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.
Having left Malawi a few days ago, I am now in small town North Carolina ahead of a big water-related conference taking place next week. Its quite a change from the life I’ve been living overseas the last few months, and as usual, makes it easier to notice things that might otherwise seem quite ordinary.
Yesterday morning, I had just finished running an errand and was looking for the bus stop to get a ride home. I saw a lady sitting in a parked car and asked her if she knew what direction I should be going in. Lucky me. She knew the area like the back of her hand and told me exactly what I needed to do. Her voice had a strong Southern twang to it and she was eager to help. I thanked her, barely noticing the brightly coloured vest she had on.
As I stand at the bus stop, a woman and child approach and sit down on the curbside. The boy is not a day over two years old; the mother in her mid-30s at most. They are of Asian ethnicity (from Thailand or Vietnam perhaps). The boy is shy and looks at me with big eyes. He looks away and burrows into his mother’s lap; she rocks him in her arms. I chat them up and discover they are in fact from Cambodia. The woman speaks in broken English with a bright smile and a soft voice. It makes me happy, somehow. I’m not sure why.
Waiting for the bus, small-town life passes by. There is something very pleasing and comforting about the slow pace of life. The interactions of the townspeople betray a familiarity and a security not often seen in the big city. A Ford Mustang roars by and honks his horn at a boy on a bicycle. An elderly couple, the man pushing a walker, shuffle by without saying anything – that comfortable, understanding silence that comes with time, communication that needs no words. The mother and son duo beside me, enjoying the sun and blue sky on their faces. Two strangers, one of whom asks the other for the time – to which the response is: “I’m not sure, but I just came from the post office and the lady had come from a late lunch. Maybe it’s about, ehmmm, 2pm?”
Then, I notice the woman from the car, the one who had given me directions, walking across the street. She is carrying a stop sign in her hand. She is a crossing guard and she is about to start her shift. Oddly, there are no children around and I look around searching for a crowd of kids from around the corner.
A woman with a stroller approaches the intersection. Suddenly, the crossing guard blows her whistle and strides confidently out in to the street. She raises her sign and signals for drivers to stop. The woman and her baby are waved across. They smile and thank her.
I get up and walk over her. “Hello”, I say, and introduce myself. Her name is Willa Mae. I tell her that I have been admiring her doing her job and am wondering where all the kids are. She points to a building and says that they are about to finish class. Is she a volunteer, I ask? She proudly declares that no, she works for a nearby elementary school and has been doing so for about two months. “I took over this job from another fella who recently passed on”, she says in a matter of fact way. “Bless his soul!”
As we stand there chatting, a man begins to cross the intersection. Willa Mae excuses herself and hurries out to stand between him and the traffic. He says hello to her. A woman from the opposite side crosses him, and they nod. All seem to know each other. I realise that although Willa Mae’s role is to ensure the safety of children, she is really an asset to the community. Traffic gets busier during these peak hours and she helps any man, woman or child cross the road safely. People meet and greet each other, perhaps partly because of her. She is a bridge, so to speak, between people and points. I feel somewhat self-conscious standing there, an outsider. Moments like these feel somewhat voyeuristic. An intimate glimpse into the personalities of strangers.
I spot the bus approaching, call out a quick goodbye to Willa Mae, and sprint back to the bus stop. The door opens and the driver grins at me, saying hello. Buses are free of charge in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. They have been for years. Feeling “bridged”, I return the smile and the greeting and sit down.
The Canadian Expat Network, an online resource for Canadians living abroad, expressed interest in hearing more about my activities in the water sector. This is the first article in a three-part series and was published online at http://www.canadianexpatnetwork.com/public/1142.cfm in May 2012. Photos are my own.
