I left work 30 minutes before closing time today so I could line up for the commodity that, for over two solid years now, has eluded motorists, grain millers operating in my friend Godfrey’s to-be-electrified-after-2014 home village and everyone that it almost seems golden – fuel. I have been prudent enough with the last supply that I was so fortunate to have accessed a little over three weeks ago – walking to the grocery store whenever I can (good for my exercise) and cutting down on non-essential travel. Granted, this behavior change has bought me some days but it was only a matter of time before the orange light popped up again.

Nobody wants to spend their evening waiting for what should be a basic commodity. No mother deserves to lose their life and that of their unborn child because the ambulance that should have taken them to the major hospital to treat a complication is grounded due to a lack of fuel. In this 21st century, my 85 year old grandmother should never have to draw out her labor-intensive stone-age tools to prepare maize flour for her next meal. Unfortunately, that’s what is happening every day in Malawi. It is very unacceptable.

But then Malawians are a patient lot. I wonder how my Kenyan friend and his Kikuyu kinsmen would react if they were faced with the same hardships. Not that Malawians should take machetes and rise against the authorities. It’s about demanding of authorities what is rightfully theirs. The president has made it clear the current problems will be fixed when he is out of office, in 2014. That’s ONLY two more years to go…

PS: after three hours, I’m still on the line waiting to get a little gold…and if i succeed (the gas station doesn’t close because it is very late or the supply does not run out), I will get 15 liters because there is not enough for everyone. That should be enough to run around for three days, and who knows what will happen thereafter.

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It is my second weekend back in Malawi. A friend asks me to help him collect data for an evaluation of a project that has a catchy short name – SY2SE. He won the consultancy a while ago from among several bidders. I am delighted to help him out. During the process of familiarizing myself with SY2SE, I learn that SY2SE is a project that has been going on since 2006. It was being implemented by the National Youth Council of Malawi, a body that was established by an Act of Parliament many years ago with a mandate to address issues/problems affecting Malawi’s young people. I also discover that SY2SE stands for “Scavenging Youths to Scholars and Entrepreneurs”, which is what the project sought to accomplish.

SY2SE, in brief, is a project that sought to stop young people from one area of Lilongwe City (Malawi’s capital) from scavenging at one of the city’s major dumpsites. Scavenging at the dumpsite is a common practice among youths and adults alike in this part of rural Lilongwe (the “city” is sub-divided into Lilongwe Urban and Lilongwe Rural). Our two guides from St. Peters, a local NGO that the Youth Council collaborated with on the project, inform us that ‘waste collection’ is a more polite description of the activity. They tell us that the project has so far benefited about 90 families out of 3,000 who initially registered. The idea was to target young people who frequent the dumpsite and offer them scholarships to go back to school. The project provides each student with school supplies (uniforms, notebooks, pens, etc) and pays for his/her school fees (if any). For those youths who cannot go back to school because of age, they are taught vocational skills (carpentry, brick-laying, tailoring and knitting) and are provided with start-up capital after the training to establish their own trades. A total of 53 young people have been assisted to date in one of these ways. To ensure sustainability, the project works with each student’s family to help them get a loan from a local bank to start a small business.

For my first interview, I talk to a woman who used to look after an orphaned boy who collected waste at the dumpsite. The boy now lives with his grandmother. He is back in school. My respondent received a loan from the local bank for 10,000 Malawi Kwacha (about $66). She used the money to start a trading business – she buys charcoal and resells it. She also sells popcorn. I learn that the charcoal trading business brings her a better profit margin than the popcorn business. She makes a profit of K200 on every sack of charcoal she sells. In total, she makes about K2,000 a month in profits when the times are good. During our interview, she expresses her delight at being selected for the project and how much it has changed her life. She now has food to put on the table and some money for other basic necessities. She has nearly paid off her loan, including interest which she told me was charged at 2.9% per month. As I close the interview, I feel a sense of happiness for her. At the same time, I wonder how she is able to help the boy who now lives with the poor grandmother.

