Malawi’s Natural Beauty

26 07 2017

In my last post I referred to Malawi’s raw natural beauty, so I thought I should post a few pictures from the community we visited today to provide a sense of what this means. Make sure you click on the panoramic images.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.





The Fieldwork Begins – Week Two in Malawi

25 07 2017

Over the past decade I have been fortunate to have supported or led water-related research expeditions to India, Colombia, Senegal, Mozambique, and Burkina Faso. With the aid of students from Mzuzu University, the University of Denver, and Virginia Tech, I can now add Malawi to this list. Over the past week, three teams of students (consisting of students from each university) have traveled North from Mzuzu to Karonga and Chitipa, South-East to Nkhamenya and Dwangwa, and South-West to Embangweni. I supported the Embangweni team.

Team Embangweni!

In my previous post, I mentioned that only 8% of the population in Malawi have access to electricity. Staying in one of Malawi’s major cities (such as Mzuzu) can make you doubt this statistic. While power outages are common, the cities are connected to the national grid and come alive at night. This access to power changes, however, as soon as you leave the confines of a town or city. Life in rural Malawi is largely dictated by the rising and setting of the sun.

Malawi is ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world. This past week, our students came face-to-face with this reality, especially through our household surveys that include a broad range of questions on educational attainment, income, and the general health and well-being of households. While there is an energy for life and deep communal spirit in the villages we visited – which are surrounded by a raw natural beauty – families face significant livelihood and food insecurities. During the household surveys I witnessed, respondents consistently described how their families went hungry for at least one month of the year. On occasion they also spoke about the loss of children, which is all the more tragic when considering the often preventable nature of this loss. The U.S. students capturing the responses from these interviews (which were led by the Mzuzu students in one of the two local dialects – Chewa or Tumbuka) were challenged by these heart wrenching stories of loss. With the permission of a U.S. student (and with the name of the respondent changed), I have included below an excerpt from a student’s personal reflection on her exchange with a respondent who suffered an unimaginable loss.

Sitting on a dirt floor saturated in wetness and chicken feces, Ateefah’s cloudy eyes looked into mine with despair and devastation. Her eyes cast downward, suddenly she looked up for a moment and said, “every one of my five children is gone … I have no one left.” I absorbed her profound sadness. My eyes immediately welled up and tears fell heavily onto the dirt floor of her home. As I walked away, Ateefah said “I wish you would have come here to help when I was younger,” as if she meant, my children might still be alive if someone had come to help. I could not take five steps before I broke down and cried for Ateefah, wishing too that someone would have come earlier.

While it is relatively easy to train students on the technical aspects of conducting an effective interview, it is much more difficult to prepare them for the emotional aspects of engaging in real and difficult subjects with respondents. After taking a brief break to compose herself, the student above (with support from her Malawian teammate) continued the interview. The ability of our students to support one another and persevere when emotionally or physically challenged has been quite remarkable to watch.

The research we are undertaking will evaluate the effectiveness of a rural shallow-well program that has been active in Malawi for over two decades and has built some 15,000 protected shallow wells. In each treatment and comparison community, students will undertake 20 household surveys, around five interviews with key informants, a focus group with the village water committee (in treatment communities) or a village committee (in comparison communities), water quality tests of stored water in around 10% of the households interviewed, and technical assessments and water quality tests of the community’s primary water sources. The scope of the data collection is significant and all the students have been working extremely hard to ensure we meet our objectives. An important feature of the study is that our comparison communities have applied for a shallow well with the NGO, which has yet to be installed. Thus, they are comparable to the treatment communities in terms of their ability to organize and apply for a well and will benefit from a shallow well in the future.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Traveling to the communities in the Embangweni region has been physically challenging – which has also been the case for the teams in the other regions of the country. Our paved road ended a few hundred meters outside the town of Mzimba (where we were staying), after which we would proceed on a very uneven dirt road for more than 1.5 hours to reach our communities – many of which were located close to the Zambia border. This three- to four-hour roundtrip each day meant we had to rise early to enable the team to return before sunset. After a day of surveying, the return trip was often a time for private reflection on the activities of the day. After the first few days of this trip we decided to purchase some foam to reduce the shocks from the road, which moderately improved the ride.

