Thursday, August 14, 2008


“We have had difficulties finishing a well here. Last year we dug a well but the rains started and the well collapsed,” said Chisenga, one of the hygiene promoters I am working with. “This year we started another well. The water technicians have finished digging – about ten meters deep – and the rings have been cast.”

Chisenga has been showing me around some of the villages he works in. Today we are walking through Lunga village. From what I have seen so far, Lunga is making great progress with the project. The densely populated village has a number of families with completed latrines and the young sanitation technician is enthusiastic to finish many more latrines this year.

We were standing at the well when Chisenga said “Oh, there is a latrine just over there. Let’s go and see it.” Chisenga led me around a house and through a small, dried up garden. When I saw how close the latrine was to the well I thought, “Oh crap”. Chisenga chatted to the sanitation technician about the owner of the latrine while I took a few pictures and made some estimations. The latrine was no more than 20 metres from the well. In order to avoid contaminating the well with fecal matter, a well shouldn’t be within 30 meters of a latrine, so this is obviously a problem.

This is a typical day out in the field for me. At least once a day I will observe how the project is not being implemented properly, and possibly doing more harm to the locals. (I say possibly because in the example of Lunga, the water the villagers are using might already be contaminated).

At first the failures made me feel extremely frustrated and sad. I thought that my role in the project was hopeless and I couldn’t help in anyway. Now, I am comfortable with the failure, or at least my role in all of it. My role is to gather lessons about why things aren’t working, and hopefully these lessons will be used to help things in Milenge, or other future projects.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Shark Hunting

The University of Waterloo chapter of EWB is exploring the topics of micro-finance and micro-lending this summer. That is, how do individuals finance their lives when they have little money to begin with? For example, a village woman may ask a bank for a loan to buy yarn and knitting needles. Then she knitts sweaters, sells them at the market, and uses the profit to repay her loan and pay for her childrens' school books. This post explores microfinance in Milenge.

There is no bank in Milenge. So if people need to borrow money, where do they get it? Loan sharks? Family? Neighbours?
From my detective work, I don't think people in Milenge borrow money! "You can ask your neighbour to borrow a tomato, but you cannot ask to borrow money," explains my coworker, Eddy Chitalu. "That is because, in Milenge, it is common for someone to have a tomato, but uncommon for someone to have money."

I think people in Milenge only bite off what they can chew. That is, they only do what they can afford to do. A field worker, Maybin Chishimbe, is building an additional house and he told me, "It will only have a dirt floor. I will not use cement. The money to buy cement is the money to pay for my children's schooling." Mr. Chishimbe is making his own bricks in his front yard.

In the villages it is common to live off of subsistence farming (and therefore having money is not very common, as Eddy said). It is difficult to find vegetables or fish for sale in Milenge. The market is much smaller than any of the bustling markets I've seen elsewhere in Zambia. Milenge's market is one table, one restaurant, one bar, and four shops. Sometimes there will be no women selling goods at the one table. Most families either sell their food at the edge of the road by their homes or send their children to sell the food door to door.

I have seen villagers with the following livelihoods which make some money:
  • Hammer mill owner - charges a fee for people wanting to grind maize kernels
  • Restaurant/Bar/Shop owner
  • Farmer - sells vegetables
  • Fisherman - sells fish
  • Beekeepers - take their honey to Mansa to be sold there
  • Carpenters - will make you almost anything you need
  • Women brewing beer for sale
  • Charcoal burners
  • Pieceworks such as washing clothes and building bath shelters
And then there are the government workers. In Milenge there are government workers that work in the boma (the "downtown" of Milenge) and that work at the schools and health clinics. I have found the livelihoods of government workers much different from everyone else in Milenge. The government workers have the money to buy food, instead of growing it. They are also the only people in Milenge I have heard talking about taking out a loan. My friend Charity (a secretary for the Ministry of Education in Milenge) explained to me, "If you need a loan, you must travel to Mansa and go to one of the banks there." Mansa is the nearest city, five hours away.

