“Madzi ndi Moyo” (Water is Life)

I don’t think there exists a place on earth anymore where people don’t talk about water. In Utah we have always watched the snow cover in the mountains as a predictor of how much water we would have the next year. In Flint, Michigan an entire town has been living with poisoned drinking water for the past 3 years. The biggest concern after a natural disaster is always how to get drinking water to the people. We hear how water gets polluted by oil spills from pipelines, off-shore drilling, vacation cruise lines, and plastic residue. Some of us have been implementing water saving measures in our homes such as putting bricks or bottles in our flush toilets as to not use too much water that way. We have changed our grassy front lawn to a rock design, we use drip systems, don’t wash our cars in the drive way, use showers instead of baths. We have been watching the progression of the melting of glaciers and ice caps. Some of us worry so much that we have to pretend things will be ok just to not go crazy. We think about water. I have been thinking about water. But until now I have never had the complete first-hand experience with what it means to not have enough water.

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As you might remember from one of my earlier posts, when I first arrived in Malawi I stayed in a “training village” where I learned about everything necessary to survive in a Malawian village. One of the things was to draw water from a well, pump water from a borehole and transport the bucket of 5 gallons (which weighs about 40 pounds) on my head to our homestead.

My first site in the South had a water tap right outside my little hut and even though the pump sometimes went out, I still had water conveniently close. It was still an extra effort to wash laundry, carry everything in buckets, but it was very close. I never worried.

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Now, living in Nkhata Bay, I have a nice house, but no water or electricity. It is interesting that I always assumed that not having electricity or internet would be the most challenging part of my life. And don’t get me wrong, it IS challenging, but having a water source that is 1 km away from the house is the real hardship. I am not complaining, because in some parts of Malawi or Africa women have to walk even further to fetch water, but it is such an eye-opener to me that I would like to share my experiences.

So, how do I live without running water? First of all, and I am counting right now, I have two large plastic basins, three 5 liter buckets, two 10 liter buckets, one 15 liter bucket, five 20 liter buckets, one 4 liter bucket, and two 60 liter buckets with lids to fetch and store my water. I feel safe when all of the vessels are filled to the brim.

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How much water do I need per day (and remember, I am only one person, things multiply when you have a family!)? On a regular day, I need water for drinking, cooking and to take a sponge bath. This is approximately 6 gallons or 24 liters. Sometimes I have to do laundry and mop the house or wash my hair and my use goes up to about 4 buckets to 60 liters (or 20 gallons).

What does it take for me to be able to use 20 gallons? On laundry day I have to walk to the bore hole 4 times, 4 km with an empty bucket and 4km with 20 liters on my head. Or I can take my dirty laundry to the borehole and wash it there and carry that back on my head. But I still need drinking water. How much time does it take? As a general rule, people walk 1 km in about 10 min. If no one is at the borehole, it takes me about 30 min per bucket (walking and filling it), 2 hours altogether. But the borehole is a place for socializing. Many women and children gather there to chat while pumping water or doing laundry. That means that one usually has to wait in line to pump water. If I carry my water on laundry day, it can take me up to 4-5 hours.

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As an average I use 6-8 gallons a day. It would be a good guess that this is the average use per head in Malawi, maybe even across all countries that still have this kind of water access. The average use of water in the US is 80-100 gallon per person per day. To carry 100 gallons from the borehole to the house, I would have to carry 50 buckets a day, spending about 33.3 hours doing so, and that is more hours than one day has! And that is just for one person.

Needless to say, I am somewhat obsessed with water. I always know how much water I have. I take an empty bucket to work because this is where the borehole is. I plan my Sunday according to where I possibly could fill my water bottle with filtered drinking water that I don’t have to boil or filter (some lodges for tourists have filtered water).

It is safe to say that the village life for women and children centers around fetching water. Wherever you go you either see people carrying water on their heads, pumping water, sitting around a water source chatting, cleaning buckets etc. One of the nicest things my neighbors ever did for me was bringing a bucket of fresh water to my house late at night after I returned from a long trip. I had not asked for it. But village people know that water is the most important thing you need when returning to your house.

