Saturday, August 4, 2007

But the lesson plan he can't recall...

One of the Millenium Development Goals set out by the UN is to achieve universal primary education. This seems really simple at a concept level, but I was curious about what’s really going on and the challenges that must be overcome to do that. Malawi currently offers free primary education, so is everybody receiving free primary education? I thought I’d stop by the school nearby to Chikowa – Kazire Full Primary School – to look into it.

I was in luck – Mr. Kuyenerayani was about to have a review session for the standard 8 Mathematics exam. I got to sit in on it.

The classroom was concrete floors with cement walls and a tin roof on top. A student was sent to find chalk to write on the blackboard at the front of the room. Aside from the 7 students present, the teacher and myself, the room was bare, but the air was filled with participation as the teacher conducted the session. After about an hour, the session was over and I approached Mr. Kuyenerayani to ask him a few questions:

Q: How many students are in your class?

A: I currently teach 250 students.

Q: That’s quite a few students. Do you put in extra time outside of regular class time to help students?

A: I do. I make myself available for review and questions for a few hours after school during the week, and I’m here on Saturdays as well.

Q: Do you enjoy your job?

A: I do. However it is very challenging to reach so many students. One challenge I face is that of motivation – some students don’t come to class very often, it’s not seen as a priority. There are definitely different reasons for this though, and it’s very hard to overcome those.

Q: Since 1995, primary education has been free. How does teaching compare between before 1995 and now that primary education is free?

A: I find it much worse. Although only 25% of children were attending primary school before because of the school fees, it was much better as there were more teachers per student and because of that, students would learn more. Now, although 75% of children in the area attend school, there are a lot more students and so fewer teachers per student. As well, because there are no school fees, we can’t afford many supplies, and teaching salaries are very low.

I found all this very interesting. After primary school comes secondary. Secondary school education is not free in Malawi. I had the opportunity to speak with a form 2 (equivalent to grade 10) student, Ernerst, who lives in Likuni. He is currently attending Chinsapo Secondary School, a public school.

Q: Do you like school?

A: Yes, I like school.

Q: What classes are you taking right now?

A: English, Chichewa (language spoken locally), Physical sciences, Math, Bible Knowledge, Computing and Geography.

Q: How many students are in your class?

A: 46.

Q: What is the most challenging part of school?

A: Finding money for school. Me, I’m lucky. There was a teacher from Australia who came to teach a few years ago. He was very welcoming and his house always had children in it, always. When he left Malawi, he said that he’d pay for my school fees, and he has been sending money for that. But I know that eventually, the money will stop coming. Otherwise, to get supplies I have no money, and as my clothes and shoes wear, I need to get new ones.

Q: How much are school fees?

A: 2200 MK per term (3 terms per year). (This is about $17.60 Canadian)

Q: What is an average day like for you?

A: I wake up at about 7 in the morning and eat breakfast with my brother before he goes off to school. I go back to bed and wake up at about 11 in the morning, have a cup of tea and go to school for 12. School ends at 5, I come home to eat and then head back to school for about 7 for extra help. I come home after that and usually study until about 1 in the morning, then go to bed.

Q: That sounds like a tough routine. How can you keep at it?

A: When I was younger, it was worse. I wondered if I would live to be 18. Things have gotten much better since I was young though, and they’re still getting better. So it’s not bad.

Q: Are there extra-curricular activities at your school? Do you take part in any?

A: Yes, there are many. I am on the table tennis team, and we compete against other schools.

Q: What do you want to do when you graduate?

A: One of 3 things: I want to be a priest, a soldier or a musician.

Side note: I met Ernerst while I was walking to find a place to sit outside in Likuni and learn some Chichewa. He was on his way to a primary school nearby to spend the day studying math and science. I think it was a funny coincidence, but we have helped each other out in our studies.

Beyond secondary school, there are many institutes offering courses to better the chances of getting a job. However, jobs are hard to find as I have heard from many people, and education past secondary school is very expensive. This brought me to the questions:

-If you go to school but most likely can’t find a good job after, what is the value of education if the chances of it paying off later are slim?
-Couldn’t that money go to some better use?
-Are people still motivated to go to school and learn?

