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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.

Moni nonse (greetings everybody)! I would like to introduce you to my blog. This is my very first attempt at establishing a formal blog. I figured out I have a lot of stories about my life and my career that I would like to tell but I just do not have the right platform to do it. This blog therefore is meant to dig into my real personal experiences, which I hope you will be able to relate to. That said, here we go with my first blog!

I am one of the privileged few who have been able to study past their first degree at a very prestigious institution like Purdue University. I consider myself very fortunate to have had that opportunity. The one major difference that I noted between graduate school back home and here at Purdue is the emphasis that is placed on continuous assessment. At Purdue, much of the semester is spent doing homeworks and term papers. I hardly have time to simply sit down and read a book for the sake of reading. If there is no assignment due that week for a specific course, then there is some exam or quiz in that course. Coming from a background that placed much focus on mid-term and final exams, I had a really hard time adjusting to the American system.

It is a good system in that you are forced to learn the material immediately after it is given out in class by the professor, sometimes even before. The MS program in Agricultural Economics is quantitatively rigorous, you need a really good background in calculus and statistics. Despite all that, I am enjoying it. If I ever happened to work as a lecturer sometime in the future, I have learnt a lot of things that would help make my job very effective. This, though, does not mean that I despise the Malawian education system. Frankly, it is the best given the amount of resources that are invested in it. Were it that our educational system was poor, I would not have been successful at Purdue, let alone make it past the selection process.

That said, my view is that a lot can be done to our tertiary education system to make it highly competitive in this 21st century. It is a known fact that the University of Malawi thrives primarily on public money. What I have seen during my stay here is that alumni play a hugely significant role in financing the university. I can not enumerate how many buildings at Purdue that have been donated by former students of the university. Don’t we have University of Malawi alumni who can do the same? You do not have to be filthy rich to assist develop education at your old school which is almost collapsing due to lack of funding. The issue is all about patriotism. In Malawi, once people get their papers from the University, the majority do not care what happens after they are gone – how the plates and cups that they broke during their stay at the university will be replaced, in what state the 2009 economics student will find the 1985 edition of Alpha C. Chiang that they used in 1990, etc. It is that patriotic spirit that makes these other countries and their universities stand out, not the amount of wealth their people have. And speaking of wealth, how do we expect a nation to develop if the people that have all the money now are not willing to share with those that do not have but have the potential to make even more money in future? How many of the people that got the government college loans have paid back a Tambala? And yet we expect to develop education standards in our colleges? We all have to be responsible for the collapse of standards in our colleges.

Once again welcome to my new blog. Thank you for visiting, and please come back soon!