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In a traditional family, women and children carry the water. Men sometimes carry water for plants in watering cans or they will strap containers to their bikes. They usually do not carry water on their heads even though they know how, being raised carrying water as a child.

I sometimes I have students (girls) from my school bring water for me. Lately my small neighborhood children insist on fetching water. They carry smaller buckets, the very little ones (3yrs old) carry cooking pots with water. But nobody walks to or leaves the proximity of a borehole without carrying at least some.

 

During rainy season we “harvest” water from the roofs. You can find rows of buckets underneath metal roofs all over the village. I learned very quickly. I have been jumping out of bed at 2am running into a full blown rainstorm setting up all my empty buckets on numerous occasions…Now I even leave my basins in place when I leave town just in case it does rain.

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Village people are very protective of their water. They never leave buckets outside. They don’t consider it safe even if covered. And it makes sense. Water is so precious that they worry that ill-meaning folks could easily poison a bucket or animals could contaminate it. Many diseases or even death come from bad water. Water needs to be protected.

What have I learned from living with no running water? I will never take (clean) water for granted any longer. I plan my water use. If I do laundry, I use the grey water for mopping my house. I also use bath water to water my plants. I know exactly which bucket has the latest, freshest water. I spend many hours boiling and filtering drinking water, because it is easy to get dehydrated if you have to work for every drop (sometimes one has to choose between dehydration or diarrhea).

Last week I noticed women in my immediate neighborhood carrying up to 6 bricks on their heads contributing to the construction of a new borehole. I was very excited to find out that there are plans to drill one very close to my house, only 150 meters away. I take part in the women’s excitement and joyful expectation. 150m compared to 1000m. This will be an improvement of life and living conditions for many, including myself.

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There is a saying in Malawi: “Madzi ndi moyo” or “Water is life”. Poisoning water is an offense that gets punished severely. We cannot drink water with oil residue or radioactive water. It is a crime against humanity to pollute any water source no matter where because water doesn’t know borders. If Mozambique dumps trash into lake Malawi, Malawians and Tanzanians are effected as well.

Thank you for reading.

 

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Peace Corps Service in Africa is all about the Unexpected

I have spent the last six weeks removed from my village and school. I am not happy about it. There was denial, anger, a grieving period and boredom in the city, a place where none of us ever wanted to be. The situation was unprecedented and fluid. We received briefings on new developments every day. We all stayed in hotels and finally Peace Corps had to make a decision on how to proceed.

And they decided to remove all volunteers from the entire Southern Region of Malawi for the duration of this year due to ongoing suspicious as well as isolated violent behaviors in villages and counter reactions based on rumors and folk tales.

I remember the day when we finally were told that there is absolutely no hope anymore to go back to our lives as we knew them. It was an emotional day because we were also given the choice to take “Interrupted Service”, an honorable discharge from service due to unforeseen circumstances. Two weeks before we had all hastily packed our bags with valuables and personal things for about two weeks, leaving our homes and belongings thinking our absence would be short lived. Our pets were cared for by neighbors, and some of us still wrote lesson plans so students could be taught during that time. And now we learned we would never go back, not even to say good bye.

While everybody tried to figure out what to do and how their decision would impact their lives we now were also concerned about all our belongings we left in our homes, our pets, our students, fellow teachers, schools, neighbors. We never had a chance to explain, tell them what they meant to us, and our Malawian friends and counterparts were grieving, too. They had lost as much as we had.

For all of us who decided to stay in Malawi it meant we would have to move to new locations. Will we have to start all over again with the process of integrating into a new village, finding new friends, creating trust? Absolutely. Will we need to learn new languages? For most of us, yes.

After the decision to not return to our sites and to move forward the process started for our trainers and supervisors to find new sites for us. We also started to learn new languages since Malawi has many tribal dialects. PC also collected all of our household belongings from our home all across the South and consolidated them in the parking lot of Head Quarters. And in between we still had long stretches of unstructured time in a large, hot, and dusty city. Some of us helped out in the embassy, some visited sites like Habitat for Humanity, a refugee camp, an animal rescue operation, helped with collecting data, organizing our living space, organizing little parties and get-togethers and more. But no matter how you looked at it, it was still a stressful time filled with waiting and the hope that our new sites would be ready for us and that we will be able to depart soon.

