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)