However, every person in Milenge has a different story and their livelihoods are complicated. To finish, I want to introduce you to two women I have become friends with in Milenge. Their names are Esther and Hennedy.

Ester is a preschool teacher here in Milenge, and lives in the Boma. She is 24 years old. She came to Milenge last February after finishing her grade 12 and plans on leaving Milenge in December. She lives with her sister and her sister's family in the boma. It has taken her a long time to finish grade school because her parents separated when she was in grade seven and her mother could not pay for further education. In Zambia, families must pay for their children's schooling after grade seven. After a few years, Ester and her mother started a business. They made table cloths and knitted a lining for the tablecloths. To start the business, Ester gathered some of her sorghum and sold it at the market. "That is how I got my capital,"she told me. She used the profits from this business to finish grade school in Mansa. Now, she is saving money to pay for a three year nursing program. "I wanted to join the army, but my friends talked me out of it." Esther is saving money from working as a teacher and selling "talk time" (pay as you go cell phone minutes) with a small profit. However, this will take time. One year at the nursing school costs 1,000,000 Kwacha and she needs to improve her mark in grade 12 science before the school will accept her. Esther says she would also like to start a restaurant in Mansa some day.

Hennedy lives in one of the most rural parts of Milenge: Mumbotuta ward. She is 21 and is a single mother of a five month old baby, Steward. I lived with Hennedy and her mother for five days. The family lives off of subsistence farming - they eat what they grow and do not buy their food. Every morning, Hennedy's mother and neighbours would go out in the field to gather food and return before lunch to start preparing the meal. "There is no cooking oil in Mumbotuta," Hennedy explained to me. So when the family ate chicken, the chicken was boiled, not fried. I think the only income Hennedy has is from her work with the WaterAid project. She is a hygiene promoter and makes 130,000 Kwacha per month. Hennedy spends that money on repairing the bicycle Water Aid gave her, clothes, and special food. "I like to buy some maize mealy meal. I cannot grow it because I cannot afford fertilizer." The family makes their own mealy meal from sorghum, which does not require fertilizer.

  • boma: the "downtown" of Milenge
  • livelihood: what a person does to make a living. As a Canadian example, my mother's livelihood is teaching people how to play the violin. She uses the money her students pay her for food, paying bills, etc.
  • subsistence farming: a household eats what they grow

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Books I have read this summer

There is plenty of time in Milenge to read! Feel free to comment/ask questions about what I'm reading...I'll update this post throughout the summer.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)

The Restaurant at the end of the Universe (Douglas Adams)

Life of Pi (Yann Mortel)

Tao of Coaching (Max Landsberg)

Critical Villager (Eric Dudley)

Mountains Beyond Mountains (Tracy Kidder)

Blink (Malcolm Gladwell)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Open Defecation (a.k.a. “Shitting in the Bush”) and Other Risky Behaviours

The hygiene promoters have a list of risky behaviours that they discuss in village meetings. They discus why these behaviours are risky. Some of the discussion is very blunt and the villagers have a good laugh about it. The idea is that building latrines and wells is only part of the solution to decreasing incidences of water borne/hygiene related diseases!

Risky Behaviour #1: Open Defecation (a.k.a. “shitting in the bush”)

This is what a villager must do if they do not have any sort of a latrine. So when the hygiene promoters arrive at a village without latrines, they know open defecation exists (but people don’t talk about it!). Why is it risky? I faeces is left in the open, it becomes a breading ground for bacteria and flies are also free to come and go from your food from the pile. The problem is that flies are also free to come and go from your food and can therefore transfer bacteria from faeces to food. So if you have a latrine, but your neighbour doesn’t, you’re not safe from the flies! Way forward: start building some sort of a latrine.

Risky Behviour #2: Not washing your hands

There are a variety of risky hand washing habits. The most basic risky behaviour is not washing your hands at all. Why is it risky? Toilet paper isn't used so much in the village, so it's either a leaf or your left hand! Way forward: build and use a hand washing station outside your latrine.

