Daniel Gillis's blog
After more than 24 hours of travel spanning four flights, and covering four countries, four time zones, and three continents, I arrived safely at home Saturday morning. I was tired, desperately in need of a shower, and torn between which need I’d address first. As I dropped my bags inside the door of my condo, it became very clear from the wee fuzzball pawing at my pant leg and purring furiously that my first priority involved some much-needed snuggles.
Home. My home. Even though I wasn’t prepared to leave Malawi, it was nice to be home. Nice to spend the afternoon lounging with Elliot purring next to me. Nice to stretch out on my bed after spending more than 17 hours on one plane.
After an extended belly scratching and snuggles, I eventually started the process of unpacking, doing laundry, checking the mail, and all the other things that signaled to me that my life back in Guelph had resumed from where it had left off over four weeks ago. And despite the combination of exhaustion that comes from travel, and the jet lag associated with traveling back in time through at least seven time zones (as is my understanding of the space-time continuum), it felt good to carry on with these every day tasks at home.
As I was enjoying the mundane and not-so-mentally-taxing activities that made up the bulk of my Saturday, I pondered how easy it seemed for me to fall back into my Guelph life full of kitty-related things, bills, making plans to meet up with friends, laundry, bed-making, and cleaning up the kitchen.
It was while I was cleaning up the kitchen that I opted to reward myself with some freshly brewed coffee direct from Malawi. As I reached to fill the kettle two things struck me. The first – I didn’t have to worry about the water that was coming out of my tap. Assuming all regulations had been followed and barring any unforeseen freak contamination, the water was safe to drink. I didn’t have to boil it to drink it. The second – I didn’t even question if I’d have enough power for the water to boil. More than that, I had both running water and electricity in abundance and at my fingertips.
These thoughts made me stop for a brief moment to think about the things that I take for granted every single day, the things that I just assume are going to function, and the things that I am typically warned about when they aren’t going to be available for a short period due to maintenance in the condo. Things that people in Malawi don’t experience in the same way.
And then I looked around my condo. To my left sat my french press full of freshly ground coffee waiting patiently for the water that boiled in the kettle to my right. Across the room I had turned up the volume of a show that I streamed on NetFlix using an app on my iPhone to louder-than-normal levels; an attempt to drown out the noise of my refrigerator that was cooling the condiments and pickles that defined perfectly my summer-of-travel food stores. And I was suddenly overcome with a sense of abundance, and a realization of not just taking things for granted, but having lost a sense of the wonder of our modern day conveniences.
And the day continued like this. I would begin some trivial task only to experience a brief moment where I realized what I don’t have to worry about in the day-to-day that is my life in Guelph, a brief pause where I would suddenly realize how quickly and easily I’ve lost the sense of wonder that surrounds me. I should be awed by the fact that I have infinite access to the sum of all human knowledge in a device that I can hold in my hands and carry with me almost anywhere1. I should be amazed that I can turn a tap and clean water just appears. I should be marveling at the fact that I can create ice during the hottest months of the summer. But for whatever reason, we have this amazing ability to turn the extraordinary into the ordinary and the boring, the just given and the expectation.
I don’t know that this is good or bad. I’m sure there’s probably some evolutionary purpose for not being constantly in awe of the things we see every day. Perhaps it allows us to process the rest of the world around us, or to ask new questions that haven’t been answered. But still, I think it’s good to stop and take note of the ordinary, to see the extraordinary in the everyday. Because some times there’s beauty and magic staring us right in the face, but we’re too busy to see it.
1In reality I find I’m more often than not frustrated with that silly little device because it isn’t fast enough, or because I have run out of memory to take another photo because it currently holds over 700, as well as several albums, and an entire collection of books. Nope – nothing amazing about that silly little thing at all.
Originally Posted Here
So here it is, my final day in Malawi. In a few short hours (1:40pm Friday afternoon, to be precise) I'll be boarding the first of several glorified shiny lawn darts that will be launched through the air taking me away from Lilongwe, through Blantyre, Addis Ababa, Dublin, and finally Toronto on my long journey home to Guelph. If all goes according to my very detailed airline itinerary, I should be touching down in Toronto at 8:30am Saturday morning, meaning I should be at the door of my condo roughly around 10am or so.
While I'll be excited to spend my very short return to Guelph snuggling with the wee fuzzball and catching up with friends, I'm struggling with the fact that I'm leaving. As I wrote in my last post, I don't feel like I've done enough yet. But it's actually more than just that - and I'm really struggling to put it into words. The best I can say is that I've got this feeling in my gut that I'm not finished here; that I'm leaving for now, but that I have to and will come back.
And it's more than just wanderlust and my desire to adventure. It's that something here is pulling at me, pick-pick-picking at me from some part of my brain that I haven't yet been able to shine a light on, leaving me with this incredible gnawing feeling of incompleteness. It's as if there's this urgent hollowness that seems to grow in the pit of my gut as the minute and hour hands of the clock race towards the moment when I'll see the red soil of Malawi fall far below me, and the places and people I've met here will blend together to form a beautiful patchwork of farmland and villages; a simplified and aggregated memory of the experiences I've had while I've been here.
The best I can figure is that this all stems from the incredible richness and variety of the moments that have made my time here so incredible. I've talked of the incredible beauty of the country - the land, the burnt red soil, and the incredible and seemingly endless vistas that stretched out before me as we drove to a weekend getaway. I've already written about the spirit that seems to embody and define the people of Malawi, and I've mentioned on numerous occasions the people who I've met who have inspired me with their incredible hearts, their charm, and their openness to the world and how they might make it better. And it seems that these things have created a near perfect storm - a too perfect mix of all the right ingredients at just the right time - and it's almost overwhelming.
But tied to this is an incredible sense of urgency, one that I'm sad to say I had never heard of at home. I don't know if that's because the story wasn't newsworthy, or if perhaps I was distracted by any number of things happening around me, but I can't help but feel that I should have known better before I arrived here about the state of food security in Malawi. And this feeling is only intensified given that food security has become such a major part of my day-to-day since my students began the long journey towards developing the Farm To Fork program.
The fact is that Malawi has a population of roughly 16.4 million people. Last year, as a direct result of climate change, extreme weather, and changing weather patterns, combined with a lack of infrastructure common to developing nations, roughly 1.2 million people were going hungry and needed assistance. As stunned as I was to learn that fact, it paled in comparison to what I learned about the situation this year. Six point four million.
Let that number sink in.
Six point four million people, in a country of 16.4 million. That's pushing 40% of the population going hungry. What makes this so intensely worse is that Malawi is full of rich farmland - land that could and should be used to feed the country, but also generate income for its people. It has water to irrigate the crops. It has an incredibly resilient people to grow and tend to the crops. And yet that number - 6.4 million - still rips through my heart and my mind. The impending food crisis in Malawi is not something that should be happening - it goes against logic. And it's something that could be fixed - not by handing out food (although in the short term that is exactly what will be needed) - but by building the infrastructure and capacity of the people who live here and go to school here and work here.
And so as I leave here, I do so feeling that I'm leaving at the very time I should be staying to help. And it's not that I think that I will somehow fix things. It's just that I have this sense that I have to help; that I have to do whatever is in my power to make things better. And maybe this is the ultimate source of the urgent hollowness I feel.
Don't get me wrong, I'm leaving Malawi feeling privileged for this experience. I'm leaving with a sense that I've done the job I was intended to do. And I'm leaving with an overwhelmingly abundant supply of beautiful memories of laughter and new friends. But I'm also leaving knowing that I have much more work to do.
Farewell for now Malawi, but know that somehow I'll find my way back to the Warm Heart of Africa.
