Wednesday, July 15, 2009 

Back overseas, new blog

For anyone who happens to stumble on this blog, I've gone back overseas with EWB and have started a new blog: The First Mile

Friday, June 16, 2006 

Football in Malawi

Mwasewera bwanji? (literally, 'how have you played?'--the standard greeting for the afternoon and evening in Malawi)

So the World Cup is on. Football in Malawi is pretty big. People flock around tv sets or radios to see or hear the matches, and there's always a lot of talk at the office about last night's results. Though I'm sure it's like that in just about every country. But outside the World Cup, football is still pervasive. In Katimba village, where I'm staying while working at the Masinda plant, people of all ages will be spending a large amount of their free time playing football. As you drive down the highways you see a lot of tiny little villages, many of which have large football fields with goal posts made from thin logs nailed together. Children, upon seeing a white person, will yell 'mpila' (football in Chichewa). They don't want money, they want a soccer ball. At the moment that the World Cup was kicking off, I was playing football with the kids in this picture. They didn't know what the World Cup was, and didn't care.

Most families don't have the money to buy a football, so the children improvise. You see groups of children playing with these ragged looking balls, which, on the surface, are blanket wrapped in plastic and string. However, they bounce pretty well. When I asked a young boy what made the ball bounce, he nonchalantly told me that the ball was filled with condoms. I was a bit stunned for a few seconds: by the easy manner with which he replied, by the childrens' ingenuity, and by the recognition that Malawi is a country with a 15% HIV/AIDS prevalence rate. I hope these balls translate into greater awareness of condoms and more open discussion about sex-related topics.

Katimba village is no exception to football passion. The kids will play all the time, and the village even has its own team. The players on the team range in age from mid-teens to late twenties, and they have a coach and assistant coach. They play games on Saturdays and have practices on Sundays, with occasional games during the week. The first Saturday I was in Katimba, they invited to come out and play with them. The two days prior were pretty trying: the machines were breaking down, work and village life was slow, and our truck got a flat tire. I got home early on Sat afternoon and was looking forward to sitting back with a book and just chilling out for the rest of the day, but a few of the people got me up and took out to the pitch. I'm glad that they did. It was great to play with them and I even managed to squeak in a goal. At the end of the game the coach sat everyone down, and they all introduced themselves to me and invited me to join the team. So I'm leaving Lilongwe tomorrow to go play with them. This weekend is the intervillage tournament that takes place over Saturday and Sunday. Should be good.



A worn out bicycle rides slowly along a dirt road towards the Masinda Cassava Cooperative Society, a small white building surrounded by rolling hills blanketed in cassava trees. The sun has barely risen, and roosters can be heard crowing in the distance. The rider, a boy in his late teens from one of the surrounding villages, balances two 40 kg bags of cassava root on the back of the bike as he navigates around the potholes that dot the road. The rider is met by two young workers, and they exchange casual greetings: 'Mwazudka bwanji?', 'Ah, Ndazudka bwino!'. As the two workers help the rider unload his goods, a half dozen other workers notice that a new shipment has arrived, pause their work building an extension to the plant, and gravitate towards the processing area.

One of the men yanks on the pull cord of a diesel engine, and a cassava grating machine roars into action, breaking the relative quiet of the morning. Another yells 'Madzi!' to get his coworker 50 yards away to start the water pumps. One man is washing the roots and dumping them into the grater's hopper, while another is using his hands to guide the roots towards the spinning grating wheel while getting sprayed with pulp from the machine. The grated root pulp is collected by another man and dumped into a sieve to separate the pulpy waste from the starchy matter. Everyone laughs as the water hose comes apart and soaks one of the workers. With containers balanced on their heads, women carry away the waste from the sieve, which is later dried in the sun and sold as livestock feed. The starchy water from the sieve collects in sedimentation channels, where it is left for a few hours while the starch collects at the bottom. When all of the roots have gone through the grater and the sieve, the women and some of the men clean up the water and pulp that has covered nearly everything and sight. After a brief break, the people move back to the other jobs that need to be done around the plant--there is always something that needs to fixed or improved. When a few hours have passed, the water is drained from the channels, and the white starch is left to dry for a few minutes before being collected and left to dry in the sun. On a busy day, another load of Cassava root will be brought in the afternoon and processed late into the night.

