Sunday, June 22, 2008

I instinctively (my co-workers had given me the Chewa name of Nambewe, as in woman of the Mbewe clan and introduced me so to the students of Makata School) turn around and find a little girl in a bright new, severely over-sized uniform (these new uniforms were distributed to the orphans at the Makata School by UNICEF) running to catch up to me. She had this awesome grin on her face with this great big mess of crazy hair and this great spring in her step that made me for a moment ignore the fact that the money spent by UNICEF on her uniform could have been spent on training the teachers or something else more sustainable. I asked her the only questions I know to ask kids: “Dzina lako ndani?” “Zaka zingati?” “Uli standard chiyani?” Basic questions that give you no important information but totally get the kids giggling. As I see her getting more comfortable and starting to volunteer information, and as I start taking a shortcut path with her, I realize I am getting accustomed to Malawi
. Or maybe the Malawi I know is getting accustomed to me.

It didn't take these kids too long to get some dirt on their new uniforms.

Several of the people in my project area know be my name and most of the kids have stopped running away from me. (In fact the kids happily and unsurprisingly kicked my butt at football the other day.) And I now feel quite at home walking into the urban village (or Informal Settlement Area, ISA, as the officials call it) of Makata, where I am working with Hygiene Village Project, or as people call it “Hygieneh”.

To clarify, Hygiene Village Project does not only send its staff to play football with kids, but it also has them working on two projects:
a. Rehabilitating and building additional hygiene facilities at the Makata Primary School
b. Introducing the concept of sanitation marketing in Makata.

The Makata School project, like a typical NGO project involves quite a lot of construction work. But, following the encouragingly increasingly popular trend among NGOs, it does involve as much participation as possible from the community. So last week I was standing in a classroom watching the masons build the new urinals for the students, as there was a panel discussion going on in the classroom with the teachers and the parents trying to figure out how they will improve and maintain the sanitation in their school.

The second project on Sanitation Marketing is exploring an even newer trend, where the NGO is not involved in the construction at all. Instead, it acts as a facilitator – facilitating a demand for sanitation, facilitating the learning of toilet construction skills by builders within the community, facilitating communication between the builders and the rest of the community. We are basically trying to create a market where there was none, by working on both the supply side and the demand side. It’s tricky. I went with our director to persuade one of the big soap manufacturers in Malawi, Azam, to produce hand soap. Hand soap, in a country where even the most expensive private hospital in the biggest city doesn’t have hand soap in the washrooms. We are trying to create a behaviour change in Makata, by stressing on the importance of washing hands with soap. But how do we guarantee Azam a ready and profitable market? This is one of the issues we still have to work out.

The initial project was in fact much bigger in scope, covering all the informal settlement areas around the major cities. But the current impasse in the government due to differences of opinion on Section 65 of the constitution, the government budget still hasn’t been passed. Part of the budget is aid money from organizations such as the World Bank, which was the original donor for our project. Since then another NGO, Water For People, has stepped up to provide some of its own funding to get the project started, with a much smaller scope. NGOs across the country have to come up with alternative methods while some of their funds are locked up in the crossfire of partisan politics

of an infant democracy (about 35 years old).

(Last week they had a session where MPs could present Private Member’s Bills, which is an opportunity for them to bring to the table the issues in their constituencies. Sadly not one single bill was brought forward and all MPs sat back, too stubborn to proceed with the session without resolution on Section 65 or the budget. I don’t know of a time when our Canadian parliament was caught up in such inaction for 6 months. We are fortunate that our democracy has matured enough that we can hold our MPs accountable – all government officials are required to respond to all communication they receive from the citizens. I hope that everyone back home takes advantage of this privilege and writes to their MPs and MLAs about issues of importance to them. Please check out for pointers on how to do so.)

So what is my role in the middle of all these exciting happenings? Officially I am a field coordinator, working hand in hand with two others. That involves supervising construction work in the field, spreading awareness among the beneficiaries and facilitating discussions in the community. Unofficially, I am also working on helping Hygiene Village Project develop organizationally – this duty ranges from teaching computer skills to helping them with their planning and monitoring and evaluation processes. Both parts of my job have helped me learn a lot about Malawian culture, but they have also brought more questions than answers.

LWS: The Luxury of Having Dorothy as my Boss
My mandate for this placement is pretty straightforward – do what I can to help benefit Dorothy. For those of you who don’t know her, Dorothy is an EWB term used to represent all the people we are trying to help. It comprises of all those living on less than a dollar a day, but who are actively trying to better their quality of life – people such as enterprising farmers, innovative tinsmiths, and entrepreneurial women seeking to better their shea butter manufacturing process.

