Wake up call….

Wowzers long time no post, sorry for the delay everyone I’ve kind of been moving around all over the place and haven’t really had the time to sit and type something up. That being said I wanted to start this off by letting ya’ll know what I have been up to as of late. For the most part I have been compiling and analyzing my research in an attempt to draw up some ideas or thoughts on some pilot projects we could run after the JF mid-summer retreat. The retreat is just something so all the JF’s can meet up for a day or two half way through our placements and discuss what is working for us and what some of us find challenging. At the same time since we are all together we can have more specific meetings and group discussions with the people working on the same project as us so we can throw ideas at each other and decide where we want to go in the next two months as a group work wise. The hope is that at these meetings we can look at the data everyone has collected over the past two months and think of a bunch of pilots we can run. From there each JF in my project will be assigned like 5 or 6 pilots to try and implement and study over the next two months. I realize I have been using pilot project and not once explained what it is. An example of a pilot project in my case could be based on the theory that fund collection in communities is too hard to stay accountable for when it is done on a monthly basis so we could try fund collection once a year so people don’t have to ask for money as often. So using this idea we could go through the list of communities I visited and see which ones would be fit for testing this idea. After selection I would go visit the same communities again and pass these ideas by them, see what they think, how they feel it would work, possible problems in its implementation and so forth. Another example of a pilot could be the collection of rice or maize instead of money. We would go through the same steps to see which communities would fit and try it out. Some of these projects are short term and some are long term but the goal is to have come up with some idea that could be tried for every community that is struggling with community finances.

So that is still my main project however over the past couple days I have also been dabbling into some real data crunching with Excel and WP data from all over Malawi. Using this data I have been playing with Visual Basic programming in Excel to try and find all these random statistics. An example of this could be that WP data is usually given with GPS co-ordinates and WP name, so I would try and create a program that goes line by line and compares each and every water point to one another to find its closest pairing, how far the distance is between them in meters, and from there try to analyze how many pumps there are within a 500m radius of that pump. Organizing the lists in terms of that allows me to single out some outliers and try to understand why certain places have so many WP bunched together. After this I could pass some of this info on to other APS (African Program Staff, long term EWB volunteers) who could go to these villages across the country to try and better understand how decisions were made in these communities and why they were given so many boreholes while other communities with no viable WP were ignored. It’s basically all in the name of trying to better understand the decision making process that occurs when siting WP’s and how those decisions could be influenced with the help of readable and accessible information.

So yea that’s what I have been up to over the past little while work wise. On the personal side of things I am pretty used to life here now. I have been in the main city of Lilongwe for the past couple days for this data work but for the most part I have been chilling in the village with Ben and what is now my permanent family. I have been feasting on rice and beans twice a day with spicy curry sauce to give it that Indian touch. It’s actually very good and amazingly peaceful to live out here, everyone wakes up by 6 AM and everyone is asleep by 7. It all really just works on the sun since there is no power out here. Anytime my phone dies I give it to my little brother Akulemba who takes it to school with him at 6AM and brings it back with him at 12PM when he finishes school. In my spare time I try and read, yea that’s right, I try to read. For those of you who know me well, you know I never read books, I detest them but out here I gave it a try and found a couple good ones. When I’m no doing that I try and walk around the community and talk to different people just for the sake of a good conversation and ill occasionally throw out some ideas I have on community finance. They will usually ask me a lot of questions about Canada, the most common of which is “What is the biggest difference between Malawi and Canada?” To which I respond, “The People”.  To this day I have not met one angry person, seen someone who is stressed out or even someone who is sad. I’m not kidding when I say that it feels like all the people here are happy all the time. Then I think back to how life is in Canada, where we have all the opportunity in the world. Where we have this abundance of resources, this great infrastructure, life is supposed to be amazing. But when I think back I see people who are constantly stressed, complaining, negative, depressed, and so forth. Now don’t get me wrong, a lot of people are not that way are usually happy, positive people. My only thought is how come everyone isn’t like that. I say that because I know I fall into that group a lot of the time as well, where I forget to look at what I do have and instead focus on the things I don’t. Then I come over here and I meet intelligent kids who are being held back by cost and limited spacing in universities so they have no other choice but to continue on farming and making the money they can. Even though their family spent all that money putting them through high school, so they could have the chance to break out and really become successful, they are held back by the limitations of where they live and the lack of opportunity. It genuinely hurts to have a conversation with a 21 year old who is still aspiring to become an engineer, had the grades and all a couple years back when he finished high school but just couldn’t get into university because there weren’t enough spots in the 4 universities (one of which is currently shut down) in the country for 17 million people. Add that to the fact that none of these schools are like UofT that has over 10,000 students, I doubt there are that many in all 4 universities combined. Now I can’t provide reference for these stats up because of the shoddy internet but I’m sure you all get my point. Who am I to complain? That isn’t one unique story either; it’s the case for many up and coming students. That conversation was a nice, cold slap in the face and a serious wake up call to realize that I have every opportunity to thrive back home in Canada, I shouldn’t take that for granted, none of us should.

