A woman and children gathering water in a village near Lilongwe, Malawi. She’s lucky to have access to a water source but the water she’s collecting might not be safe to drink. There are at least two reasons: 1) the lack of a proper drainage system means that dirty water collecting around the pump may be contaminating the groundwater that supplies the pump and 2) the container she is using to collect the water is not covered meaning that dirty flies and fingers can get to it.
I am on safari in Liwonde National Park, Malawi. The park is one of the country’s national treasures. It is rainy season now in Malawi and although the wildlife is not as teeming as in the Southern Hemisphere winter (June to November), elephants, hippos, birds, warthogs, bush bucks, water bucks, porcupines, antelopes should still be in abundance. The park is situated around the banks of the Shire River, a major waterway in the south of the country.
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.
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.
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.
For a couple of days, I am in my hometown of Montreal, Canada to collect my personal belongings and then relocate to Lilongwe, Malawi. Until May 2013, I will be working there on issues related to increasing access to safe drinking water. Click here for more info.
African bananas (at least those I’ve found in Kenya and Malawi) seem to be smaller than the ones I grew up eating in Montreal. When I was a child I would put bananas on toast with peanut butter, and I’d always have a quarter banana left over, driving me, well… bananas!! :p Here I can get the entire banana on two pieces of toast. Ah, the simple pleasures.
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 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? :)
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.
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?
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!
I got tested for malaria this morning and it came back negative. Either the medication I was taking has already cleared it from my body or it was never malaria to begin with. I will probably never know…Thank you for all the well wishes – feeling better today.