Tuesday, 9 August 2011


I awoke with a start at the chicken pecking on the roof of my tin house. I can’t understand why the owners believe that placing their ground nuts on the roof keeps them farther away from pests, when the worst pests have wings. I lie inside my warm sleeping bag for a moment longer before the urgency to urinate kicks in. Living in a country previously colonized by the British, some habits have trickled down, including driving on the left side of the road and the electricity outlets. But the habit currently affecting me is the routine of drinking tea three times a day. Whenever a woman comes to visit, whether it is early morning, afternoon, or evening, it’s polite to ask “have you taken tea”. Whether they have or not, most women respond with “that’s just okay, I’m fine”. It’s the equivalency of asking your friends at home if they’d like a beverage, except here it’s always tea. Drinking tea three times a day, including the added three teaspoons of sugar in every cup really puts some pressure on your kidneys because (a) tea has caffeine which makes you excrete water more and (b) the sugar build up is partially mended by excreting it through urine. So whenever you need to use the latrine, it comes on quickly, and you will literally run with your roll of toilet paper and cell phone flashlight to the outdoor pit latrine in the wee hours of the morning.
Something I have loved during my stay in this foreign place, where I am the alien, is finding stuff that I am good at. Wrapping a skirt, and cooking Nsima are new skills, but I love finding traditional activities where I feel useful and my surroundings astonishingly feel familiar. After using the latrine, I began building a fire in the kitchen outside the main house to warm the water for a bath. It’s polished grey concrete floor, and soot covered walls give me a sense of comfort, as they remind me of my home village south of here, spending the evenings cooking with my little brother. After collecting dried corn husks, some corn stalks, some smallish sticks from the pile of collected branches, and a match (thank goodness for these), I begin the pang’ono pang’ono (little by little) process of building the fire. Building fire also gives me a great deal of comfort because it reminds me of my home in Canada, where living away from the urban and suburban centres means disposing of our own garbage. It was my responsibility for the last two years living at home to build a fire and burn the garbage, and living in the woods taught me how to gather the right underbrush to build with. I love fire, I love how unpredictable it is. I love how no matter where you go, fire will always be consistent. Or perhaps I like it because it’s an oxymoron.
After the fire is ablaze, I follow my flip flops over to the water drum, where we hold water for storage. It’s only 50L, but lends itself when we don’t want to walk to the Afridev pump 150 metres away every time we need to wash our hands or boil water for tea. I remove the lid, bracing myself for my reflection, only to see the bottom dried up. It is only 5:30am, and the sun is barely casting its light, but I pick up some buckets beside the pile of last night’s dishes, and open the squeaky wooden gate leading outside. My head is still dizzy in the morning light, and my flip flops drag and stagger as I walk along the path through the harvested maize fields. Once I reach the pump, I find two women, one is assisting the other as she places a 20L bucket on her head, the baby tied to her back has nodded off. I am reminded once again why women here have such amazing posture, they balance everything on their head with an infant piggy-backing to boot.
What catches my eye at the water pump are two small girls sitting on their haunches playing with bottle caps of the 5L jugs their mothers instruct them to fill. I take a closer look, and realize they are having what I’d call a tea party. They have a plastic cup for a pot, and three bottle caps the size of their small fists. These little girls are sitting together on the freshly swept earth, and the third ‘teacup’ belongs to the Santa Claus stuffed doll in between them. I see the mother calling them, so they replace the caps on their jugs, tie the santa doll on their back with a scarf, place the jug on their head, then follow the voice of their Mama. Seeing four year olds practicing the balancing act with small jugs, or tying their dollies to their backs brings a smile to my face. It reminds me of the time my mother bought me a miniature gardening kit, with seeds and plastic watering can, hoe, and hand shovel manufactured for a 5 year old’s fist. My mother has a green thumb, and just as I wanted to replicate my mother, these children were also following the cultural actions of their parents. Children mimic their parents, and this is consistent no matter where you go.
I loved finding that last consistency because it reminds me that people are just people wherever you go. I find those in developed countries places a picture in their minds that they are very different from those of another continent. When I told my family that I was going to Africa, they pictured me living in a mud hut with hunters wearing no clothes. When I told my roommates I was going to Africa, they pictured me going on a safari and seeing exotic animals. When I told my co-workers I was going to Africa, they pictured jungles of massive mosquitoes and diseases I had learned of in class. People picture themselves as different. It does not imply they place themselves above others however, they simply cannot relate or understand the other culture. After relating my childhood to the ones playing out in front of my eyes at the afridev pump that day, I felt connected to those girls, like we had something innately in common. Understanding that at the heart of people, there are things that remain consistent across cultures, it makes me feel like we are all a part of a world family. With the perspective that these people across borders are like your family, it drastically changes how you see, analyze, and react to the uncontrollable situations they face. If your own flesh and blood was trapped in poverty, sexual exploitation, lack of resources to increase their income that they barely survive on, or dying of preventable diseases, you would spring to action in a heartbeat. Perhaps this explains part of the reason why I am here, part of the motivation behind spending the summer in Malawi. I hope you have been given a chance to see how humanity is connected. We are equals, in a world filled with unjust inequalities.

