Saturday, July 28, 2007

Placement Change

I wrote the following on Wednesday July 25th:
A lot has happened over the last couple days. On Sunday I met with Danny; a long term EWB volunteer, and decided to move Nkhotakota to work with him on cassava processing project.

Working at BERDO has been a great learning experience. I had the opportunity to see first hand how a local NGO is able to have positive impact on rural Malian communities. There was; however, no defined work for myself. That was further complicated by the fact that BERDO currently has no major donor to support their projects. July 31st is the final day of the two year project funded by Oxfam. Oxfam has funded a number of BERDO’s projects over the years; however, they have decided to focus funding on the southern region of Malawi and BERDO is considered part of the Central Region. One thing you learn from an experience like this is the development sector is very complicated and sometimes quite political. As of July 31st, the BERDO staff will be divided between those who can afford to become volunteers, and those who will need to look for work else where. It is really disappointing to see such a great organization be put in this position. BERDO, however, will not be beat by this. There are a number of members that will continue to work for the communities even without pay. The communities understand the position BERDO is in and will continue to participate in programs and try and seek funding from other sources. Finally, BERDO has a number of their income generating activities, including a maize mill and number of farms, to help keep some things going until they can find more funding. Their dream is to one day be completely self-sufficient, so that they do not have to rely on donors; very ambitious for any development organization. We were warned before we came here that we might be upset by some of the people that work in development organizations. For a lot of people it just a good job and the beneficiaries are second to their own ambitions. I have talked to other volunteers who have experienced this, but for me it was just the opposite. So in some ways it was sad to leave BERDO, but where I can greater impact is on the project in Nkhotakota, and so here I am.

Yesterday was my last day in Bwanje; hard to know if I will ever be back there again. It was a really nice day. I came into work to take part in the morning devotion one last time. We start off every day with singing hymns and prayer. Even though I am not religious I really enjoy the singing, even when I don’t know what I am actually saying. I said goodbye to all my co-workers. I then went to the secondary school and found my Chichewa teacher Agnes. We walked around town together then spent some time at her house. Her sisters showed me how to pound maize.
In the evening I gave my family some good bye gifts and hung out with Godfred, Lison, Francis, Gifty and Gifty’s sister. The thing they liked the best was this little safety light that flashes. I then got out my camera and we took a ton of photos all over the and outside the house.
Dinner was also pretty special. Instead of nsima, we had chips AND rice, with cabbage and egg relish. I left early (6:30am) on Wednesday morning. The dogs, Bruce and Tiger, accompanied me half way to the mini bus pick up. By noon I was in Nkhotakota. Now on to what I will be doing here.

The project that Danny is working on here is all about cassava. Cassava is a potato like crop; I will have a lot more to write about it in a couple weeks. It is mainly used as a staple crop for human consumption, however, the starch can also be removed to be used in manufacturing. The project is a small processing plant in the Nkhotakota area, to test if this is a viable option for the area and Malawi. There are many areas within this project that need to be dealt with. One of these is dealing with the left over water from processing. The water has a high organic matter concentration, which means if it is directly dumped in a water system it will consume too much oxygen and damage the environment for aquatic life. The other issue is that cassava contains small amounts of cyanide, which will also be in the wastewater. They currently have a system in place to deal with the wastewater, but it is currently being run over capacity. The plant also wants to double production, which means more wastewater to deal with. My goal over the next few weeks is analysis the current system, investigate alternatives, suggest a solution, and possibly over see construction of the design. I am really excited about this project as it is directly related to my studies.

Tomorrow, I will be heading up to Nkhata Bay. I am meeting Preston, another EWB volunteer, who is working on a very similar project for a coffee processing plant. I am hoping to get some ideas and research matterial, as well as advice for a voiding set backs. I start work at the plant on Monday, where I will be working the line to get familiar with the operations.

The other exciting thing is that I get to live with a whole new family and see how their life differs from the family I have been living with so far.