Originally Published Here
Today and tomorrow – that’s all that remains of my Leave For Change mandate with the Agricultural Research and Extension Trust (ARET) of Malawi. Two working days with which to finalize a set of deliverables, including a final report full of recommendations and ideas for partnerships that is intended to provide a path towards a long term program for effective data management, community outreach, education, and extension. Two working days to complete the various reports and exit documentation for World University Service of Canada (WUSC). And of course, two working days with which to say farewell – but not necessarily goodbye – to the amazing people I’ve had the opportunity to work with for the past four weeks, and the incredible friends I’ve made along the way.
It’s going to be a very full two days.
It’s a little hard to believe that four weeks have flown by so quickly. I’m sure that as I board the plane on Friday I’ll be feeling as if I had just stepped off the plane, blinked, and turned around to head back home. But despite the seemingly impossible bending of space-time that connects the beginnings and the endings of remarkable experiences, I know that in the space between I’ve collected countless memories, satisfied childhood dreams, added new and amazingly brilliant people to the list of people I call friends, and hopefully helped in some small way to build the resiliency and capacity of an incredible country and deeply beautiful people.
The more I sit and reflect on this experience, the more I am impressed and inspired by Malawi and its people. Although the country is listed as one of the poorest in the world, and given the very real challenges that the country faces in light of climate change, food security, and insufficient infrastructure (to name a few), the people carry on every day with huge smiles. They speak about the beauty of Malawi from a place rooted deep inside, and in a way that tells me that they will not simply manage adversity, they will triumph over it. The spirit here is incredibly strong, and it’s impossibly inspiring.
Malawi is indeed the Warm Heart of Africa. It’s evident in the burnt red soil, and in the brilliant red and pink and orange sunrises and sunsets. But more than that, much more than that, the Warm Heart of Africa is a badge of honour, an attitude and way of life that is evident in the smiling faces of every single person I meet here, in their unreserved hellos and good mornings or good evenings whenever I pass by. It’s in their hospitality and their desire to share their culture and language unashamedly and freely. This attitude seems to radiate from within them regardless of what they are doing or what their current lot in life, and it’s at once both heartbreaking and beautiful. It’s heartbreaking because the challenges they deal with every day could easily be solved if we spent more time caring about our fellow human beings than what any random celebrity is wearing, but it’s also incredibly beautiful because it speaks of a strength and resiliency and purpose that I hope to carry with me when I leave Malawi.
Ultimately as I spend my last few days finalizing paperwork and putting the final touches on deliverables, I feel that I’ve cheated the system. WUSC sent me here with a mandate to work with ARET, to teach skills that would build capacity and resiliency in the organization so they could more effectively do the important work they do with and for the farmers of Malawi. But after four short weeks I feel that I’m about to leave here having learned far more than I’ve managed to teach, having shared in experiences that I would never get to experience at home, and having been reminded of the things that I take for granted on a minute-by-minute basis back home. I have gained so much from this trip that it seems for me to leave now is unfair, that I haven’t done enough with my time here. Malawi has given me far more than I feel I could ever give it in return, and for that I’m eternally grateful.
I will miss this place but I know I’ll return. And in the time between then and now, I’ll do my best to keep the Warm Heart of Africa alive as I go about my day-to-day life.
Thursday night was Jon's last night in Malawi. To celebrate, we decided to head to a local sports bar for food and beverages. It was the typical band of misfits - Justeen, Jon, Dylan, and me - but we were also joined by Dylan and Justeen's friend Emma (who was in town on a visit from Cape Town), and the Other Canadians, Donovan, Chloe, Steph, Kacey, and Tom. Apart from us, and the few employees that worked there, the bar was empty. Of course, this didn't stop us from having a good night. Between pool, foosball, food, and beer, there was a substantial amount of laughter, stories about times abroad, stories of home, and even more stories about shenanigans.
Friday night was more of the same, and then some. I joined the same band of misfits, minus Jon, on an adventure to several of the local clubs. Again, the night was filled with laughter and stories, but this time accompanied by a hookah or two. Of course, given that I've had a constant cough since before I left Spain in mid-June, and since I'm not really a fan of smoke, I opted to stick solely with beer. I think this was a wise decision because when I woke the next morning my lungs, eyes, and sinuses were not terribly happy (thank you second-hand smoke). Regardless, it was a small price to pay for such a fun night with such a great crew.
Of course, this was only the beginning of the weekend. When I woke up Saturday I knew I had to get myself sorted as I'd accepted an invitation from Justeen to head to the beach with her, Dylan, and Emma. I can't remember if she asked me about this on Thursday or Friday because my memory is terrible, but given how much fun our previous adventures had been, I immediately said yes. And so, after carefully extracting the remnants of myself from bed, I set off after showering to fill my belly with all the coffee in the world and a dash or two of food. With that accomplished and feeling somewhat more human, I grabbed what I thought I'd need for the trip. Given that we were heading to the beach, I grabbed an extra pair of shorts, an extra shirt, and a towel.
Team-beach picked me up not long after I'd finished breakfast and packing. I threw my bag in the trunk and jumped in the car next to Steph - who was hitching a ride with Dylan back to Salima where she has been living this summer. We stopped for cash, and then headed to a market for food and souvenirs, and then were on the road. It was around the time that we stopped for cash that I asked Dylan and Justeen exactly what the plans were. This was also the time that I learned that Dylan had already booked our accommodations and we'd be gone for the weekend. For the record - Justeen may have told me this - but I have no memory of it. That's not her fault, I'm really just that much of a twit.
You don't have enough clothes. You don't have a toothbrush. You left your computer and iPad behind and you were going to work on your presentation and report for your community partner ARET. You don't have deodorant. You don't have ANYTHING!
These were all thoughts that immediately flashed through my mind. But just as quickly as they arrived I decided to sweep them away. I was about to spend yet another weekend with some pretty spectacular people in a beautiful country at an incredibly breathtaking lake. My enjoyment was not going to be guaranteed by a toothbrush, or a change of clothes, and it definitely wouldn't have been guaranteed by working on a presentation or a report all weekend. What would bring me joy would be to spend another weekend sharing food, stories, and laughter with Dylan and Justeen, and their friend Emma.
And with that, I gave myself over to the weekend and whatever it would bring. And as with most decisions like this that I've made in my life, it was absolutely the best thing I could have done. The weekend was amazing. The lake was gorgeous, and the sunsets were stunning. We shared the pool and our patio with a group of baboons. I soaked up the sun while I watched transfixed as a stream of ants worked tirelessly around me (taking the time to rescue several that had fallen in the pool). I thought about everything, and I thought about nothing, and I completely lost myself for short moments that felt like an eternity as I inhaled the beauty and tranquility around me. But most importantly, I spent the weekend with some truly remarkable people.
It’s hard to believe that my time in Malawi is coming to an end and that I’ll begin my long journey home on Friday. This week will be my last in Lilongwe, which means my time working with the Agricultural Research and Extension Trust is also coming to an end – at least in the sense that I will no longer be working in their offices, and seeing the ARET staff on a daily basis.
However, I don’t think this is the end of the story. That is, I have a strong feeling that I will be back, and even more that I’ll continue working with ARET. To say that the country has captured my attention and imagination is an understatement. More than that, the work that I’ve been doing with ARET so closely aligns with my various research programs and interests, that it would be foolish to ignore the many opportunities and collaborations that are available here.