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The first roadblock…..

Hey everybody, little late on this post since I have been feeling a bit under the weather as of late but things are picking up now and I should be 100% in no time. This is basically to everyone on what’s been going on in my life in the past week. So I have been living at the same place with the same great family having rice and beans twice a day because I think the family sees how much of that I eat compared to how much nsima (the common food, like a big ball of wannabe mashed potatoes made from corn flour and eaten kind of like a roti) I eat. Work wise I shifted my focus from just visiting communities and having conversations to actually going around and making some repairs on pumps that don’t work. With that in mind, I went around with my mechanic and attempted 6 repairs of which 4 were successful and the two that failed only did so because we ran out of solvent cement. Although most of these pump systems are relatively simple, the one commonly implemented by the government and used for boreholes, the Afridev is quite a mission to repair just because it goes so deep into the ground. I’ll try and draw a quick picture of how the Afridev (which is actually pictured in the header of my blog), actually works. So you start by drilling this deep hole into the ground to access an aquifer, next you take a big pipe and put it down there, inside that pipe you put smaller diameter PVC pipe with a cylinder at the bottom, inside this pipe you have 3m sections of aluminum rods with washers at every joint. Once put together, pumping the handle at the very top moves the rods which use suction to draw water upward and out of the pump. I hope that made sense, I will try and post a schematic of it or something if I can find one.

I will provide the example of the first community my mechanic (Ben) and I tried to repair. Going in we knew the WP was a borehole 35m deep with an Afridev pump, which was now entirely non-functional. So we started by opening up the pump, taking off the lid, the arm, and started removing each rod one by one. Got to the end of it and realized that the problem had nothing to do with the rods or parts on it so unfortunately we had to remove the piping. This involves taking out about as much pipe as possible at one time without it cracking (usually about 3-4m) and unlike the rods which are easily detached and reattached, the pipes had to be cut at each interval until we could get to the problem. Unfortunately the problem wasn’t found until the last pipe that had a miniscule crack in it which negated the suction effect required to draw water. So next the community scuffled around to find some pipe, and the fun part begins. So now all those cut pipes have to be reattached and put back in. Now in Canada we would have all sorts of sockets to do this but good luck finding any of those in a rural village, let alone having to pay for each one. So instead, normal pipe is taken, put into a fire so it can be deformed, shoved onto a pipe when it’s malleable, reformed by the pipe and finally quenched by immediately placing it in cold water to keep its shape. I spent 4 months learning about the details of all those states and methods so it was nice to see some of it in real life. Mind you burning PVC pipe releases some pretty bad chemicals into the air which aren’t really good to take in so I put some of my knowledge to use and let the people know this stuff wasn’t good to do, but understanding there was literally no other option I tried to help them understand that its bad to take in those fumes, so stay as far back as possible. So we continued doing this for some time until we had like 8 sockets, then slowly reattached all the pipes, then put back the rods and the casing and then the moment of truth, we began pumping. We waited for a bit, kept going, going, heard the water coming up and then finally, splash, cool clean water came pouring out of the pump, and everyone in the community had a smile. It felt good, although this isn’t my direct focus, it’s nice to go out and do things like this and be hands on in some direct repairs to see a difference right then and there.

