Category Archives: Travels

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!

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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!

Just waiting for a train… any train…

mowbrayI live in the Mowbray neighborhood of Cape Town, which sits between Rondebosch (University of Cape Town) and Observatory (fun nightlife area, popular with college kids). My house sits a stones throw away from the Mowbray Station, which consists of two parts: 1) major bus interchange and 2) metro station. While I have never had occasion to take the bus, I frequently take the metro train from Mowbray Station to Cape Town Civic Station downtown. Mowbray sits on the Southern Line, which runs from Cape Town down along the shores of False Bay to Simon’s Town and back again. The train tracks are built right into the beach. I got to see them last weekend when I went down to Simon’s Town. Check out that view!

train tracks train view

I’ve received varied responses when people find out I take the metro alone. One woman called me adventurous. Another said I was bold. One person even said I was reckless. After pressing some of these people further, I came to find that most had never actually taken the metro themselves; they just knew it to be a dark, dangerous netherworld where the only passengers are “poor” people (let’s get serious, they can couch it in whatever language they want, but they mean black people. Black people take the train). This is the first myth I can now officially bust: all varieties of people take the metro in Cape Town—women with little children, Afrikaner businessmen, school kids in uniforms, young guys wearing big headphones, old men toting fishing gear, families, couples holding hands, individuals, Indians, Blacks, Whites, men, women, and yes, some obviously poor people.

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Interior of the Cape Town Metro

Let me clear the air a bit more for anyone interested in traveling to and around Cape Town. The metro is perfectly safe. I have never once been concerned for my safety and I almost always travel alone. It’s cheap (roughly US$1.00); it’s relatively clean (no better or worse than Paris…. much MUCH worse than Japan), and it’s convenient. I get on at Mowbray and four stops and roughly 12 minutes later I get off at Cape Town. I’ve taken the train in rush hour (where people are packed in and there is standing room only) and I’ve taken it where I am the only passenger in my car. To be completely transparent, I have never taken the metro at night. I only take it during the day. I once flirted with the idea of taking the metro at night from Cape Town back to Mowbray (around 8:30pm), but after only 5 minutes waiting on the platform I was convinced that taking a taxi would be worth it. The crowds at night are heavier and more rowdy on the platform, especially on the weekends. If I hadn’t had some shopping bags I maybe would have chanced it, but why take a chance when a taxi is only about US$7?

I took this picture from the train in India back in 2008. Now that is some serious fog!

I took this picture from a train in India back in 2008. Now that is some serious fog!

There is one thing to keep in mind though if one is considering a journey by train: the train does not always arrive on time…if it arrives at all. For someone like me who is used to commuting every day using the Japanese metro system, the Cape Town system was quite a shock…. to say the absolute least. Trains in Cape Town are often late. If a train timetable says the train will arrive at 11:39, that might mean 11:39, it might mean 11:45, or it might mean 12:20…. and you have NO way to know how late a train will be, so you’ve got to expect it will be on time and just build in enough time to “roll with it” (pun intended). The first time a train was late, a voice came over the intercom and announced the train’s late arrival was due to fog. This made complete sense as you could barely see your hand in front of your face! I remembered taking delayed trains in India when it was exceptionally foggy, so I didn’t mind. And the train arrived within 10 minutes of the scheduled arrival time.

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Still waiting………

However, sometimes trains are late for no apparent reason! For example, last weekend I ran to catch a train into town that was due to arrive at Mowbray Station at 2:38. It was a clear, cloudless sunny day. At 2:39 a voice came over the intercom, “Very sorry, this train is delayed….. something something something. Very sorry.” No other explanation given. Five minutes go by… then ten… then fifteen. Twenty, are you kidding me?! By now I am annoyed. I stand on “my” end of the platform (all the blacks seem to have an unspoken rule whereby they don’t come close to me on the platform. If I approach them, it’s fine, but they do not approach me, or sit by me on the train if they can help it. Honestly, it’s discomforting. It reminds me of the culturally enforced “bubble” I was trapped in when I commuted in Japan—everyone looks, no on touches or approaches or speaks to you, but I digress). As I paced back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, I keep waiting. 25 minutes. Wow. I may as well have walked into town! But I’ve already paid for the ticket so I’m now determined to take this damn train. Meanwhile, trains heading to Simon’s Town come and go.

The train finally arrives!!!

The train finally arrives!!!