Last week I spent several days at the Malawi Forum for Agricultural Advisory Services conference (MaFAAS). The intent was to get a better sense of the status of agriculture in Malawi, most specifically the various extension services offered, the technologies used, challenges faced, and potential opportunities. While I managed to capture all of the information I needed, the MaFAAS offered so much more. It was a chance to meet the people who are actively working to develop and improve the resiliency and capacity of the country. The discussions and presentations were all quite inspiring, and I found myself mentally preparing a research program that could tie together several elements of what I learned.
Over the weekend I had the opportunity to sit and think about what I’d learned and how this might fit in to the broader vision that I presented to the folks at ARET today. This included recommendations focused on the development of what I think are several key partnerships, outreach activities within the local community, necessary technologies (both old and new) to strengthen and improve extension services, and a directed social media campaign, to name a few.
While sitting and pondering how I could and should integrate what I’d learned at MaFAAS, I was struck by just how perfect this partnership has been. It pulls together my interests in computer science and community engaged scholarship, transdisciplinary studies, alternative data collection methods, public health risk assessment, food security, and statistics. I can honestly say that I wasn’t expecting that when I applied to the Leave For Change program, and I definitely didn’t expect it when I received my mandate with ARET.
Leaving here on Friday is going to be tough, but I know that I won’t be gone forever. The Warm Heart of Africa is too incredible to only visit once.
Originally Posted Here
After an incredible Saturday in paradise, I awoke Sunday morning to experience another beautiful day in the paradise that was Mayoka Village. As was the day before, I opted to enjoy the morning light from the security of my bed while Dylan, Jon, and Justeen continued to sleep. Eventually the need to indulge my coffee-loving-self became too strong and I was forced to get out of bed. This may or may not have been encouraged by the movement of my bunk mates who were also hearing the siren call of breakfast. We each showered, made ourselves as presentable as necessary, and sauntered over to another delicious breakfast overlooking Lake Malawi. This morning, however, we wouldn’t be entertained by the local group of monkeys who’d played around our cabin or who’d casually approached us as we ate the previous morning. I guess Sunday was their day off.
We spent the rest of the morning and early part of the afternoon enjoying the views. Dylan and Justeen kayaked to a nearby beach, Jon caught up on some work for his Leave For Change partner organization, and I sat on a rock watching the water while lost in thoughts and people watching. Two guys swam out to lounge in the sun with two girls who’d already made their way to a floating pier. Two other twenty-something women battled with balance as they paddle-boarded around the water. A slight twenty-something guy snorkled by several times, seemingly searching for something but having very little success at finding it, while his buddy sun bathed on a nearby rock. A couple of yanks sat near the water’s edge enjoying a cigarette. A family – mom, dad, and four young kids – canoed by, and every now and then one of the kids would fearlessly and expertly dive into the water before climbing back on board in a way that suggested they’d lived their life in and on the water. It was a moment meant for sitting around doing nothing but watching as each of these scenes played out around me. It was perfect.
By late afternoon, however, we packed our gear up and began the long trek back to Lilongwe. We made a short stop when we reached Mzuzu – for cash, for fuel, and for coffee – but were otherwise on our way south by 5pm. Dylan navigated the pot-holed and dilapidated road while we watched the countryside fly by. The sun was already low on the horizon, so I sat and marvelled as the sky changed from blue to pink and orange and brilliant red. African sunsets are like no other I’ve ever seen. The sun somehow seems much larger here, the shadows it casts much longer and more stately. The sky burns with colours that seem to reflect the burnt red earth that is the lifeblood of the animals and people who call this place home. We stopped along the road so we could get a better view as the sun descended beyond the horizon. It was beautiful and peaceful and perfect. Again, I was struck with an intense sense of gratitude that I could be in this place, at this time, with the band of incredible misfits I was with.
The rest of the journey home was marked with baboons grazing along the roadside, several police stops, and village after village still alive with vendors and people casually sauntering to or from home or church. As daylight surrendered to darkness, I settled back in my seat and closed my eyes.
We approached Lilongwe around 8:30pm or so. The roads were pitch black, and oncoming traffic – although few in numbers – blinded me consistently enough that I pretty much had no idea where we were. We barreled along, chatting, laughing and singing along to whatever tunes were playing, a great distraction from the anxiety that the combination of lack of vision and night driving tends to cause me. Dylan managed to somehow keep us on the road despite potholes and questionable shoulders, and a significant lack of light. I really have no idea how he saw anything. Cresting a hill just as we were about to enter Lilongwe, a herd of goats were suddenly directly in front of us, lit up by the car’s headlights. Dylan slammed on the brakes as the herd instinctively started running. Swerving as best he could, two goats seemed destined for an untimely and very painful death. In an instant they darted forward as Dylan continued pressing the brakes. They looked as if they were going to be swallowed by the hood of the car. How they managed to survive unscathed, I’ll never know. What I did know is that they were extremely lucky, and so were we. We drove on, laughing at what had just transpired, but also very thankful that we were able to laugh at it at all.
After dropping us off and saying our goodbyes, Dylan and Justeen were off. Jon and I chatted briefly, but it was very clear we were both looking forward to stretching out for the rest of the eve. The trip home had been long, but it was very full. I crawled into bed that night, tired, happy, grateful, and extremely content.
-~-~-~-~-~-~-~ Originally Posted Here ~-~-~-~-~-~-
I awoke Saturday morning feeling incredibly refreshed. I didn't immediately bound out of bed, however. Instead, I stretched and yawned and enjoyed the comfort of the lower bunk as Dylan lay sleeping a few feet above me. Given the lack of movement in the cottage, I assumed that both Justeen and Jon were sound asleep in their respective beds. From my vantage point, I could see the canopy of leaves just outside my window. The sun was just beginning to rise over Lake Malawi, and its rays were filtering through the trees, filling the room with a soft morning light. I sunk a little deeper into my bed, enjoying the fact that I had no reason to move save for filling my belly with what Dylan had promised would be a most delicious breakfast and coffee.
He wasn't wrong. Breakfast indeed was fantastic, but the coffee was outstanding. I drank a pot meant for two all by myself, and probably would have had more if not for the fact that we had plans to hike to a local secluded beach. Fortunately I knew I'd be back the next morning for more of the tasty bean.
After filling our bellies, filling our water bottles, packing appropriate beach attire, and ordering food to go (so that we had something to eat once we arrived at our destination), we started a hike to a secluded beach that Dylan had been to previously. The trek may have taken an hour or two - I honestly don't recall as I was too busy taking in the scenery or laughing with the crew.
The hike took us by a local school and through a tiny village where kids both played and helped with chores. As we passed by, many of them came by to smile and wave, some asking What's my name? Others asked for our empty water bottles so that they could return them for a few Malawian kwacha. After handing my bottle to one particular little girl, she then asked if she could have my glasses. I politely said no because I needed them to see, before noticing a rather mischevious smile on her face.
Before long we'd made our way to the beach. In front of us were a white sand beach and plenty of open water. To the left was a collection of small fishing boats. Several fishers worked nearby, tending to nets and other chores while also watching a collection of kids that seemed to range in age from 7 up to 12. Initially, the kids continued to play with each other, but soon our presence was noted. One by one they began approaching.
The first little boy who decided to sneak up did so as we sat enjoying lunch on the beach. He made a few faces at me, mimicking the things I'd do. If I raised an eyebrow, he did the same. If I looked surprised, he'd giggle a bit and repeat the expression. He then crept along the sand - innocently stopping in place, huge smile on his face, whenever I happened to look his way - until he was next to me. Finding a twig, he stuck it in the ground and built up a wall of supporting sand around it. I watched, not really sure what he was doing. When he knew he had my attention, he decided to sweep some of the supporting sand out of the way. He looked at me, somehow intuiting that 1) we were playing a make-shift Jenga game, 2) it was my turn, and 3) clearly I needed to sweep away some of the sand on my side without causing the twig to fall over. Slowly, turn by turn, we each swept away a little more sand until a winner was decided, and then we played again.
