Here are some recent pictures from Mzuzu University in Malawi that show the progress being made with the construction of their new library. More informatiom about this project can be found here.
Over the past month, I have had the privilege of getting to know nine graduate students from Mzuzu University. These graduates formed around one third of our study abroad course alongside students from the University of Denver and Virginia Tech.
During the course, all the students engaged in an extensive range of fieldwork that included household surveys, focus groups, technical assessments of water sources, and key informant interviews. All of these activities were made possible by the hard work and focus of the Mzuzu University students, who led the activities in one of two local dialects. For many, this was their first real fieldwork experience, and like the U.S. students, they were able to advance their research skills.
Outside of the fieldwork activities – i.e., traveling to and from the field and through reflexive and engaging conversations during the evenings or over the weekends – I began to hear the life stories of several of the Mzuzu University students. One of the most striking aspects of these stories was the adversity that each student had to overcome (and are still overcoming) to be a graduate student. Several of the students grew up in communities that were similar to the ones we visited during the fieldwork. These communities do not have access to electricity (unless they own a solar panel array – which is rare), have limited access to improved water, and in many cases are located long distances from local schools and basic health clinics. The students from these communities regularly commented on how our research was enabling the U.S. students to see and experience ‘real life’ in Malawi – meaning the everyday life for about 80% of the country’s population.
When you see and experience this life, the gravity of the challenges facing families and children can at times seem insurmountable. It is for this reason that I wanted to highlight the graduate students who we had the privilege of working with as role models for other students in Malawi.
When pressed on how they made it to graduate school, each Malawian student spoke of a role model who encouraged, inspired, or enabled them to stay in school and continue their education. One of the major challenges facing students is the cost of tuition, which is why many seek employment to cover these costs. The profiles below demonstrate an impressive array of professional experience, which many U.S. graduate students would be hard pressed to match.
While finding good enrollment data is difficult, I estimate that the graduate student population in Malawi is less than one tenth of one percent of the total population. Thus, the Mzuzu University Malawian role models represent the future of the nation and I look forward to seeing what they can collectively accomplish in the coming decade. I list them below in alphabetical order (and will add any missing profiles in the near future).
Elton Chimwemwe Chavura: Elton studied Clinical Medicine and Anaesthesiology at Malawi College of Health Sciences, in Lilongwe and Blantyre, Malawi, graduating in 2003. He also earned a B.S. in Public Health at University of Livingstonia in 2015. At present, Elton is studying for an M.S. in Sanitation at Mzuzu University. He has worked with the Malawi Government civil service since 2007 and was stationed at the Kasungu District Health Office. Elton is currently operating a private practice medical clinic within the town of Kasungu, Malawi. Upon graduation, he intends to integrate WASH-related healthcare and hygiene initiatives into his community outreach program as part of his overall strategy to advance sustainable community development.
Charles F. Chirwa: Charles received a B.S. in Environmental Health from the University of Malawi in 2010 and a M.S. in Sanitation from Mzuzu University in 2017. His research at Mzuzu University focused on measuring pit latrine fecal sludge resistance using a dynamic cone penetrometer in low income areas in Mzuzu city, and his findings were published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. I had the pleasure of working with Charles at Virginia Tech in 2016, when he advanced the analysis of the data he collected from 300 household surveys and pit latrine tests. For the last six years, Charles has served as the District WASH Project Officer (in the Chitipa District) for Marion Medical Mission. He recently joined a USAID project as a District WASH Officer in the USAID/ONSE Health, Development Innovations Group, ONSE Project. In the future he plans to obtain a PhD in a WASH-related field.
Gabriel Junior Kapanda, Jr.: Gabriel is a WASH Scientist with 3-years of experience working with non-profit organizations. He is currently a Water Program Manager for Orant Charities Africa – an international NGO working to serve rural communities in Malawi. He is passionate about community development and humanitarian work in rural and remote areas. Gabriel holds a B.S. in Water Resources Management and Development from Mzuzu University, and is now studying for his M.S. in Sanitation. His master’s research focuses on “determining the willingness to pay for, and initiatives for mitigating, indiscriminate household solid waste disposal in informal settlements in Mzuzu, Malawi.” Upon graduation he plans to create a ‘Water and Environmental Protection’ social business enterprise, comprising both non-profit and for-profit operations.
Chifundo Ruth Kayoka: Chifundo received a diploma in Environmental Health from the Malawi College of Health Sciences in 2007 and a B.S. in Health Management from the University of Malawi, College of Medicine, in 2012. She works with the Ministry of Health as an Environmental Health Officer for the Lilongwe District Health Office. Her main responsibilities include planning, monitoring, and evaluating environmental/public health activities, including water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), supervising a team of Health Surveillance Assistants, maintaining the workflow schedule, and supporting a safe work environment by adhering to the Ministry of Health’s protocols and guidelines. Chifundo is currently studying for an M.S. in Sanitation at Mzuzu University, where she is researching innovative ideas to improve WASH services for people with disabilities. In the next 5 to 10 years, Chifundo plans to help operationalize sustainable development strategies and interventions that promote the self-reliance of people living with disabilities across Malawi. She also aspires to work closely with communities to utilize appropriate locally available technology that will improve the lives of people with disabilities. In addition, she plans to contribute to attaining the right to WASH for all.