Pacing over to a where a young black man was standing, I leaned in and asked, “Do you think this train is EVER coming?” He shrugged, smiled, and said, “Yes…. maybe?” Just then we heard the sound of a train…. it was coming from the wrong direction!! This train consisted of an engine and two flattop cars toting a heavy cargo of rusty train tracks. Groaning, I watched the tracks go by and said, “They are probably going to build a new track!” The young guy burst out laughing and said, “Precisely. See, this is the problem when you have to rely on other people.” We sighed together and kept waiting. FINALLY, at 3:20 our train arrived, only 44 minutes late. Gotta love Africa time!

Today was an entirely new experience. I ran to catch the 11:39 train to go into town for a bit of exploring. I was running late so clutching my sides I sprinted into the tiny station only to find that both the ticket windows were closed. Looking around frantically, I went to an older black lady and said, “The train is coming, where can I buy a ticket?” She looked at me curiously and said, “The window is open. Go there.” And she pointed to the two obviously closed windows. “No,” I said, “They are closed.” “No,” she said, “Open.” I look again. She looks again. “Huh,” she said and walks away. Huh. Also, the train didn’t come. I just walked home. It’s just was not worth it today.

What the hell is load shedding?!

load sheddingWhen I first arrived in Cape Town, it seemed as if all anybody could talk about was load shedding. My housemates talked about it while making weekend plans, faculty talked about it in the halls when discussing exams, you can download the “UCT load shedding app”, and signs like this (–>) are posted up all over campus detailing how one can prepare for and survive load shedding. I wandered around in a daze for the first week thinking to myself, “What the HELL is load shedding?!”

Well, according to the Internet, load shedding is: “the action to reduce the load on something, especially the interruption of an electricity supply to avoid excessive load on the generating plant.” The City of Cape Town explains it this way: “Load shedding is a measure of last resort to prevent the collapse of the power system country-wide. When there is insufficient power station capacity to supply the demand (load) from all the customers, the electricity system becomes unbalanced, which can cause it to trip out country-wide (a blackout), and which could take days to restore.”

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Essentially, load shedding is scheduled blackouts, set up on a rotating sector system (I live in sector 15). To relieve stress on the electricity generators, the City of Cape Town has designed a load shedding system, especially needed in the winter months, to protect the generators from becoming overloaded. They explain: “By switching off parts of the network in a planned and controlled manner, the system remains stable throughout the day, and the impact is spread over a wider base of customers. Load shedding schedules are drawn up in advance to describe the plan for switching off parts of the network in sequence during the days that load shedding is necessary.”

What does this mean? It means the power goes out. A lot. In my first two weeks, the power went out in my house and stayed out for several hours at least five times (could be more, but I was gone). Everyone seemed prepared for this but me. On one of my first nights (before I knew what load shedding was), I was walking back from dinner and I thought to myself, “Man, it’s so dark! This is a busy street, why are all the street lights off?” When I saw that even the stoplight was out I realized it must be a power outage. Up ahead, a trio of people crossed the street wearing headlamp flashlights. Clearly, they knew the power was scheduled to be out! I had to figure out what was going on. That’s when I finally got serious and looked up load shedding. In this cool time lapse video you can see what the city center looks like during and after load shedding:

Power also goes out on campus. This week, I was in the office working when the power went out. No power means no Internet, which means no productivity for me. To make things worse, before the power went out I had been working really hard and I kept putting off using the bathroom. So I had to feel my way into the pitch-black bathroom, using the dinky light on the end of my keychain to see what I was doing. And of course, when there is no light, you immediately assume the worst and think that someone is lurking outside the stall waiting to stab you. Not. Fun.

I’m learning that the load shedding system is quite controversial among South Africans. For example, it was in the news recently that the process of determining whom exactly goes without power, and for how long, is a subject of constant debate between the primary power company, Eskom, and the government (see the cartoon below). In May, the City was pleading with Eskom to have areas including Manenberg, Ottery, and Hanover Park exempt from load shedding due to increases in gang violence. One mayoral committee member explained, “The metro police gang and drug task team has indicated that working under circumstances with severe gang violence is challenging enough as it is, but that the loss of street lights at night during serious gang violence makes it virtually impossible to work” (see the article here).

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People blame the city, they blame the ANC (African National Congress), they blame Africa, they blame the world, but no matter who is to blame, load shedding is going to continue to be a permanent fixture of my experiences here in Cape Town. No matter what I am doing–working in the office, making dinner, commuting home–for the rest of my time here I better get used to people saying, “You better hurry, power’s about to go out.” Also, I should really buy some candles…