This is the daily routine at the cassava processing plant where I'm working during my placement with IITA. My job is to build and test some new processing equipment, and look for ways that the plant can be improved. Specifically, I'm working with the senior engineer to design a new cassava grating machine to replace the current one that is not durable enough and often needs to be repaired. I'll also be introducing and testing a pulverizing machine that will increase the starch extraction rate (more starch given the same amount of cassava root) and solar drying chambers that should speed up the drying process and leave cleaner, higher quality starch. For a student interested in science and engineering, it's a pretty great job: working on building new machines, and getting to do tests out in the field.

But is this what's right for increasing the capacity of the plant and the development of the area? Is introducing this new equipment the best way to spend the money? Are these purely technical improvements what the people around the Masinda plant need? These are the questions that have to asked before any action should be taken. In Nkhotakota, where the plant is located, cassava is the staple crop and you can see it being grown everywhere. The supply is there. Also, the market for cassava starch is improving. The demand is there. So it would be a worthwhile investment to try and improve the capacity of the plant. Technical improvements to the plant could improve the capacity, but will not be effective if the workers don't have the human capacity to properly use and maintain the equipment, or manage the increased plant throughput.

I've recently come back from a short preliminary assessment of the Masinda plant, where I learned about how the plant operated and did some quick tests of the new equipment. I saw a striking example of how the need for human capacity improvements can outweight the need for physical capacity improvements. The diesel engines on the machines, which operate under pretty stressful conditions, often breakdown. My coworker, the senior engineer, or another mechanic from town can sometimes come to fix the problem, but usually a breakdown results in anywhere from a few hours to a few days of downtime. Cassava root has to be processed with a day or two of being harvested, so there is no hope of just letting things pile up to be processed when things are running again. One of the workers is a born tinkerer. He has taught himself basic engine repair, and is called upon whenever there is an issue. The thought that jumped to my head was that this guy should be trained as a mechanic and given adequate tools so that the Masinda plant will always have someone around to fix the problems that arise. The problem is that he can't read. The organization would be hesitant to invest in sending him to a school because his chances of success would be practically nil. What about sending to work with a mechanic as an apprentice? I'm hoping that while I'm here we can find a way to address this and other issues, and try to build up the capacity at Masinda.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006 

From Toronto to Lilongwe

Training and prep is over and I've finally arrived at my placement in Lilongwe, Malawi. Welcome to my blog everyone. I hope to share my experiences doing development work with Engineers Without Borders and try to give an inside view as to what life is like here in Malawi.

First, let me quickly introduce myself. I come from Peterborough, Ontario in Canada, a medium sized city between Toronto and Ottawa, and ended up studying Engineering Science at the University of Toronto. I'm a music fanatic but a useless musician, love to read and swim and travel and a bunch of other things that I won't bother to put down here. I took a year off of engineering this past year to indulge my interest in polisci and econ and got more involved in the EWB chapter at UofT. I got an EWB placement and fast forward a few months, here I am in Africa. For my placement I’m working with the Internation Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA). They develop and promote good farming techniques. I’ll be working on improving the processing of Cassava root, a good drought-resistant crop, and will be based in Lilongwe and Nkhotakota.

Getting here was an interesting journey. We had an intense week of training in Toronto just before taking off. Over twenty people from across the country crammed into a small townhouse in Little Italy, sleep deprived while living and breathing development frameworks, culture shock coping strategies, and health issues with the odd game of ultimate frisbee and bulle bulle thrown in. We left the training house loaded with bags, hoped on a bus to the airport and started our 36 hr trip to Lusaka, Zambia. The flight went from Toronto to Amsterdam to Nairobi, Kenya where we had an overnight layover and I managed to get some sleep straddled over four chairs in the airport lobby. After a stopover in Lilongwe, I continued with the rest of the Southern Africa team to Lusaka, Zambia.

We stayed at a hostel in Lusaka for a few days to get a bit acquainted with Africa and were shown around by Mike Quinn and Paul Slomp, two long term overseas volunteers with EWB. Lusaka's an interesting place. It's the capital of Zambia, and has a population of over a million. Two experiences stick out in my mind that can give a sense of what Lusaka is like.