So here I am, on the ground eager to get my hands dirty and to spend long days trying to understand Dorothy’s life and how I can help. She is my sole responsibility for the summer (see figure). And I am privileged to have it so.

My fellow NGO workers have so many overwhelming responsibilities that I wonder how they can focus on helping a group of people when they themselves have so many stresses in their own life. To help you sort through my jumble of words here’s a story about my co-worker Cecilia.

Cecilia is this mild-mannered 25 year old woman who is really soft-spoken unless you say/do something funny, in which case she bursts out in the most genuine and carefree laughter I have ever seen. At work, I noticed that she would always be late and would try to leave as early as possible. She wouldn’t contribute much during our meetings, but if given a specific task she would get it done. I didn’t see the enthusiasm, energy and dedication that I thought you needed to be a good field provider.

Then, I visited her at her home to cook and have lunch with her family. What I saw was this strong African woman who in her 25 years is already much wiser and has seen much more in life than I have. She is the mother of two adorable children and like so many Malawians has lost both parents. So she is taking care of her two younger sisters as well as a baby nephew. She gets up at 4:30am every morning to prepare the house, do laundry, make food, and ready her children for school. Her house looks impressive from the outside – plastered and painted walls, a tin roof, a separated cooking house, and a big yard. When you go inside Cecilia in her element - making some nsima

you find that the walls are made from un-fired bricks that are falling apart; the roof is leaking; the once-expensive cloth on the table is tattered. She inherited the house from her parents and is personally fixing everything in it.

As she takes the nthiko from me to get rid of the lumps I had created in the nsima, she tells me about her desire to build a better house to raise her children in. She wants to learn as much as possible at work so she can gain more skills and make herself more marketable. She has no hesitation doing work traditionally done by men (like fixing her roof). But at the same time she has to make sure there is enough money in the house every day to feed all the people who live with her.

When she is worried about feeding her own family, how can I expect her to stay longer at work to make sure we deliver the best to Dorothy? Maybe what I can do is help her add to her skills and effectiveness field coordinator, so that in the long run she can become more marketable. But in the short-run it may help her perform better at the projects we do have and in that way help Dorothy. Or is my definition of Dorothy too narrow? Maybe Cecilia is my Dorothy too? : LWS End

For the past few weeks I was really focused internally – learning about HVP and the projects, and seeing where I could help. But lately I’ve started looking outside to see what other NGOs are up to. There are several NGOs in the water and sanitation (watsan) sector and one of the most popular projects is bore hole drilling. Although there are some associations designed to coordinate the work of these NGOs, I haven’t personallys seen any collaborations happen on the field with different projects. On a positive note though, I have discovered more about the work of Water For People which is striving hard to create sustainable solutions in the watsan sector. Their strategy is to fund small NGOs and CBOs for different projects, coach them through the project on implementing community-focused solutions and on building organizationally, and eventually try to make them responsible and self-sustaining. And so far, I can see them working in that manner with HVP. It is quite exciting to see a Malawian NGO (they are based in Denver, USA, but the Malawian office is pretty autonomous) taking such an approach.

I also had the chance to meet with a representative of the Dutch organization, SIMAVI, which supports grass-root level NGOs as well. They will be launching a website this summer that will allow Dutch individuals to donate to African NGOs through an online system. I will post an update on this cool initiative this summer. It is amazing how much Denmark, for being such a small country, invests in international development - 2.6 billion USD which is 0.81% of its GDP. As I look at all of the development initiatives the Malawian government is undertaking, with official development assistance (ODA) being about 30% of the GDP, it makes me realize how there are so many programs hinging on receiving aid. Maybe when you write to your MP, you could bring up the fact that Canada should increase its development aid from 0.28% of GDP to its original commitment of 0.7%?

Zikomo po werenga!
(Thanks for reading!)

1 comment:

PvB said...

Inspiring to read how the work in the field is still going on and still needed, reminds me of how i started many years ago. In the meantime i have gathered some 20 years Africa experience and promote now more interchange of experience on the web. We will also soon be working in Malawi for a UNDP water project with the new Afripump.

I would like to invite you to write something about your work experience on our WatSan (water & Sanitation) portal

Paul van Beers
WatSan Consult
Amsterdam, The Netherlands