Risky Behaviour #3: Leaving dishes on the ground

Most cooking is done outside and dishes, even after they are washed, are left on the ground. There's no kitchen, let alone a sink or counter top. So animal like chickens, goats, dogs, and pigs can sniff, lick, and step in dishes, pots, and pans! Why is it risky? All of these animals are also free to roam in the bush (see Risky Behaviour #1). Way forward: build a dish rack to dry & store your dishes.

Risky Behaviour #4: Washing hands in shared water

It is a tradition in Zambia to rinse your hands with water at the dinner table before eating nshima. At restaurants there are water dispensers to wash your hands. In homes you use a bowl of water. Why is it risky? Everyone at the table washing their hands in the same bowl of water means your sharing germs with everyone at the table! Way forward: pour water from a pitcher of water and use soap.


So what do you think about this? It may seem like common sense to wash your hands after going to the bathroom in the west. Why do you wash your hands after going to the bathroom? Why do you bother using the bathroom?

*Drawings are from a PHAST training guide*

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Typical Day in Milenge District

Since I’ve been moving around a lot, I haven’t had a typical day. So this is a typical day when I was living in Kapalala Ward with a hygiene promoter and his family.

4am-6am Sometime early in the morning, I am woken up by the chickens, the children talking in the room next to mine, the ridiculously cold temperature, and/or an unbelievable need to use the latrine! Eventually, all of them combined motivate me to get out of bed and start my day.

6am-8am Go for a run around the soccer field at Kapalala school. It's so cold in the mornings that I wear pants, a long sleeve shirt, and a sweater! If the children that live around the soccer field have woken up they join me on my fifth lap (when I'm exhausted) and urge me to run as fast as they can (and they can run pretty fast!).

I return to the Mumba's house and find the mother sweeping,
preparing breakfast, and already heating water for me to bath with. I have tried helping with chores but I am still seen as a guest. The bath shelter is ten meters away from the house, is made of straw and has a "floor" made of flat rocks.

Bath Shelter

After bathing I sit with Mrs. Mumba and the children in the "insaka" (where all the cooking is done - the Zambian "kitchen"). We sit around the fire as it cooks sweet potatoes. My breakfast is always boiled sweet potatoes, and I have to say they are mighty good!


8am-12pm Mr. Mumba and I ride our bicycles to a village where the other hygiene promoter in Kapalala (Mr. Maybin Chishimbe) joins us. The village headman greets us and we go to sit in another insaka (this one is a meeting place for the village). The hygiene promoters and village headman insist that I sit on a chair or log as they are but I say that I am at the meeting to learn. As an observer I want to sit with the villagers. Everyone settles for me sitting on a bamboo mat. Being female and white, it is difficult to fit into the village and household dynamics! I think I am treated like a male visitor because I am both a guest and a white person - and therefore I should sit on a chair.

We wait for maybe 30 minutes for the villagers to gather. Time is very relaxed! Throughout the meeting, the hygiene promoters discuss "Risky Behaviors" such as not washing your hands before eating. I am learning Bemba and understand some of it brokenly and the hygiene promoters also translate for me.

12pm-2pm Return to Mr. Mumba's home. I sit outside and talk with him about the meeting, how it went, and more general things like his role as a hygiene promoter. The purpose of my visit in Kapalala is to learn about how the locals work and what their responsibilities are. Mr. Mumba and I eat lunch in the sitting room inside his house while Mrs. Mumba and the children eat outside in the insaka.

2pm - 4:30pm Mr.Chishimbe joins us at the Mumba's house. We sit outside while they complete their monthly reports. There have been some problems with the reporting process and one of my projects this summer may be to determine what exactly the problems are (ie. a question is misunderstood or the format of the form is confusing) to improve the reporting process.

4:30pm-6:30pm I sit with Mrs. Mumba and the children and help prepare dinner. It took a few days of only watching them prepare the meals before they let me help! Usually I peel sweet potatoes or help stir nshima until my arm is tired.