Just after getting to the Hostel we went out to get something to eat. In Zambia and Malawi, a meal usually means nshima. Nshima is corn meal thickened in boiling water until it's kind of like porridge or mashed potatoes. It's then spooned into clumps and served with different relishes, which can be just about anything from cooked vegetables and peanuts to eggs to meat and fish. To eat nshima, you break off a bit from a clump with your hand, roll it into a ball, flatten it a bit, scoop up a bit of a relish, and put it all in your mouth. The nshima itself is pretty bland, but the relishes can be really tasty. So we left the hostel and took off for a market. Lusaka is a busy place. People are walking everywhere, some women carrying things on their head seemingly defying gravity, and cars are flying around narrowly avoiding pedestrians. On the way to the market you can see new SUVs and cars that you could barely call vehicles, fast food chains and people cooking over coals, department stores and women trying to sell vegetables off the side of the street. The smell of burning coals or something lingers in the air all over from cooking or post-harvest plot clearing. The market itself is a few rows of stalls and shacks lining very narrow lanes. The metal sheet roofs from the stalls hang low and cover most of the lane. People are selling everything from vegetables to old nails to cellphones. About 10 of us piled into the back of one of the stalls to eat some nshima. A few of us walked through the market after lunch and talked with some of the people. The people here are generally very friendly and interested in talking to Muzungus (foreigners), especially if you can speak a bit of Nyanja, the major language in Lusaka.

The next day we visited one of the compounds on the outskirts of the city. A large part of the city’s population lives in these compounds, and the standard of living there is generally much lower than in the city centre. To get there, myself and another EWB volunteer hoped into a minibus packed with people for a 20 min ride out of the city. We got dropped off at the market part of the compound and bought a 10 kg bag of corn meal (we tried our hand at making nshima that night; first attempt was weak but I think we’re getting better). The market there was more permanent-looking, with wider lanes and more metal sheet roofed shacks/stores. People were amused by the fact that we were going to try and make some nshima. Having picked up the meal, we decided to check out the rest of the compound. We stopped to talk some people about a recent Barcelona vs. Arsenal game (people love soccer here), and sat with a few teenagers and listened while they played a few Bob Marley songs on guitars. We then met a few people from a group sitting around the side of the road. One lived in a complex to house street kids, while the other was a volunteer there. A lot of kids here are orphaned by HIV/AIDS amongst other reasons, and the disease is taking a huge toll on the region. The two walked with us as we made our way back to the minibuses and asked us if we wanted to stop for some Chibuku aka Shake-Shake. Chibuku is a really cheap kind of beer that comes in 1L cartons. It’s basically what’s left over in the sorghum- and maize-beer brewing process. It’s kind of brownish/whiteish with little bits of sorghum and maize floating in it (you have to shake the carton first to mix it up since all the bits sink to the bottom, hence the name). Chibuku tastes worse than it sounds. After struggling through a cup or two, we graciously made our exit and got on our way back to town.

From Lusaka, I traveled with Paul the long term volunteer to his home in Chipata near the Zambia-Malawi border and stayed the night. The bus trip was actually pretty comfortable, and I got to see a lot of the Zambian countryside, which is pretty spectacular. There are large flat areas dotted by trees and rolling hills covered in dark green trees with occasional rock faces showing. Paul lives with a family on the outskirts of the city in a house with no electricity or running water. The house is slowly being built by another family as they get the money to add new parts (there’s no such thing as a mortgage or loan for most of the population), and Paul’s host family is staying in the house as a kind of security measure until the house is finished. The next day we took off for Lilongwe. I arrived at IITA to start work soon after arriving in Malawi. IITA has a nice facility just outside Lilongwe and some great staff. I’m going to be traveling to Nkhotakota tomorrow to check out exactly what I’m going to working on and where I’m going to be living.

Wow, long post. Anyway, this past week has been amazingly exciting and I’m looking forward to doing some real work and getting to know this country better in the next few months. I'd love to hear from everyone back home and hear how things are doing, so comments and emails are very welcome!

Salani bwino! (stay well in chichewa)