Malawi Trip | February 2017

From February 24 to March 12, 2017, with funding support from the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts and the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, I conducted pre-dissertation research in Malawi. This was a brief trip, but it proved to be very important for ensuring that all the pieces of my dissertation project are moving forward. Since I will return in July for ten months, I needed this time to meet with my research team in country to troubleshoot any problems. In July 2017, we will begin the rollout of the second phase of surveys so it was essential that we all meet and make sure everything is ready to begin the next stage of research.

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Conducting a site visit with a few of my moderators

During this trip, I collected nearly 1,000 completed baseline surveys from Malawian women in 21 research sites across the central region. These surveys are part of my broader dissertation project. The survey asks women questions on a range of topics including: women’s rights, gender roles, health and HIV/AIDS, cultural practices, and laws of Malawi. I am interested in understanding what the average Malawian woman knows about her rights protected by Malawian law, what she knows about how to protect and promote her own health, and her opinions on the roles of women in Malawian society.

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These women teach an “Equipping Women – Empowering Girls” course through the NGO Malawi Matters

Through meetings with my moderator teams, one finding became very clear: women in Malawi do not know their basic rights. My moderators reported that women were “upset”, “embarrassed”, “confused”, and/or “dismissal” of questions related to rights and laws because they didn’t know the answers. In many cases, the moderators reported that answering the survey questions emboldened the women and made them angry, not at the survey, but at their ignorance. “Why don’t we know the answers?? We should know our rights!” Many women said that participating in the baseline survey was an important first step in becoming more empowered individuals.

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Mike Dzembe and I walk through a new community-based model for Malawi Matters that integrates traditional authorities (TAs)

 

One of my moderators begged that when I return in July 2017 I bring copies of the Malawian constitution. For many Malawian women, they do not know Malawi has a constitution; in some cases, they did not even know the meaning of the word “constitution”. How can a woman know her rights in terms of marriage, divorce, rights to work, rights to maternity leave, etcetera, if she does not know that her country has a nationally codified legal system that outlines these protections? As my moderator made clear, it is essential that they be given copies of the constitution because without them, as she explains, “We will have nothing to show them, nothing to teach from. How can we educate the women in our communities if we cannot point to the constitution and read from it?”

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Dissertating at Lake Malawi

This is the first time I have designed, piloted, implemented, and coded my own survey. I’ve already learned so much from round one that will impact how I continue with the second round. For example, when relying on moderators, you must be able to trust that they will do their jobs exactly as trained. During my trip, I was forced to remove four research sites from the study because I could not rely on the moderators to do their jobs. I also ran into problems in terms of funding. I provided each of my moderator teams with a small fund to cover transportation costs so they could reach participants in their homes. Given the very rural nature of Malawi, and the fact that it is the rainy season, many moderators had trouble reaching women participants in the more remote villages. For example, one of the villages I went to on a site visit is found 23km off the tarmac down an unpaved road. Driving through the mountains, it takes almost an hour to reach the village. The moderators in this area had to hire motorbikes or take minibuses to reach even more remote villages to find women to participate in the survey. This meant that the budget I provided them was not enough to cover their actual costs. The problem of transport became a scramble for me during the two weeks as money exchanges in Malawi are rare and ATMs even more so. Anytime we went through Lilongwe I was running to an ATM so I would be ready at the next site visit meeting to address the issue of transport costs.

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Local men haul bags of maize off a truck that is stuck in the mud on the hill, blocking our progress to Chibanzi

The issue of roads/transportation will prove to be the biggest obstacle for me to conduct fieldwork in Malawi. During my short time there, we had a van slide off the road into a deep ditch, we had to turn around several times because of impassable roads, we almost got stuck more than once, and we once had to stop 2 km short of a village due to the road being blocked by a maize truck stuck on a hill. We watched as men from the village volunteered to unload over 100 bags of maize from the back of the truck to make it lighter so it could be pulled up the hill by ropes. As we watched, another smaller truck was pushed and pulled up the hill with ropes by a group of almost 30 men. This is a normal occurrence during the rainy season. Another issue is the presence of road blocks. All roads in and out of Lilongwe contain police checkpoints and it is quite common for the police to extract bribes before cars can pass, especially if white people are in the car. Our driver was “fined” for missing a newly required form of certification on his license. Once we passed the checkpoint he clarified that the new certification was bogus and that he talked them down from a 10,000-kwacha bribe to a 5,000-kwacha bribe. We joked that from then on, all the white people in the van should duck as we approached a checkpoint!

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Mphatso (far left) and her family during a site visit; she is a moderator

My favorite part of this trip was meeting the team members I had never met before, but with whom I’ve been working via email for months. Everyone was so welcoming and eager to move forward with my project. Since I will live in Malawi for ten months, I was excited to build a community of friends and colleagues on whom I can call when I return in July. For my short two weeks in Malawi, I was surrounded by a great team of Malawians and Americans. Sharing meals, long car rides, tea breaks, and meetings, I gained a sense of clarity about the direction I see the rest of my research taking.