Puzzle Pieces

At the beginning of the summer, one of my goals was to find my place in the development sector. Much of what I knew about development, I had learned from my colleagues in the nursing faculty, EWB at the national and chapter level, foundation learning, and university classes. With my experience working with EWB, I had a pretty good picture of what roles I was interested in, such as fieldwork, research, practical work at a hospital, or managing meetings with donors and the national government. I told this personal objective to my coach during the long road trip up north to my placement in May, and he was super thrilled. Looking back in retrospect, I can make a good guess that he was not thrilled that I would find my answer, he was thrilled I’d set that big of a goal. To be honest, I don’t think any of us really know where our puzzle piece fits into development perfectly. My placement was based on both how Cat knew me, and how Jolly Ann framed the sanitation team’s strategy. It fit rather well, surprisingly, but whether it’s based on my flexibility or their finesse I don’t know. [I’ll go with their finesse]. I’ve had lots of learning experiences, but I still don’t know where my puzzle piece fits. If I am having difficulty finding a place to fit in EWB’s puzzle/approach, then how difficult will it be to fit into the entire development world?
I’d like to take a step back and explain what I mean about this analogy of the puzzle. The development sector is like a massive puzzle that cannot or has not been finished. There are pieces of every colour, shape, and size strewn over the floor. These pieces may say things like policy, donors, fundraising, fieldwork, research, corruption, trade, marketing, media, good intentions, publicity, money, matching t shirts, abandoned buildings, and the list goes on. Anyone who has experienced development work or the effects of it before would have another pile of word pieces to add. I feel as if through the evolution of EWB, they’ve chosen specific parts of the puzzle in which they wish to work with. You could say that each team strategy whether it be water + sanitation, agriculture, or enhancing infrastructure (forgive me if I’ve missed one of the West African ones) has its own part of the puzzle that it’s working on. We’re like a bunch of old ladies in a retirement home working on different colours of the puzzle. Don’t judge that vision, because I intend to be the puzzle making champion when I retire. From the water and sanitation team strategy I am a part of, we’re all working on the blue pieces that say key words like village volunteers, area mechanics, traditional authorities, extension staff, district support, the district water office, evidence based decisions, Ministry of Health, CLTS, and community financing. There are specific roles/pieces given to APS and also given to JFs. Unfortunately, when you are trying to put pieces together, or perhaps this is just from my experience with puzzles, 95% of the time the pieces don’t fit. That’s where the whole ‘failing forward’ idea comes in. So...that piece did not fit, e.g. volunteers are not actually dependable in sanitation, so let’s try leveraging the traditional authorities’ strength instead. Moreover, let’s publish a report on the work of volunteers in sanitation, so that other districts/countries working in sanitation will see the difficulty in forcing those two pieces together.
So how does this apply to you? Well, this post is mainly directed to those interested in working in international development someday. My advice for you is do not try change the system that you are working with, or add more pieces to the puzzle. Adding a new project or program just adds another layer to the deep pile of unorganized puzzle pieces. The empty buildings scattered across the country are just skeletons left over from good intentions. The matching t-shirts are sold and seen on the everyday farmer. The water point you fundraised for was placed 10ft from a pre-existing one. The development system is a pile of puzzle pieces that need critical thinking, coordination, and the willingness to admit failure in order to starting fitting together properly.