It’s hard to convey the full scope of learning, skill development, and personal growth that is happening on this course – which has now morphed into a professional research expedition. The students (with varying levels of experience) are challenged to manage the implementation and logistics of a complex set of research tasks, which also includes transcribing interviews and cleaning data at night. There is then the interesting, often philosophical, conversations that begin to emerge between the Malawian and U.S. students, with questions such as “why are you really here?” and “what do you hope to accomplish with your life?” being some I have overheard.

From a personal perspective, while co-teaching such an ambitious course/research expedition is challenging on many fronts, watching the students step into the unknown and thrive reminds me of those experiences I had as an undergraduate and graduate student that put me on my personal pathway.

We will continue to survey communities around Mzuzu this week, before ending the course on Friday with a public event where we will provide some initial reflections from the fieldwork and discuss the overall experience.





Reflecting on First Week in Malawi

16 07 2017

The image below was taken at 5am on Wednesday by Emily Zmak, a graduate student at the University of Denver. It captures a moment of reflection in the early morning on our first day in Mzuzu, Malawi. A day earlier, the vehicle carrying our luggage from Lilongwe to Mzuzu had a mechanical failure. I arrived at Joy’s Place (where the students have been staying) in the hope that our bags had been delivered overnight. Since the bags had not arrived, I took the opportunity to watch the sun rise and absorb a waking day in Malawi, the warm heart of Africa. Emily managed to capture this moment in her wonderful picture.

Our group from Virginia Tech and the University of Denver will be here for three weeks working alongside students from Mzuzu University as part of a WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) study abroad course. Students from each university will work in teams in three different regions of Malawi to evaluate the impacts of a rural shallow well program that has been active in the country for more than two decades. The data they collect will help the NGO running the program better understand what aspects of the program need to be improved and which aspects are functioning well. I will say more about this research in a future post. We leave to start the fieldwork at 6am tomorrow.

During the first two days of the course, the students met with key staff from government agencies and national and international organizations in Lilongwe, who provided valuable overviews of the challenges and opportunities that face the country. For example, only 8% of the population have access to electric and around 11% of rural households use an unimproved water supply (such as surface water). In terms of income, Malawi falls among the poorest nations in the world.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We spent the second part of the first week at Mzuzu University where faculty and invited guests provided seminars on a range of topics from Malawian culture and practices to deforestation trends across the nation and changing fishing practices on in Lake Malawi. We are grateful for all the work of Dr. Rochelle Holm (Director of the Centre of Excellence in Water and Sanitation) in arranging these sessions. They provided an essential context to the research the students will be undertaking.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When reflecting at Joy’s Place on the days ahead, the richness of the study abroad experience for the students at all three universities was clear. For many, it is their first time in Africa and I’m keen for them to experience the beauty of the country and warmth of the people, as well as trying to navigate bustling taxi ranks and the local cuisine (which is some of the best I’ve eaten in Africa). There is then the experience of learning with an international student cohort at Malawi’s most northern public university. Finally, the students will be exposed to the challenges of undertaking a research project in three regions of the country. The fieldwork will provide a hands-on, minds-on experience where students will be responsible for undertaking household surveys, focus groups, key informant interviews, water quality testing, and technical assessments of the installed shallow wells. They will also be tasked with processing these data while in the field so we can begin to identify key findings from the research. Given the need to hold the interviews in the local languages, the Malawian students will take lead roles in this research with support provided by the US students. The students will need to work closely together, which should provide a unique opportunity for cross cultural exchange and learning.

After a busy first week, the students visited the Vwaza Wildlife Reserve and Nkhata Bay this weekend, where one or two students (and I!) learned to paddle board for the first time.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.





New Paper – Pit Latrine Fecal Sludge Resistance

4 02 2017

In 2016, I was pleased to welcome Charles Chirwa to Virginia Tech for a period several weeks. During his time at the university, we began to analyze the data he collected on the consistency of sludge in 300 pit latrines in Mzuzu, Malawi. We were joined in this task by my colleagues Leigh-Anne KrometisEric Vance, Adam Edwards, and Ting Guan.