The Top 10 Things I’ve learned Living in Malawi

10. When you need to pick your nose, feel free

9. The speed limit doesn’t mean much when there is no speedometer

8. Your hands are for eating with not for carrying things with

7. Chickens make better bus passengers than babies

6. High-fives are awesome

5. It’s football not soccer, a pear not an avocado, and it’s maize not corn

4. There is a way to convert plastic bags and old tires into food, its called a goat

3. Deep frying makes anything edible

2. A bike’s capacity is 1 man, 1 woman, 2 children, a stack of fire wood and 10 chickens

And the number one thing I have learned living in Malawi, is what?

1. If you haven’t eaten nsima, you haven’t eaten

Reflections on Integration

Integration is a tricky thing. It is a constant challenge to know how to act and realize what the impacts of those actions are. On one hand you want to build trust and show your host community that you are genuinely interesting in learning about their lives by participating in them. On the other you are not a Malawian and never will be. You have your own life and culture which you don’t want to give up or pretend does not exist. You could simply say, “Just do what Malawians do”; but which Malawians. Do I act like the beneficiaries of the projects I work on, which are usually the poorest? Do I act like the people in the family I live with? Do I act like my co-works? Do I act like white Malawians? Do I act how a Malawian would with the resources I have? These can all be very different. Even the fact people treat me differently prevents me from being “like everyone else”. It is very hard to know why someone is acting a certain way towards you. Is this reaction because I am a westerner, a woman, a young person, a visitor, a traveler? For example, today on the mini bus they encouraged me to take the front seat (which is so much more comfortable than any other). Is that because I am a westerner or because I was a young woman traveling by alone, looking lost and tire? There are a lot of times when it makes sense to reject such privileges, as it just emphases that you are different and should be treated as such. I have ridden the mini bus many times and never been offered the front seat, normally I am crammed in the back with everyone else, chickens, goats and all. I took the front seat this time, mainly to see what it was like. It was a much better ride, but I did feel like I was being put in a different class then the other passengers and was totally disconnected to what was happening behind me.

Part of integrating is also forming relationships with people around you, but this can sometimes be very challenging. Malawians pride themselves in being very friendly people; which is true, but often people that “target” you to be their “friend” have some alternative motives. It makes you hesitant to interact with people, and eventually your first thought about everyone one who comes up to you is “what does this person want from me?” Earlier today I was talking to a few Malawians staying at the same rest house. They were playing bao, and I ended up playing a couple games with them. Later I got a knock on my door. One of the men asked if he could know more about me. I asked him why he wanted to know more about me. He told me he wanted to be friends and then went on to explain that he wanted to know if I could help him get to Canada. Other times right after someone introduces themselves to you they ask me for money or to buy something from them. The worst is not knowing if someone really is your friend, or just acting that way. I have had a couple experiences where I thought I was developing a friendship, but then they started hinting or asking out right for things. This creates for me a very lonely situation.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


Mural on the side of a building in Lilongwe

Cultural festival with students preforming traditional dances from different African countries.

Common style of Malawian art.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Denis visits Bwanje

My friend and fellow EWB volunteer, Denis, came and visited me in Bwanje last weekend. He asked me how he would find me when he arrived on the minibus. I told him it would be no problem, just ask where Kyla is to anyone you see and they will point you in the right direction. As soon as he got off the bus in Bwanje and man on a motor bike came up to him and asked if he was Kyla’s friend. He then gave him a ride to my house; one nice thing about living in a small town. We took a walk to the town centre where there are some stalls and tea rooms. We had tea in one the tea rooms which was my first time to do that here. We both got big cups of milky super sweet tea. In Malawi they fill the cup about a quarter to a third full of sugar for their tea.