For my next interview, I talk to a young woman (aged 25) who tells me another inspiring story. She lost her mother when she was a teen and has been living with her father since. She walks me through the agonies of growing up without a mom (mothers are breadwinners in most rural households – they fend for the family). She dropped out of school in Standard 7 because they did not have the money for school supplies (uniforms, books, etc). They usually went hungry for days. About a year ago, she decided she wanted to start up a trading business but did not have the capital for it. She however had a small amount of money given to her by a stranger. With that money, she went to the dumpsite to buy plastic bags for resale. The other kids at the dumpsite would dig out the plastic (shoppers) bags, empty them and sell them to her. She would take them home, wash them and take them to the market for sale. She managed to grow her capital to 4,000 Kwacha, enough to start a proper trading business. It was during that time she was seen at the dumping site that she was identified as a potential beneficiary for the SY2SE project. At the same time she had her 4,000 Kwacha from selling plastic bags, she got a loan for 10,000 Kwacha through the project. She used the money to start trading in dry beans. She buys the beans from other traders and sells them for a profit. I asked her if that is what she wanted from the project and she told me she would have been happy to learn a skill – tailoring. She dreamed of opening up her own tailoring shop some day and employing other people but the project did not give her the opportunity to choose how she wanted to be involved. The trading business does not look sustainable, one negative shock to the household (e.g. a serious illness) and all the capital will be lost. She will have to start all over again.

Felix standing outside the chief's house

I manage to talk to one student, Felix Kuseli, who is in Form 3 at a local secondary school (an equivalent of the junior level of high school). He is 21 and he remembers starting waste collection (scavenging) when he was only 8. He had been going to the dumpsite until a year ago. He tells me he started going there because of peer pressure. He eventually got used to being at the dumpsite. The project offered him a scholarship to go back to school. He enrolled in Form 1 (high school freshman). Last year, he passed his Junior Certificate exams in secondary school. He will sit for the final exams next year, but the project has already ended and so has the support he got from it. He is pretty confident that he will make the final exam but he does not know how he will get the money to pay for the school fees for the senior year of high school. Already, his parents had to borrow money for his school fees because the project has been late in making the payments. I ask him if he would consider going back to the dumpsite and he tells me that is a closed chapter. He is more happy and healthy now than he has ever been.

I am anxious to visit the dumpsite. After the interviews, we drive in our little old Toyota Corolla to the site. The road is bumpy, as are all the roads in this part of Lilongwe, and it takes us a while to get there. Our two guides brief us on the ground rules that we have to follow when we get to the site. No one is allowed to spit while at the site, however awful they feel. If flies cover your face, you should never attempt to chase or remove them. You should all keep a straight, happy face. You should never take pictures of anyone unless they offer you the chance to. Anything to the contrary is offensive to the people at the dumpsite and they can kick you out. A female reporter from the country’s only TV station nearly got beat up here for breaking these house rules.

Some of the people at the dumpsite

We find boys and girls as young as 7 at the dumpsite. They have a leader, a mid-30s man who directs activities at the site. He had been offered the chance to learn a skill at one of the technical colleges in the city through the project but he bolted a few days into the training. As he talks to our two guides from St. Peters, he regrets his decision to quit the training as he now sees his classmates running their own carpentry and tailoring shops in the community. As a leader at the site, he gets to pick first when the dumpster offloads. After he has selected the “goods” from the waste pile, he lets the others know they can start collecting whatever they want. He still retains the right to every valuable item – he can confiscate anything he thinks is valuable that has been found by the other people at the dumpsite. This is a dumpsite for everything from expired grocery and food items to used medical supplies. We observe there are broken glasses and sharp metals too at the site. Some of the young people at the site are wearing mismatched boots (collected from the site) while others are barefooted. They use sticks and their hands to dig for valuables from the heaps of waste and they have no gloves on. During our tour of the dumpsite, we learn that there is one particular dumpster that is everyone’s favorite. They nicknamed her Dalo (or Darling) because she brings in more food than every other truck. Dalo brings in rotten chickens, beef and everything from grocery stores in Lilongwe. Some of the food brought in by Dalo is sold to the community – to households and to vendors processing food by the roadside. In our conversation with one of the chiefs in the area, he admitted to eating chicken from the dumpsite.

The dumpsite used to have a fence around it but the people who collect the waste took it down because it prevented the

Me at the dumpsite

m from getting there. As we leave the site, I feel so sick to my stomach. The air at the site is awful, my clothes stink. There are flies everywhere on the ground. I wonder how these young people would survive such a place. I have questions for Felix that I want answers to. How did he make it from such a place? He admitted to getting sick once in a while but if I spent my every day here, I would barely make a week. I am physically and mentally exhausted. It has been a long day but I never imagined it would be as enlightening as it has been depressing. I have always thought I grew up in poverty (and I did, by our standards of poverty) but I had never fathomed anything like this happening in the capital city of Malawi. Urban poverty in Malawi is worse than rural poverty. This, to me, is a huge public health issue. I have questions for the city assembly who manage this dumpsite. My friend has scheduled a meeting with them and I hope I will be able to get the answers that I need.