At the end of his stay, I posted a tweet in which I stated that “we plan to publish a WASH paper on his research.” After returning to Mzuzu, Charles continued to work on the paper with his primary advisor, Rochelle Holm, and his extended research team in the US. This week his paper was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

I wanted to congratulate Charles on this accomplishment, which involved hundreds of hours of diligent and carefully executed fieldwork and months of data cleaning and processing to find the best way to present his data. His research provides important data and insights into strategies that could advance pit latrine emptying in resource poor communities in Africa.

2017-02-03_2110





Two Study Abroad Opportunities

31 01 2017

This year I will support two study abroad programs that will take Virginia Tech students to Malawi and to Switzerland, Senegal, and Croatia.

The Experience WASH in Malawi course will take place from July 9 – 29, 2017 (Summer II), and will provide students with an excellent opportunity to undertake WASH-related research with a cohort of students from VT, Denver University, Mzuzu University, and Texas Tech. The presentation below provides an overview of the course and includes a few images from our 2016 offering. Students can apply here.

In the Fall semester, I will be co-leading (with Thomas Archibald) a module in the Dean’s Semester on Global Challenges in Switzerland and Senegal focused on food security. During the three-week module, students will explore the causes and impacts of malnutrition and food insecurity and the various responses of international organizations and NGOs to the global food challenge. From this foundation, students will have the opportunity to engage with international agricultural organizations and NGOs in Geneva, Switzerland, before traveling to Senegal to study two agricultural development programs – the 4-H and PPP program – managed by Virginia Tech’s Office of International Research, Education, and Development (OIRED). We are developing our module around the precepts of “fair trade learning,” that include transparency, community-driven service, commitment and sustainability, deliberate diversity, intercultural contact, community preparation, local sourcing, reciprocity, and reflection.

The video below provides a brief overview of the semester that will run from August 25 – December 13, 2017. Students can apply here.





Google’s Vwaza Video

9 08 2016

Google just created this movie of the trip we took to Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve during the Experience WASH in Malawi study abroad course I co-taught in July. I thought it was worth sharing.





Mzuni Library Initiative Hits Milestone

7 08 2016

In December 2016, Mzuzu University (Mzuni) experienced a tragic fire during which they lost their entire library of 45,000 titles. This was a major loss for the university and for the northern part of Malawi, where educational books are extremely scarce. I visited Mzuzu University the day before the fire and took was is probably the last photo of the library. In July of this year, I co-taught a joint WASH course for Virginia Tech, Denver University, and Mzuni students at Mzuzu University and was able to visit the library again. I was reminded of the shear scale of the destruction that is captured by the sequence of images below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Since January, a growing group of students and faculty at Virginia Tech and Radford University have been working to collect books for a new library. We partnered with the Malawian Education and Children’s Welfare Foundation that has been charged by Mzuni to lead the U.S. response to their library rebuilding effort. The Mzuni Library Initiative has been an intense, but highly rewarding experience for all involved and this past month we reached a milestone with the collection of 5,000 books for Mzuni.

We are now focusing our efforts on finding a way to ship these boxes to Malawi and hope to have them in route within the coming weeks.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

During my time at Mzuzu University this July, I was able to speak with the Vice Chancellor and the Chief Librarian about how Virginia Tech could continue to help their rebuilding effort. In addition securing replacement books, there is also a need to help design a new signature library building. Given Virginia Tech’s expertise in architecture, building construction, engineering, etc., my plan is to find a way for our students and faculty to work on this new phase of the Mzuni Library Initiative. Please contact me if you believe you can help.

For the next two years (or more), students at Mzuni will have access to a temproary library (see below) that is slowing beginning to expand its collection of books. While they have made some progress, they are far from having the full range of books needed to support all of their academic programs. Our hope is that the 5,000 books (~10% of the books lost in the fire) we send will significantly improve their situation.