Saturday, 9 July 2011


Hey Everyone,

Just a heads up, I will be missing in action for the next three weeks because I am headed farther North where there is no electricity or internet. I want to research sanitation practices farther away from the capital city. If you want to call my cell, it is still posted on Skype, or you can email one of the other JFs/APS from Southern Africa for the number. Talk to you then!


The Phantom of the Opera

July 7, 2011

Yesterday marked probably one of the best days I’ve spent in Malawi. I was spending the day in Mzuzu, where I was trying to research fair trade farming in Malawi, get some pictures printed, and attend the independence day football game which the president was attending. While I was watching the game, I kept thinking of my brother in law Nathan, because he is the only soccer fan in our family. I have never watched a soccer game live in Canada, so after seeing African football I am not sure I ever will because there is little comparison. I love the sport so it was nice to see a game live. Despite how awesome talking to a fair trade worker and watching a Malawian football game was, these are not the reasons why the day was so incredibly amazing.
On the walk back to the church hostel where I was staying, I heard music being played in the room attached to the big sanctuary. Inside I saw two Malawian men playing keyboards, and I stopped in my tracks. Drums are common, guitars are rare, and pianos do not exist where I live in the north. Seeing piano keys, even if they’re plugged into the wall made me so excited. I nearly ran into the room and asked (begged) if I could give the keys a try. They graciously stopped practicing and handed them over. The model of the keyboard was very similar to the one I have at home, except it was a few years older. After tinkering around, doubling the tempo, and choosing the proper sounds, I proceeded to play the Phantom of the Opera. [insert facebook link here]. The JFs were surprised, and the two Malawian men absolutely loved it, and started dancing to the techno beat that I was pounding out of the keyboard. My friend videotaped it, making me wish that I knew an accessible place to upload it effectively. That one thing I miss from Canada, is free high speed internet access where you can actually upload pictures and videos.
I learned a valuable lesson from this experience that I did not fully understand when I came to Malawi. I am only here for four months, and I cannot guarantee that I will ever come back to Malawi. There are thousands of experiences that I can have, and depending on various variables such as location, available time, and motivation every JF will have different experiences. There is not just one JF experience that everyone has. I have learned that depending on the individual, their passions, interests, and level of personal awareness, their placement will be unique from anyone else’s.
Where does that leave me now and in the future? Well right now I have a huge amount of responsibility of taking ownership of my placement and time spent in Malawi. In the future, I will have to articulate this experience with 5 seconds or less to everyone who asks me “Soo, how was Malawi?” There is responsibility to make the most of your time while in country, and also the responsibility to somehow explain such a life changing experience to others in a way that fits their lens. EWB at the national, chapter, and African program level has put a great deal of faith in me.
A huge part of the JF program is taking advantage of every opportunity that presents itself. In fact, these opportunities are so common that you need to pick and choose. For example, I chose to visit fair trade workers in Mzuzu, and once I reach my home in Chitipa, my friend is a Malawian nurse working at the hospital, and she’s offered to let me shadow her for a shift on the wards. When will I ever be able to witness working on the maternal ward of a hospital in Africa again? Hopefully again soon, but what an experience to share at home in my chapter with the nursing students at McMaster!
Before I stepped off the plane into Malawi, I had the resounding “take advantage of your time, and make the experience your own” in my ears. I believe it is one of the most important messages that any future JF should hear. I think it’s funny that it took me walking into a church and playing the Phantom of the Opera techno style for this “Aha” moment to really sink in. Some things must be experienced before they fully capture the conscious.
As my good friend Scott from Zambia said during the mid summer retreat, there is no room for procrastination or hesitation, because there is no such thing as delayed opportunity. There is only missed opportunity.
If there is something on the back of your mind, something on your bucket list, something kind you want to say, do not allow hesitation, procrastination, or some other road block to stop you. We only have one pass on this road of life, and every day could be a chance to make better the life of another, experience something that photos cannot give credit, and/or be an “Aha” moment. “At the end of the day, let us reflect that one more day is irreversibly gone, indelibly marked” (Adoniram Judson)
Let this be that day you say “yes, I will [walk up to a stranger in a huge church and ask to play Phantom of the Opera on his keyboard]”. You can insert your own words to that sentence. “yes, i will .....”
Much love,

