Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Leaving Malawi

Sitting on my porch drinking in the warm Lilongwe night air, Daniel tells me:

'I don't know if you've experienced this, but I feel much more alive when I'm in Africa'.

I ponder his statement for a moment, willing my experience to agree with his. It doesn't, I don't feel 'more alive' here.

I think about what I do feel here, what this place has given me if it isn't a feeling of being pressed up to life.

Realization and gratitude sweep simultaneously over me as the answer finds me:

I don't feel more alive here, and this place hasn't offered me what I want. It has however offered me something much more profound than filling my desires.

It has given me everything that I NEED.

When I decided to leave my life in Canada for a year in Malawi, I didn't hope that it would be easy. I did however hope to be challenged, to experience and to grow. I don't know if I've grown but I do know that I have been challenged and have experienced a great deal.

The experiences that I've had and the lessons that have been offered to me are all exactly what I needed at this point in my life.

I've also felt deep joy here, connected with fantastic people and enjoyed the beautiful landscapes. I've seen a complete different way of living and marveled at how people find joy and a beat to dance to in the face of hardship. I've even found new passions – who would know that I would become passionate about education for development and menstrual hygeine?

This place has also held up a mirror and forced me into all of my dark places – apathy, helplessness, discomfort, failure. And although I've been present in these uncomfortable places, I haven't conquered them. I haven't needed to conquer them, but I've needed to know them intimately, and that's exactly what happened.

I'm reminded of the opening line of the poem that my mentor Angela sent to me just before my departure.

When you set out for Ithaca, ask that your way be long, full of adventure, full of learning.

Those words were akin to beads on a rosary string for me. I would turn them over, touch them and they became my prayer.

And Malawi, a departure point to Homer's mystical Ithaca has been just that for me - full of adventure, full of learning.

This place has worn on me like a gentle sandpaper. So refined that I haven't always felt its rubbing, but so constant that when I take stock of this year, I realize that I don't recognize my own shape anymore – I've changed form.

I examine my reflection in the mirror and its odd to say but I even look different now, my skin is a bit worse for wear, my body weaker and rounder.

I wonder what my former self would think if I were glimpsing into the future and reading this entry on the way to Malawi. I was so hopeful about making a difference, building meaningful relationships and sparking positive transformation. I would even venture to say that I was more naïve than today about development and how things function. I felt firm in my conviction and stable in my values.

I think my previous self would smile at this entry and believe that I needed every experience to get to this point where I don't know anything. Where I've been transformed and become well acquainted with my dark places. There is one thing on which I know that my past and present self would agree:


My first post was rife with information about where I was going, what I would be doing. I won't conclude this chapter with facts about what is next. The truth is that I don't know. And that is how I know I'm on my way to Ithaca.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Malawian Proverbs

Sitting in the office with my colleague Eddie, I learn that the Malawian government has made a commitment to phase out a toxic compenent of HIV treatment. This response was partially triggered by an advocacy letter that Eddie himself signed.

Laughing, he say's 'I'm glad for the result. I thought I had burnt my fingers signing that letter'.

I sit dumbfounded for a moment, trying to understand what he is saying. After a second I realize that he is saying that he thought he had made a career limiting move by signing the letter, a very political act of advocacy.

After congratulating him oncemore on such a huge victory, I start thinking about the use of proverbs here. What a simple and beautiful way to express himself. It gives the listener an image, ignites the mind and accurately conveys his message. Burning ones fingers is much nicer than saying 'I thought I screwed myself over'

Malawians use a plethora of proverbs in daily life. These are used for expressing thoughts and feelings as well as imparting lessons.

Coming from a very direct culture, these mind twisters are oftentimes lost on me. Its a shame that I can't seem to wrap my head around more because they are one of the parts of Malawian culture that I appreciate most.

After a year here, I've managed to learn a few that I apply to my experience in Malawi.

Being that I'm leaving this week, I wanted to share the proverbs that have helped me understand this experience.

1) Proverb: 'Walira mvula walira matope.'

Translation: 'He who cries for rain cries for mud.'