I asked this flurry of questions to a man named Clement who lives in GVH Kambalani. He was a farmer, very learned and well-spoken and had graduated from Form 4 (grade 12). He took a moment to think about it, and calmly replied:

“Malawi is a very poor country. There are not as many jobs as there are in Canada. But the emphasis of school is not as much on employment, but rather so that people can manage themselves better. People are very happy just to know things. In Malawi, a lot of people are educated but do not have jobs.”

I didn’t know what to make of all this. In fact, I kinda forgot what I was trying to learn in all this. I don’t think I’m in any position to make any conclusions from talking to these 3 people, but I don’t think there are any conclusions to be made – everything’s always changing. I guess that’s development.

If anyone is interested in linking Kazire Full Primary School with their primary school in a sister-school relationship, I have a contact who would love to help set that up. I think this would be an awesome opportunity to increase the global perspective or global-mindedness in primary education back in Canada, so if you feel like you never really learned about any global issues in your grade school, this could be an excellent opportunity to change that. If you’re interested, drop me a line at

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ain't it the Life

GVH Kambalani is a beautiful area, filled with vast fields spanning to the horizon and split by dirt roads and paths like a giant net over the earth. Although the ridged fields are currently barren as it is winter, I can only imagine what it must look like right before harvest. The main crops grown in the area are maize, tobacco, groundnuts, sweet potato, cassava and beans. Farmers may also have smaller garden plots to grow other fruits and vegetables such as tomato, Chinese cabbage, pumpkin, papaya, sugarcane, banana and onion.

There is a central market – Chikowa Trading Centre. At Chikowa, you can find small general shops selling a variety of things from cooking oil to laundry soap to cookies and soft drinks. As well, there are some tea rooms where you can get (you guessed it!) good Malawian tea and scones.

Malawian Tea:

1. Make some piping hot tea using Malawian tea leaves.
2. Add some milk.
3. Add 3 heaping teaspoons of sugar to every cup.

Celtel Hill: The cellphone network sweetspot in the area. Also the site of numerous dropped calls.
(Can't insert pic at the moment, but insert picture of small dirt mound here)

“Hello? Hello… Hello? Aw this network, it is very bad.”

In the area, there are also tailors, carpenters, bike mechanics, butchers, an auto mechanic, chip stands (chips = fries = breakfast, lunch or supper), barber shops and vendors. In terms of fruits and vegetables at the market, tomatoes, bananas and sugarcane are readily available, and sometimes cabbage and Chinese cabbage are sold.

However, every Tuesday is a very special day at the market… it’s market day. On Tuesdays you can find all the usual things, but now the market space fills up with vendors selling all sorts of things – shoes, clothes, chitenges (sheets of patterned material used as many things such as bags, clothes and for strapping a baby onto your back), electronics (cassette players and radios), cassettes of the latest musical artists such as Lawrence Mbenjele and Simon + Kendo Kamlanka, school supplies, bags and all sorts of other things. Between vendors, you can shimmy your way through the congestion of people like high school halls between classes. The flurry of people and noise attracts everyone to the market, even if just to walk around. Some people travel from villages such as Kwere Kwere and Folopezi, a good 12 or 14 kms away to buy or sell at the market. It’s an incredible scene and only happens once a week.

On Sundays, everyone gathers at the grounds to watch the greatest Football team in the land destroy its rivals. The Chikowa Football team wears the colour red so that they don’t have to wash the blood spatter from their shirts as often. I am only kidding, it’s good old Football, not Murderball. But after every goal, the fans storm the field in full out celebration, only to return to the sidelines a minute later. It is incredible to see the mass of people outlining the field, and makes the game that much more exciting… that and the many chickens on the field.

