I realize it has been a total of 9 days since my last blog post and that I have been promising a new one for the past few days, so here it is folks! Last Monday, 4 comrades and I embarked on an extravagant journey to the land of Africa (I sound like a safari guide)! After approximately 18 hours of exhausting flying and restless conversations, we arrived in Malawi, the place in which my Junior Fellowship will be located. Waiting for us outside the airport were Gen and Mac, two members of our WASH Catalysts team that is situated in Lilongwe. After introducing ourselves and connecting a face to a voice, we began to travel to the safehouse in which we stayed for the next week. The first thing that I noticed was how green everything is. Everywhere you look there are trees growing, and the natural vegetation is astounding; it really is such a beautiful country. In addition to that, the streets are so alive. Having a personal car is a rare thing in Malawi, with public transportation, walking, and bicycles being the main mode of transportation. In one ear someone will be trying to sell you some vegetables, and in the other a car driver will be telling you to get closer to the edge of the road. It really adds to the overall positive vibe of a city when so many different sources of noise and music contribute to it.
I just realized that I never really gave an overview of what WASH Catalysts does as an organization, OOPS! WASH stands for Water Sanitation and Hygiene (creative acronym) and their aim is to convert the water infrastructure and systems that are currently being used in Malawi from working in a project capacity to a service delivery model. This service delivery model includes the effective allocation of available resources from government and NGOs (non-government organizations), the decentralization, operationalization, and sustainability of regional water offices, and the required capacity for area mechanics to repair water sources when needed (sorry for the use of huge words). They have been in Malawi for a good number of years now (I don’t know the exact number off the top of my head, upwards of 10?), and have been striving to make these shifts in infrastructure sustainable so that water can be available to more people, for longer periods of time. Too many NGOs from different areas of the world come over to Sub-Saharan Africa and help build a borehole or a well; but once that borehole or well is no longer functional, they are already gone. But, creating these sustainable water sources isn’t something that can be solved overnight. There are so many complex systems that these root problems are embedded in that make everything so much harder for an NGO to sustain the change that they want to make. It really is a huge investment of time and finances if they really want to make that change, and that’s why I admire everything that WASH has been able to do so much: they’ve committed their time and resources to a cause, and have created those connections with other NGOs (like InterAide, WaterAid, etc.) to make some sort of impact in a sustainable way. Okay, that’s my rant on what WASH does as an organization, I will talk more about my placement details later on in the blog post.
Over the past week, we have been completing our in-country training, which allows us to develop a better understanding of the work will be doing and the context and culture in which we will be doing it in. We met the rest of the team, such as Sydney (who is the program director), Aaron and Joy (two long-term fellows who will be placed in Malawi for a year). We still have yet to meet Kristina, who is the program director of WASH Coordination (the other side of the WASH double-headed dragon). I can say with some confidence that they are all above-average people with above-average personalities. Just kidding, they are all absolutely amazing individuals and I am beyond excited to be joining their team.
Now is the point in the blogpost where I mention the bad news. For some strange reason that eludes all of us, all of the JFs (including myself) have already come down with some form of sickness. IN THE VERY FIRST WEEK. I can honestly say that I knew that I was going to get sick and I was ready to accept that fact, but for it to happen so fast really caught me off guard. From raging diarrhea to headaches and stomach aches, I think it’s safe to say that between all five of us we experienced every symptom ever (it may have only felt that way). To be fair my sickness wasn’t at the intensity of some other peoples’ (three out of five of us visited a hospital), but coming down with a sickness in a foreign country when you’ve only been there for a week and you don’t quite know what you’re doing is not a fun situation to be in. We were told that this is some sort of JF record (all five people being sick within such a short amount of time of arriving at our placement). I really think we should be given some kind of award. But in all honesty, the support that we all received from the WASH crew made the entire situation much more survivable and comforting. While some of us thought we had Malaria and were going to die, it all ended up being alright and we’re getting through it together. We actually postponed first day of travel by a day due to the overall sickness being felt (thank you so much for being so understanding of everything Gen). It really does help having a team of people around us that understand where we are coming from and what we are coming into to help us react to any uncomfortable situations that may come up.
So, now let’s move on to the travelling part of the program and to where I am now. After ICT, half of the group travelled to Blantyre (which is a good distance to the south of Lilongwe), and the rest of us travelled to Salima (a town on Lake Malawi). Salima is a beautiful but very hot town where Stephannie will be staying and working. One thing to mention about the town of Salima is that there are no car taxis, just bicycle taxis. This contraption consists of a standard bicycle, with a padded seat on the back where the customer sits while the “taxi driver” takes you where you want to go. We used this service after sunset (6 pm), which is an experience in itself. Driving through pitch black not quite knowing where you’re going really teaches you to put faith in the person operating the bicycle. After staying one night in Salima, Mac and myself travelled back to Lilongwe, and then onto Kasungu. I’m not sure if I mentioned it anywhere before, but Kasungu is the town and district in which the majority of my placement will be working in. To travel from town to town in Malawi people use “minibuses”, which are essentially cargo vans with multiple rows of seats. If you’re travelling from one town to another, you pay the driver a standard fee and you take a seat in the bus. Throughout the drive, the bus is constantly filling up and emptying with people as we get to their desired location. I think at one point I counted 24 people in our minibus to Kasungu (keep in mind that this minibus is the size of a cargo van). I really wanted to take a picture, but it couldn’t really be done in an undercover way. Let’s just conclude and say that minibuses are unbelievably vibrant. After I arrived in Kasungu, Mac and I checked into our hotel, and I decided to take a bit of a nap. After I woke up the sun was setting, so we decided to visit a local bar where I could meet one of the water officers I would be working with this summer. After a bit of conversation and the downing of a Coke, the bartender handed me another one. Since I didn’t order one, it was only natural for me to say no. It was then that he told me that a man across the bar insisted that I have another. I was kind of confused at first as to why another man would buy me a drink, but Mac informed me that in this culture if someone likes having your presence in an environment, it is a custom to offer them a drink. It’s safe to say that I was sort of caught of guard, but the friendliness in which these men in the bar communicated with one another and the positive environment that I felt there really made me feel at home; even though I was on the other side of the world. If this first week in Malawi has taught me anything, it’s that there are beautiful people (inside and out) in areas that you might least expect them. I expected to come to this foreign country feeling very timid, and scared of communicating with others and building new relationships. It has actually been the exact opposite. Everyone that I have met and talked to has been unbelievably kind and supportive, and it has really opened my eyes to how beautiful of a country Malawi is. Personally, there are some areas that I still need to adjust to (the food, etc.), but I really want to thank the entire WASH team for making this transition to a new country and to our placements such a positive and enriching experience.
-DC, signing off!