In a country where over 80% of Malawians engage in subsistence agriculture (growing their own food to eat), the rains are fundamental to life. Mud being a byproduct of rain, the proverb reminds us that if we ask for something, we have to also be prepared to take what comes along with it.

I came to Malawi because I desperately wanted to learn about a different way of life, to develop as a person and to hopefully to make a difference. My time here has allowed me space to do these things but hasn't been without challenges. The proverb reminds me to suck it up when I'm taking a cold shower, sitting in the dark or craving cheese - because these challenges are the mud to my rain.

2) Proverb: 'Zidze pano ndi zatonse'

Translation: 'That which befalls one of us befalls all of us.'

Child in Rural Nkhotakota, Malawi

Follow the leader! Nkhotakota, Malawi

This translation apparently doesn't capture the full meaning behind the proverb. When asking colleagues to translate, they would say things like 'if the ship is off course, we are all going in the wrong direction' or 'when the rain falls we all get wet' – not direct translations, but they were trying to convey the actual meaning.

Coming from a culture which prioritizes individuality, this type of communal mentalitiy has been a pleasant shift in my way of thinking. It is true that events that have occurred during my time here have help bind me to the country. I felt afraid along with Malawians when the president died and a new leader wasn't announced for days. I felt angered alongside my fellow women at the trouser strippings and joyful at the coming into power of Malawi's first female president. Devaluation of the currency by 50% and the subsequent inflation was felt by all of us. The HIV virus impacts our workplaces, relationships and communities. When someone gets married (however distant the relation) we all go to celebrate.

Oftentimes when walking here, people come and walk beside me. Sometimes they speak and ask questions, and sometimes they just silently keep pace and provide company. There is a sense of community and connection to fellow humans here. Zidze pano ndi zatonse.

3)  Proverb: 'A child who doesn't leave his family compound thinks his mother is the best cook.'

Typical Malawian food: Nsima, chambo, soup and rape (green leafy veg).

First off: Mom, I love your cheese and brocolli casserole.

This said, trying new things allows us to experience more of the beautiful flavours and textures that life has to offer. Coming here and trying something different has allowed me to experience new music, different types of food, words in a new language, and a different approach to time to name a few.
I'm grateful for these experiences and have no doubt that they will continue to enhance my life after I leave.

The use of proverbs in language is something else that I have come to appreciate being here – something I wouldn't have gotten if I'd stayed on the family compound.

Eating typical Malawian food with my friend Happy Joe.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Pads for Empowerment

When I first arrived here, I was appalled to learn that menstruation is a major challenge for school age girls in Malawi.


Because they don't have sanitary products to use. 

Not only are pads too expensive for most Malawian girls and women, they are also widely unavailable in rural areas where 85% of the country's population lives. Some girls try to use coarse and poorly absorbent local fabrics, but they hurt them, smell and give them rashes.

This means that once a girl starts menstruating, she is likely to miss 3 days of school a month. This is often the 'straw that breaks the camel's' back that causes girls to drop out of school. Girls already have to worry about school fees, heavy work pressures at home and lack of electricity to study at night. Not being able to attend school while menstruating makes getting an education much more difficult.

I see this as an incredible injustice. I remember starting my period and finding it challenging although I had readily available menstrual products. 

FAWEMA (the girl's education NGO that I'm volunteering with) tried an intervention in a school in the South of Malawi to solve this problem. A group of volunteers (called a 'Mother Group) sewed re-usable sanitary pads to girls and saw performance and retention of girl increase. The challenge with this intervention was that it was unsustainable from a resource perspective. Some girls also complained that the pad was uncomfortable.

When my friend Mayme sent me a link to a competition for Women's entrepreneurship in the developing world, we decided to try to model this intervention with a few twists. We added an income generating component for sustainability, made the pad more comfortable and added an economic empowerment component for the female volunteers. Here's a YouTube video we made with the help of my friend Josee for the application.

We've called the project Tilimbikile, a word from Malawi's national language of Chichewa. It is used as an encouragement to work hard and remain strong. We believe that Tilimbikile captures the resilient spirit of Malawian women who are dedicated to improving their lives and bettering their nation as a whole.

