EWB Conducts Research in Malawi by Dylan Jones

by mdillard
Sep 15

Having spent the first day of EWB’s inspection trip to Solomoni Village, Malawi checking into our hotel (and quickly passing out onto our beds), I was, along with a faulty Wi-Fi-card, unable to remark on my thoughts and send them back to Medford. However, Day 2 has proved to more propitious. On the first day of our trip, we arrived to an hour-long line to get our passports stamped at Chileka Airport, Blantyre’s main international airport. Joseph Chiundiza of Joshua Orphan and Community Care, our partner organization, picked us up in a mini-bus and greeted us warmly. Once we arrived at Doogle’s Hotel (the main hotel for Westerners in the city), we discussed our itinerary with Joseph as he made suggestions.

After a night’s rest, we left at 8:00 am the next morning to head into the city, where Joseph discussed common phrases and greetings in Chichewa for us to use. He also warned us we were about to be badgered by street vendors as we walked through the souvenir market. After haggling a quarter mile through that market, we went through a larger market and inspected shops we could buy supplies from in the future. We then left for the Joshua Center and discussed how we would partner with the center in our project. Louisa Songol discussed our translator needs and worked out which day would be most efficient to conduct interviews with the villagers.

We arrived at Solomoni Village in the afternoon. It was about 4km from the Chileka Airport and another 16km from Doogle’s. The road leading in was unpaved and debilitatingly bumpy, and resembled a slalom course of dirt and discarded bricks. The village chiefs and the chief village head, along with headmaster Fred Kalinge and other community leaders dressed semi-formally and greeted us outside the primary school the Joshua Center had helped constructed. We went on a small tour through the village, greeted by song and dance, as well as shy smiles, from children.

When the time came for our meeting with the community leaders, Rory, Elizabeth and I gave opening remarks and a small outline of what we hoped to work with the village to do and how we might best approach the project. We explained that we wanted to interview villagers first so we could find the best technical way to solve the water problem and also work with the villagers so that they themselves felt invested in our project. The end goal is sustainability, and we did the best we could to convey how important community input is to our project.

Headmaster Fred expressed his sincere gratitude to us and informed us how ready the community was to solve its water problem. He told us that hard work was the ethic of the community, and we would find no shortage of it here. Another leader named Chrisa asked us when we could install our distribution system and repair the boreholes, and I did the best I could to explain how we would need until May 2018 to map out our course of action, design the fixes and return to build them. I also explained how our university was similarly filled with hardworking and determined individuals and that we would be employing our full attention to assuaging their troubles.

The next day we conducted 16 interviews of different families in Solomoni, dividing into groups of two with myself and Naomi accompanied by Joseph, and Rory and Liz accompanies by a Joshua worker/interpreter Steve. We travelled throughout the village speaking to families. One person we interviewed was Patricia, a woman of about 35, married with three children. She described how her main concerns in the village were the long queues to wait for water every day, which she estimated to be at least an hour. As we would come to find out, Patricia had a comparatively light experience collecting water since she only used up her 60L of water (40L and 20L buckets) on cooking, drinking and bathing every two days. She walked roughly five minutes to get water from the only reliable borehole.

Our next interviewee was a 65-year-old man and former borehole repairmen named Davidson, who lived next door to his brother (both of who’s spouses were deceased). Davidson had a large house compared to other residents and explained to us how part of it had been damaged by the heavy rain in 2014-15, but most was still intact. Davidson has a similar commute to the borehole but also walked 500m to the Likhubula River to bathe and occasionally wash clothes. He recounted how he used to have a working borehole nearby but it has since been abandoned due to difficulties repairing it. He brought out parts of it and explained why they were broken beyond repair. Finally, he told us about stomach upsets he and his brother would get in the rainy season, since neither of them treated their water. We left each of them two cups and our water jug.

Over the next six interviews, we met multiple families living in close proximity and nearly all with kids in school aged 2-12, although many went irregularly due to illness or hunger. All of them experience stomach sicknesses more common during the rainy season than any other, and most walk a minimum of 1km and a maximum of 5km to get water. Many wait up to three hours in line and also make multiple trips given their lack of storage. It seems clear that when we assess the community’s water needs, we must keep in mind that a borehole placed anywhere will help everyone since swelling queues will shrink.