After the second game I lifted my head to notice that most of the other kids had gathered around. One boy sat next to me and smoothed out a patch of sand. On this he drew a square that was then bisected vertically, horizontally, and in both directions diagonally; the resulting intersections creating 9 playing spaces. He handed me three stones, and broke a small twig in three. Each taking turns, we dropped our pieces onto one of the playing spaces. Once the pieces were placed, we began to move them one at a time to playing spaces that were both open and connected to the space that was occupied by the piece we wanted to move. The goal was to create a solid line of pieces while simultaneously preventing my opponent from doing the same. More of the kids gathered round as I battled it out with one after the other. Somehow I managed to hold my own, but I think that's because many of the kids would offer advice whenever it was my turn.
At some point after playing what seemed like 1000 rounds of their game, I learned that the favourite class of some of the boys was mathematics. Obviously the giant nerd in me couldn't let this go. I began by asking them some simple multiplication questions - 3 x 5, and 2 x 4 - which they easily and very promptly answered. When I pressed with more challenging questions - 9 x 8, or 9 x 11 - they began to slow their responses and struggle with accuracy. To help them out, I decided to show them some tricks. This included a simple way to remember the 9 times table (whereby the digits of 9 times any integer add up to nine or a multiple of 9 - e.g. 7 x 9 = 63, and 6+3 = 9, 14 x 9 = 126, and 1 + 2 + 6 = 9), which seemed to blow their collective minds. I also demonstrated a way to multiply two digit numbers together using sticks - which posed a bit of a challenge because I had to draw the sticks in the sand, and the sand was not the best surface to work with. Regardless, they seemed super excited about these tricks. Who am I kidding, I was geeking out as well.
Feeling rather content and just a little sun-kissed, we made our way back to our cottage. Along the way I couldn't help but giggle a little at what I'd just experienced. Who'd have thought that I'd have such a captive audience on a beach in Malawi while teaching math? Who'd have thought I'd be teaching math in Malawi at all? Beyond the beauty of Mayoka Village, beyond the incredible views of Lake Malawi, and beyond the breathtaking sunsets, this place was my own little paradise because it let me get my math on. What more could I ask for?
Originally Posted Here
As part of my mandate with the Agricultural Research & Extension Trust (ARET), I’m in Malawi to help build capacity in the domain of data management for knowledge mobilization purposes. This means I’ve spent the week trying to understand the short, medium, and long-term goals of the organization, and chatting with my office mate, Maurice to make sure I’m on track.
But working with ARET is only one part of the story. As a Leave For Change volunteer we are expected to contribute positively as much as we can to build capacity and resiliency inside and outside our partner organizations in any way that we can. Sometimes that means working on things that step a little beyond our mandates1. But it also means getting out into the community and experiencing Malawi.
Two weekends ago that meant I jumped in a car with Dylan, Jon, Sarina, and Justeen so we could make our way to Liwonde Safari Camp, south of Lilongwe, to pay a friendly visit to the human and non-human locals who lived there. To quote Dylan, I was a “Happy Chappie”. And since we got on so well, we decided the adventure couldn’t end with just one weekend. So Friday morning we decided to load up the car again2 and head to Mayoka Village on Lake Malawi.
The road to Mayoka village was simple; head north on M1 until hitting Mzuzu. After that, we basically just followed the signs as we made our way east towards the lake. Along the way, we stopped when necessary to stretch our legs and to take a few moments to take in the scenery. The landscape was not like that which I experienced on the way south to Liwonde; while both were incredibly beautiful, the northern landscapes were significantly different.
As we wound our way around and over the hills of the African countryside, the vegetation transitioned from a much drier climate to one that was lusher. The trees were fuller and taller, and although the soil was still dusty and the beautiful rich red colour I’ve come to expect, there were fewer open patches because the bulk of the ground seemed to be covered by plants. The hills were blanketed by a canopy of trees that eventually transitioned into conifers. This came as a huge surprise to me, as I wasn’t expecting to see coniferous trees in Africa.
As we drove on, I often found my mind drifting off as I kept questioning whether or not this was actually something I was experiencing, or whether I was simply dreaming. I stared out the window and couldn't stop myself from smiling. The breeze blowing in the car, the smells in the air, the music on the radio - all created a surreal experience that had me feeling like I was in my own music video. The only thing that would snap me back to reality were the people in the car with me; and typically because something was said that had us all laughing.
After about 5 hours of driving, we arrived in Mayoka Village. Our home for the weekend was more than I could have expected. For $15 US per night (per person) we found ourselves in a tiny blue cottage with two queen sized beds and one bunk bed spread over two rooms that were separated by a full bathroom. As if that weren't enough, we had a second shower outside, just around the corner from our patio. Through the trees (which provided ample shade for the cottage, and a playground for monkeys in the morning), we could see the lake down below. Several other cottages lined the path.
The water was clear and cool and perfectly refreshing. The skies were free of all but the distant hint of clouds and the heat from the sun was at a perfect not-too-hot level. As I soaked in the rays of the sun and looked out over the lake, I couldn't help but think we'd found a small slice of paradise in Mayoka Village. More than that, I couldn't help but smile at the fact that I had the entire weekend to soak in this place, and some rather excellent company with whom I could enjoy it.
Originally Posted Here
1 For example, while I’m developing an overall framework for the data management needs of ARET, I’m also going to help work with the communications team to develop a social media campaign. This isn’t exactly part of the data management mandate, but it does fit nicely with their efforts to strengthen and improve their extension efforts.
2 This time sadly without Sarina who had to stay behind because of work.
If I had planned better, I would have given each of my Safari posts a clever name beyond the very creative Safari I, Safari II, and Safari III. I say this now only because as I sit down to describe my final day of Safari (which was several days ago now), I am hit with this incredible desire to title this post In Search Of House Hippos. However, that wouldn't be consistent with the theme (as boring as it is) so I've opted to just stick with it.
Our last day of Safari began a little later than the last, although earlier than it needed to as I misunderstood when we were to start, and as such set the alarm 30 minutes early. Sorry Safari gang, I apparently don't do time very well.
Anyway, after a quick drive close to the water's edge we boarded our craft and set out on adventure along the Shire river. The sky was somewhat grey, but this didn't change the fact that it was a beautiful morning with very little wind, and just the right temperature. Several women dotted the shore in brightly coloured garments. A few fished while the others seemed responsible for cleaning whatever was caught. Several fishers sat comfortably in one person boats that I assume were carved from the branches or trunk of some local tree. I peered over the edge of our boat in an attempt to spot some fish or perhaps a lumbering underwater hippo, or maybe even a sneaky crocodile looking for a quick bite. Sadly I couldn't see deeper than the surface. Although the water was very calm, it was quite turbid. If a crocodile was looking to jump up and snatch me in its jaws, I wouldn't know until it was too late. For the record, this thought did nothing to stop me peering over the edge.
It wasn't long before we found ourselves face to face with a group of hippos. I was struck by their size. They snorted and yawned big hippo yawns, seemingly unimpressed with us. As we drew closer a few seemed to move slightly away, but to be honest we were outnumbered and out-powered and I think the hippos knew it. While the bulk ignored us, a few kept watch likely because there were a few baby hippos in the group.