Unfortunately we didn't get the grant, but have gone ahead with the project anyways, The World University Service of Canada provided funds to pilot the project. I've been busy the last few weeks rolling it out in 3 different groups in rural areas outside of Lilongwe. Here's what we've done.

My friends Sadia and Briony are fashion designers volunteering in Malawi. They designed a pad based on a sample sent over from Canada (thanks Michelle!). They used locally available materials and designed it so that it can be easily hand sewn.

We put together a curriculum consisting of one-day of pad sewing training and one day of basic business training. We tried it out with a train-the-trainer component on one Mother Group and then rolled it out, using those women as trainers. So far we've trained 3 other mother groups.

Mother Group members in the business training
Mother Group Member presenting the group's business plan at the business training
The idea is that the women can sew and sell the pads for a profit. Some of the profits go to the women with the aim of economically empowering them. A portion of the profits are reinvested in the project so that they can provide pads to needy girls so that they can stay in school on their periods. Since the Mother Groups work to help girls be retained and perform in school, they know the girls who need them most.

The trainings, although not without challenges, have been a lot of fun. It was so inspiring to see the women passionate about helping girls and empowered to make a difference. Hopefully we can roll out more in the future!

Here are some pictures of the past few trainings.

Mother Group Member Cutting Fabric from Pattern

The cut materials ready for sewing!

Mother Group Members sewing the pads
Even the Head Teacher sewed a pad!
Men getting involved - the group village headman (chief of a number of villages) of Nathenje learning to sew pads
My FAWEMA colleague Cecilia & I . Cecilia is the program officer implementing the project.

The women from Nathenje Secondary School at the end of the training

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Life Lessons from Learning to Drive

Sometimes 'sucking it up' and giving oneself no choice but to do something is the best way to learn.

Learning how to drive was a grueling process for both myself and my parents. Depth perception is not my strong suit. Nor is time perception. On top of this, operating machinery is also not something that I'm naturally adept at. Combine these shortfalls with a fear of damaging an expensive piece of machinery or injuring someone? Young Drivers certainly had their work cut out for them when I enrolled in driving lessons 10 years ago.

I'm now an ok driver. I know my weak points and make up for them by being extra cautious. My caution has also had a negative sub-product: I haven't learned how to drive manual cars.

About 2 years ago I decided that I should have basic knowledge on driving 'stick' in case I wind up in an emergency situation, for example taking someone to the hospital or dropping a drunk driver off at home.

I've made some feeble attempts, always stopping when I stalled repeatedly or started feeling stressed out.

Since most cars are manual here and public transport is relatively slow and uncomfortable, I've spent a lot of time as the passenger in stick shift vehicles.

Daniel's car

My boyfriend also happens to have an unusually large, beast of a diesel SUV which I would drive occasionally. Always with someone in the passenger seat, I would nervously engage the clutch, start the car and proceed to freak out for the short distance I had to drive.

'I can't get into 3rd!

Why is it stalling?

I'm not used to driving on the left side of the road!

Where is the blinker and how can I turn of the d*mn windshield wiper?

I would usually arrive at destination a few minutes later feeling panicked and beg the passenger to drive back.

The other morning I had a huge load of materials to bring into work. No one else was available to drive so I had no option but to drive the manual beast myself.

I shook off my nervousness, got into the car and just went. The odd part? When I was driving by myself, I wasn't scared and didn't even stall.

I knew that I had no choice but to make the thing move and when I couldn't get into third gear, I just put the gear back into second and tried again. I started finding myself listening to the car and seeing what was needed instead of panicking. I found myself driving confidently desbite being in the capital city of the most densely populated country in Africa (read: people everywhere).

The next morning I realized that tank was close to empty. Worse yet, Malawi is going through another petrol and diesel shortage meaning that everyone was scrambling to find a filling station with a bit of fuel left. I drove all the way to the first station, waited in the queue and was told that the diesel had just run out when I got to the front of the line. The attendant thought that there might be a shipment coming in next door so I rushed off, fought my way into the lot and found that the shipment wasn't coming. There a man told me that they still had diesel in one place: the dreaded bus depot.