Six weeks, for some of us seven, is a very long time to stay put. But it also was necessary for us to go through the lengthy emotional processes that will enable us to let go of the old and fully embrace the new.

What have I learned during this time? I have learned to take life day by day. In the face of uncertainty, we must discipline our thoughts and emotions to focus on the very thing in front of our eyes. We must be flexible to follow and react to new developments as they present themselves. I have learned that emotional support by humans or animals is a big deal. Small gestures of understanding or empathy go a long way. I have learned that people grieve in their own way and time and how to respect that time for myself and others. And last but not least I have learned how the members of a large organization like Peace Corps can be efficient AND human. Huge logistical problems and complex situations, as well as high stress levels can be navigated without any signs of anger or hot temper. Maybe it is a sad account that I have never experienced this before, but I am so grateful that I got the chance to see this done, experience the calm strength that comes with confidence, respect, care, responsibility, and purpose. What a privilege. And I will pledge to take this experience forward into my life to the best of my ability.

 

 

Visiting Mzimba- Learning about work in the Environmental Sector

Peace Corps service allows for occasional cross-site visits with other volunteers if there is an educational or professional benefit. I recently was lucky enough to be granted such a visit which took me into the North of Malawi to the site of environmental volunteer Scott Tilton. Scott and I went through training together in Kasungu and share a few common interests. As we were talking I became interested in his environmental projects with community groups and students of a local secondary school.

Mzimba is about 4-5 hours north of the capital Lilongwe and it might as well be a foreign country because people here speak a different local language to the one I studied during training (Chichewa) called Chitimbuka. I was surprised how different the language is expecting only slight differences. However, to my relief people in the North seem to all know some Chichewa and most speak English rather fluently.

Thanks to Scott who introduced me to many people, including his counterpart, I had no problems feeling welcomed right away. An environmental volunteer’s work and schedule looks rather different to the one of an education volunteer. Projects are scheduled according to the local pace of the community and some of time is spent organizing, coordinating and conducting meetings with different entities.

During my visit I was lucky enough to meet with different community groups and 300 students of the local secondary school. I learned about permagardening, fence building, bee hive construction and placement, cook stove building, cooking demos to local food workers, and how to operate a tree nursery. I observed first-hand how local farmers organized to teach students their local skills in fence building and how materials and workers were transported from one location to the next.

Permagardening is a form of gardening that takes into consideration the large amounts of water that pour down during rainy season, traps them in the soil and makes them usable during the long dry spells in the months of hot season.

Fences in Malawi are often built out of sticks and corn stalks that have been left after harvest.

Tree nurseries have been a new-found interest by some Malawians and community groups since deforestation is a major reason for soil erosion, water shortages, and general changes in the ecosystem like loss of animal species. Malawians use mainly wood or charcoal to cook and illegal wood cutting is rampant. Planting trees is one way to mitigate the effects of deforestation and creating a renewable source of fire wood.

“Changa-changa-moto” cook stoves are build out of the local bricks and mud and are more fuel efficient than the traditional three stone fire places.

My favorite things to do here are riding a bicycle through the villages, helping to facilitate hands-on projects with the students, meeting community members, walking through my closest village late afternoon, having time to draw, hiking (and getting lost) in the nearby forest reserve, and eating Scott’s ever-so-delicious home cooked meals fresh from his fire place.

Three Hours at the Hospital

My tailor says: “Muli bwanji”, How are you? And I answer accordingly “Ndili bwino kaya inu?, I am well, how about you? We do our business and then he says: “You want an Xray, but no medication?” I am floored. He cannot possibly refer to my consultation with the hospital doctor that I barely left? Or can he?

