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.
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.
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.