It has been a while since I updated this blog, my apologies for that. A lot of things have happened since. I am almost done with my thesis research, and will post a summary of the findings on the blog very soon. My research attempted to measure the impacts of the 2008/9 Malawi Input Subsidy Program on the use of chemical fertilizers by smallholder farmers, land allocation among different crops, and forest clearing for agricultural expansion. I am pretty excited with the story that’s unfolding.

If all goes well, I will be back in Malawi towards the end of July to pick up a temporary job at IFPRI in Lilongwe. In the interim, I have a thesis defense to worry about that’s coming up in a few days’ time. Once that is out of the way, I will be back to my old blogging self. Thanks for the patience!

Hello friends. Today I have decided to honour one brave Malawian boy whose dream has inspired me and many

The boy who harnessed the wind

The boy who harnessed the wind

 others across the globe – William Kamkwamba. You might have heard his story of determination and courage against all odds. For those who might have missed his story, William is a boy from Kasungu District (Wimbe to be specific). When he was just 14, he built an electricity-producing windmill from spare parts and scrap, working from rough plans he found in a library book called Using Energy and modifying them to fit his needs. The windmill he built powers four lights and two radios in his family home.

I have just completed reading his autobiography The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind that I got from the online store Amazon. I must admit that it is truly an inspiring story, I have not been disappointed with the buy. In the book, William shares his life story, which strikes a chord in my own life. It is a tale of how courageous one man can be in the face of adversities. In the book, William tells of how the society around him shaped his life – from magic through traditional dances to the boy he is today, how his family made it through the 2001 famine and how it almost shattered his dream of getting a good education, and his inventiveness that has led him to where he is now. I’m not reviewing the book on this page, suffice to say it is worth every cent.

Now 21, William is a student at African Leadership Academy, a pan-African high school in Johannesburg, South Africa. The future looks bright for this young man. As a Malawian, I cannot be any more happier for him. I applaud everyone who helped unearth this promising leader. If you appreciate good things, I recommend you buy his book from Amazon.

If you missed his video, here it is:

Greetings dear friends. First, allow me to apologize for not being able to write as frequently as I had promised, the reason is that school had really taken its toll on me and my time. Now that the exams are over, I finally have some breathing space, enough of it that I am on my way back to Malawi as I write this post.

The main purpose for my going back home is to collect data for my MS thesis (research project). Of course there is the added advantage of meeting and spending some time with friends and family. After being away for 9 months (I know that is not a lot to some people but it is to me!), there is nothing more refreshing than reuniting with some old, familiar faces. It’s a huge reward for all the hard work over the past year. I understand, though, how privileged I am to get this opportunity to visit Malawi after such a short time away. I know of so many people who long to visit Malawi again having been away for so long but they just can not afford an air ticket. And the current economic environment does not make it any easier to do so.

As I am traveling back to Malawi to collect data, I am still not so very sure what direction I want my research to take. I am hoping that it will be clear by the time I am ready to go out and interview farmers or whoever has the necessary information. One thing that I am certain of though is that I intend to study the impacts of the government input subsidy program on farmland decisions e.g. in terms of how much land to allocate to various enterprises. The Ministry of Agriculture is very much interested in the answer to this question too so there is some value added to studying it. A lot of research has been done on the impacts of the subsidy program on food security and incomes but so far, nothing has been done at the plot level to determine its impact on farmland decisions. It could be possible that farmers are diverting the subsidized fertilizer to other farm enterprises, and I want to find out the driving forces behind those decisions. One thing I know is that the Malawian smallholder farmers are a clever lot, they are able to make rational decisions even without having perfect information.

So for the next three months, I will be loitering around some of the rural communities back home hoping to learn some things that would help shape agricultural policy. I should be back at Purdue in early August to finish my degree program. I am so excited about going back home, as much as I am elated at the research questions that I hope to find answers on. While in Malawi, I will attempt to share with visitors to this blog some of my field experiences. May you all stay blessed.