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But let’s back up a little. A week ago I started to get sick, but was trying to ignore it since I had too many things to do. However, as these things go one usually does not have a choice in the matter. And so I became sicker and sicker. On Tuesday I was sent home by my principal so I could rest. At that point my voice was gone and I coughed all the time. Laryngitis and bronchitis are actually quite common in teachers and I had my fair share of them over the years. So I greeted the situation as an old, familiar friend. But now I am in Africa. Even familiar things don’t have to work out in familiar ways. Our Peace Corps (PC) medical team had given us an extensive medical kit for our field work knowing that not all of us can reach medical treatment once we are sick. The idea is that we call the Peace Corp doctor in the capital, he tells us what to take out of our box and keeps monitoring the situation in order to possibly change treatment or adjust the situation. And this is how it worked at this time as well. Except I couldn’t find any cough medicine. And the writing on some of the packages was so small that, even with my strongest glasses, I could not read what is in it.

Anyway, my cough (besides the general very sick feeling) became so bad that when I tried to return to work later this week I was sent home again. Without cough medicine there was no sleep. I begged he doctor to tell me what kind of medicine I could possibly hunt for in my village. He did. And I went to the local hospital, a privately run, Anglican hospital which I had visited before to introduce myself in case of an emergency.

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I knew exactly where to go, found the pharmacy and was instantly recognized by the two staff working the counter. They sent me to the reception. I handed over my note with the name of the possible drugs and the technician was on his way to find them.

He came back after a long time telling me that the hospital was out of this particular medication, but I could see a doctor so he could prescribe me something suitable. I texted my PC doctor and he says “yes, sounds good, just don’t let them give you antibiotics”. So I waited until I was called to enter the small consultation room with a doctor and an assistant. Of course, the doctor doesn’t know I just want cough medicine. He wants to do his own diagnostics. When I told him about the PC physician he also got a bit offended. I should have known. However, obviously in Africa doctors screen for a series of diseases that we are not normally come in contact with like Tb or HIV/AIDS. “Do you experience night sweats?” “Yes, of course, but this is most likely related to the currently very high temperatures. And have I ever been HIV tested before? Me: “Yes, of course.” The doctor: “And, what was the result?” In hindsight these are all very logical questions, but highly unusual for my ears. But in a country that still has a high percentage of it’s population infected with HIV, this is not unusual at all. I realize, he even gave me the VIP treatment since he just took my word for it. No Tb, no HIV. Simple. Now I only have to purchase a patient book where all consultations and treatments are registered.

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The doctor insisted on at least listening to my lungs as any good doctor would and in the end found some noise in the left lobe of my lung. Bingo. Here comes the prescription for antibiotics. I text my PC doctor telling him that now there is a suspicion of pneumonia, which he has to take seriously by law once the suspicion is voiced by an on-the-ground doctor. This changes everything. My PC doctor asks for me to get a chest X-ray to confirm the diagnosis. The hospital doctor is still annoyed and says that here they treat first and do the X-ray later in case the first treatment does not work…PC doctor: “What do you mean?” I am ready to just pay for everything and only take the cough syrup since nobody is supervising me on what I take and what I don’t. However, now it’s a legal issue and I have to take the antibiotics until I get the chest X-ray, and not just any antibiotics, but the ones issued by PC.

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The doctor wants me to take a taxi to the capital Lilongwe where I could get an X-ray at the PC office. We are talking about a 12-hour round trip. Then I remember that I have a phone number from a Dutch doctor working at the hospital. I text him and ask if he could work a miracle and arrange for me to get an X-ray. “Yes, of course. No problem”. However, the power had been out for 12 hours already and the generator is broken…

I promise to take my antibiotics and try the X-ray the next day. But if the power is not back on by 9am on Saturday I still will have to go to Lilongwe…

That is when I leave the hospital and stop at my tailor’s booth at the market.

My tailor says: “Muli bwanji”, How are you? And I answer accordingly “Ndili bwino kaya inu?, I am well, how about you? We do our business and then he says: “You want an X-ray, but no medication?” I am floored. He cannot possibly refer to my consultation with the hospital doctor that I barely left? Or can he?