Friday, 1 July 2011

Happy Canada Day!

Hello Everyone!
I recently got an amazing email from some members of my chapter with specific questions on the topics:
• Latrines/handwashing
• Women’s roles
• Solar power/cell phones/technology
In case anyone else is curious about these topics, I am going to use this avenue to answer the questions. But first of all, I would like to give an update! I have just returned from mid summer retreat! So many amazing memories made! Including sleeping on a bed within 5 inches from lake Malawi. (two hours of sleeping later we were nearly under water because of the tide). Sleeping under the stars, and then watching the sun rise was such an amazing experience! Another cool memory was taking a boat trip out to a rock island, where I jumped from a height of ~20 feet into the lake. Is it cheesy that I thought of Bella Swan the moment just before I jumped? I felt like such an adrenaline junkie. ALSO, the Watsan team won the retreat Olympics, which involved telling the best anecdote (here I told the ‘birth’ story), demonstrating the best Malawian accent, drinking chimbuku the fastest, wearing the best chitenge creation, having the best pictures, and eating Nsima the fastest. I was mentally, physically, and emotionally active the entire four days. I learned a lot about myself, and about those around me. I feel so blessed to have so many talented, passionate, critical thinking, and inspiring people on the team! I will miss them until debrief at the end of August! Also, please note that every morning and afternoon was spent doing serious sessions/meetings/learning moments/etc. I hope you don’t mind that I only included the bucket list memories.
Anyway, back to the questions given to me by Naomi and Meaghan!! (btw, I love you ladies for emailing me!) I am so excited for answering the above questions because those topics are extremely familiar to me!
• Latrines/handwashing. In the typical household in the urban environment, there are pit latrines. Pit latrines are kind of like a man made outhouse. A slab of concrete with a hole just large enough to use. As a girl, it’s pretty difficult to aim. Hand washing is an extremely rare commodity, and where it exists, soap does not. During travel, there are no Timmies to relieve yourself, or rest stations along the highway. Every major bus depot (one per district) has a pit latrine that costs about K40, which is roughly$0.35? I suppose we can take it back to McMaster that their 35 cents paid for something important, other than travel VISAs, accommodations, and other things.
• Women’s roles: This is a very broad question everyone. It depends on many things, but most of all the location. A woman’s role in the village is very different than in the urban setting. And what role are you asking about? In the household, income generation, child bearing, the office setting, etc? The most concise picture that I would like to paint about this massive black hole of a topic is this: women are facing the cultural norm that they are most useful in the home rearing children and performing the servant’s role. Women in the village find their dignity through their servant hood to their family through washing, cleaning, rearing, and quietly submitting. This topic has perplexed me. After spending four weeks living among them and seeing the power dynamics between men and women of the household, I question whether women empowerment truly releases them. Women are dignified through being a servant, in their eyes. If they are loved and cherished for this role, yet have no say in household decisions, what harm is there? I picture myself in their role of pleasant submission, and wonder what they think of all these women coming to tell them they are prisoners. After conducting multiple sessions on women empowerment with collectively 60 women of the village, and living in this context for four weeks, I am no longer approaching the subject with flames and arrows. Like I said, I am still perplexed.
• Cell Phones/Technology/Solar Power: I will have much more information on solar power next week because I will be travelling to a health centre away from the capital city of Chitipa. There they use solar power instead of electricity. As per cell phones, almost everyone in the urban setting has one. Having a cell phone and using it is very different though. Buying units for airtime is fairly expensive. No one that I have met has a cell phone plan. Even the APS with their smart phones don’t have a plan (as far as I know they buy units like the rest of us). It’s all a matter of buying pieces of paper for airtime (I am sending a blank one to Hamilton via Naomi’s house, so some of you can see what these look like). You scratch the back, dial the pin #, then use up that airtime through texting/calling. $1.00 will get you about 14 text messages or 4 minutes of calling. Therefore it is pretty expensive. It’s like Pay as You Go plan
Speaking of cell phones, I have had many people telling me they want to call me. For any of you who has me on skype, I have added my number to that. I am free every evening, so your time that’s between 12:00 and 2:00. So lunch break/call Karina via skype yes?
Looking forward to seeing your faces in September!

