The Fieldwork Begins – Week Two in Malawi

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.

The Fieldwork Begins!

After two weeks of intensive training and a successful pilot study, the fieldwork for the follow-up study of the MCA’s rural water program in Nampula, Mozambique, began on Monday (June 10). As the fieldwork progresses over the next seven weeks, the surveying teams will undertake household surveys, water committee interviews, water point observations, technical assessments, and water source/storage testing, among other activities.

SAM_3627As usual, the pilot study proved to be an invaluable way to learn where the surveyors and team leaders required additional training and where our support team (consisting of researchers and staff from Virginia Tech, Stanford, and WE Consult) needed to provide additional support or rethink existing standard operating procedures (SOPs). The logistics associated with this project are complex and not only involve the careful programing of when and where the field teams will be over time, but also managing tasks such as how the 1,800 water samples will be transported for processing and where this processing will occur – i.e., in the field or back in our base camp. We also plan to collect water source samples in four communities at four different times during the day on three different occasions to check for variability in the quality of water over time. This type of water source testing will add a new dimension to our study and help identify whether the quality of water in these communities changes over a period of around six weeks. Another new dimension in the follow-up study is that the surveyors will use GPS devices to find the households we interviewed back in 2011. I will report back later on how successful they were at finding these households.

Data upload in the field - powered via the car battery
Data upload in the field – powered via the car battery

From a data quality perspective, we continue to advance and refine our data review and cleaning processes with our on-the-ground statistician (Marcos Carzolio). This year we are leveraging secure data transfer technology to enable the research team to view the data from any location in the world as soon as it is available. This platform also enables the lead researchers to communicate with the fieldwork team leaders as they upload the data in remote rural areas.

While the household survey is administered using PDAs, making the data easily accessible, the remaining surveying instruments are paper-based and require a different data entry and review process. This task will be managed by our in-country partner (WE Consult) given the need to have native Portuguese speakers managing the process.

In the next week, a fourth surveying team will leave Nampula and travel to Cabo Delgado to begin a study of eight small piped solar systems that have been constructed by the MCA. This more qualitative study will attempt to identify those factors supporting or limiting the successful delivery of water services via these systems. The Cabo Delgado team will be led by Emily Van Houweling (Virginia Tech) who spent a year in Mozambique as a Fullbright scholar last year while completing her doctoral research.

The above description should provide some insight into the many moving parts of this large-scale study, which is providing our team with plenty of challenges, but is also proving to be a highly rewarding experience for all involved. While our primary objective is to undertake an impact evaluation for the MCC, we hope our data will be of real value to the provincial and national governments of Mozambique and to the international community when making decisions about how to invest in sustainable rural water and sanitation services in the country.

The images below were taken during our final week of training and the pilot study.

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