Madalitso Mmanga: Madalitso received a B.S. in Environmental Health from the University of Malawi in 2007. Since then he has worked for the Ministry of Health in the Ntcheu District Hospital, where he is now the Environmental Health Officer and WASH Program Manager. Madalitso has also worked as a water resources and GIS technician for COMWASH (in 2004) and was an agriculture extension and development officer for the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Water Development (from 2003-2007). He is currently studying for a M.S. in Sanitation at Mzuzu University. Upon graduation, Madalitso plans to develop a comprehensive healthcare waste management system that will be implemented in all healthcare establishments in Malawi.
Welton Eddie Mtonga: Eddie received a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Malawi in 1999 and an M.S. in Civil Engineering-Hydropower Development from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in 2008. Eddie has 18 years of professional experience, four of which were with an Engineering Consultancy firm, nine were with a water utility, and the remainder have been with the Department of Water Resources Management and Development in the Faculty of Environmental Sciences at Mzuzu University. Elton was the most senior participant in the WASH course and is currently working to complete his PhD in Sanitary Engineering, after which he hopes to work as a faculty member at a university in Malawi.
Mike Petani: Mike received a Diploma in Clinical Medicine from the Malawi Adventist University in 2008 and a B.S. in Public Health from the University of Livingstonia, Malawi, in 2014. He is currently studying for a M.S. in Sanitation at Mzuzu University and is working as an Environmental Health Officer for the Ministry of Health in the Kasungu District Hospital. To earn sufficient funds to support his family and pay for his school fees, Mike created the Come Again Medical Private Clinic and Medicine Pharmacy in his hometown. His long-term ambition is to obtain a PhD after which he plans to expand his clinic and pharmacy to include a maternity wing and X-ray department that serves local communities that are too far from government facilities.
At the end of our 2017 study abroad course in Malawi, teams of students from Mzuzu University, the University of Denver, and Virginia Tech displayed their team spirit through African and Western song. Enjoy!
In my last post I referred to Malawi’s raw natural beauty, so I thought I should post a few pictures from the community we visited today to provide a sense of what this means. Make sure you click on the panoramic images.
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.
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.
In 2016, I was pleased to welcome Charles Chirwa to Virginia Tech for a period several weeks. During his time at the university, we began to analyze the data he collected on the consistency of sludge in 300 pit latrines in Mzuzu, Malawi. We were joined in this task by my colleagues Leigh-Anne Krometis, Eric Vance, Adam Edwards, and Ting Guan.
At the end of his stay, I posted a tweet in which I stated that “we plan to publish a WASH paper on his research.” After returning to Mzuzu, Charles continued to work on the paper with his primary advisor, Rochelle Holm, and his extended research team in the US. This week his paper was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
I wanted to congratulate Charles on this accomplishment, which involved hundreds of hours of diligent and carefully executed fieldwork and months of data cleaning and processing to find the best way to present his data. His research provides important data and insights into strategies that could advance pit latrine emptying in resource poor communities in Africa.
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.
In December 2016, Mzuzu University (Mzuni) experienced a tragic fire during which they lost their entire library of 45,000 titles. This was a major loss for the university and for the northern part of Malawi, where educational books are extremely scarce. I visited Mzuzu University the day before the fire and took was is probably the last photo of the library. In July of this year, I co-taught a joint WASH course for Virginia Tech, Denver University, and Mzuni students at Mzuzu University and was able to visit the library again. I was reminded of the shear scale of the destruction that is captured by the sequence of images below.
Since January, a growing group of students and faculty at Virginia Tech and Radford University have been working to collect books for a new library. We partnered with the Malawian Education and Children’s Welfare Foundation that has been charged by Mzuni to lead the U.S. response to their library rebuilding effort. The Mzuni Library Initiative has been an intense, but highly rewarding experience for all involved and this past month we reached a milestone with the collection of 5,000 books for Mzuni.
We are now focusing our efforts on finding a way to ship these boxes to Malawi and hope to have them in route within the coming weeks.
During my time at Mzuzu University this July, I was able to speak with the Vice Chancellor and the Chief Librarian about how Virginia Tech could continue to help their rebuilding effort. In addition securing replacement books, there is also a need to help design a new signature library building. Given Virginia Tech’s expertise in architecture, building construction, engineering, etc., my plan is to find a way for our students and faculty to work on this new phase of the Mzuni Library Initiative. Please contact me if you believe you can help.
For the next two years (or more), students at Mzuni will have access to a temproary library (see below) that is slowing beginning to expand its collection of books. While they have made some progress, they are far from having the full range of books needed to support all of their academic programs. Our hope is that the 5,000 books (~10% of the books lost in the fire) we send will significantly improve their situation.