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.

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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.

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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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New Paper in Sustainability

21 02 2017

A new paper by Shyam Ranganathan, Raj GC, and I was recently published in Sustainability. The paper presents a way to advance an interconnected set of SDGs and targets through a multiple-use water services (MUS) approach to rural water delivery.

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Abstract: The 2030 agenda presents an integrated set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets that will shape development activities for the coming decade. The challenge now facing development organizations and governments is how to operationalize this interconnected set of goals and targets through effective projects and programs. This paper presents a micro-level modeling approach that can quantitatively assess the impacts associated with rural water interventions that are tailored to specific communities. The analysis focuses on how a multiple-use water services (MUS) approach to SDG 6 could reinforce a wide range of other SDGs and targets. The multilevel modeling framework provides a generalizable template that can be used in multiple sectors. In this paper, we apply the methodology to a dataset on rural water services from Mozambique to show that community-specific equivalents of macro-level variables used in the literature such as Cost of Illness (COI) avoided can provide a better indication of the impacts of a specific intervention. The proposed modeling framework presents a new frontier for designing projects in any sector that address the specific needs of communities, while also leveraging the knowledge gained from previous projects in any country. The approach also presents a way for agencies and organizations to design projects or programs that bridge sectors/disciplines (water, irrigation, health, energy, economic development, etc.) to advance an interconnected set of SDGs and targets.

Citation: Hall, R.P.; Ranganathan, S.; G. C., R.K. A General Micro-Level Modeling Approach to Analyzing Interconnected SDGs: Achieving SDG 6 and More through Multiple-Use Water Services (MUS). Sustainability 2017, 9(2), 314.





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.





Vwaza!

29 07 2016

Blog (4)Today was the final day of the Experience WASH in Malawi study abroad course. Having spent the last three weeks working hard on research projects, the students visited Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve – a national park to the north of Mzuzu. The lake in the park was full of hippos and surrounded by monkeys and gazelles, which provided our group with many hours of energized viewing.

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I have posted the three final presentations from each of the research teams below along with a short document from the Sanitation and Fish teams that provide an overview of their research and results.

While I may be biased, I believe this study abroad course has been an excellent experience for all involved – students and instructors. We are now looking forward to 2017 when we hope to build on the success of this course and take on new research projects that will have a direct and meaningful impact on communities in Malawi.

Fish Team

Fish

Fish Team Briefing Document.

Sanitation Team

Sanitation

Sanitation Team Infographic.

Mapping Team

Mapping





Final WASH Presentations

28 07 2016

This morning, students taking our joint WASH course in Malawi presented their final presentations to a group of key stakeholders and faculty at Mzuzu University. The session was introduced by Dr. Loveness Kaunda, the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Mzuzu University. I will post the presentations from this session soon, along with the briefing documents the students prepared to capture the key findings from their research. I was extremely impressed by what the students were able to develop in such a short period of time. More to follow on this.

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“Experience” WASH in Malawi

20 07 2016

Having reached the halfway point of our time in Malawi, the students are now fully immersed in their WASH-related research projects. When we designed the course, we decided to make research a central part of the student experience. Having spent a day with each of the research groups this week I can now see how important this experiential component of the course is for building a deep understanding of the WASH challenges facing communities in Malawi. The research projects are logistically and technically challenging, which means students need to work well as a team, learn new skills and knowledge, be proactive, and manage the enviable problems that come with real-world research. This week has also been characterized by the Mzuni students rising to the occasion and taking lead roles in the research projects. Their understanding of local communities and organizations and their mastery of local dialects has proven to be critical for each project. It has also been great to see the U.S. and Malawian students unite around a common research goal and work hard to advance the data collection process.

14Over the past few days the three groups have become known as the Sanitation, Mapping, and Fish teams in relation to their research projects. I have briefly described each project below and have provided a few pictures from the work of each group.

A hygiene and sanitation assessment of public sites. The Sanitation team is testing public latrines in schools, public transportation sites, medical facilities, and markets for E. coli contamination and administering short interviews to assess the sanitary conditions and use of the public facilities. The team plans to assess ten public sites this week and process up to 150 samples taken from various pre-determined locations in and around a sanitation facility. As is typical in a low resource setting, these facilities can be unclean and in a dire state of repair. But this was not always the case. The study of these facilities is providing students with a clear sense of the public sanitation needs across the city. It is also requiring them to visit locations they would never have seen if we only spoke about public sanitation in a classroom setting.

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Mapping the water and sanitation services in a community. The Mapping team is undertaking participatory mapping to understand the water and sanitation services in a community near Mzuzu University. The students are leading these mapping exercises and collecting GPS data that will be analyzed and integrated into one or more maps. These maps can then be used to identify the “gaps” between water needs and existing services to help the community engage in the planning of future water services. During their first day of surveying, it was clear that the data collection instruments were too detailed and needed to be revised/shortened. This experience reinforced the importance of piloting instruments before the full data collection effort begins, a valuable lesson for the students to learn.

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Risk of fish contamination from the boat to the market (Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu). The Fish team is undertaking an assessment of the fish supply chain from Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu. This is perhaps the most logistically demanding project, which begins around 3am as the fishermen leave Nkhata Bay and ends at Mzuzu market some 50km away where the fish caught that morning are being sold. The students are testing the fish, the fish handlers’ hands, transport vehicles, and fish containers for E. coli, and are undertaking interviews with fish handlers along the fishing, transportation, and marketing chain. This project is characterized by intense periods of activity and periods of waiting – such as when fishermen are fishing on the lake. Perhaps, the busiest phase of the research is when the fishermen return to shore and the middle men/women rush to purchase the fisherman’s catch. The students wisely developed relationships with the fishermen to ensure that they can sample their fish when they return to shore and before the fish start their trip to Mzuzu market.

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While we intended the WASH course to be experiential, I underestimated the importance of this aspect of the course, which is where much of the learning seems to be happening. The course provides a great example of the “hands on, minds on” principle that Virginia Tech is working to integrate across the institution. My hope is that we (VT) can develop a way – through initiatives such as Beyond Boundaries, Destination Areas, and InclusiveVT – to make this type of off campus experience open to all students attending the university. There are clearly financial and resource implications to realizing this vision, but the value to students is certainly worth the effort.