Saturday, August 25, 2007

Getting settled in...

I have successfully completed my first full week of work and the first days have been really exciting! To give some context, I’ll start by describing a bit about my partner organization which is WaterAid Malawi. WaterAid is an international non governmental organization (NGO) working on creating improved health outcomes for people living in poverty through the provision of safe domestic water, sanitation and hygiene education. Based out of the UK, but working through country offices, WaterAid works with and through other local and community-based organizations and government departments in a capacity building, technical support and monitoring and evaluating role, helping them to design and implement various water, sanitation and hygiene programs that are appropriate for specific areas. This usually involves setting up low cost, sustainable projects using appropriate technology that can be managed by the community itself. They also work on a higher level seeking to influence the policies of the district and national level governments, to secure and protect the right of poor people to safe, affordable water and sanitation services.

Engineers Without Borders (EWB) has partnered with WaterAid in several other countries including Zambia and Burkina Faso. There are currently two volunteers with WaterAid Zambia and it is great to have them so close by so we can compare notes and help each other out. My role with WaterAid Malawi is as a Technical Support Officer. In that capacity, I will be undertaking several tasks and assisting with several of their projects. The first is a project to be undertaken in Machinga District that includes the rehabilitation of two gravity-fed water schemes. Malawi has over 80 gravity fed schemes in the country but many of them have fallen into disrepair. This particular project includes working with their local partner organization, responsible for the project implementation, and the local government, responsible for project planning and monitoring, to rehabilitate the two schemes, and where required, provide some technical support, assist in the development of a water quality monitoring program and the training of the community management committees. Other projects include further water quality monitoring in Salima District as well as conducting some research on the feasibility of rope pumps that have been used as an alternative technology to handpumps. They represent a lower cost alternative to the handpumps but further investigation is required to ensure they are maintained by the community and are providing water of adequate quality.

Over the past week and a half I have been lucky to get out in the field a few times. Last week I visited some peri-urban areas on the outskirts of Lilongwe. WaterAid is working with the Lilongwe Water Board to set up water kiosks, communal areas where people can go to purchase treated water, in low income urban settlements. It was quite an experience in many ways. It was difficult to see the conditions in which many of these people are living. Many of them get their water from open shallow dug wells. I looked down one of them and it was awful...garbage floating in it, a scum on the top and very murky. There's also several pools of standing water around where people dump their used water because there's no sanitary system. These areas attract mosquitoes and, therefore, malaria. In many cases, there is a tap quite nearby but many have been disconnected as the money that was being collected was not being remitted to the Water Board. The Water Board, with assistance from WaterAid, is working to liase with the community groups to ensure that adequate water is being provided and the kiosks are being properly managed such that the Board is being fairly compensated for the service it provides.

Earlier this week I went down to Machinga for several days to take part in a Water User’s Day in a village called Chilimani within one of the gravity-fed schemes. Geographically, Machinga is located very close to Zomba in the southern part of Malawi (check out the map of Malawi on the side and if your eyes are good, you should be able to pick out Zomba!). With members of the local implementing NGO, as well as extension agents from various district level ministries, we were up bright and early (we were at the tap at 5AM!) to collect data on the household water users at the tap and through various household surveys, to determine how much water is being used, what are their water handling and sanitation practices, what are the hygiene practices, and trying to assess if any groups are being excluded at all from access to the water point for economic or social reasons. We also collected several water samples for water quality testing and conducted a meeting with the tap committee to understand some of their concerns including the collection of user fees and areas for system extensions. It was great to be in the village again! It reminds me a lot of Uganda in many ways. It was also good to become a little more familiar with the project and to meet some of the people and start to identify ways in which I think I’ll be able to contribute. Below are a few pictures from my two days in Chilimani.

I hope all is well with everyone back home. Keep the emails coming as I can’t get enough of them!

Hugs, Heather

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Biker Babe!

So I’m officially a biker babe! Motorcycle lessons were awesome! We started off practicing in the back garden of the NGO where we were learning. There were 2 bikes and 4 of us so we had to take turns. We were puttering around the nice manicured gardens so slowly that it was like a pony ride at the fair! Hilarious! In the afternoon we ventured out and our instructor took us to a soccer field where we had a good audience of children who were amazed as we drove up with bikes on the back of the pickup and then proceeded to do circles around the field dodging kids, soccer balls and pylons. It was getting a bit precarious so after a few rounds we decided to call it quits for the day. The next day we went out again to another field and I can say that after all that practice I’m feeling pretty good on the old “hog” but we’ll see how I do out on the real roads once I get my license!

Around and around the garden...

Our audience...

After a bit of an epic journey, we have finally made it to Malawi! We arrived in Lilongwe Sunday night after a 12 hour trek that began on a bus at 6am. We were on the bus for 8 hours arriving at the border town in Zambia. It was gorgeous to watch the big red sun come up and then watch as the landscape went by, villages, small marketplaces selling little bananas, fish, vegetables and biscuits and vast areas of open space with Acacia and other trees that seem typically “African” to me. We then took a cab to the border and walked across with no problems. On the Malawi side we took another cab to Mchinji and that’s where it all started to go awry. The cab driver had packed our bags rather precariously in the trunk as they wouldn’t fit into the car because we already had the 3 of us and our day packs as well as 4 other people crammed into a car slightly smaller than my Civic. He had secured them in place with a rubber cord and we took off whipping down the potholed roads at about 100km/h or more. Normally we may have been a bit concerned about the bags but we had arrived at the Zambian border in a similar manner and all went well so no need to worry. When we arrived in Mchinji, however, we were one bag short. The other volunteer’s bag had somewhere flew out of the trunk. So in a flurry, I was left on the side of the road with the bags and she rushed back to find it. Luckily a nice man had it on his back and was struggling to ride his bike with it and get it back to us. It’s definitely got a bit of road rash but remarkably everything survived except for a plastic soap dish!

This morning I had my first meeting at work and it went pretty well so I'm excited! There about 10 people in the office and they are all very friendly. It sounds like I'll be in Lilongwe for about 2 weeks getting familiar with the people and the programs of the head office and then I'll be headed to Machinga which is in the south (close to one of the to game parks!) to work with one of their partner organizations for a few months and get familiar with some of the field realities. They have a couple gravity-fed systems as well as some sanitation and hygiene programs underway that I will hopefully be able to help out with.
So tomorrow will be my first official day of work at 7:30AM and I have about an hour walk so I'll be up early! I'm looking forward to getting started and learning more about what they do.

Hope everyone is well back home! Hugs!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

We Made it...

Hey gang,

We made it to Lusaka! It was a whirlwind trip but pretty uneventful so that was good. We've been here almost a week now and have been doing some more training and just getting more comfortable venturing out into the market and exploring some of the smaller towns around. We had one activity that was a bit of a scavenger hunt where we had to find a specific town and ask around to find several things, learn to dance and find out about Zambian pop culture. We tried to find the town twice unsuccessfully and finally decided we'd just do our scavenger hunt in the town we did find ourselves in. Nothing like making a scene as we convinced the market women to teach us to dance and then rounded out the adventure with a trip to the witchdoctor where we opted not to go through the "consultation"... just in case. It's been fun to explore around and I'm excited about how natural and comfortable I feel.

The next few days we have motorcycle training which I'm super psyched about! I'll try to get some photos and put them up on here when I get a chance. Then we are headed to Lilongwe on Sunday morning which is a 12-18 hour hike but I'm really looking forward to finally getting to Malawi and getting started on work. It's nerve-wrecking as well but I just want at it now.

Hope all is well. I send you big hugs!

Love, Heather