We met up with my friend Amos and walked all over Bwanje stopping off at most of my co-workers houses. The next day we tired to cook some mandasis for breakfast. Mandasis are basically balls of dough fried in oil; pretty much a Malawian donut. The only problem was we didn’t really know how to do it so we just guessed at how much of each ingredient to put in. We ended up with “dough” that was more like yeasty plaster of Paris. We tried cooking and eating it anyway, but it was really bad.

Luckily, the care package from my family had recently arrived (only took six weeks to get here) and contained two boxes of Kraft Dinner! We cooked up a box of KD over the three stone fire and ate it right out of the pot.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Gift Ziwoya

Age: 18
Occupation: Student in second year of secondary school
Family Status: Single, lives with his mother, father, 4 sisters and 1 brother

Gifty (as everyone calls him) is one of my best friends in Bwanje. We often walk to and from school/work together and play bow or go to football games on the weekend.

He was born in Bwanje, after his parents came from Lilongwe in search of land. His family works as subsistence farmers growing one crop; maize. They grow enough maize to feed the family of 8 the whole year. Gifty’s school fees are paid by his uncle who works in Blantyre. It is common for people living in the urban centres send money to relatives in rural areas.

Outside of school Gifty takes part in a youth group that teaches people about HIV/AIDS and how to protect themselves. He also enjoys watching football and eating nsima.

Gifty values education highly and sees it as a way out of poverty for him, as well as the country as a whole. When asked what he would like to see change in Bwanje, he replied that he would like to see more people educated. Education came up again when I asked what he considered a “good life”. To him a good life consists of being educated and being able to look after his parents. He also sees promoting education and transferring knowledge as the best way people in the West can assist Malawi. Gifty’s dream is to attend post secondary education to study medicine and become a doctor.

Malawian Proverbs

Kuyimba ng’oma sikuswa
Literally: Beating a drum is not to break it

Tsache latsopano limasesa bwino
Literally: A new broom sweeps well
Meaning: A new person can bring new good ideas.

Mutu umodzi susenza denga
Literally: A single head does not carry a roof
Meaning: you can’t solve problems alone

Ukakhala mwana, mphanje umayambira pamehenga
Literally: As a child you begin to hoe the garden on sandy soil

Chibwenzi sangula ndi chipanda
Literally: Don’t buy beers to have friends

Angakhala fisi ali ndi bwazi
Literally: Even the hyena has a friend, his friend is the darkness
Meaning: Every cloud has a silver lining

Ulendo wadya galu
Literally: The dog has eaten the journey
Meaning: The journey was a failure

Waponda phwetekere
Literally: He has stepped on the tomato
Meaning: he has impregnated a woman

Njovu ziwiri zikamamenyana ndi udzu omwe umavutike
Literally: When two elephants fight it is the grass that is in trouble

Mbuzi ikakondwa, amalonda ali pafupi
Literally: The happier the goat the nearer the buyer

Ukakwera pamsana pa njovu usati pansi palibe mame
Literally: When you are on the back of an elephant, do not pretend there is no dew on the grass

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Monkey! first bit of wildlife I've seen

Me on a brige in Lilongwe

Amos' (my coworker) engagement party

Women carring water and child in Bwanje

Cultural Context of Engineering

Some people reading this blog might be asking themselves, "where is all the engineering in this Engineers Without Borders volunteer placement?". I've found what EWB focuses on is not the technical engineering skills, but thinking critically about the cultural context in which designs are implemented. What becomes very clear from living here is that things do not work the same as in Canada and the assumptions we can make in the west do not always apply.