Saturday, 11 June 2011

So...You want to go to Africa?

I wish to begin this blog post with a question. Someone tells you that you are “going to Africa”, what is the first thing that pops into your mind? Elephants? District government (EWBers...)? Safari adventure? Water/agric/data systems? Libya? Famine? Soccer (go Holland)? Languages?
Those with the experience of ‘going to Africa’ may have gone for travel, sight seeing, development work (whether it’s one week or a number of years), or perhaps work experience. Maybe you live or have lived in Africa before. But I really want to target those of you who have never stepped onto the continent before. There is a lot to do in Africa, with many experiences to be had. Those of you who have never ‘been to Africa’ before. Specifically, those of you who’s dream it is to go there and save lives. You have been stirred in one way or another to step up and help people less fortunate. Maybe you volunteer so much people look at you in bewilderment, perhaps you see those pictures and biographies of children dying in Africa and can’t stand to sit still any longer. Maybe you’ve had a taste of poverty in your own life, or have witnessed it in others. Whenever someone is looking for poverty to fight, problems to solve, hunger to advocate against, and preventable diseases to prevent, they generally look at Africa as the hotspot. All of you who have never been to Africa before, but it is your dream because in your eyes, it is the place where you can serve the most, this blog is written for you. Because approximately 40 days ago, I was all of the above.
Now back to that question. Imagine someone tells you that you are ‘going to Africa’ for four months of the summer to help decrease the number of children who die every year due to diarrhoeal illnesses. People die of diarrhoea every day because of a number of causes, and you are going to target the act of shitting out in the open. This will decrease the oral-fecal transmission of cholera (among other diseases), so babies will live past the age of 5 and not die of something INCREDIBLY preventable as diarrhoea.
WOOT WOOT! This is your dream come true! You really don’t understand exactly WHAT you’ll be doing, but you know that you are ‘going to Africa to save lives’. I want you to take a moment, close your eyes, and imagine what you will do, who you will meet, what experiences you will have, how many people you will impact, and most importantly, how many lives will you save? Close ‘em and think of the sights, smells, and people. GO.............................................................................................................................
During the past 6 months of knowing I am “going to Africa” I painted a picture of myself in my mind of what I would look like, what I would do, where I would go, what I would accomplish, etc. However, my good friend from home wrote me an “in-Africa” letter to read that I recently had the opportunity to open. I thank God for her writing it, because He worked His purpose through her words, even though she probably did not realize the impact it would have at the time. It said that as a Christian, I must give up this fantasy of my purpose in Africa. I have this idea of what I will accomplish and who I will become through all these experiences. In all honesty, I fell prey to my own pride. I thought that I would make some incredible impact for God, for EWB, for Dorothy, and for myself. But God also has a plan for me here, and it’s a million times better than one that I could ever imagine. So I have decided to just go with the flow, and trust Him.
It has been an incredible experience thus far because I am giving up that fantasy of myself. If you had the chance to read the last post titled “Walls”, this fantasy of myself was one of those barriers that was constricting me from being effective in my work for sanitation.
Thank you God, and thank you K.A. <3
Disclaimer: this blog is from the perspective and opinion of the writer only, and does not represent any other parties that the writer may represent, such as Engineers Without Borders Canada. Thank you.

