Category Archives: malawi

In the place where I was most happy, I believe I also learned how to be more grateful. This has had an incredible impact on my life.

I believe it was while I lived in Malawi that I finally learned how to look for, find, and appreciate the little things in life, instead of just accidentally stumbling upon them. There was something I discovered in the Malawian people that filled me with joy – happiness, a satisfaction, an interest in others, deep echoing laughs, and beautiful smiles. I saw that they had genuine interest in the well-being of others. The place was not always a barrel of laughs for me – work didn’t always go smoothly, I sometimes had trouble finding diabetic-friendly foods, the power and/or the water would go out about once a day – but it taught me to be more resilient, helped me learn to live with less, and most of all, that I could find wonder and awesomeness in these incredible little moments during the day. In every day of my life now and frequently during those days, I find myself feeling grateful for the things that happen around me. The smile from a homeless man on the street, the succulent taste of a juicy red apple, and the glorious green of the leaves on the trees as summer approaches. This is what carpe diem means to me.

Fruits and vegetables in Lilongwe

Fresh bananas and vegetables at the local market in Lilongwe. After five minutes of haggling, I was able to get the lot for 800 kwacha (about US$2.20). And I probably paid too much. :)

I found it interesting that the quality of the red onion and the tomatoes at this market was far superior to three other large grocery stores I visited in the city just the day before: Shoprite, SPAR and City Supermarket. If you want to find this local market, it is across from Shoprite/ John Deere next to the bus stop in Old Town Area 3.

Thanks Sophie!

Fruits and vegetables purchased at the local market in Old Town Lilongwe, Area 3

Back in Lilongwe, Malawi

I am back in Lilongwe, Malawi after a 3-month travel hiatus. As part of my work with the Water Institute at UNC, I will be based here for the next four months, collaborating with WHO, UNICEF and the Government of Malawi on increasing access to safe drinking water. Malawi is a land-locked country of 14 million people located in Southern Africa. It is bordered on the south and the east by Mozambique, on the north by Tanzania and on the west by Zambia. The country’s most significant geographic feature is Lake Malawi, the third largest freshwater lake in Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage site. For past blog posts about my time in Malawi, click here. For posts about my work in water, click here.

Malawi works to ensure safe water at home

The Ministry of Health of Malawi hosted a meeting yesterday morning to seek input on a “zero draft” of its national action plan on home-based water treatment and safe storage. In Malawi about 20% of the population obtains their drinking water from unsafe sources: lakes, rivers, or unprotected wells or natural springs. The microscopic creatures living in the water can lead to diarrhoeal diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid which kill more than 1.5 million people worldwide every year, most of these children, and Malawi is no exception to this global trend. Treating the water at home through filtration, chlorine or other means and storing it safely in a proper container afterwards can improve the quality of the water and reduce the chances of getting sick with diarrhoea by up to 47%.

In addition to household treatment of drinking water, there are two other key practices that can reduce the burden of diarrhoeal disease: hand-washing with soap and the safe disposal of human faeces. The Government of Malawi has developed national approaches on both: the National Handwashing Campaign and the Open Defecation Free Strategy, leaving household water treatment as a key gap to be addressed and providing the impetus for the current initiative.

Efforts to develop a national action plan began earlier this year at a workshop hosted by the World Health Organization and UNICEF in Mozambique. Following the workshop I was invited to Malawi by the government to provide technical assistance to their work in this area. At the moment, the technical assistance consists chiefly of a review of the status of household water treatment in Malawi, specifically the policy environment, key stakeholders, current practices and products available in the market. The next step is to provide some input into the drafting of the action plan and help the Ministry implement it in months to come. This work has been generously funded by Aqua for All, a Dutch NGO, with input and support from 300in6, a safe water advocacy group.

The Malawi Ministry of Health seeking input on its draft national action plan on household water treatment


Two examples of African ingenuity

The first is this makeshift sprinkler being used on the lawn of a hotel in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. I have seen this elsewhere in the city but never anywhere else on the continent or the world for that matter. A great idea! Have you seen it? :)

Watering the grass in Lilongwe, Malawi

The second is this electricity-free refrigerator invented by a Nigerian fellow who turned it into a successful business and apparently now sells 30,000 of them a year for a little more than 1 USD a piece. As described on GIZMODO.COM: “Conventional refrigeration does an incredible job keeping food fresh. But that technology hasn’t helped desert dwellers without steady electricity. A more recent development in refrigeration—the Zeer pot-in-pot refrigerator—only requires water, sand, and a hot, dry climate to preserve produce through evaporative cooling. Here’s how to make the simple gadget.” Follow the link to learn how to make your own.

The Zeer pot-in-pot cooler
(Image source: AIDG / flickr:

Police FAIL in Lilongwe

If you’re from North America, you’ve probably grown up learning how to call 911. Your parents drill it into you from an early age, it is reinforced in schools, and it’s a toll-free call from every phone. Cellphones even have an emergency call setting which you can use when you are out of the network coverage area.

But what do you do in a foreign country where you aren’t familiar with the local numbers to reach emergency services? What if you are faced with a medical emergency or a life-threatening situation? On Saturday night something similar happened to me, when from the window of a taxi I witnessed a man physically assault a woman in a well-to-do neighbourhood of Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi.

Known as “Area 3”, it is a borough of the city which includes the popular “Old Town”, large tree-lined streets, wealthy homes and backpacker hostels. Many visitors to the city choose to stay here as it’s easy to get around on foot and see an “urban” part of Lilongwe if there is one. I consider it to be fairly safe and although I wouldn’t recommend walking around alone at night, it’s certainly a lot safer than other parts of the city.