The thing that hit me the most about these experiences was the ingenuity of the community and its ability to make something out of nothing.  The main point being reforming pipe to make sockets, but others are using cut up sandals as washers to prevent water leaks and simple weight to measure the depth of the well, where the water starts and where the water ends. A lot of these things we learn about engineering in schools become so theoretical at times that we can lose sight of what engineering is, or at least what I see it as, which is “An engineer creates solutions to the world’s problems”. It’s a very broad statement and it’s just my personal opinion, but it nice to see the other end of the stick and some real life problems like this at a relatively simple scale that doesn’t involve creating distillation columns or flash calculations. I also want to add that going into these communities for repairs I’m not really adding much technical insight that Ben doesn’t already bring, he knows these things in and out. I could have bored him on the theory of how he made sockets and how they held their shape but what good would that do. I’m there participating in the repairs just like anyone else in the community because my big picture goal is to study how communities actually function and what separates communities that can maintain a borehole to those that can’t to ultimately increase overall functionality.

I think that’s enough work stuff for the time being, Ill wrap this up with some key moments in the past little bit. The first one being a night where it was pitch black, the sun had gone down a while ago, the sky was cloud free and the moon was nowhere in sight which added up to the single most spectacular night sky I have ever seen. All the stars were so bright, the details so crisp, I just stood in the middle of a dirt field that doubles as a soccer field and stared with my jaw dropped. It was stunning, that’s all I can really say at this point. Being modest it was easily 2 times clearer and more detailed than any night sky I had ever seen, taking India and camping into account. The rest of the stories are small compared to that so ill fire them off, I saw a couple snakes, one of which was poisonous. I saw a kingfisher swoop down and catch a fish right out of the water like 5 feet from of me. Finally I was sitting outside reading a book (yea that’s right, I was reading a book) and a heard a scuffle in the bushes, I look over to see this lizard that’s like 4 feet long and a solid 8 inches in diameter. I stood up and it ran off but it was huge, I don’t know enough about lizards to tell you what it was but it was big. I explained it to Ben after and even he had said he had never seen such a thing.

Anywhoo that’s it from me, not sure when the next check in will be but will keep you all posted and until then, thanks for the support everyone.

Cheers,

Ajit

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Work updates…

Hey All, Came back into town today hoping I could get the chance to type up some of my results from village visits since I have been motoring through them as of late. To this point I have had discussions with 50 Water Point Committees (WPC) and my results and scattered all over the place. Some can raise a ton of money while others can’t raise any at all. In my Area there seems to be some added confusion because pumps are installed by 2 different organizations and the district that all preach different values. One organization for example implements pumps and asks the community to pay a 1000 Kwacha (k) fee per year for “membership”. What this entails is highly ambiguous as I have seen communities who have had repairs of over 5000 k all covered by this program, where as others maybe 1 km away have paid 2000 k plus this fee for a much smaller repair. So who decides these things, and why do some communities know how to use it while others don’t. I asked communities who have been paying this why exactly they do pay it and the result is the same pretty much everywhere. “Water is Life”….I have heard that line more than any other while being here and it’s really stuck to me because it’s so true and it’s pretty much why I’m here. These communities sometimes think that by not paying this, water may stop coming out of the pump. It’s a tough situation to see especially in the cases where communities have little to no money, and when they need a repair, they pay extra on top of this. So who is to blame in those cases? What can be done to change this? I have seen this system work great in the case where a pump broke and was repaired the very next day by this organization for no additional cost even though the repair could have cost over 5000 k. How come they had no additional charge here but they did down the road? Those are just some of the questions that have been floating around in my head over the past couple days and that only the story of maybe 10 pumps. The other 40 differ could differ entirely. This is why I wanted to take a day to some up my data in a format that more readable than some scribbles in my workbook.