We carried on, spotting numerous birds - herons and kingfishers and cranes. We passed more hippos, and eventually saw our first crocodile sunning lazily on the shore. Our first crocodile was soon upstaged by our second and third and fourth. They weren't each bigger than the last, but they were huge - far bigger than I was expecting, although I'm not quite sure what I was expecting. Their bodies seemed to be all muscle, and from what I could tell almost as wide as they were long. They seemed unimpressed by our interrupting their leisure time in the sun, promptly making for the water as soon as they noted our intrusion. Once in the water we were able to fully appreciate their size - at least for the few seconds before they inevitably submerged. Again I tried unsuccessfully to peer through the murky water in a sad attempt to watch them swim by (although from their point of view I was probably doing nothing more than offering myself up as a tasty snack).
The morning carried on much like this. More hippos and birds and crocodiles came and went from our view. We were greeted on the shore by several strutting warthogs, and some very statuesque waterbucks, and at some point were told that a herd of elephants could be seen in the distance. While they were too far away for me to see them, the rest of my Safari team - Jon, Justeen, Sarina, and Dylan - were able to. In the distance various mountaintops came into view while others went into hiding. It was an incredibly peaceful and relaxing way to spend the morning.
As I stepped off the boat at the end of our Safari, I had one of those is this real life moments. Over the span of a few days I was able to witness the beauty and majesty (and oftentimes pooping) of some of the most incredible animals on the planet in their natural environment. No cages, no electric fences or glass barriers to separate me from them. Just me, and them, and nature. I can't begin to explain how grateful I am that I got to experience this.
Originally Posted Here
As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm in Malawi as part of the Leave For Change program working with a not-for-profit agency called the Agricultural Reasearch and Extension Trust (ARET). Their mission, in a nutshell, is to help farmers in Malawi to produce the best yields possible given economic and environmental challenges. As part of my mandate, I joined one of the communication staff from ARET at today's Strengthening Agriculture and Nutrition Extension event in Nathenje, just south of Lilongwe. It was a fantastic event that effectively relaunched extension efforts in the country, followed by a display of traditional dances and costumes from the local village. It was an incredible experience that I'm incredibly grateful to have witnessed.
I'll be honest, when I first read the word Extension in my partner agency's name, I really wasn't sure what it meant. Fortunately after my read of their strategic mandate, and my meeting with their director, its definition became clear. Extension was another way of saying knowledge mobilization (KM) or knowledge translation and transfer (KTT). That is, extension is the act of making scientific knowledge actionable by anyone who may benefit from it. This may mean converting scientific findings to policy, or translating the findings in a way that someone outside a particular discipline would be able to understand, or converting the findings into a set of actionable items that can be used in the real world.
Amazingly, it's not as easy as it sounds. In reality we are faced with extension (good and bad) almost daily. We hear, for example, that eating chocolate will help us lose weight (I wish), only to learn that the science isn't quite so robust or clear cut despite the catchy headline. Our doctors tell us that our overly processed sugar-filled diets are leading to increasing obesity numbers, but we still reach for the ice cream or the second helping of pie (mmmm pie). In many cases we aren't given sufficient ownership of the findings to act on them because they aren't presented in a way that speaks to our experience. Or we are overwhelmed with too many conflicting and poorly constructed (albeit eye catching) headlines. The science may be there, but the messaging is either wrong, or not actionable.
In class, specifically the ICON classroom that Dr. Shoshanah Jacobs and I co-created a few years back, we attempt to teach students not only about extension (although we call it KTT and KM), but how to achieve it. The reasons we do this range from the obvious; universities don't typically teach this despite a need for it in industry, to the perhaps less obvious; if we are to solve some of our bigger social issues (e.g. food security, energy conservation, sustainable living, climate change) we have to recognize that we'll require our best brains from all of our varied disciplines, both academic and non-academic, working together in a transdisciplinary space. This can only happen if the best brains can share their knowledge and experiences in a way that makes the information actionable by at least a subset of the group. This doesn't mean that one expert trains the others to be experts in the same domain; it means that one expert relays knowledge from their domain to another expert in a manner that they can put it to use. The effect is much like a think-tank that allows experts of all sorts to develop solutions that transcend their own discipline.
When I began developing the ICON classroom with Dr. Jacobs, I firmly believed in the need to develop KTT and KM skills in the students that pass through my classrooms. I felt an urgency based on a desire to develop solutions to protect and improve our collective futures. I felt an urgency because of big problems that I know we can fix if we just get off our collective butts and do something about them. But it was an urgency based on developing new technologies or new solutions to the really big problems we know about, and those just around the corner that we haven't the imagination to predict.
Interestingly, my time so far in Malawi has changed my tune slightly. That's not to say I think KTT and KM are no longer skills worthy of pursuing. Quite the contrary. My experiences in Malawi, the things I've learned and seen here, have increased my sense of urgency. These skills are needed now, to address very serious issues we already know how to solve.
Last year almost 3 million Malawians required food assistance. That is, almost 20% of the population was food insecure. This year that number is expected to double. Why? Climate change and the unpredictable weather patterns it brings is a huge factor. So is the poor financial situation of a population that makes on average about $1.25 US per day. But mixed in with this (and other factors I haven't described) is a disconnect between the agricultural science and best practices, and what's actually happening in the field. Where farmers would be best served by planting and watering their seeds a week before the rains come, they instead revert to tradition resulting in lower yield. Fertilizers aren't applied in the doses or at times that best serve the crops, and pests destroy harvests because various controls haven't been put into place. All this because the science hasn't been passed on in a way that meaningfully speaks to the farmers.
But it's not a one way street. Innovations and adaptations borne of hands-in-the-dirt ingenuity that happen in the field every day aren't making their way to the scientists and extension officers to share with other farmers. Relevant and meaningful questions that are grown from long term observations on the farm are seemingly lost in the wind. An incredible knowledge base is left on small plots of land to whither and die in the sun. All because the pathways of sharing these bits of innovation and knowledge (or relevant research questions) aren't strong enough to support the farmers' needs, or fail to respect the farmers' experience.
And sadly this means that the problem is only going to get worse unless we figure out new ways of making the science actionable by the communities of farmers who work the fields every day. As I said, extension isn't easy. It requires understanding the audience, a shared respect for each other's unique expertise (whether academic or not), an openness to dialogue, a sense of self reflection and self critique to honestly identify and deal with our discipline specific biases, and the drive to work through periods of intense discomfort and frustration and awkwardness that often come just before a eureka moment.
Fortunately ARET recognizes this, and they are working hard to make a difference so that the farmers of Malawi have the best tools and techniques to produce the best crops they can. My work here will hopefully help them build on the incredible extension work they already do.
Extension, KTT, KM - whatever you want to call it - are a set of skills I believe are absolutely essential for any university graduate. In fact I'd suggest we should be building these skills long before a student steps onto campus. Now more than ever, I'm convinced the world we live in demands it.
Originally Posted Here
I've been in Lilongwe, Malawi for just over a week as part of the Leave For Change program. So far the experience has been remarkable. Last week I spent much of my time familiarizing myself with Lilongwe1, sitting through orientation training with the folks who run the Malawian chapter of World University Service of Canada (WUSC)2, and reviewing documents I’d received from the Agricultural Research and Extension Trust (ARET), my partner agency.
In a nutshell, ARET is a not-for-profit organization that is mandated to support Malawian farmers through agricultural research and knowledge translation and transfer programs3,4. For example, their researchers might conduct studies to evaluate different crop types, or to explore different planting times so that a farmer might produce the largest, healthiest yields possible. The results of their work are then distributed to the farmers through a chain of people known as Extension Directors and Extension Officers. In this way, farmers in each corner of the country have access to the state-of-the-science agricultural tools and methods. And since Malawi’s economy is highly dependent on agriculture, this means that ARET is an absolutely essential component to the economic health of the country.
