Archive for July 2007

My work placements…

July 14, 2007

Make a habit of regularly observing the universal process of change: be assiduous in your attention to it and school yourself thoroughly in this branch of study: there is nothing more elevating to the mind.
– Marcus Aurelius
(INTRAC Occasional Papers Series No: 43 – Leaders Changing Inside-Out: What Causes Leaders to Change Behaviour? Cases from Malawian Civil Society by Rick James)

Nthawi apita!
(literally “time he/she goes”, just means time flies!)

Now that I have some more time on the Internet, all I can say is, ‘Wow!’

I cannot believe I’ve been in Malawi for over 9 weeks. Only 6 weeks left, and I’m definitely feeling a time squeeze. I haven’t even explained what I’m working on – which is largely because I needed until now to figure that out! But first, without further delay, here is some input on the answers to those proverbs and riddles.

For the riddle, “It is a house with a door that when you open, it is open, but when you close, it is never closed,” is…Mtedza (groundnut). You open a peanut shell and it is open forever. (I didn’t get the answer initially either, but it turns out they learn these riddles in school.)

“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”
This proverb tries to illustrate that when leaders quarrel with each other, it is the staff that suffer.

“Failure is an orphan, while success has many parents.”
This proverb just tries to incite people into teamwork.

I think everyone who responded decrypted the proverbs quite well. There isn’t a single answer however since it they are supposed to incite discussion.

And just to explain, the quote above by Marcus Aurelius caught me by surprise in a publication on leadership development – it is so poignantly instructive and highly relevant to my interests for the last few years, I couldn’t help but share it here.  The link to that specific paper is here.

But moving on…

I think the last time I wrote about work I was still immersed in the thick fog of overseas development ambiguity, but I’ve since settled into a relatively more predictable lifestyle and now I have much to discuss from placing myself in the context of two Malawian organizations. As I mentioned before, I’ve been partnered with clients of CADECO, and while I was originally slated to work with three, I’m so glad it was reduced to two.

The first organization I work with is Public Affairs Committee (PAC), which started as an informal association of religious leaders, pressure groups, lawyers, and businessmen in the movement from single-party dictatorship to multi-party democracy during 1992-1994. After the 1994 multi-party elections, PAC became composed solely of religious groups from many Christian and Muslim followings. PAC’s objective is to encourage religious bodies (which seems to be everyone save a minority Animist following) to promote democracy, development, peace, and unity in Malawi. They do this through civic education, advocacy, and mediation. For example, in 2002 and 2003, PAC was involved in countering Open term and Third term Constitutional Amendments. PAC’s civic education programs include voter education and training election monitors, while incorporating gender equality and HIV/AIDS messaging.

PAC is currently building up District (like a Province in Canada) level teams by appraising the capabilities of its current volunteer base. They are also looking to conduct an evaluation of their field activities to know to what extent they have met their objectives. So I am helping the PAC project implementers develop a Monitoring & Evaluation system largely from scratch.

PAC Volunteers

PAC Volunteers

The second organization I work with is Centre for Youth and Children Affairs (CEYCA), a NGO whose objective is to protect and promote the rights of children and young people in Malawi. It was established in 1995, about one year after Malawi transitioned from single-party dictatorship to multi-party democracy, and so CEYCA is guided by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which is embedded in the 1995 Constitution of Malawi. The problems CEYCA attempts to tackle are quite varied, but a constant is employing a Rights-based Approach. Among the issues are child sexual abuse, child trafficking, juvenile justice law, lack of adequate primary education services, secondary school violence, gender equality, and HIV/AIDS. CEYCA’s philosophy is that by tackling such issues, it paves the way for youth to participate in sustainable development of Malawi.

Many programmes in CEYCA are stagnant at the moment, so the only field work I have been part of is tackling secondary school violence with a Democracy Education & Youth Leadership project – and I’ve seen the staff in action only twice. The project brings together existing and emerging Democracy club leaders from various secondary schools for training in and discussion about the principles of democracy, participation, youth leadership, and club management. The idea is then for these leaders to share their knowledge and understanding with the rest of the Democracy club (-or create one), which will then continue into the community.

Group discussion in CEYCA training

Group training

Student presentation

Having a little fun!

Student action plan for clubs

If nothing else, it’s a lifetime opportunity for the participants as they have a venue to voice issues like headteachers (school principles) abusing female students, corruption among headteachers or fellow students delegated as liaisons to administration, and cases where students vandalize school property in response to those issues or misunderstanding decisions by school authorities. For myself, I jumped at the chance to mingle with the future entrepreneurs, lawyers, journalists, teachers, doctors, and nurses as they put it.

But since participating in the training, I’ve been wrestling with the relevancy and effectiveness of a Rights-based Approach. Youth may know their rights/freedoms, duties and responsibilities under the law, but it begs the question, “So what?”

I think to provide an example for us to sink our teeth into, and one I’m also failing to fully grasp, let’s look at the provision of free primary education by upholding the right to education. In 1994, Malawi adopted a national policy of free primary education, which resulted in a tripling of national enrolment, thus a drop in quality of education, along with all those same issues I mentioned before: hidden fees which exclude some children, poor infrastructure, lack of (qualified) teachers, etc. While these issues, among many others, are devastating, I question the value of education as an end in itself, which a Rights-based Approach promotes.