But this incredible place is the focus area for the Moving Beyond Hunger project. It’s an amazing place, and I haven’t even touched on the greatest part yet – the people. I think that’s a blog entry of its own, so I’ll wait to touch on that.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Long Time

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and with good reason. I’ve learned more in the past month than I have in a long while.

I just want to get thoughts straight to you, so I won’t be writing in a very organized fashion.


With very few exceptions, lunch and supper consist of nsima and relish. Nsima is basically maize flour mixed with boiling water, and you keep adding more flour until you get something with the consistency between pizza dough and mashed potatoes. You take small amounts of nsima and roll them in your hand, then dip it in the relish. There are many different types of relishes – cooked beans, eggs and tomato, boiled rape leaves or Chinese cabbage and tomato, telele (they use okra, and it has the consistency of runny egg white), chicken, goat, tiny fish fried up, big fish fried up – the list is endless. But something really interesting is the nutrition guide in Malawi… Animal fat and cooking oil are consumed here, whereas in Canada, we’ve got the George Foreman grill trying to knock it out of our diet.

For the very few exceptions, nsima is replaced with good old rice. Maize is the traditional crop here in Malawi, and its origin goes far back past Malawi’s independence.

Either way, it can be the tastiest food at times, and at others it can be the heaviest. But it’s pretty awesome if you ask me – fresh local food.


Moving Beyond Hunger – CPAR Malawi has just completed year 1 of 3. The project focuses on providing inputs to allow 500 beneficiaries to grow the crops and raise the livestock of their choice in order to establish food security in GVH Kambalani – an area within TA Kabudula, Central Malawi, consisting of 33 villages where farming generates well over 90% of the income in the area. Inputs include training for livestock farming, some construction materials for livestock housing, livestock, seed, fertilizer and tools.

Soon to happen is the distribution of 46 solar driers in the area along with training to improve the preservation of vegetables. The training will be emphasizing nutrition and conserving the nutrients in the food being preserved.

It is nice to see collaboration among NGOs – Probec, a branch of GTZ, is promoting clay stove making as an entrepreneurial initiative in the area. 20 residents will form a club and will be trained on how to make them, which will hopefully generate more income for those 20 residents. As well, since cooking with clay stoves is more efficient than the current 3-stone fire, it will save firewood (firewood = time and money) for those people who purchase one.

My role in this project is to assess current processing and preservation methods as well as markets and make recommendations on how to best improve food security through those areas. So I have spent two weeks in GVH Kambalani to assess the current situation.

I worked with Steve, a remote CPAR employee based in the area, to interview farmers. I am planning on putting together the findings of the assessment as a case study for anyone interested.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Early in the morning...

I open my eyes. It is still dark, but my ears tell me the day has begun. The crow of roosters can be heard very faintly from outside, and inside some rustling in the room next door and the sound of water running into a bucket.

It is now about 5 AM. My nose is cold, and I decide to get up. I strap shoes on my feet, put on a sweater, leave my room and close the door behind me so as not to wake Paulo. I step out the back door of the house to find the small stove already stoked with glowing orange coals, and a pot of water steaming on top.

I can hear someone sweeping around the corner; I look down to see that I’ve disturbed a beautifully swept pattern on the dusty ground. I walk around the corner to find my mother sweeping around the house. “Mwadzuka bwanji?” (How did you wake) she greets me. “Ndadzuka bwino” (I woke well) I reply.

She is the first one up – Mersy. She is 32 years old and a housewife, but being a housewife is more than a simple 9-5 job, as I found out in the first few days at my new home.

I crouch near the stove to warm myself and, shortly after, am joined by Lapeka, my 9 year old sister and Paulo, my 10 year old brother. We exchange greetings and crouch a while longer by the stove.

I make my way to the latrine – a cement pad with a hole in the centre, surrounded by brick walls and a clay tile roof. But as I approach it, I notice that the floor of the latrine had been freshly wiped as you could tell by the patterns of the slowly drying water where the rag had passed.