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Real fried chambo

I’ll close this post by telling a funny story. I spent the entire two weeks in the company of two Malawians, David and Luke. David is the Regional Coordinator for Malawi Matters in Malawi. During a site visit near Lake Malawi, we went to a restaurant where the guys were excited to order chambo, a popular type of fish eaten from the Lake. The restaurant, which sits right on the beach, did not have any chambo, so they were forced to order chicken instead. The next day we went to an ex-pat restaurant in downtown Lilongwe. They were excited to see chambo on the menu and ordered it immediately. When our food came out I heard the guys mumbling to each other in Chichewa. I asked what was wrong and they said, “This is not chambo. We don’t know what it is, but it’s not chambo.” They called the waiter over to say there was a mistake. The waiter got this big, sheepish smile and said, “Um….yeah, It’s not chambo. It’s tilapia. We don’t actually have chambo, but foreigners don’t know the difference. Where are you from?” In unison David and Luke responded: “Malawi!” Don’t ever try to swindle a man from the Lake with fake chambo; they know their chambo!

My Fulbright Story

I’ve waited nearly 10 years to finally make this announcement!!

The summer before I started college at UofL, my SOSer Paige told me about a scholarship opportunity called Fulbright where I could go abroad to study or conduct research once I graduated. During my very first week of class, I went to Dr. Pat Condon’s office to tell her my plans. “I’m applying! What do I need to do between now and then?” With solid advice from Dr. Condon and Seabrook Jones, I paved my road to Fulbright. I double-majored, spent over a year and a half abroad, won other major grants and scholarships, learned another language, volunteered, pursued leadership positions in various clubs, attended academic conferences–all in an effort to make me more competitive for Fulbright.

In 2011 I came soooooo close to winning. It crushed me to read the email saying I was not selected. It shattered me. I didn’t know what to do. I pulled out of the MA program in DC I had applied to as my backup, moved back home, and started working as a waitress/shopgirl as I recovered and made new plans.

I found out several months later that the reason I lost my Fulbright after being approved to country was purely budgetary, nothing to do with my skills or qualifications. The fire was relit. I spent the next five years working in the field of grants and fellowships helping countless other students apply for and win their own well-earned Fulbrights, all while I earned my MA and began my PhD.

Last summer the time finally came. It was now or never. I would never have another chance to apply for Fulbright because once I earn my PhD I don’t qualify. Swallowing my anxiety and all my self-doubt, I worked hard to submit my application. Well, the results for my region were released today and I am so so so SO excited and proud to say that I am FINALLY a Fulbright Scholar to Malawi!!! It was worth the wait!

USAID Fellowship Winner!!

Shameless personal plug time! I am very excited to announce that (for the second time) I have been selected to receive a USAID|Notre Dame Global Development Fellowship provided in partnership with the Initiative for Global Development at the University of Notre Dame. This $17,000 award will fund a substantial portion of my research and living expenses during the approximately 10 months I will spend in Malawi conducting dissertation research during 2017-2018. Working in partnership with the NGO Malawi Matters Inc. and the University of Malawi’s Centre for Social Research (CSR), I will be examining actor approaches to ending the practice of child marriage in Malawi. I look forward to sharing more updates on this soon!

Death at first contact: Why the world needs vaccinations

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Today I watched a really interesting documentary called “First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon”, which follows a team of Brazilian anthropologists who study isolated indigenous groups living in a stretch of Amazonian jungle straddling Brazil and Peru. In this documentary, they trace the first contact and resettlement of a small tribe of roughly 35 indigenous men, women, and children in Brazil who are fleeing persecution from the Peruvian army.

There was one part of the documentary that was exceptionally moving for me. When the first group of young warriors emerge from the forest and enter a small village, the team of anthropologists stationed there do all they can to dissuade the men from trying to take piles of clothes and blankets. As the narrator explains, the anthropologists know that these clothes and blankets are riddled with germs that the could make the indigenous—who have not developed any antibodies to fight diseases—severely ill, even kill them.

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A young man puts on a blue t-shirt he has taken from the village

Sadly, this is exactly what happens. As one man explains later, they came to the river often to watch the villagers and all they wanted was to wear clothes like they saw the villagers wearing. Another later says, “We like the clothes… we are embarrassed to be naked.” Bringing the clothes back to the other members of the tribe, the man recalls putting them on and soon after feeling a burning. All those who put on the clothes ended up riddled with fevers. Most in the tribe became severely ill. Several died. It was only once this uncontacted group emerged from the jungle for resettlement that the Brazilian government was able to provide them with medicine to combat the fevers that ravaged them as a result of wearing clothes. (Watch part of the footage here)

