two-rooms and a windowless kitchen. (I entered the kitchen once with Thamo and almost knocked over a large pile of pots, while she went around easily finding the plates on the shelf in pitch dark.) I noticed that they did not have any bricks in front of the house, which is where Justin would make the bricks. Thamo told me that because it was getting harder to get firewood, and because of the increase in transportation rates (due to rising fuel prices), they could not afford to make the bricks any more. So Thamo is now doing odd jobs (she worked as a survey-interpreter for a development worker once) to try to save up some money so that eventually they can start their business again. But there are other risks that may take away their hard-ended savings – their 4-year old daughter might get sick, they will have to rebuild their latrine when it gets washed away by the rain …

Benjamin, Abigail, and Justin – they are all amazing people who would have done great in Canada. Their poverty is the barriers that is stopping them from achieving what they can, the barriers that take away opportunities from them, the barriers that make their life vulnerable and precarious.
:LWS End

LWS: Who is development?
What does it mean to fight poverty? I met several people who are doing just that in Malawi.
Kate: Kate, the country director of Water for People – Malawi (WFP), is one inspiring woman. A local Malawian, just in her mid-thirties, she has a university degree (she was lucky to be born in a well-to-do family), several field experiences, and jobs with other NGOs under her belt. She started off wanting to get into pharmaceuticals but one fateful internship sponsored by CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) gave her the opportunity to live with the rural poor in Malawi and changed her course for ever. Kate entered the world of development and worked on several water-related issues. She strongly feels that water and sanitation is an area that Malawians need to work on in order to improve their quality of life. It is very invigorating to hear her talk about her vision for water and sanitation in Malawi, her perception of the complex challenges, and her ideas for the different kinds of solutions.
Kate once took me to a model community, Angelo goveya developed by homeless women, who had pooled money together and along with some loans and support from WFP were able to build houses with eco-san latrines and start their own businesses. As she showed me around the community and introduced me to the different women, I saw great pride in her voice. She was proud of these women, was passionate about their cause, and was extremely glad to be able to support their efforts.
Kate represents the cream-of-the-crop of development workers. Highly intelligent and motivated, these are the people who will be driving change in Malawi.

Issa: Issa is a Malawian businessman, whom I had the fortune of meeting at the back of a truck (along with 40 other people and a pig) on my trip back from Katimba to Blantyre. He started off with nothing much, just a high-school certificate. But he had the chance to work with a successful Indian businessman in Malawi. He quickly worked his way up from an odd-jobs help to almost a partner. Using this experience, he started his own business. And now he shuttles back and forth between Malawi, Zambia and South Africa, trading various goods from hand-held mirrors to motors. One of his biggest risks he is facing is the rising trend in fuel prices – as transportation costs of his goods keep increasing, his profit margin decreases.
Several people are starting to take advantage of trading opportunities in Malawi – some of the things standing in their way are lack of capital, lack of a sound business acumen and vulnerability to market risks. But there are still people like Issa who are successfully creating wealth in Malawi.

Martin: Martin is a 23-year old upper-class boy trying to make it in the Malawian hip-hop scene. Yeah, I was surprised to find that out too – but he is good! He is also one of the most politically aware people I know. He can tell you anything you want to know from the time Malawi became independent to what happened this morning in Parliament. Recently he started attending college for a diploma in Community Development. Within the first week of classes he started planning out what his final thesis would be on. With his passion for development in Malawi and his in-depth knowledge of the culture and history in Malawi, I have no doubt that he will do excellent in his course.
Martin will go on to join the hordes of young people who are now graduating with diplomas that will place them directly in the NGO-field. They don’t have much field experience and will be up against tough competition for jobs, but I hope that all of them will share the same passion and capacity for change as Martin.
:LWS End

So what did I learn over the last 4 months from all these people that I met in Malawi? Well, a lot. But the one thing that really stands out is the realization that poverty is complex and will take a long time to combat, and the people on the forefront of this combat are the people of these developing communities. They are the real agents of change, but that doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility. As Paul Collier, author of the Bottom Billion said, “We can help the reformers in these societies who are struggling for change, that’s one modest role .”

What would this modest role look like? It could range anywhere from making more responsible consumer choices (buying fair trade coffee to ensure fair wages to farmers or driving less to help reduce the hike in fuel prices) to using the upcoming elections to make sure that our candidates have a plan for more and better development aid from Canada. Below are a few web-sites you can check for some inspiration on what you could do: [suggestions for action from Engineers Without Borders] [influencing the Canadian government] [promoting the cause of international development] [making fair-trade consumer choices]
drive less for poverty article [exploring other ways to alleviate poverty]

I strongly believe that volunteering in Africa is not the end-all solution to helping Africa. We need to work from here in Canada to help remove the barriers to development. Each of us can play different role depending on our individual priorities and capacity. For some of us, maybe going to Africa to work directly with their “reformers” is the most effective role, but for most of us in the long-run, we can best influence change by changing the choices we make in Canada.

The past four months have been an incredible learning experience for me, and I thank you for joining me in my journey. I am now back in Canada, and hope to continue my learning and work from within our country.