Now, back to my story. Certain circumstances suggested that this woman was in serious trouble. My taxi driver and I tried to intervene and were threatened by the man, who put his hand under his shirt as if to suggest that he might pull out a weapon. The woman, who had obviously been in distress, came between us and asked me to leave, saying she was okay and they were “just” fighting. I could smell the alcohol on her breath. The man paced back and forth, hurling insults and taunts at me, as if daring me to provoke him to do something. From the look on his face I could see he wasn’t afraid and I had no idea what he might be hiding under that shirt. I stood there, facing off against him for what seemed like an eternity, considering how to handle the situation. Again, the woman spoke calmly, calling the man by name and telling him to back off and asking me to please leave. I felt my taxi driver place his hand on my wrist and pull me gently back into the car. Finally, I did back down and we got into the car. As we drove away, a second man appeared from the shadows and joined the couple who had started yelling at each other again.

Now, my backup plan was to call the Malawi Police. And this is where things became a different kind of scary. When I asked my taxi driver how to reach the police, he didn’t know the number. When I arrived at my hotel, the manager suggested that even if we reached the police, they likely wouldn’t be able to do anything since they often don’t have a car to travel to the scene of a crime. But I felt obliged to report it and besides, civic duty right?

Phone numbers for Lilongwe police in the MTL telephone directory

So, using the hotel’s telephone, we twice tried calling the Malawi toll-free emergency services number “997” and got no answer. Totally dumbfounded, I asked the hotel manager if he had any suggestions. He produced a copy of the local telephone directory and we flipped through to the government services section. There was a list of land line telephone numbers for the police in Lilongwe (see inset). He suggested that we call the mobile patrol office. Twice more we tried and still there was no answer. Faced with a set of circumstances that suggested no possible positive outcome, I reluctantly gave up.

Two things struck me from this experience:

  • Newcomers or tourists to Lilongwe might not know how to call for help if they need it.
  • If they do call emergency services, they may not be able to reach them, and they should have a backup plan.

The experience of trying to unsuccessfully reach emergency services is what has prodded me to write this blog post. Until this past weekend, I can’t recall ever needing immediate, emergency police assistance during my travels. Call it dumb luck. But if you’re living overseas or have a friend who does, let this be a reminder of how important these numbers are, knowing who to call and what to do if you need help. Print out the numbers for the city and country you live in and carry them with you in your wallet, your backpack and the glove compartment of your car. And have a backup plan!

Postscript: On Monday August 27 two police officers happened to visit my hotel and I had a chance to inform them of the story. They took my number and said they would check their logs to see if any incidents had been reported that corresponded to my experience. Also I discovered this website, which allows Malawi residents to submit anonymous information on crimes. Perhaps a resource to keep in mind if you find yourself the witness of a crime and no one to report it to. Finally, I learned from Wikipedia that from many countries dialing 911 will connect you to the local emergency services – this seems to work from Malawi!

Malaria in Malawi

Last night I went to a dinner party, looking forward to good food and time with friends, and while there began to feel ill – headache, extreme fatigue, fever and unsteadiness on my feet. Lucky me though – among my friends there were three doctors and two medical students so I was in good hands.

My symptoms led the doctors to suspect I might have malaria. This, despite the fact that I have been taking Malarone, an anti-malarial medication also known generically as atovaquone and proguanil hydrochloride, since I arrived in Africa on June 11. One of the doctors said that the malarial parasite species common in Malawi (Plasmodium falciparum) has developed resistance to Malarone, although I could not find evidence for this when looking around online this morning. At that doctor’s recommendation I began a course of mefloquine hydrochloride (which many may know as Lariam): three doses of 500mg every 12 hours for 36 hours. Mefloquine is often taken as a prophylaxis to prevent malaria – in higher doses it can treat it too. A rare but feared side effect of mefloquine is psychosis!

The doctor suggested that if I felt worse in the morning that I go to the hospital to get a blood screening test for malaria. I am feeling much better now but still not 100% so will wait another 24 hours to see how it goes. As one of the doctors said (while laughing!): “Now you’ve been introduced to malaria”. I guess I could consider this as an essential rite of passage for a travelling public health specialist. But if I were feeling any worse, I might not be looking at it in such a positive light…

Malaria is common worldwide but is particularly deadly among children under five years old and especially in African countries. In Malawi it is the second-leading cause of death among this age group and the fourth leading cause of death for all age groups nationwide, behind HIV/AIDS (1), lower respiratory infections (2) and diarrhoeal diseases (3).

Here are some key facts about malaria from the World Health Organization:

  • Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by parasites that are transmitted to people through the bites of infected mosquitoes.
  • In 2010, malaria caused an estimated 655 000 deaths (with an uncertainty range of 537 000 to 907 000), mostly among African children.
  • Malaria is preventable and curable.
  • Increased malaria prevention and control measures are dramatically reducing the malaria burden in many places.
  • Non-immune travellers from malaria-free areas are very vulnerable to the disease when they get infected.

Watching over me :)

I’m in a taxi tonight winging my way through the dark and empty streets of Lilongwe. The driver’s name is Ben. He’s got a tuque on (its winter here) and he doesn’t talk much. His radio is tuned to a station playing American country music. I ask him if he likes this stuff. He grunts. I tell him I like it too, and he turns it up. I tell him it reminds me of my father. He grunts. Here’s the song he was playing. This would have been a song on my Dad’s playlist for sure… Feel like he is watching over me… Aren’t you Chief?

Don Williams – I Recall a Gypsy Woman