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31 Aug

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Chitsime – A Well

August 31, 2010 | By |

Update From The Field

One of EWB’s new African program volunteers, our Grand River chapter’s Don McMurtry, has started a really interesting blog.  It will follow Don’s progress and challenges during his four months in Malawi as an EWB Professional Junior Fellow.  You can read his first post here below, or on his own site “Mudzi Madzi“.

Two days ago, after a three hour mini-bus ride south from Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, I arrived in the town of Balaka. An EWB colleague who accompanied me on the 6 am departure from Lilongwe’s chaotic bus “terminal” (two tiny block sheds in the middle of a large grassless field filled with people, busses and cargo vans, recounted standing for several hours on a jam-packed coach, so our trip was far less uncomfortable than might be expected.

While in Lilongwe and again here in Balaka, I have been staying in guest houses that offer a variety of room types. The one on Lilongwe had as many as seven people; here at the Chitsimi Hostel it costs 500 Kwatcha per night (about Cdn $3.33, including breakfast) for a four-person shared room. Single rooms are available as well, but I am happy to meet others. It is my hope to soon find a family in a nearby village that will accept me as a guest and where I can still walk a convenient distance to the office.

Balaka’s District Water Office (part of the Malawi Ministry of Irrigation & Water Development) will be my base of work for the next four months. On Friday morning, my second day in the district office, Mr. Nkwate (a Water Monitoring Assistant) was asked by Mr. Mapsere (the District Water Officer, aka his boss) to take me to Utale to visit a rural health station. It was very helpful to meet some of the dozen “health surveillance assistants” who work in that area as I slowly assemble my understanding of how water services are provided in rural Malawi. It also made more clear how interdependent the Health and Water departments are, just as they are in North America.

Unlike most districts in Malawi, Balaka has a substantial gravity-fed pipe network reaching into rural areas as well as bore-hole wells equipped with hand pumps. As the district population has grown, less water, sometime none, makes it to the more remote edges of the almost three decade old network. There are other reasons for taps being non-functional as well, but I don’t yet have a more comprehensive systemic understanding at this early stage. Most of the Utale taps fall into the non-fuctional category.

Tap water in Lilongwe and here in Balaka is drinkable. Chlorine is added to the water as it enters the distribution network near the reservoir dam but one can imagine there is a drop-off of concentration in various circumstances. The scent of water from the tap is welcome.

At the health centre I learned about HTH, the chlorine powder added to water for drinking. Rural people without piped water add a teaspoon of HTH into a 20 litre container to make the water safe.

Nkwate gave me some riding instructions as we departed for the health centre on the back of a District-owned motorcycle. Twisting along dirt paths and roads, at times bumping across railway lines, was a reminder that I must spend a portion of every day doing back strengthening exercises or I run the risk of a recurrence of my lower-back disk injury. The brain-bucket (aka motorcycle helmet) EWB had me purchase while we were in Toronto for training was one of the more essential things stuffed into my bag.