Like many Southern African bus depots, the depot in Lilongwe is crowded, hot and smelly. Vendors, chickens and goats are milling about everywhere. Buses and transport vans are all honking, yelling and weaving their ways through the constantly shifting maze of chaos. I had no choice but to haul myself back into the beast and step on the gas. 

LLW bus depot

I arrived at the depot and started weaving through the chaotic mass. Women carrying unbelievably large buckets on their heads, fruit vendors and goats took no interest and refused to veer off course as I honked and yelled my way through the crowd. I got into the line, got cut off, snuck onto the other side of the queue and had angry men with jerry cans hit the side of the car. I finally made my way to the front, coerced the attendant to stop taking bribes for filling jerry cans and help me out.

I arrived home sticky with sweat, my heart pumping from the adrenaline. The car however was perfectly in tact and full of diesel.

If there had been a passenger beside me, I would have freaked out and probably landed in the nearest parking lot. Because I didn't have any option but to push forward and trust in my own abilities, I learned that I was capable of something that I never though that I could do.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Bicycles, NOT Wheelbarrows

Bike Ambulance Delivery - Salima District

Last week I had the opportunity to deliver bicycle ambulances donated by Silver Spire Church in Canada to 3 rural communities in Malawi. It was really special to meet the volunteers who will be using the bike ambulances to transport people living with HIV who need medical attention to clinics.

The stories from the recipients convinced me that the bikes and stretchers will make a huge difference:

The group in Nkhotakota said that a patient had died at home the day before because they couldn't transport him to the hospital.

In Dowa they explained that they have 8 bedridden patients that they can now transport to the clinic. They also said that having the bike will allow them to visit many more patients in one day.

In Salima district, the distance that we drove from the main road to the village spoke for itself (almost 20km on dirt road to the clinic). 

Delivery to Alinafe Hospital, Nkhotakota

Why bike ambulances?

If a Malawian living with HIV or AIDS needs medical attention and is unable to walk, getting to the clinic can be very difficult.

The bicycle ambulance is an innovative response to the needs of rural communities in Malawi. Due to extreme poverty, few health centres and high HIV infection rates, it is very challenging for sick people to get to the clinic. Many are carried, pushed in wheelbarrows or die bedridden because safe and dignified transport is not available.

Bicycle-ambulances provide a much safer alternative. By attaching a lightweight trailer and removable stretcher to the back of a bicycle, patients can be transported to clinics without risking further injury along the way. The relatively simple design enables the trailers and stretchers to be made locally with available materials. The ambulances also can be used to transport pregnant mothers and people who have passed away to the health care centres.

The bicycles can be used alone as well so that carers can visit more patients per day or carry out income generating activities to raise funds for their organizations.

Why home based care organizations?

In Malawi, community-based volunteers trained as HIV and AIDS educators, caregivers and/or advocates travel to neighboring communities and homes to care for those affected by the virus. Their ability to serve people is limited by their lack of transportation. By using a bicycle, a health care worker can see up to 5 times as many patients.

The home based carers really blew my mind. They work HARD as volunteers in grueling conditions. Many have very little but they choose to persevere for the wellbeing of their communities. They showed up to receive the bike ambulances singing and dancing and I found their gratitude overwhelming. A big thank you to both the home based care groups and Silver Spire Church for the difference that they are making.

Home based care volunteers, Salima District

Bike for AIDS Campaign
The World University Service of Canada runs the Bike for AIDS Campaign through which the ambulances and bikes are donated. Since I've arrived here in Malawi, the campaign has received support from my friends and family in Canada which has resulted in 5 ambulances (includes bike and stretcher) and one stand alone bicycle to be provided to home based care organizations in Malawi.

A big thank you to Christ Church United, Silver Spire Church, Aunt Pat & Uncle Max, Aunt Mary & Uncle Sandy, Beth, Michelle, Deb, Heather and my parents.

If you are interested in learning more about Bike for AIDS or making a donation, please check it out here!