After using the latrine, I head back to my room to put my things away. The house is made of brick, with clay tile roofing. It has a main room with a shelf unit in the corner, supporting a giant car battery, wired to an old portable radio. There are also enough padded chairs to seat four people, with a table in the centre. An old four-legged cupboard holds dishes, cutlery and cooking ingredients. The house has two bedrooms, and the walls are cement, the lower half painted green, and the other white. The floor of the house is smooth cement - also freshly mopped, and stepping on the clean floor with my sandals made me cringe.

While I am putting my sleeping bag away and rolling up my wood mattress, Antony, my 34 year old father and a mechanic, calls to me to let me know that the water is now warm for me to bathe. The bathing area is attached to the other bedroom, with a faucet for water. After bathing, I go back to my room to change and pack my bag for the day. Leaving my room, I see two bowls of porridge on the table, and Antony inviting me to eat.

Breakfast food, as most other Malawian food, is high in carbohydrates and often very oily. The porridge is rice, boiled for a long time and loaded with sugar. Often times, we have margarine between two pieces of white bread, and sometimes fresh chips (french fries). The tea in Malawi is steeped and boiled with milk. Then, about three heaping teaspoons of sugar are added to a cup.

As I am devouring the porridge in front of me, I notice Lowloine, my 4 year old sister, staring at me. I make a face and she runs off, laughing. She, along with her brother and sister, will soon be heading out for school. After finishing my bowl of porridge, I pick up my bag and thank my mother and father for breakfast, and step out the back of the house to go to work.

The sunrise is very strong on my face and shines bright on the back of the house and the neighbouring houses. The bricks glow bright orange, much like the coals in the stove. I take off for work, but the amount of work that has already been done in the house that morning alone won’t hit me until much later in the day. It’s a beautiful day!

Back row, left to right: Antony, Mersy, Lowloine, Paulo.
Front row centre: Lapeka
The other two girls are Lapeka’s friends, Sarah and Jennifer.

Disclaimer: I apologize to anyone who feels cheated from reading this entry. I am reading a book by Paulo Coelho, and he inspired me to try to put this into a narrative. Denis will not be held responsible for anyone who feels they’ve just wasted ten minutes of their lives – haha.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Hard Road

Currently, I am residing in Likuni, seven or eight kms out of Lilongwe. I ride into Lilongwe on weekdays to get to the CPAR field office. The proud owner of a brand new, all-steel Humber bicycle, I intend to ride this metallic beast to the ground.

The road connecting Likuni to Lilongwe is paved with many ups and downs, populated with pedestrians on both sides of the road, sometimes walking loads of sugarcane or giant barrels on bicycles and other times carrying loads upon their heads. Others walk to get to where they need while some wait for the minibus.

Sharing the side of the road with the pedestrians are the cyclists. Again, some people ride with large top-heavy loads of goods or maybe a basket of chickens while others ride to get to where they need to go. Regardless, it’s a very crowded area with two lanes of automobile traffic zipping by in the middle.

The motorists consist of motorbikes, cars, trucks and minibuses. The minibuses aren’t the bright yellow buses with Charterways written on the side that used to take me to and from grade school. They are old Toyota vans that would have long been retired in Canada, but are now supersaturated with 4 or 5 rows of 5 people, riding hard on its axels, often sporting cracks on the windshield and sputtering out clouds of black smoke. In my first week of work, that was my mode of transportation, but now I ride my bicycle. Riding a bicycle is slower than taking the minibus, but in that first week I never took note of the beautiful fields on either sides of the road, the villages in those fields and the rivers running under the road out into those fields.

Two things struck me on the way to work yesterday (no, not motorists). The first was a broken down truck on the side of the road. This truck was a large truck, much bigger than the Ford F-450 Super-Duty, with a 20-foot flat bed filled with a load. There were people under the truck working to investigate and fix the problem, and among the three people under the truck, one was a woman as I could see a chitenge (women often wear chitenges and wrap them around their waists like dresses). What stood out in this picture was the persistence of the people when faced with the broken down truck: to get out and fix it so that they can get the load to where it needs to go and to move on with their day.