Normally a Leave For Change volunteer would have started working directly with their partner agency immediately after the day and a half of WUSC orientation and training, however, in my case, my first meeting was delayed until Thursday morning5. Regardless, after reviewing the documents I’d received from ARET and after sitting down with the Director of Extension and Specialist Services on Thursday, I was extremely excited to get to work. I had a million ideas and even more questions floating around in my head.
Today I spent my first full day at ARET, beginning with a meeting with the Director and Chief Executive, the Director of Extension and Specialist Services, and the Finance & Administration Manager to discuss my mandate. While I already had a general sense of what I was going to be doing while working with ARET, the meeting provided a much clearer vision for which to start.
Briefly, I’m going to be working with the Director of Extension and Specialist Services (and the other branches of ARET) to help develop a framework on which to build several different services internally and externally. This requires working closely with the staff of ARET to develop a thorough understanding of the system's users, their needs, the data they need to collect, the outputs they would like generated, and the various different ways in which they will communicate this information to the various stakeholders.
In many ways, this parallels some of the work I’m doing in the community of Rigolet, Labrador. In both cases, there are some environmental and technical issues that need to be addressed. In both cases, I need to work with a community to develop tools that are useful and user-friendly. And in both cases, I need to design the systems so that they are as robust as possible to allow for expansion in the coming years as the technology and infrastructure adapt and grow.
Where these projects differ is in their scope. My work in Rigolet is a pilot focussed on the immediate community. While there are future plans to expand the work across Nunatsiavut and beyond, we are very much developing community-led solutions at a very local level. In Malawi, we are working together to develop a system that will provide extension services to all farmers across the country.
The process I’m about to work on is also a perfect example of the development processes that I teach in my CIS3750 classroom. From understanding the users/client, to developing requirements, use cases, timelines, and (if time permits) prototypes, the project I’ve just begun is going to draw on almost all of the skills I try to pass on to my students.
I’m really excited that I get to work with ARET to help develop the groundwork for what I think will be some truly innovative programs in the future. More than that, I’m really thankful that I get to work with a group that is trying to help develop capacity and resiliency in the people who are the economic hub of this country.
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1 Although truth be told, I’m only somewhat familiar with my local neighbourhood and the neighbourhood that surrounds the WUSC main office.
2 While some of this included a recap from training I’d received in Toronto several months ago, it was a welcome way to start my Leave For Change appointment. It also gave me a much better sense of the Malawi, the city of Lilongwe, and the people who call this amazing country home.
3 Historically ARET has focused their research on improving yields and resiliency in tobacco harvests, as tobacco has been the primary export and major source of income for the country. However, given anti-smoking campaigns around the world, they are working with local farmers to transition to other income generating crops (e.g. legumes, and oil-producing seeds).
4 From what I've been able to determine, I believe that ARET is using the term extension in the same way that I would use Knowledge Translation and Transfer. That is, extension seems to be the process by which scientific results are turned into meaningful tools and methods that are accessible by (in this case) farmers.
5 And Friday I was off to Liwonde National Park for a safari adventure.
After paying our entry fee, we entered Liwonde National Park roughly around 6:30am. Passing through the gates I couldn’t help but feel I was entering Jurassic park. The gates weren’t nearly as fancy, but there was a sense of wonder about the entire experience that had the kid in me completely nerding out. With so much anticipation and excitement, I attempted to rein myself in. There was no guarantee that the animals would be on our trail, nor that they’d stick around long enough for a viewing even if they were. Still, despite my best efforts, this nerdy kid was absolutely stoked.
Having passed the threshold we crossed a small dilapidated bridge. I peered left and right willing myself to see something other than foliage. Sadly that’s all I could see. Still, since we’d been officially on Safari for only 3 minutes this did nothing to hamper my spirits. I continued scanning the trees undeterred. It couldn’t have been more than a minute later that someone said they’d spotted an elephant straight ahead. I quickly changed the focus of my view, but still saw nothing. I tried peering more intently, darting my eyes back and forth around the general area I was told the elephant could be found. Nothing. I tried looking deeper into the trees, into layers of the environment I had been neglecting in my first scan. Nothing.
Not being able to see the elephant, having no idea how close our driver might get to it, having no clue as to how long the elephant might stick around, nor if this sighting was a typical or atypical event, I began to worry that my eyes were going to get in the way of my very first safari.
I’m thankful to say that wasn’t the case. As we drove deeper into the park several elephants came into view, including some wee baby elephants. In terms of how I was feeling, I’m sure the stupid grin on my face was enough to say it all. And I’m sure that same stupid grin kept getting wider and wider as more and more elephants came into view. It was absolutely surreal. I watched as a small herd marched by us. Some of them looked in our general direction but for the most part they ignored us, focusing only on their march, munching on the foliage that had once hid them from my view, and protecting their wee ones. I remember thinking that if my Safari ended right then and there, I still would have been a happy man.
Of course, the Safari continued. As the small herd moved on, our driver followed and repositioned us so that we were closer and better situated to see the elephants head on. The matriarch of the family seemed to take exception to this, signalling her discontent with what seemed to be an inflated chest, some snorting and trunk wagging, flared ears, and a small threat provided through a demonstration of her ability to charge if she wanted to. It was incredible. She was 30 feet away from me, maybe less. I probably should have been frightened, but I was completely loving every minute of it.
We moved on through the park, coming across more herds of varying sizes and several lone males. With each encounter it felt that our driver would inch us closer and closer. And each time I kept thinking I’m in Africa. I’m on Safari. There are elephants right over there! It really was such a surreal experience being able to live out a dream that I’ve had since I was young.
But the Safari wasn’t all elephants. As we pushed on into the park we were granted the opportunity to watch warthogs, waterbucks, and impalas in their natural habitat. At one point their territories overlapped in a way that made me think that Disney himself must have organized it. Several waterbuck chased a small group of impalas, as a band of warthogs proudly strutted through the commotion with tail-up-snout-up piggy confidence. It was almost comical.
Eventually we returned to camp. I ate, showered, and napped before heading out on a walking Safari that would take us to the Shire river. On our way we saw a few more warthogs and impalas, as well as some massive termite mounds, elephant footprints, and a variety of plants and insects. When we finally reached the water’s edge, we could see the shapes of hippos in the distance. – a preview of things to come during our river Safari the next day.
Once back at camp for the eve, I grabbed a beer and ventured to the observation deck to watch the sunset and reflect on the day. I stared out across the scene in front of me not really focusing on anything. I was beyond content. I was beyond happy. And just when I thought it couldn’t get better, I heard the now familiar sound of elephants munching their way through the trees. This time, however, there were many more of them. As dusk transitioned to night I could tell that the elephants had moved closer to me. And as had happened the night before, they eventually moved close enough for me to see them. While I couldn’t make out their specific details or numbers, it seemed to me the there were at least 10 of them.
I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better end to my day.
Originally Posted Here
Once we left the Lilongwe city limits, the driving was as straight forward as possible; travel south on the same road until reaching Liwonde Safari Camp. The road, potholed and worn, was full of accidental speedbumps, several makeshift police speed checks, and incredible views of mountains, farmlands, and seemingly endless expanses of Africa. We passed small villages and markets stuffed full of people buying and selling fresh produce, lumber, and various other wares. Bicyclists and pedestrians shared the streets with small herds of goats. Slowing down as we passed through particularly populated stretches of the road, we were greeted with big smiles and waving children.
We arrived at the camp just as the sun was beginning to set. Even with the failing light we could tell we had picked an exceptional camp. Our first stop on our tour was the bar where we needed to check in. The bar, open to the surrounding wilderness and lit by candlelight, was extremely inviting and cozy. A mountain of books were shelved next to the bar, with several oversized cushion covered benches almost begging me to plop down and read for a few hours.