I think one other thing I’ll throw out there right now is a story of a WP that I went to yesterday to sort of give the jest of what I try to extract from different villages, the questions vary from village to village but this should give a general idea. The pump was built in 2000, supplies water to 23 houses of which they collect 50k from each and every month. I asked these questions again in a different way to be sure I was getting the right information and they insisted, they collect 50 k/ house/month. From there I asked how many time the pump has broken before and they said 0, so they had spent 0 k on repairs. Okay good, so from there I asked how much money they had saved, they responded with 1500 k…….wait what? Let’s run the math here….50k/month/house*23houses*12months*10years = 138000 k…..so where exactly is the other 136500? I asked this question and was faced by defending answers now saying people don’t pay every month even though they said they did earlier. So then I got the minimum amount of people that pay each month, guaranteed, and they said 8….big change from 23 but let’s see where that gets us….48000 k. So where is the other 46500? They said they had maintenance for the concrete which cost a lot…how much is a lot? They said 5000 k….so where is the other 41500?…this process continued for about as long as I could take it without seeming pushy and got to 28000 k that was unaccounted for. Although these words may sound like I am being pushy and straight to the point serious, I try to do it in a somewhat playful/serious manner like having a conversation then asking these questions randomly or by beating around the bush to finally get to the point. It can take some time but at I have to do it that way because at the end of the day, I’m some student from Canada coming into their village asking them questions about their money….what right do I have? It’s a fine line to try and balance being friendly and getting results so you can increase the likelihood of honest answers. Most I have been to have been very welcoming and friendly, no community seems to stick out in my mind that hasn’t done so. You may think that this particular case of money issues was a rarity but let me assure you it isn’t. Though the scale may vary and this community had a lot of money unaccounted for, not one single community has been accurate with the amount of money they say they collect, spend, and have saved. They all require me to ask questions from different angles, in different orders and constantly adapt the way I approach the situation depending on the answers I am getting to start with.

That’s just one of the areas of questioning and that just one of the problems that come about in it. This is why I seriously need to look back at everything and hope it all makes sense a week after I had my first discussion.

I don’t exactly know what’s going to be happening in the next little while but I will try and keep you all posted, thanks for the support all.

Taluta (If that’s how you spell goodbye in Tonga)?

Ajit,

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First thoughts of actual work….

Waddup everybody, finally got out to Nkhata Bay BOMA which is like the downtown area of Nkhata Bay where I could have some internet access and catch everyone up on what’s been going on here in the TA Timbiri where I have been stationed for the last couple days. To sum things up real quick I have been visiting villages to have conversations and collect some data pertaining to why a water point (WP) does or does not work. Basically when a new WP is put into place, most of the time a committee is formed who is in charge of the maintenance and repair of it. This entails collecting data such as how much money the committee has collected, how many times the pump has broken in the past, what has been done to fix it in the past, how long that took, how much money it cost, who is responsible for the repair, who should pay for the repair, and so on and so forth. So over the past couple days I have managed to visit in the neighbourhood and 30 WP’s and their respective committee and if I have come to one conclusion it is that there is no single thing a community can have to guarantee it can take care of its WP. I have seen committees who raise an abundance of money and always repair their WP right next to committees with no money saved at all. Each community has its own, unique story to tell and it would be nearly impossible to sum them all up here so I will just bring up a couple key ones that stick out in my mind. The first one comes from an area I touched on my first day, in which I saw 3 Afridev(Common, Easy to find spares in this area, Expensive, Used for deeper wells/boreholes) pumps within 100 m of each other. All 3 had been broken for a long time and the community had taken no proactive action and was merely waiting on the District to provide them with another one. This is one of the challenges of community based management, where if District Governments continue to provide these handouts, or free repairs, the community won’t take ownership of its WP and will merely wait for someone to come and fix it for free. On the other end of things, I had a discussion with a committee who had a traditional higher up on its team. In this case the people implementing the wells did not inform the community that a committee needed to be formed (Which they should have). In every other case like this, I saw no committee being formed and no organization among the community as to who is responsible for what. This particular case was special in the way that they had raised 15,000 Kwacha all in one year. This was by far and away the most of any community I met with and they were able to do so in only 1 year. I now have the task of looking back at all of these notes and scribbles, tallying them up into a somewhat readable format and trying to think of ways EWB could intervene with a possible pilot project. So that’s work wise for the time being. Now to discuss a little bit of personal life, I have been staying just outside the Pundu market where I have been living with the local Area Mechanic (AM) that I do village visits with. To sum that up, I share a bed with him in a small brick house with a straw roof. I shower in a straw cubicle thingy and I do my dirty business in a brick/straw latrine. Big change from the cushy life in Canada I know, but its all an experience that I will take in stride and learn from. So that’s it from me for now, Im sure i didn’t cover everything and if you have any questions fire away…ill reply well…..whenever i can get to the internet really….. once again thank you all for the support.