Friday, 10 June 2011


I am sitting in the District Hospital’s Environmental Health office while I write this blog entry. I was perusing my notes from pre departure training, and I am overwhelmed at how useful they are! Note to self and future JFs, take notes about what you learn during pre-dep and in-country training! One specific entry I made in my notes was a fear I had. Going back to that headspace before I left Toronto is so interesting. The fear I had was “losing my ambition, drive, passion, ideas, and critical thinking because I keep running into walls”.
These ‘walls’ can be many things, like small details that get in the way of progress or cultural norms that you must learn to live with. One example of this is what JFs lovingly call “Malawi time”. Unlike Canada, Malawians don’t rush to beat the clock. In fact, I have only seen two people carry a watch since I came here. If a meeting it set for 9:00am, it’s not likely to start at 10:30, it WILL start at 10:30, and people will plan for such things and come late. Another small frustration I can think of happened this morning. I was coming into work and no one left the keys for me to get into the office. So I wandered around until I found a friend with an office open so I could charge my phone with the electricity outlet. Maybe this ‘wall’ is not related to efficiency and is a cultural barrier. My placement involves gathering information about hygiene practices of villages to determine the open defecation free status, and how the major players in the village contribute to this status. I have learned that as a white woman, I am treated as a black man, with respect, a chance to voice my opinion, and the highest seat at a meeting with the village. The women of the village sit on the ground and only speak when spoken too. This cultural norm is difficult to work with because the depth of information that I am looking for is mostly found from the women’s perspective. I cannot simply walk into a village meeting and gather accurate information about the village households. Nor can I simply gather this information from the government office. This makes my placement so incredibly interesting and fun to tackle, because I must literally work (harvesting, gathering water, attending church, cooking, cleaning, meeting with the women groups, etc) to gain trust and acceptance from the women of the community. What are the hygiene practices in the household REALLY like outside of what the village leaders are saying or the government is assuming? This is a wall I am having an amazing time scaling.
Let’s go back to that fear of mine, of getting frustrated and losing my ambition because I keep running into these ‘walls’. Other illustrations are swimming upstream or running up an escalator that is going down. However, these walls are not made by anyone but myself. I am the one trying to beat the clock, I am the one who is used to having my own office space, and I am the white foreigner who expects in depth information now now now. I am the one who likes structure, making lists, punctuality, reliable internet, and itineraries that actually happen. I am the one building these walls. I am the problem.
Therefore I have decided to go with the flow. The other day, I went to visit the women in a neighbouring village, but rumours had been spread of finding a body, so no one attended the meeting. Luckily, this meeting was set to happen in a school and there were a hundred children around. With the good ‘ol EWB spirit I developed a workshop targeted for school children on hygiene practices on the fly. The children were really excited to interact with me, and I them. We had fun, and I gathered some really interesting information from children about their household’s hygiene status in terms of open defecation. This is an example of where you just have to go with the flow. Like my coach Duncan told me when he dropped me off in my very much loved district Chitipa, always have a plan A, plan B, plan C, plan D, etc, and if these don’t work, plan on the spot. Being able to scale the walls that you bring into the country is a difficult task, but you just need a positive attitude and recognize that perhaps you are the problem. When this light bulb comes on, gleefully get out of the way of progress.
Have a super fantastic day!
Disclaimer: this blog is from the perspective and opinion of the writer only, and does not represent any other parties that the writer may represent, such as Engineers Without Borders Canada. Thank you.