Sleeping quarters were next on the tour. On the short trek to our room we passed the kitchen and eating area (also lit by candles), the amply sized showers with extremely hot water, the bathrooms, and the observation deck where we would spend most of our evening. Finally, located on the edge of camp was our five person hut. Inside were five very comfortable single beds adorned with mosquito nets, and sufficient blankets to keep me warm and mosquito free all night long. Justeen and Sarina (who are here as student interns with WUSC) took the two beds to the right, while me, Dylan (Justeen’s South African friend, and our driver for the weekend), and Jon took the remaining three; a half wall dividing the room by gender.
After settling in we made our way to the observation deck where we met five other travellers – Tom, Donovan, Chloe, Kasey, and Steph – whom had been in Malawi for several months as part of the Engineers Without Borders program. With introductions complete, our group of five quickly became a group of ten. As we learned more about each other, we discovered that all but one of us were Canadian (although Dylan had studied at the University of Victoria), Tom and Jon worked in the same office here in Malawi, and Chloe and Sarina shared the same very good friend back home in Ottawa, and yet had to travel around the world to meet in Malawi.
Later in the eve after our bellies were full, we returned to the observation deck on recommendation of one of the camp staff. We were told to approach the deck quietly and carefully as elephants were close by. At this point the sun was long gone, so my ability to see anything more than grey was quite limited, even despite the light the moon provided. As we stood on the deck straining to see beyond what our eyes would allow, we could hear from several directions the sounds of numerous elephants munching on tree branches and leaves. With every branch being ripped from the trees, I would attempt to refocus my eyes in the direction of the noise. Eventually the rest of the group was pointing in various directions, identifying individual elephants they could see. I still saw nothing, but I could hear them and that was incredibly rewarding on its own.
As the minutes ticked by it became clearer that the elephants were heading in our direction. I waited, anxiously hoping that they’d get close enough that I could see them. And then, just like that, an elephant came into view maybe 25-30 feet away. It stopped in its track, very clearly sizing us up. Shaking its head and snorting, it decided we were either not a threat or not worth its time. It turned and continued munching away. I stood there in awe watching it, the light of the moon making its tusks shine brightly against the relative darkness of the trees on which it was dining. I stood there in disbelief that I was so close to such a beautiful and majestic beast. I stood there overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and fortune that I was afforded the privilege of this experience.
I fell into bed last night very happy, reminding myself for the millionth time that I’m actually in Africa. I’m still not convinced that it has really sunk in.
For more photos, check out my Instagram Account
Original Post Here
I awoke to a rather chilly morning, and had assumed by the time I made it to the market that things would have warmed up enough that I could have left my hoody at the lodge. That wasn't the case.
Having quickly found the Airtel kiosk at the market, I stood there hands in pockets trying to chase away the chills. Every now and then I'd cup my hands and try to warm them with my breath. At one point I chuckled to myself as I thought about how ridiculous I probably looked to the Malawians who were busily going about their day around me, especially since I couldn't help doing a little dance to try to warm myself up. They didn't let on that my little dance was ridiculous, but I knew it was.
While I stood there warming up, I watched as the man who worked the Airtel kiosk set up for his day. He began by taking the time to sweep the red dust that had collected over night from the walls of the kiosk. After this he opened up the front of the kiosk and set up a makeshift display case. This he cleaned and dusted. He lined each of the cardboard shelves with either thick toilet paper or paper towel (I couldn't tell which it was) that he carefully unfolded, clearly having been saved from the day before. On this he carefully placed cell phones. He then took the time to hang a sign from the roof of the kiosk advertising his ability to collect payments for utilities. He also hung three strings that displayed the various Airtel products - including the data plans I was looking to purchase - across the front of the kiosk, keeping them in place with some simple packer's tape. Finally, he washed his hands using some powdered soap and bottled water he kept behind the kiosk counter.
When he was finally set up he looked at me, giving me notice that he was ready for business. I approached and within a minute had what I needed and was on my way. The entire process took about 25 minutes, with my purchasing time a small fraction of the total. He was in no rush. Instead, he seemed to enjoy the meticulous process of getting set up for the day, taking obvious pride in a clean and orderly shop.
And while it seems such a simple thing, this type of experience is one of my favourite parts of travel. At home I spend so much of my time running around from one meeting to the next, racing to meet deadline after deadline, constantly working to put out fires, or completely lost in a seemingly endless list of projects I'm trying to juggle, that I rarely get time to slow down and enjoy the process, to slow down and enjoy the sense of pride that comes from a job well done.
It's nice to be reminded that it's not necessary to race through every day, trying to cram in every possible thing, trying to be more efficient and productive than the day before.
A job well done is still a job well done no matter how much work it involves.
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When I was young I devoured books about dinosaurs. One of my favourite books was a book on geology that my cousin gave me for Christmas. It combined a brief history of earth with a fantastic section on dinosaurs, a family tree of animals (with highlights of some of our modern favourites), an introduction to geology and maps and how they've changed through the eons. The transition from Pangea to our present day arrangement of continents fascinated me. And when given the chance I couldn't not order a series of science cards that provided short stories and statistics on animals from around the world1. They were the nerd equivalent of baseball cards, but so much better.
And I think these things naturally led to an interest in Africa. It was so far away and unknown, but full of so many of the things that my nerdy little self had read about. Mountains, the skeletal remains of Lucy, dinosaur fossils, and of course an assortment of animals like nothing I could ever hope to see at home (save for in a zoo).
So when I learned that my Leave For Change mandate would have me working in Malawi, you have to know that the nerdy kid in me was wide-eyed and dancing around excitedly2. This feeling hasn't changed since the first moment I stepped onto African soil. And every time I think about where I am, I realize how fortunate I am to be here, to get to experience this amazing country, its people, its culture, its everything.
Of course, it should come as no surprise that when Justeen - another volunteer with WUSC3 - asked if I or Jonathan wanted to join her and two others on a weekend safari, I jumped at the opportunity. Even writing about going on safari has me grinning from ear to ear. This is a dream come true for a very nerdy little kid. This is a dream come true for a very nerdy adult.
And so tomorrow at noon a group of us will be making the 4 or so hour drive from Lilongwe to the Liwonde Safari Camp. We'll be staying there overnight both Friday and Saturday, with a safari adventure planned for both days (one on land, and one on the water). There's no guarantee that I will get to see all of the animals I want to see, but that still hasn't reduced my excitement.
All I know is that by tomorrow eve I should be relaxing at the Liwonde Safari Camp with my Leave For Change friends watching as the sun sets over Africa. And you have to know that both the nerdy kid in me, and the nerdy adult he became are going to be smiling from ear to ear.
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1 Add in my love of math and it can't really come as a surprise that I'm as big a nerd as I am ;)
2 I may or may not have been mimicking the nerdy kid in me.
3 World University Service of Canada.
Having slept away most of the exhaustion that came with the journey from Toronto to Lilongwe, I showered and then headed off for breakfast1. Around 8:15am, I was picked up along with Jonathan - the other Leave For Change volunteer that is staying at the Korea Garden Lodge - and driven to the WUSC2 headquarters for a day of orientation and training.
The day began with introductions to the team, both permanent staff and the short and long-term student interns and volunteers. The team, a collection of very talented and engaged people, was also very obviously a positive and friendly group. Their welcoming faces and attitudes made me feel as if I'd been part of the team forever.
After introductions, we got down to business. Both Jonathan and I - the newbies - spent the day with Tendai and Richmond working through various modules to help us familiarize ourselves with the local community, understand some of the culture and history of Malawi, and better understand our specific mandates with the community partners with whom we’d be working for the next several weeks.