Canadian Expat Ryan Rowe, Making a Difference
By Ryan Rowe, MBA, MPH
WHO/UNICEF International Network on Household Water Treatment and Safe Storage
Based at the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
I took a deep breath and jumped over the gutter of raw sewage. Landing on the other side, my foot splashed down into a puddle, spraying my shoes and ankles. I grimaced and wiped the sweat from my forehead. The smell of an open fire, rubbish, and human waste permeated the air and burned my nostrils. Kelvin, the six year old boy taking me to his home, ran ahead like an eager rabbit, bounding through a minefield of more foul ditches. I tried my best to keep up with this adventurous and fearless child but within seconds lost sight of him. Stopping, I glanced around, unsure where to go or what to do. Locals stared at me as I stood there, clearly out of place. Schoolchildren walking by looked at me with big smiles and cried “Mzungu! Mzungu! How are you?”
Like many of the world’s urban slums, the community of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya has little to no water and sanitation infrastructure, at least not the type that you and I are used to. The United Nations estimates about 800 million people lack access to clean drinking water and nearly 3 billion do not have adequate toilet systems. In these settings, people frequently get sick from dirty water and without a functioning toilet the environment is further contaminated, a vicious cycle.
On my first visit to Kibera in 2009, I learned about Carolina for Kibera (CFK), an award-winning non-profit which works on health, education, and entrepreneurship initiatives. The organization is run by local leaders and supported by faculty and students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill through research and fundraising efforts. CFK invited me to participate in their community clean-up program, during which local youth clean out Kibera’s clogged and makeshift sewage trenches (see photo inset) in exchange for points to play football, a very popular sport in Kenya. More importantly, the program improves living conditions and teaches young people how to work and play together. Unemployment is as high as 40% in Kibera and many children cannot afford to go to school, so the program provides kids the opportunity to develop leadership skills and the confidence to pursue their hopes and dreams in the face of such challenges.
The practical impact of UNC’s work in health and development is one reason why it is a global leader in the field of public health. And amazingly, I was lucky enough to win a fully funded Rotary Peace Fellowship to pursue a two year master’s degree at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. My activities here have focused on behavioural and policy solutions to the water and sanitation problems faced by communities like Kibera. Early in my degree, I took a part-time research position with UNC’s Water Institute, allowing me to work closely with WHO, UNICEF, and experts from all over the world. My main area of focus is on improving the quality of drinking water, so as to reduce diarrhoea in young children and save lives. One way to do this is to treat drinking water at the point-of-use or household level, using methods such as ceramic or sand filtration, solar disinfection, or chlorination. Such methods are particularly important in schools, clinics, and the homes of the sick, poor, or distressed, as these are the people who bear the burden of disease.
For a young child, diarrhea can be lethal, especially when it’s persistent, lasting for weeks at a time. It leads to dehydration as their bodies fail to absorb essential nutrients needed for their development and growth. Constantly thirsty, they have no choice but to turn once again to a contaminated water supply which perpetuates sickness. It doesn’t take long before children become malnourished — they become subject to frequent infections, and the development of their bodies and brains is impaired. Without remedial treatment, they will be permanently affected, and in the most serious cases die. About 1.5 million children globally die every year from preventable diarrheal diseases.
Halfway through my studies, in the summer of 2011, CFK and local residents welcomed me back to Kibera, giving me the opportunity to learn more about point-of-use and household water treatment in practice. In my next write-up, I’ll share with you a bit more about my work there and what I learned. In the meantime, please feel free to contact me with any questions at email@example.com or visit http://www.who.int/household_water/en/.
Ryan Rowe is originally from Montreal, Canada and he has lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina since August 2010. Previously he was an investment banker in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, raising 600 million US dollars for infrastructure projects in the Middle East and North Africa. He now works regularly with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and Rotary International on finding solutions to the world’s water problems and speaks about his work at public and private engagements. Ryan obtained his MBA from the Schulich School of Business in Toronto in 2006 and his MPH from UNC Chapel Hill in 2012. He plans to return to Kibera in July 2012 to continue his work with the community.