Some Challenges to doing Engineering work here include:
Everything takes longer than you think it will
Communication issues are huge
Difficult to get spare parts
Lack of infrastructure
Lack of reliable energy supply
Lack of materials
Lack of resources for research
Heavy rains prevent building at certain times and wash out structures
Inadequate waste disposal facilities and practices
Low literacy rates
Lack of computers and people with computer training
Some things are more expensive

Some good questions to ask when designing a technology or system include:
How do I know this design will improve people’s quality of life?
Who has identified the needs of the design?
How will the design be used?
Who will use it (women, children, elderly, men, farmers, individuals, communities)?
Who will have ownership over it?
What resources are required to run it or maintain it?
Are those resources locally available?
Can the people afford to run and maintain it?
Does it cause environmental degradation (soil erosion, deforestation, air pollution, habitat destruction, water pollution, etc.)
How will byproducts be disposed of?
How will equipment be transported?
Has the whole cycle of the process being modified been examined?
What is the root cause(s) of the problem?
How do I get information?
What do the words being used mean to me? What do they mean for the other people involved?
What skills and knowledge are widely known?

Designs that tend to be most successful:
  • Rely only on local resources (both material and human)
  • Are as simple as possible
  • Appropriate to the culture and livelihoods of users
  • Are based on fulfilling a basic need
  • Cost effective
  • Produce little or no waste
  • Do not require electricity or fossil fuels
  • Extremely durable
  • Can be transported by bike
  • Require little training for use and maintenance

The projects EWB volunteers work on often involve little technical engineering skills, however, the analytical thinking and problem solving skills that are learned through engineering are often helpful in providing feedback for local organisations.


Bar at the Wheelhouse on Senga Bay

I just got back from the mid place retreat. I was great to see everyone, most of which I hadn't had any contact with over the past two months. It was also my first time to see Lake Malawi. We worked on finding solutions to challenges we are facing and creating action plans for the remainder of our time here. My main challenge with work is finding a way to shift my focus from learning to adding value at BERDO. The retreat helped me come up with three project ideas to present to BERDO.
Creating visual summaries of our placements

We had a chance to take a break and have some fun. Swimming in the lake, playing beach volleyball, hanging outwith friends, and other amusements (see picture below).
Paul wearing Anne's pants

It was also a great time to reflect on my experience here and do some big picture thinking. One question that comes up a lot for me is "What role should I play in human development?" I think I am starting see the world as much more of a global system and that "human development" is not something that is isolated to "developing" countries. A large part of the change I would like to see needs to happen in the West. Thinking about the global system, it is the unsustainable lifestyles of the west that appears to be the biggest challenge. I am not sure where I will work in the future, but I know it will be focused on the same over all goal of creating a global system that promotes sustainable quality of life for all people.
Group picture of all the JFs in Malawi and the long term volunteers in Malawi and Zambia.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007


I have been asked what I have found the most challenging about my experience here in Malawi. The thing that I have found the hardest is feeling isolated. This isolation is due to not only being disconnected to the world outside of Bwanje, but also being culturally isolated from people with Bwanje. For the first time in my life I am visible and cultural minority. I cannot just blend into a crowd and be treated the same as everyone else. It often feels like I am wearing character custom everywhere I go. Most people find me amusing, some small children are terrified, and I am expected to smile and wave at everyone. But you can never take the custom off and just be like everyone else. Though, this has gotten better since I have gotten to know people in the community. At least most people call out “Hey Kyla”, instead of “Hey white person” now.
This experience has helped me become aware of just how important culture is. It is isolating and frustrating sometimes to not have anyone around who shares your culture. No one that communicates the way you do, that understands the cultural references you make, or shares similar cultural values. Because I am the minority, I am the one is doing things oddly, if not completely wrong. I feel like I always have to defend my ideas and values. It’s communication that is the hardest. I have to speak slow simple English to get my point across, and sometimes feel like it is difficult to develop deep relationships based on that. Even if the actual words are understood, they may still have a different meaning for each person.
Over all people share more similarities than differences and there is always common ground that can be found, but all the same you are always aware that you are different and you are an outsider. This has given me a greater appreciation for what people immigrating to a new country must go through. How worse it must be to also not feel welcomed.

Team Malawi 2007

Team Malawi 2007
The Malawi team meets for the first time in Calgary during the EWB National Conference