Cheerio,

Ajit

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AHHHHHH!!!!!

Well this post was supposed to start off summing of my last couple days in town but that all changed because of the events that just transpired here in the past 3 minutes. As I was laying here in my temporary room in a guest house that I have been in for the past 3-4 hours sorting through and rearranging stuff I saw a flicker from the corner of my eye. To my surprise when I looked closer it was a giant black furry spider the size of an f’n tarantula. For those of you who don’t know, I’m not a fan of bugs, let alone when they are in my sleeping environment. So as you could imagine I flipped out and threw my shoe at this thing, missed horribly and it ran behind my bags. I then stared at my bags for 2 minutes before growing up again and moving my bag, when it scuffled behind another bag, we tussled like this for another minute or so until finally, the shoe got its victory and the spider was splattered and Ajit was victorious. Hands down the single worst bug experience of my life so if you’re wondering what will I remember most about this trip you can forget anything else that may or may not happen; this will take the cake, guaranteed.

Well aside from the spider debacle I’m posting this to update you all on what has happened in the past couple days and what’s on the slate for the coming week or so. First things first I would like to thank all of you for your support in all this, I would respond back to each and every one of you comments, likes or emails but since internet access is so limited outside the main city, that isn’t really an option. That said I will say that I have read each and every comment and seen everyone who has like my posts and I really would like to thank you all, seriously. Sitting here alone half way across the world in an unknown environment where I don’t know any local language it really helps to see the kind of support I’m getting from all my family and friends on this whole endeavour.

That aside I can say that the last few days have been pretty hectic, I have slept in 3 different beds in 3 different cities and I will be following suit tomorrow night as I begin my first stage of work. So after finishing up in-country training in Lilongwe I woke up bright and early on Wednesday morning to catch the 6 hour bus ride over to Mzuzu. Beautiful bus ride where I met my first in country friend named Brave, who helped me out with a bit of cultural stuff as we talked about random stuff. The ride was marred close to the end however as we passed about 8 km of land that had been desolated by deforestation. In a country with such lush greenery, this area sure does stick out like a sore thumb. Anywho I got to Mzuzu and made my way around the market with a fellow JF and APS. We shopped around for a couple hours as I needed a bag since the bag I had bought the day before and about 5 minutes after I purchased this new one, it broke aswell…..yay…It was an easy fix though in this case so after this step we headed to the residence of another APS where we had a quick dinner, I met my coach and APS that I will be working with for the summer and I passed out early so I could wake early the next morning, review some documents and head on over to Nkhata Bay which I will be based out of for my work term. Upon arrival to the bay, I was met by one of, if not the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. This gorgeous bay with clear warm waters and lined with lush green hills, I shall show you all pictures when I get home. This sight instantly put a smile on my face as I sat down with my coach/APS (Devon) and fellow JF(John) to have a discussion about what our placements were going to look like over the next couple months. We talked for a couple hours, headed over to the District Office to speak to the District Water Officer who we are working to come to a conclusion about what I will be doing for the next couple weeks.