News in the village travels fast.

The story ends with me getting an X-ray at the local hospital the next morning and a passing PC vehicle dropping off the precious cough medicine at my house since Malawi does not have cough suppressants, period. After looking at every possible angle I even understand why the doctor didn’t want to give me an X-ray. It is indeed very difficult to get one in a country where the power is only on for about 30% of the time.

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It is always impossible until its done

Only eighteen more hours until I depart to this amazing adventure called Peace Corps service in Malawi, Africa. It took me 11 months to prepare for this trip. And I cannot believe I actually still have time to write another entry.

Why does it take so long to get ready for service? I cannot speak for everybody, but in my case there were a lot of loose ends to tie up, many arrangements to be made, jobs to finish etc. But what about the details?

The application for Peace Corps service is the longest application process I have ever been through and the longest I have ever heard of. It starts with writing a letter of intent. I filled out a form and ask to be invited. I also pick the field of employment and three countries you want to be considered for. After that I sent in a resume, references, and aspiration statement. An interview was set up next where I already had to show familiarity with electronic communication tools. Well, I failed this test. Fortunately, the PC is all about being flexible. I had my interview via old-fashioned phone instead of business skype 🙂

After the interview I was told to wait for a response, which could take up to 4 months. After all, Peace Corps receives 17000 application each year for 4 to 5000 positions. During our conversation I was also assured that my references will not be called until much later in the process, so I felt safe to give up my principal’s address. Little did I know that I was invited within a couple of weeks which did not give me any time to notify my employer first, it being summer and all. Luckily my principal is was a good sport about it and I still love him for that.

Anyway, after I received the official invitation letter to serve in Malawi as an Education Volunteer I received a link to a Peace Corps portal. And that was when I got a first glimpse of how much work still awaited me. The portal was full of tasks all to be completed in a very specific time frame. Tasks ranged from security clearance to dedicating beneficiaries of the life insurance policy. Nothing was left to chance. I also had to re-write my initial statements and resume aligning it more with my now determined assignment.

The following months were filled with passport applications (yes, the PC has their own version of passport, which seriously confuses the passport agent at the local post office), finger printing, essay writing, picture taking, re-doing the passport application, going to doctors, dentists, labs, getting all vaccinations up-to-date which included getting re-vaccinated for childhood diseases I already had, filing paperwork, taking online courses, starting to learn the local language Chichewa, reading PC books and manuals, finding tenants for the house, dedicating someone for power-of attorney, writing my will, deciding that I want my ashes spread….well, you get the point.

I started the process in July 2016 and received my final clearance not until April 2017.

What an amazing marathon. And when I thought I finally could relax I started to look at packing lists. Yes, I bet you have not asked yourself the question yet how to survive on two suitcases worth of stuff in a culture you have no clue about and with the expectation to be professionally dressed for work every day.

In short, I spend several months shopping for things I had never used before like a kindle for example, or a solar charger since I will be living in a mud hut without water nor electricity. Yes, and after I felt good about all my purchases I tried to pack all that good stuff into my two bags. You can imagine the rest. I just survived the wildest packing orgy in my life and I already have moved to foreign countries twice before.

It is Sunday afternoon and I still have time to add this blog entry to my day. Unlikely, but true. And yes, I also had to learn how to create and maintain a blog and how to navigate a messenger group discussion with, I believe, 70 people chatting with each other in 4 or 5 different time zones.

Everything worked out in the end. I successfully completed my job, my second job, my medical and legal clearance tasks, my license renewal, my house, utilities, car, and tenant challenges, said good bye to all my friends and family (which included a trip to Germany), gave presentations about Malawi in two countries, packed my bags, beautified my yard and took the dogs on a last walk though the canyon.

Last year I had a to-do list of 4 double-sided pages hanging on my fridge. Today, the only note that is still around reads “don’t forget to take alarm clock”

Yes, it is always impossible until its done.

P.S. Next week I will be in Africa with no reliable internet connection. I will write again as soon as it will be possible…..until then, tiwonana (see you later)