While some of the training was a repetition of things I’d learned in Canada (either at the pre-mandate training session in Toronto or in documents I’d previously received), it was still nice to review them and reflect on their meaning now that I was on the ground. Of course, not all of it was review. Regardless, several things jumped out at me. In particular:
- Malawi is predominantly an agriculturally based society, with primary exports and much of the economy based on tobacco, tea, coffee, and legumes. However, with non-smoking campaigns growing around the world, there’s a need to transition from tobacco to other products.
- In 2014, Malawi - one of the poorest countries in the world - ranked 174 of 187 countries on the Human Development Index. The majority of Malawians (88%) live on less than $2 US per day. This often means that education is out of reach of many, even though primary education is free.
- While HIV/AIDS rates have decreased significantly thanks to education campaigns and efforts to outlaw traditional practices considered risky3, 10% of the population are infected, and there is significant stigma connected to a diagnosis. It remains the leading cause of death in the country.
- While 70% of farmers are female, and 51% of the population are female, women do not have the same voice as men. Moreover, they face a triple-threat of pressure: they work to support their families, they raise the children and take care of the home, and they are expected to help the sick and elderly in the community.
- Youth (10-35 years of age) make up 40% of the population, but they struggle to find jobs even if they have an education.
Despite these challenges, the Malawian people are extremely friendly, extremely positive, and extremely welcoming.
In a few days, I’ll be meeting with my community partner to discuss the goals of my Leave For Change mandate. In a very general sense, I know that my mission is to work with them to develop capacity in the domains of mathematics, statistics, and computer science so that they can work to address these challenges.
To say that I'm humbled to be able to take part in this program is an understatement. And while I hope that I'll be able to help out in some small way, I feel that I'm going to leave here learning and experiencing far more than a four-week job could ever provide.
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1 Or more specifically, I headed off in search of coffee - all the coffee. Food was really a side-effect of that search.
2 WUSC is the World University Service of Canada. Together with the Centre for International Students and Cooperation (CECI), they manage the Uniterra program which includes the Leave For Change program.
3 For example, tradition in some regions suggested that a widow would become a second wife to a man’s brother. In other regions, a widowed woman would be cleansed of the spirit of her departed through intercourse with a man in the community who’s job it was to provide this service.
The adventure began when I left my home in Guelph Saturday around 8am. My flight was scheduled to take off at 11:20am, so I assumed leaving at 8am would give me sufficient time to get my tickets, deal with security, and find my gate. I also assumed it would take at least an hour to get to the airport, and up to an hour to get through security. In reality, I was waiting at my gate ready to board by 9:08am.
The first leg of the trip had a bit of a rough start with some minor and short-lived turbulence. From there on out, my biggest challenge was finding just the right position for maximum comfort on a long-haul trans-Atlantic flight1, and deciding which movie to watch first2.
A few hours before we landed in Addis Ababa I got my first taste of Africa. I looked out the window and watched as the sun slowly rose over the horizon. The sky turned from the darkness of night to an intensely crimson red. Clouds stretched across the horizon, blocking the sun's rays as it eventually worked to break free from the edge of the earth. At that point the hues somehow became more intense. The sun was a massive perfect yellow circle, larger than what I'm used to at home. It reminded me of a scene direct from a movie.
We landed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia a few minutes ahead of schedule. As I took my first step off the plane, I was temporarily blinded by the sun. Almost immediately I was hit with a very cool breeze - far cooler than I had expected. It gave me a chill, but one that was refreshing and welcoming given that fact that I'd been confined to the plane for so long. I took a deep breath and smiled, reflecting on the fact that I had officially arrived in Africa.
My next flight was short in comparison - only 4 hours. I don't remember much of this flight as I promptly fell asleep against the window, at one point waking to find that I'd managed to position myself in such a way as to have my entire right leg fall asleep. After working through the pins-and-needles, I spent some time in a rather zombie-ish state watching the changing landscape roll by below. The ground was a patchwork of reds and greens, cut by winding riverbeds and small villages. At one point I was able to see what I think was Lake Malawi.
After touching down, I made my way through customs, gathered my bags, exchanged some US dollars for the Malawian Kwacha, and set up my phone with a local sim card. With everything seemingly in order, I headed into the city to the Korea Garden Lodge, my home away from home for the next 4 weeks. Given my level of exhaustion, check-in was mercifully pain-free. And so after putting down my bags, touring my room, and taking my daily malaria pill, I promptly collapsed into bed for a much needed, fully reclined, uninterrupted nap.
1 For the record: next to impossible.
2 I opted for Point Break, Our Story is Crisis, and then Kung Fu Panda III. I may or may not have watched other movies between these three, but I honestly can’t remember them.
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I woke up this morning around 5am. As I lay there wondering why my body decided to wake me an hour before my alarm was set, I realized that I was full of nervous energy. My stomach was full of butterflies in anticipation of today's flight.
I'm going to Africa today.
The very thought seemed altogether weird and amazing, and yet completely unbelievable. Despite having spent the last few months applying to, interviewing for, and then being offered a position in the Leave For Change program, and despite having spent the last three weeks filling out paperwork, getting vaccinations, applying for insurance, reading documentation, and getting my students ready for my absence, this adventure still seems surreal.
I'm going to Africa today.
I honestly don't think this is going to sink in until I touch down in Addis Ababa.
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A few days ago I received confirmation of my flight itinerary for my trip to Malawi. Suddenly this Leave For Change thing has become very real. Honestly, there's a part of me that is still wondering if this is real life, or whether I'm going to wake up from an awesome dream where I've been able to travel around the world for almost an entire summer, while still calling it work.
The adventure begins in roughly 60 hours when I take off from Toronto heading to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. After a short 2 hour 25 minute layover, I'll once again take to the skies on route to my final destination of Lilongwe, Malawi. Assuming the flights are all on time, I should be setting down in Lilongwe in the early afternoon. This will be my first time visiting Malawi, and my first time setting foot on the continent of Africa1. I can't wait.
Until then, however, I find myself trying to go about my days without getting too excited, and trying to ensure I've done all the things that need doing before I go. Fortunately, I've managed to keep the excitement level mostly under control. This has been helped in part by the fact that I've had a crazy number of meetings over the last few weeks as I've tried to organize my students, finish various analyses, write several reports, draft and submit a couple of papers, draft grant applications, and complete a slew of other academic bric-a-brac. Who knew that academic bric-a-brac would help control my wanderlust?
Despite all that I've managed to do to keep myself distracted and with excitement in check, there are still a lot of things I'll have to do before I finally head off to Toronto on this grand adventure. Collecting travel-ready toiletries, purchasing American cash, re-reading my Leave For Change program documents, and collecting my passport and visa from the Purolator office are only a few of the things that are still on my list. I also need to begin my 40-day regiment of once-a-day malaria pills. There's still a mountain of documents I need to print and organize. There are sunscreen and bug repellant to pick up, laundry to do, and a kitchen to clean. And of course, I need to spend some quality time with the wee fuzzball since I'm not going to see him for a month.
Oh, and I guess I need to pack2.
Are these things enough to keep me distracted? Given that I'm smiling ear to ear thinking about Malawi and the next month, I'm going to wager no.
Honestly, if this is a dream, I hope I don't wake up until well after the adventure ends.
1 Meaning that I will be able to say that I've visited 5 of the 7 continents. After Sunday, I'll only be missing Australia, and Antarctica.
2 But we all know I'm not going to be packing until late Friday night or early Saturday morning. Given my track record, I'm betting on early Saturday morning.
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