One major benefit of education, some would argue, is that it can be linked to decreasing HIV/AIDS rates, which unfortunately is too prevalent in Malawi. Literacy and basic knowledge pave the way for more development, and at the individual level, may add to one’s wellbeing.

While I’ve certainly oversimplified the above picture to the point where Mona Lisa is a stick figure, a question on my mind is what happens after primary education? To attend secondary school, one must have enough money to pay for the fees. This has driven Christoph from the village to work in my host family’s house. While he has his “basic needs” of shelter, food, etc., in my eyes he is a servant. So what are the implications of wellbeing in the end? I find it really difficult to know because of my weak Chichewa, yet in spite of that, there are so many barriers to understanding the quality of change that occurred.

Even if one manages to complete secondary school, unemployment in Lilongwe and Malawi in general is very high. So I wonder how realistic it is for the secondary school students to actually become practicing entrepreneurs, lawyers, journalists, teachers, doctors, and nurses. Chipie recently completed his accounting diploma, so I’m curious what that market is like – from what I hear, the best positions are in the NGO sector. Many college graduates with diplomas or degrees, including Ester, are becoming teachers since there is no other work. It’s difficult to have bigger picture empirical evidence of specific job opportunities, but I’m looking for ways to get an idea of the demand for such jobs.

Regardless, I’m told by many people my age that many Malawians just stay at home in Lilongwe, and in the case of youth, they choose to spend time with girlfriends or boyfriends. This is somewhat culturally stigmatized and attributed to spreading HIV/AIDS, which if true just negated the argument that primary school education prevents the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Again I’m working on building a truer picture of the situation but thinking through it has ushered in many more questions. For instance, what if something similar happened in education as to agricultural development NGOs, where they previously solely worked on the production/supply side, but now also with the market/demand side placing emphasis on a full value-chain intervention. Is this a case for strategically targeting private sector development to create demand for education?

I have neither academic nor empirical evidence to build that case farther than posing the question, so I’m definitely curious about your opinions! I haven’t touched on the point that government, which provides free education, will get tax revenue from private sector. In engineering fashion, I’m sure there are advantages and disadvantages to weigh. I’d love any comments, questions, suggestions – they’d all help me probe deeper into the issue.

Until next time!



Team Malawi JF retreat

July 12, 2007

While I was online, I thought I’d mention I just recently returned from Senga Bay which is off beautiful Lake Malawi. It was the Engineers Without Borders JF Retreat where I got to catch up with all the fellow Malawi volunteers and EWB staff. Besides having some teambuilding, experience sharing, and action planning sessions, it was just an awesome time to relax from the rush of work, play some beach volleyball, and enjoy the lake (almost came close to a 7-person human pyramid – so I can say I’ve also drank the lake…quite a bit actually). Here’s a few pictures…hopefully I’ll post more after fellow JF’s share their photos with me (I didn’t whip out the camera too often). By Saturday, I should have more time to explain my work!

Lake Malawi


JF Sessions

Bottle cap blues

July 12, 2007

Zaboh! (Popular youth greeting here in Lilongwe)

I just had a few extra minutes to be on the Internet here since some meetings were implicitly cancelled, so I wanted to share an amusing experience…

The other week I had a chance to meet Ester, who is the sister to my host father, Leonard.


Ester is studying agribusiness (agriculture, economics/markets) at a college just outside of Lilongwe, but lives in Blantyre, and so only visits the family occasionally. To paint more of the ensuing scene, Lilongwe is on a somewhat scheduled, but still quite arbitrary, rotating blackout scheme as the power distribution system is being upgraded for the first time in over a decade. So when the lights go, I usually find my way to the charcoal cooking stove for warmth since it commonly drops to single digits on the Celsius temperature scale. The night when Ester was around, she decided to introduce me to a board game Malawians like to play. I quickly appreciated that when you want to play a board game, you not only get to play, but you get to build the board as well 🙂 So Rod finds a piece of cardboard and using a knife cuts out a 30cm x 30cm square (approximately). The board evolves with Rod and Ester drawing diagonal, horizontal, and vertical lines. Cathy runs off and returns with handfuls of used bottle caps. Until at last the pieces come together to form a familiar game of Checkers!!


I was super excited, and my teeth shined through a big arrogant smile.

Going back a step…Another popular game is Bao, which some of you might already be familiar with. It’s a counting type game, but Malawians play it so fast I could hardly keep up when I joined a game, let alone trying to learn the strategies by observation. So when I saw a familiar game of Checkers, I was just like, ‘Alright! This is my time to taste some sweet revenge and win for a change!’

So I assure Rod and Ester I know what I’m doing, still struggling to hide my arrogant smile, and make my first move.

But things just go downhill from there…

First, I realize the game is actually called Draft…which I made the mistake of disregarding presuming Malawians simply call it by a different name – pretty common for other familiar items (is Draft in Canada? I was so blinded by my chance at revenge I didn’t clue in). Second, I was totally dumbfounded when my bottle cap was eaten by Ester moving a non-king bottle cap backwards! I just blankly stared at the board, unsure if Ester was trying to trick me, or if it was a legitimate move…I eventually accepted it although that happened a couple times before I learned my lesson to rebuke in kind. But finally, I lost all hope when Ester moved her king diagonally across the entire board to eat one of my bottle caps. By that time, my side was terribly weak and I opted for a hurried defeat. I picked up the pieces and/or my shattered pride and tried another round, but still no luck.

You think you know the rules of the game until you lose another bottle cap. As they say in Malawi, “That’s life!”