Today, Joseph, Naomi and I continued to interview families while Rory, Liz and Oscar of Joshua Orphan went to test samples of water from different boreholes. Rory and Liz secured multiple samples from the main boreholes in Solomoni as well as the river Likhubula. They added coliform to test for ecoli, and tried incubating it afterwards using body heat. Joseph, Naomi and I on the other hand traveled to the smaller villages of Solomoni further north to see how their water needs were being handled. The first village was called James Allen and had a very sound borehole that multiple villagers recalled not being especially polluted. The next village, Nthatha, had more issues with their water supply, with some villagers complaining about stomach pains during the rainy season. This village had recently been given chlorine tablets by the government to help combat the problem.

The last village was Jenari and had more issues than the previous two since the handle at the borehole was breaking. The rest of the day was spent recording our data in excel spreadsheets and mapping out which interviewees used which boreholes.

The whole country of Malawi takes Sunday as a true rest day, as over 90 percent of the population is Christian.

After a short breakfast, Naomi, Rory, Joseph, Liz, and I left for Chilaweni Village, about a 20-minute car ride East of Solomoni Village. The route was a taste of what suburban Blantyre must be, since we passed a paved road with modest, middle-class houses heading towards Chilaweni. The road quickly transformed to dirt just past the houses, replete with holes in the uneven terrain that tested the strength of our van’s suspension. At Chilaweni we were greeted by the head teacher Dennis. Dennis was proud to give us a tour of the recent complex completed by the Amica Charity group of UK, a stunning $700,000 clinic and water tower system. The building looked its age, a mere eight months into its lifespan as the Chilaweni pharmacy and health clinic. The complex boasted over a dozen rooms for nursing, dispensing medicine, meetings and even a garage for the ambulance (which Dennis said was used almost daily).

The real concern to us was the water distribution system, which can only be described as near-ethereal. After days of taking photos of Solomoni’s dormant boreholes powered by hand pumps, Chilaweni’s solar-powered water tower and infiltration system was awe-inspiring. The solar panel pumped freshwater from a borehole into the tower constantly, with the spillover following another pipe across the street to a newly designed water distribution station. As long as the sun was out for over three days (which Dennis said it so far had been aside from a few stormy June and July days), the receptacle across the street was constantly flushing out water for the villagers. This would in turn overflow into a drainage system that poured out to the crops behind the water distribution receptacle downhill, which we saw supported a verdant garden of maize, mustard, pumpkin, and other plants.

After observing the direction the solar panel was pointed in, we finished taking photos of the complex and said goodbye to Dennis. He wished us farewell and we retraced our path back down to the main road. We rolled down the windows of the van as Joseph directed our driver to a wildlife sanctuary for a short hike. Three solemn miles later we pulled into the wildlife headquarters, and for a small fee were escorted on a 4km walk by an M16-wielding ranger in cotton sweatpants and t-shirt. The path snaked beneath the nearby mountains, and while we didn’t climb much, wandering on the trails below proved to be equally as surreal as any altitude hike would have been. The trees ranged from msuku, which yielded a fruit Joseph said he could not describe to us, but later recalled as tasting simply like dried apple, to dried-bean trees whose seeds littered the forest floor. Wispy tallgrass gave the whole scene an extra dimension of wonder, and although New Hampshire’s White Mountains had made me feel comfortable in the woods, I still felt as though I truly was on a different continent.

Monday was spent a bit like Friday but at a more relaxed pace and in parts of Blantyre that no longer seemed quite so forbidding as earlier. We travelled early to a borehole contractor who worked in a cramped, one-room office just up the street from the bus station. He told us his experience in the Chileka region and the capabilities of his company. Rory, having taken hydrogeology the semester prior, knew a good deal of what he was saying and could ask pointed questions when the contractor asked if we needed further elaboration. He named the cost of boring about 60m into the average sand and clay material to be around $3,700 or about a third the cost to bore in Massachusetts. We took his card and told him we would possibly use his business in the best time to bore, peak-dry season (mid-November). We then met with the Malawian government at a run-down, large concrete building near the center of Blantyre. The outside was mobbed by Malawians seeking their electoral commission ID cards that would, among other things, enable them to vote in the coming 2019 elections. At their feet lay a layer of garbage; congealed beverages plastered discarded plastic bags together like mortar and bricks to the ground, while rotting fruit and Carlsberg Beer bottles ensure there was no even footing for a square kilometer. The market lay just up the street from the government office, where dozens of Blantyre’s poorest offered cheap charcoal and nuts in the garbage that would eventually coat the city. The government official was a young, industrious businesswoman who was excited about our project. She worked for the land development office, and while her office was cluttered with dusty UNICEF pamphlets and discolored binders, she took diligent notes on her Lenovo of what we asked and how we described our project. Offering little but the possibility of a few maps their geologists were developing, we left the government building empty handed but glad we had gone through the formal channels.