I am very lacking in the art of analogies, but this seems to be a characteristic of all Malawians that I have seen in my two weeks here so far, their persistence in the face of adversity and trouble. One thing I did not yet mention about my bike ride into Lilongwe was that I also noticed a coffin-making business. This wasn’t the first that I had seen, and it had reminded me of a statistic that I read while at work last week, that AIDS prevalence in Malawi is estimated at 14%. Countless people in Malawi have been affected by HIV/AIDS, either by contracting it themselves or losing a loved one who has contracted it, yet they carry on. Along the ride, I passed a few markets where farmers and merchants had mats spread out on which they displayed their goods for sale. Some of these goods were fresh vegetables or perishable food items, and I came to realize the volatility of that market as a source of income. Should the conditions not be favourable for growth, should there be a shortage of labour to tend the field due to illness, should any factor go wrong – their goods for sale diminish significantly. And for the little income they receive for their tremendous troubles, they carry on.

The second thing that struck me was how friendly people are. Although I hate to say this and risk damaging the reputation of the metallic beast, the chain has already fallen off countless times, and has gotten jammed between the gear and the bike frame. And even though I’ve only ridden to work three times now, people have stopped to help me out on two separate occasions already. Yesterday in particular, a man pulled out some tools and after about 20 minutes, the chain problem was fixed. After I thanked him, he asked me where I was going, and I asked where he was going. He pointed to a place about 3 kms off in the field, and then I saw his bike, with a load of firewood at least 7 feet high.

My chain has not fallen off since.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The past two weeks - where's Denis?

***Please pardon my mistake - CPAR is Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief, not AIDS Relief - although they do a great deal of work to address the issue of HIV/AIDS.***


Training was a whirlwind. I got to know the eight other JFs going to Malawi, and the 17 JFs going to Ghana. It flew by, and I learned many things. I have learned some things I have never even thought about before, and there are other things that EWB has touched on in workshops or at the conference but taken three steps further. I’ve got a book full of notes that I can share with you when I return if you are interested.


After 20 hours in the air, many hours waiting in airports and many in-flight mini-feasts, I have at last arrived at Malawi, in Lilongwe. Flying over the area, I was able to see crops growing in perfect circles. A little odd I thought at first, but later found out from David Damberger (Director of Southern African Projects for EWB – he stays in neighbouring Zambia) that the method of irrigation used in that setup involves a type of sprinkler that pivots around the center. Also while flying over the area, it was beautiful to see the vast landscape of fields, trees and streams. Flying into the capital city of Malawi, I did not see very large buildings, but rather smaller buildings of one, two or sometimes three stories at most, in clusters along roadways spread out over a large area. It was quite a view, definitely a huge change of scenery after spending a week in the middle of Toronto.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Pre-departure Training: Day 2

For anyone unfamiliar with Engineers Without Borders, you can get a pretty good idea of who we are by browsing the website

Here's EWB in a few words:

-EWB currently has 27 university chapters and 7 professional chapters.
-EWB ensures projects that are implemented are sustainable by the local beneficiaries.
-In order to do this, EWB rigorously trains all of its volunteers, putting special emphasis on cultural integration so that the volunteers may gain a better understanding of the realities of local people and co-workers at partner organizations.
-Although EWB doesn't have all the answers, they help its members to develop skills to think critically and also, EWB partners with local non-government organizations (NGOs) overseas who may already have an extensive network set up with locals.
-EWB also creates change in Canada by raising awareness about global issues through highschool outreach presentations and events, and also by having volunteers bring back what they have learned to share with chapter members and the public.

When I head over to Malawi, I will be working with CPAR. Who's CPAR?

CPAR (Canadian Physicians for AIDS Relief) works in partnership with vulnerable communities and diverse organizations to overcome poverty and build healthy communities in Africa. They have projects in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Malawi. These projects focus on basic things such as primary health care, water and sanitation, food security and income-generating activities. For more details on CPAR, check out .

I'm two days into the six days of training, it's intense and 2AM. Goodnight!