This coming week I will be visiting several villages to talk to community members and ask a list of questions which will help us try and better understand why boreholes breakdown and/or why they don’t get fixed. I could go into a lot more detail here but I want to avoid saying too much. I will say that this initial field research will hopefully help us in narrowing downfalls of Community Based Management and seeing what can be done to alleviate that. In the end we hope to have a better understanding of all of this, so when a donor comes into this district, they can repair say, 80 boreholes instead of the 40 they originally had the money for without actually spending any more money than they had originally planned. So that’s me for the next little while, since I will be living in a village for at least the next week or so, this will probably be my last blog post for a couple days until I can get access to internet again. Until then I would like to thank you all for the support again and ask whether or not you all like these kinds of long, detailed blogs, or short concise ones?

Cheers,

Ajit a.k.a. Spider Killer

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Wow…..

First full day in Malawi and that is all I have to say. Started off with a couple sessions on of the usual stuff which I won’t bore you all with here but then we did something that may draw your interest because it definitely drew mine. We were given a list of things to either go and buy or find information about in the market of Lilongwe. Most people decided to go in teams for this exercise but I figured hey, with 2 pages of sloppy notes on language and no sense of direction or reference points in the market I figured it made sense to go myself. So I started the journey and stopped 400 m later under a tree right before the start of the market. I looked down at my book, didn’t know half as much stuff as I did when I left so I looked up, smiled and walked right in. For anyone who has seen a market in India, it was essentially the same thing so I was comfortable in the fact that it wasn’t too different. Aside from that my first task was to get malaria medication which I found quite hard to communicate to a medical supplier because I was constantly referencing my book in these broken sentences. Eventually she laughed and responded in English and I felt like an idiot. This was generally the case as I went from store to store trying to find things, they all seemed to acknowledge and were happy about the fact I was trying to learn their language. I tailored my accent to try and help them understand me better while also understanding them better. I went about these missions as I picked up a phone and some credits. Next up was finding the cost of a minibus to Mchinji in which case English didn’t work and when I asked in Chichewa I was simply laughed at by 8 different minibus driversJ. I later learned that I had gone to the local bus station and not the bigger one on the other side of the market. Awkward experience but that’s how I learn best from mistakes. From there I proceeded to the Old Market where I had the task of finding Chimbuka. At this point I had no idea what that was so I roamed through the random alleys of stands asking some locals about it and got some laughs and some help until finally this guy pointed me directly across this bridge over a river and garbage. I proceeded over it until he stopped me for a toll of 10 kwatcha which if found surprising but just then someone else who just crossed gave him the same amount so I proceeded to do so. I forgot to mention this bridge was basically made of bamboo and had gaping holes so it was an interesting cross to say the least. I got across safely however and quickly managed to find Chimbuka which ended up being international beer. I made the bad choice of buying this and holding it in my hand as I walked back to the meeting point and was constantly greeted by “shake shake” or people just asking to sit and have a drink with me. I got some laughs, met some great people, and didn’t drink the beer since it didn’t really look or smell appeasing and even though I want to integrate into this culture, I should never be too uncomfortable doing so. After this we went to a Malawian household where I learned to make and ate nsima with some awesome rajma which I know would make my mom happy. I also had some chicken, fish and peas which were quite a delight from the very welcoming family. So yea, that sums up one full day in Malawi and I feel like I still missed so much in this blog.

Guess the title makes even more sense now.

Peace,

Ajit

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En route…..

Sitting inside Washington Dallas Airport right now, just saw a third of the team get randomly searched in public…..gotta love that TSA. I’m currently running on was less sleep than I need to be effective and am just waiting to get on that plane so I can catch up on it. It really seems like its happening now, I cant believe I will be there within a day now. The day ended with our 3 AM cab ride which saw a truck in flames on the Gardiner, falling asleep and waking up at the airport, falling asleep on the floor waiting for the plane, falling asleep in the plane and now falling asleep while typing this in the midst of waiting to fall asleep on the plane. I will try to update when I land but no guarantees on internet access so well see what happens, time to sleep now.

Live from Washington this is Ajit signing out,

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