Having reached the halfway point of our time in Malawi, the students are now fully immersed in their WASH-related research projects. When we designed the course, we decided to make research a central part of the student experience. Having spent a day with each of the research groups this week I can now see how important this experiential component of the course is for building a deep understanding of the WASH challenges facing communities in Malawi. The research projects are logistically and technically challenging, which means students need to work well as a team, learn new skills and knowledge, be proactive, and manage the enviable problems that come with real-world research. This week has also been characterized by the Mzuni students rising to the occasion and taking lead roles in the research projects. Their understanding of local communities and organizations and their mastery of local dialects has proven to be critical for each project. It has also been great to see the U.S. and Malawian students unite around a common research goal and work hard to advance the data collection process.
Over the past few days the three groups have become known as the Sanitation, Mapping, and Fish teams in relation to their research projects. I have briefly described each project below and have provided a few pictures from the work of each group.
A hygiene and sanitation assessment of public sites. The Sanitation team is testing public latrines in schools, public transportation sites, medical facilities, and markets for E. coli contamination and administering short interviews to assess the sanitary conditions and use of the public facilities. The team plans to assess ten public sites this week and process up to 150 samples taken from various pre-determined locations in and around a sanitation facility. As is typical in a low resource setting, these facilities can be unclean and in a dire state of repair. But this was not always the case. The study of these facilities is providing students with a clear sense of the public sanitation needs across the city. It is also requiring them to visit locations they would never have seen if we only spoke about public sanitation in a classroom setting.
Mapping the water and sanitation services in a community. The Mapping team is undertaking participatory mapping to understand the water and sanitation services in a community near Mzuzu University. The students are leading these mapping exercises and collecting GPS data that will be analyzed and integrated into one or more maps. These maps can then be used to identify the “gaps” between water needs and existing services to help the community engage in the planning of future water services. During their first day of surveying, it was clear that the data collection instruments were too detailed and needed to be revised/shortened. This experience reinforced the importance of piloting instruments before the full data collection effort begins, a valuable lesson for the students to learn.
Risk of fish contamination from the boat to the market (Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu). The Fish team is undertaking an assessment of the fish supply chain from Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu. This is perhaps the most logistically demanding project, which begins around 3am as the fishermen leave Nkhata Bay and ends at Mzuzu market some 50km away where the fish caught that morning are being sold. The students are testing the fish, the fish handlers’ hands, transport vehicles, and fish containers for E. coli, and are undertaking interviews with fish handlers along the fishing, transportation, and marketing chain. This project is characterized by intense periods of activity and periods of waiting – such as when fishermen are fishing on the lake. Perhaps, the busiest phase of the research is when the fishermen return to shore and the middle men/women rush to purchase the fisherman’s catch. The students wisely developed relationships with the fishermen to ensure that they can sample their fish when they return to shore and before the fish start their trip to Mzuzu market.
While we intended the WASH course to be experiential, I underestimated the importance of this aspect of the course, which is where much of the learning seems to be happening. The course provides a great example of the “hands on, minds on” principle that Virginia Tech is working to integrate across the institution. My hope is that we (VT) can develop a way – through initiatives such as Beyond Boundaries, Destination Areas, and InclusiveVT – to make this type of off campus experience open to all students attending the university. There are clearly financial and resource implications to realizing this vision, but the value to students is certainly worth the effort.