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.
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.
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.