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.

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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.

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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.

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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.





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.

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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.

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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.





#HokiesHelpMzuni – Devastating Library Fire

20 12 2015

On Friday, December 18, Dr. Emily Van Houweling and I travelled to the Lilongwe International Airport, Malawi, to board our return flight to the U.S. after an extremely productive visit to Mzuzu University. We had spent a week meeting with faculty and university administrators to develop the logistics and content for a joint WASH course in Malawi, which we are offering to students at Virginia Tech, the University of Denver, and Mzuzu University in July 2016. On our drive to the airport we learned some tragic news. The Mzuzu University Library – which contained some 45,000 books and other resources – was completely lost to a fire during the early morning. The library had also housed several critical computer servers, taking the university’s web page and other key services offline.

I took the picture of the library below on Thursday, December 17, around 12 hours before the fire. The picture was taken during a final walk of the campus before we began the five hour drive from Mzuzu to Lilongwe.DSCN4498

4The importance of the Mzuzu University Library and its computer servers to the functioning and future development of the university cannot be overstated. The library is the primary source of information for students, from small children, who regularly visit the children’s library (see the image on the right), to graduates. In addition, during our meetings over the past week we learned how the university was planning to roll out a 15 mbps internet network, which represents a threefold increase in the current speed of the network. I suspect the fire will significantly delay this initiative, which will impact Mzuzu University’s plans to launch an expanded online learning strategy.

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In the spirit of advancing a Global Land-Grant Institution and Ut Prosim, I challenge Virginia Tech’s students, faculty, and staff to consider creative ways in which we can support Mzuzu University’s effort to rebuild its library, servers, and research capacity. Please share your ideas via Twitter using the hashtag #HokiesHelpMzuni.

Emily and I plan to return to Mzuzu in July, 2016 for the joint WASH course. Over the coming months we will work with Dr. Rochelle Holm, the Director of the Mzuzu University Centre of Excellence in Water and Sanitation, to identify strategies to help rebuild WASH-related resources in the library. Similar strategies will be needed in all of the university’s core areas of competency, which include mathematics, chemistry, biological sciences, physics, history, languages and literature, geography and earth sciences, religious studies, forestry, fisheries, education/distance learning, energy and renewable technologies, water resources management and development, sanitation, health sciences, nursing and midwifery, optometry, ICT, tourism and hospitality, and land management and surveying.

In addition to sharing ideas via Twitter, I’d be happy to talk with anyone who would like to discuss their ideas in person. The TEAM Malawi group of faculty and students on campus will also develop a coordinated response. For those students planning to take the joint WASH course, this turn of events will impact how we prepare for our time in Malawi. The experience of working with international partners to achieve a real and important objective will present many opportunities for learning and service.





Experience WASH in Malawi – Course Application Open

11 12 2015

If you are a student at Virginia Tech, please consider applying to the Experience WASH in Malawi study abroad course. The course will run from July 11–29, 2016 (Summer II). The application deadline is February 1, 2016.

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Experience WASH in Malawi – Info Sessions

5 11 2015

On Monday, November 16, I will be holding two information sessions (at 9:30am and 3pm) on the “Experience WASH in Malawi” study abroad course I will be offering during the summer of 2016. The information sessions will be held in room 111 of the Architecture Annex (and via polycom in room 220, Prince Street, Alexandria, VA).

This applied and service oriented study abroad experience will provide undergraduate and graduate students with a grounded understanding of WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) in Malawi. The first part of the course will take place in the classroom with lectures, discussions, and small group projects led by faculty at Mzuzu University, Dr. Emily Van Houweling, and I. The course will begin with a general review of the state of water and sanitation services in different parts of the world and will raise the question of what constitutes access to water. We will review important concepts in WASH and provide an overview of the most pressing WASH issues in Malawi. Following this introduction, students will study the design of relevant WASH technologies and educational programs from the perspective of public health, cultural appropriateness, and sustainability. Armed with an understanding of critical WASH issues and technologies, students will then undertake community-based fieldwork on a WASH-related problem in partnership with the Mzuzu University Centre of Excellence in Water and Sanitation.

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A unique aspect of the course is that Virginia Tech and University of Denver students will work alongside students from Mzuzu University to explore a wide range of WASH issues both in the classroom and the field. This pairing of students will promote cultural exchange and enable discussions about ethics and power in the field of international development. The joint teaching model, combined student cohort, and experiential approach to learning will provide students from the U.S. and Malawi with a rich educational and cultural experience.

The course is designed for students interested in working in the global WASH sector or pursuing a career in international development.





Experience WASH in Malawi (Study Abroad)

23 09 2015

If you are a Virginia Tech undergraduate or graduate, please come to the Drillfield today to learn about a new WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) course I will be offering during Summer II, 2016, in partnership with the Mzuzu University Centre of Excellence in Water and Sanitation.static_qr_code_without_logo

To keep up to date on course news, please join the Google group.

Course Flyer

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Course Information
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Images from MalawiPoster_images