With time to spare after our meeting, we decided to check on the appliance stores in the city to get a sense of the prices for materials we would use in our borehole and distribution system. Since most of our system would focus on distribution and, tentatively, installing a solar pump with which to power the water out, we were able to get a multitude of prices in a short period of time.

The next day, we left Doogles to visit Water for People, a local non-profit that contracted boreholes in underdeveloped communities just south of where Solomoni village is. They were set up in a wealthier, residential neighborhood of Blantyre that seemed to float above the rest of the city. We were greeted in a conference room and given water bottles while we went over the questions we had emailed. After running through the list of companies we were thinking of employing, Water for People told us which ones they had found success with and informed us they would share whatever new developments or maps they came across in the future that pertained to the Solomoni village.

From uptown Blantyre, we traversed the whole city to get back to Solomoni village. We drove in to a conference of the village chiefs and leaders, a meeting was designed to go over the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which outlined Joshua Orphan, Solomoni village, and TEWB’s duties and commitment to the water project. About two dozen leaders and adolescents piled into the library as our group and Joseph explained the outlines of the memorandum, from agreements over taking photos to the most crucial part, village participation and contributions to the project. Rory, Liz and I each read a third of the memorandum while Joseph translated and then wrote down the pledge of each section on large sketch paper we taped to one wall of the library. Once we finished writing the agreement, the villagers discussed their concerns and what they liked about our project and the memorandum. The chief reiterated his support for the project, specifically its attention to community involvement and the oversight the villagers would have. After a final prayer was recited, we broke for pictures and the village leaders happily wished us “zukomo” or “thanks” for our trip.

The day concluded with Joseph escorting us back to Doogles and staying for several games of Bao, a local game played similar to mancala. We thanked him for being our lifeline in every way for the past week. He wish us “tu anana” and we bid him farewell. Another borehole contractor came to Doogles at 6 o’clock, one highly recommended by Water for People and Joshua, and we discussed drilling in November and future business.

I sit here packing and taking notes, trying to gauge the success of our trip. Compared with earlier trips, we did remarkably well. First, the villagers. Our relationship with the community, based on meetings with the chiefs, elders, teachers and ordinary citizens, feels hopeful, and more assured than at any point in the past. Our MOU was met with the loudest applause when the section specifying village contribution and oversight was read out to them in Chichewa by Joseph. They feel engaged in the community, and in our closing remarks I told them that this project would only succeed if they believed in it, and if they thought what we were doing was something they truly needed.

On the second point, what more can we do than thank Joshua Orphan and Joseph for being reliable and resourceful. Every contractor we met, every NGO we interviewed, every villager we tried to have a discussion with was entirely buttressed and reliant on Joshua. The foundation has certainly been laid for a strong and stable relationship between Tufts EWB and Joshua Orphan on our water access project in Solomoni.

Lastly, our ability to communicate not just with the villagers but with Joshua, contractors, and even appliance stores has improved tenfold. We’ve been able to fill a short rolodex with emails, phone numbers and even snail mail with most of the NGOs and businesses we’ve met with. With Joshua on the ground, we are even able to drill in the dry season, November, the most important time to drill for water since that is when the water table is at its lowest. While we are still working on the details of the contract, should we pursue it, we would be mostly able to drill in peak conditions without having to actually be on site.

Progress on this project has exceeded all of our expectations; we’ve developed strong links and a constructive dialogue with the Solomoni community, we’ve had a productive experience working with Joshua Orphan and are able to trust them going forward with future projects; and we’ve met with nearly a dozen other NGOs and businesses that will enable us to drill and construct a borehole and distribution system with entirely locally sourced parts and contractors. We are, as it stands, in a brighter position to bring clean water to a desperate community and effect real change in the lives of more villagers than we ever have before.