This is a perfect example—perhaps the perfect example—of the dangers of not receiving vaccinations. Avoiding serious illness is only possible when you are completely isolated, like this tribe in the Amazon. However, the moment you break through this barrier of isolation, you run the risk of contracting deadly diseases that your body cannot fight, even through an act as simple as putting on a shirt. And to be clear, living in the U.S. is not living in isolation. I am just one person and in my travels I’ve been exposed to everything from influenza and polio to typhoid, yellow fever, and malaria. To come into contact with me is to potentially come into contact with these diseases.

ribi-dropsTo echo Melinda Gates, we take vaccinations completely for granted in the U.S. because we’ve forgotten how deadly these diseases truly are. Few people in the U.S. know what death from diseases like measles, yellow fever, or influenza look like. Have you ever seen a polio survivor, unable to work, reduced to begging on the streets with malformed arms and legs? If you have, you are probably like the countless mothers in Asia and Africa who are walking 10 kilometers one-way to get their children life-saving polio vaccination drops. I’ve been lucky so far. I’ve traveled to malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid zones and never contracted the diseases. Friends of mine have not been so lucky. In many cases their health has been irreparably weakened and damaged.

As the vectors for these diseases change, which indeed they already are, people who once never had to worry about getting vaccinated will need to take preventative measures. These diseases are real, they are scary, and we are not safe. For example, in Indiana and Kentucky we are experiencing an outbreak of West Nile Virus. There are already confirmed deaths. So many measures can be taken to avoid these deaths. While there is no vaccine to prevent West Nile Virus, there are vaccines to prevent other related mosquito-borne illnesses.

Protect yourself, protect your children, protect all those around you and get vaccinated! I agree wholeheartedly with Melinda Gates, we are incredibly lucky to have this technology and we ought to take advantage of it!

Local Governance in Malawi

Last month the Initiative for Global Development (IGD) at the University of Notre Dame published an article about a recent grant provided by Catholic Relief Services (CRS). This grant was presented to Professor Jaimie Bleck (political science) and IGD to conduct a monitoring and evaluation project of local governance effectiveness in Malawi. I am very excited to say that I am also a part of this project!

2015 Photos provided by Danice Brown

2015 Photos provided by Danice Brown

You can read all about our project HERE!

#FeesMustFall and the Gendering of Student Protests in ZA

I just came across this video (11 min) and I thought it was a great example of how gender can be bent to classify race and class as much as sex. In it, the current national protests of South African students over higher education reform is explained and documented from the students’ perspectives. Several of the students bring up some important issues often raised in gender/development studies, though the students never make the link explicitly. Gender and development scholars often talk about gender or gendering a population beyond the sexual male/female dichotomy.
In this case, race is gendered in the sense that these highly mobilized black students with an important and identifiable grievance have been labeled by the ZA government as non-threatening and that the issue will soon be resolved; in this way they are “feminized” and denied important agency and respectability by the government.
This is the public position of the government, “oh, this is nothing” while on the ground, the government has deployed the national police and authorized them to use Apartheid era tactics to dispel them including tear gas, beatings, and setting student property on fire (most recently a student car was hit with a petrol bomb by police that was parked on the UCT campus near a protest site).
It really is a fascinating video and it shows a lot of footage of nonviolent peace protesting by student movements. Here it is: 

Why Gender Studies?

Girls in ZambiaI was at a regional political science conference a couple years ago presenting a paper I wrote on the signing of the 2013 peace agreement in the DR-Congo. My paper focused on highlighting the failures of the 1999 Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement and outlined how these failures could be sidestepped in the new agreement. When it came time for the moderator to ask me questions and offer critiques he said, “You mentioned women several times in this paper. You kept saying women need to be involved in the process. Why? Why is it so important to you that women get involved?” He was not being ironic. He was legitimately questioning my decision to include Congolese women in the peace process. In that moment I felt a shift in my interests and worldview. Everything changed. There I was, standing in a glitzy hotel conference room next to the table of other presenters (all men), facing the moderator–a man who had achieved the highest level of education possible and was tenured at a well-known institution. Looking past the moderator, I scanned the room and saw that I was the only female present. My task, if I chose to accept: explain to a room full of college educated men why women matter.

For me, Gender Studies is about bringing a voice to the voiceless. This goes so far beyond just being a voice for women. In many of the topics I study that cross political science and peace studies, it is children who are voiceless. Minorities, the oppressed, the lower classes, refugees–the structures of society often inherently limit their agency and stifle their voices. Adopting a gendered lens allows you to see the world from a new perspective, one that amplifies the voices of these otherwise voiceless groups. This perspective can be a powerful tool for examining the complexities of a political issue, often leading us to find new policy recommendations that actually stand a chance at bettering society. If my own colleagues cannot understand the merit of giving women a voice, then the outlook may seem bleak. However, in Gender Studies I find hope–hope for equality, hope for change, and hope for deeper understanding.

See the original story featured on the Notre Dame Gender Studies Program website HERE.