Zonse zabwino,
[all the best with everything]

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tying Things Together

“And now I would like to invite Miss Binnu to come to the front to dance.”
Those were probably the most terrifying words I have heard in my entire stay in Malawi. I was busy working with my director to coordinate the representatives of different companies and the media reporters who had come to our big event – the Sanitation Marketing Day. Dancing in front of the excited crowd of over 1000 community members was the last thing I wanted to worry about.

John getting the crowd excited about hand-washing soap on the Sanitation Marketing Day

The Sanitation Marketing Day – what a day that was! It started at 7am with my co-workers preparing a touring vehicle with posters, banners and a loud sound system. They spent the entire morning going around our project area of Makata with over 10,000 households, dancing, playing music and telling people how the sanitation market was now open. John Chinkata, the unbeatable MC, (and the same one who would later go on to ask me to dance) was getting the crowds thrilled about latrines (he is good!) and telling them where they could buy good latrines and other sanitation products. He kept the momentum going as the vehicle arrived at the Makata school grounds, where we had a mini-fair set up to introduce the community to all the suppliers of sanitation facilities. Now John was standing at the stage that seated several dignitaries, and he was talking to an eager pumped-up crowd sitting in a massive semi-circle around the stage. On one side of the gathering were the booths of the manufacturers of plastic hand-washing facilities and soap and on the other side were the booths of the builders of latrines (who are also from the same community) and other organizations in the community. John got people to mill around and go to the different booths, and when the crowd looked restless he’d bring in an incredible troupe of dancers. I’ve never seen an information session be so energetic and fun!

Looking at all the suppliers and the people in the community I felt like we were along the right track. The market, if it works, will ensure that people will have ownership of the toilets that they buy with their hard-earned cash, and most of that money remains in the community since it is the local builders who are constructing the toilets. No need for hand-outs, and creating a sense of dependency on outside aid! Wow, what a shift from the traditional idea of just digging boreholes and handing out free water purification systems.

It’s not that digging boreholes and giving hand-outs is a completely bad idea. I think there are situations where you need to put in a lot of inputs from outside, but the key thing is community involvement and getting them to see the value in it. An unfortunate example of this is Mrs. Sowani. Mrs. Sowani is this great energetic 50-something-year-old lady who heads up the local volunteer hygiene group called Kwagwanji in the Makata community. I sat by her on her porch while she led one of their meetings. Her voice is earnest and she talks with genuine concern for the sanitation and hygiene situation in her community. She tells me with pride how she and her volunteers help sick people get to the hospital that’s an hour away, even in the middle of the night. But you can also see her frustration as she describes how people don’t always listen to her group’s advice to take simple steps to improve sanitation in their area and how her group barely has any resources to carry out its activities.

After asking her questions in my broken English/Chichewa combo, I found out that the group was originally empowered by World Vision in 2006 to make concrete slabs, which they built for free for people to construct pit latrines. These are basically a circular disc about1-m in diameter and 6” thick with a hole in the middle. Put this on top of a pit and voila, you have a latrine! It was a great idea, and it gave the group a specific focus. But when I asked them how many slabs they had made so far, they said 6 in 2006, none in 2007 and none in 2008.

It was disheartening. Here was a group of 10 dedicated people who really wanted to change their community and they seemed to have lost their voice. I think what happened was that the community was never really reached out to recognize this group properly and to recognize the value in what they were doing. The Kwagwanji were originally funded by World Vision, but funding only lasts so long. And they were not coached on how they could raise their own funds to sustain themselves. In fact, re-constructing the 2006 project in my head, I feel like a lot of money was poured into the materials and technical training for the project. But really what the project needed was more focus and resources for the soft side of the project – the capacity building, the coaching, the creation of an identity for the group and the involvement of the community in recognizing the value of their work.

But I think there is still hope for Mrs. Sowani. We can involve the Kwagwanji in our project, have them work as a promotion team for us, get them recognized through our events, coach them and train them during their meetings. I hope it we do it right. There’s a lot riding on it. Not just our target of 1000 toilets, but also the dignity and aspirations of hard-working people like Mrs. Sowani. whooooo… the pressure!

Mrs. Sowani and her volunteers show off their new t-shirts at our Sanitation Marketing Day

: LWS End.

So how did our project come to be such an innovative approach on sustainability? Our funding organization Water For People, a strong believer in sustainability and community ownership found this in line with their guiding principles. But how did their guiding principles come to be like that? Their donors, just average every day people who donated money/resources to a cause like so many do, in Denver thought it would be a good idea. (Water For People is a Denver-based organization with largely autonomous branches in different countries) It’s a very simple way of looking at the chain of decision-making and influence. But it made me realize how much I owed to the people in Denver the fact that I was able to be part of this really thoughtful and creative project.

It makes me wonder how much we can influence real projects on the ground by leveraging our donations. It’s just like voting for the government. We can change how things are done by choosing which organizations we support and what expectations we have from them. They have to respond to our choices and demands as donors, since all implementing NGOs need us to support them.

It’s an interesting way to look at all this development. Here I am, hands in the dirt working the little levers and knobs in the field trying to create some change. But I could have pulled bigger levers and turned more knobs from Canada just by using my voice as a donor.

Oh, and about the dancing? It was great! I pulled in a few kids and we danced up a storm to some Zambian pop. Ine mechanico wako…

Zikomo po werenga!