6:30pm - 7pm I eat dinner with Mr. Mumba inside the house. The meal is nshima and fried fish. I take a long time eating because a) I'm not good at separating fish bones and b) I'm trying to disguise that I'm not eating a lot of food. Mr. Mumba wants me to eat a lot of food! So every meal is like a complicated dance, but I stop eating when I'm full and say "Nayakuta" with a sigh. It means "I am satisfied".

7pm - 8:30pm I sit with Mr. and Mrs. Mumba in the sitting room. We talk about the differences between Canada and Zambia while I knit with Mrs. Mumba. I think she thinks I'm funny when I try to knit because I don't understand the pattern she wants me to knit (she speaks broken English, and I speak broken Bemba, so it's difficult to get the instructions straight!!). Mrs. Mumba brings a big bowl of boiled sweet potatoes. This is why I save some room after dinner! i drink lots of water to wash them down, explaining my "unbelievable need to use the latrine" in the mornings!!

8:30pm - 9:30pm I sit in bed, read, and write in my journal, or write letters to send home. I fall asleep to the sounds of one of the kids snoring and crickets outside. A neighbor's radio blares music in the distance.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What am I eating?

Nshima, lots and lots of Nshima

Fish, lots and lots of fish
Game meat
*I'm vegetarian in Canada but decided to eat meat this summer.

Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoe leaves
Cassava tubers
Cassava leaves
Pumpkin leaves

Soya pieces (really good!)
Peanut butter (home-made!)

Sweet bread (made in a pot)
Boiled sorghum

Popcorn, shortbread cookies

Oranges, watermelon, apples, bananas

Water, orange juice, fanta, coke, sprite, carbonated apple juice, tea, honey

Friday, July 18, 2008

From the Black Proboscis to Zambian Bicycles

An update my first month in Milenge July 1, 2008

Here is a short dialogue I had on my first day of work at the health clinic in Milenge:

Doctor: “You have Malaria.”

Me: “Haha, okay where do I go to get the treatment?”

So starting work in Milenge was delayed about a week and a half for me because I got Malaria. I am trying to avoid the black proboscis (aka the mosquito) with a mosquito net at night, mosquito repellent, and covering as much skin as possible! I guess the mosquitoes in Milenge are really sneaky!

In Milenge, I am living with a woman named Charity who is a secretary at the Ministry of Education office. Charity’s niece and cousin (Cathrine and Penlope) also live in the house. Cathrine is 17 and Penlope is about 15. They both go to school in Milenge. They were awesome help when I was sick and, when I was healthy, introduced me to a lot of Zambian culture! For example, they taught me how to cook nshima – the staple food in Zambia – and I made my first pot of nshima on June 22! They said it tasted great. Until that point my arms weren’t strong enough to stir the nshima until it was done, so the girls would always finish preparing it.


The chicken that sometimes sleeps in my room

Her eggs, which are taking a long time to hatch!

I have actually only lived with Charity and the girls for about two weeks because I’ve been traveling around Milenge. For one week I lived in Kapalala ward with Mr. Anthony Mumba, a hygiene promoter, and his family. Another week I stayed with Ms. Hennedy Mwewa Perfecta and her family in Mumbotuta ward. I have been living in the wards to learn as much as possible about the projects in my first month here. The project officer for the Milenge WaterAid project has not been so there wouldn’t be much to do alone in the office.

Hennedy (top left) and her family

Hennedy and her son, Steward, at Mumbotuta falls

Me, grinding sorghum. Hennedy makes nshima from sorghum flour.

I received my bicycle before leaving for Hennedy’s home. But I had some bike problems in Mumbotuta. My front tire punctured the first day with Hennedy. After a group of village men tried to repair it, justified that I was “so very fat”, and the tire punctured again, everyone agreed I needed a new tire. (Here it’s a compliment to be called fat) The next day my other tire punctured but we replaced it immediately.

I am on my way to the middle-of-term retreat with the other JFs. I will return to Milenge, the land without internet or chocolate, on July 12!