by: Emily Kaplan
6:30 AM: It is still dark outside because it is winter in Malawi, and we must set off early to make it to one of the fifteen communities we will visit in our six weeks of qualitative data collection with the i-Lab. The car winds down the switch-back mountain road and I close my eyes, trying not to puke or focus on the fact that dense fog barely lets us see 6 feet in front of us. I tell Cosmas, our driver, “you’re a hero,” for the first time today. An hour and a half later, we make it to the Chikwawa District’s Agriculture Office to pick up the agriculture extension officer who will guide us to the community. However, he informs us the bridge to the community is no longer operational . . . we must go back to Blantyre and take the dirt road.
8:00 AM: So, we start our trek back up the switch-back road, through the dense fog, make a pit stop for roasted maize sold on the side of the road, arrive in Blantyre, and start our journey all over again on a different road. Little do I know, this is the longest, most bumpy, truly terrifying road I have ever encountered in my 26 years on this earth. I have never been tossed around so violently and I feel truly thankful for the invention of the safety locking mechanism on seatbelts.
10:30 AM: We arrive at the community four long hours after our initial start time this morning with a moderate case of whiplash. As we get out of the car and I try to forget about the experience I just had, my research teammate, Lauren, whispers to me, “Look it’s market day.” Vendors from town and other communities have set up shop along the main road to sell fresh produce, baked goods, clothes, and chitenge (the traditional cloth wrap worn by women). Lauren and I pause our walk to the meeting venue to buy a fritter and when we look up from thanking the kind woman who sold us the perfectly fried pastry, the car is gone, our translators and facilitators have vanished, and we are left standing helplessly in the middle of the road—my minimal Chichewa language skills are not going to get us out of this situation.
10:50 AM: After ten long minutes desperately trying to ask for directions and communicating with smiles and pointing, a child approaches us, and it is very clear we are to follow her. The 10-year-old guides us to the meeting location where 20 men and women of the watershed management committee wait for us; they laugh kindly at our mistake, welcome us to the correct location, and we thank our child guide.
We apologize profusely for our tardiness. Our research facilitators, Micter and Moyenda, introduce us and the purpose of our visit. We are there to learn about the community’s relationship with natural resources and how they have sustained the interventions of a watershed management development project that ended eight years ago.
The Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement project, WALA, is aimed to help communities restore degraded watersheds through building physical structures and planting trees, amongst other things. This prevents flooding by allowing water to easily infiltrate into the ground and recharge the water table, allowing for longer growing seasons, lessening the impact of severe weather brought on more frequently by climate change, and increasing food security in the region. The community has so much to teach us about what they have been collectively working on, and how they sustain, modify, and add new interventions to the project every year to better fit their needs. The conversations take place in Chichewa, and because I speak a different yet very similar language from a neighboring country, I can understand a fair bit of what is being said. Later, I get the details from the extensive notes Micter and Moyenda take.
Their notes describe how this community felt a need to go above and beyond the watershed management interventions because this project was the first time an NGO was willing to make the trek into their community. They collectively felt that this was their only opportunity to reap the benefits from the resources and expertise the project gave them. They understand they are geographically isolated, so were truly grateful and appreciative for their first and thus far only opportunity to solve some of the problems the community knew they needed to address.
Most of the other communities we have visited thus far during our field work, those situated along the paved road or just an easy 10 to 15- minute ride on a dirt road, have had multiple projects from multiple NGOs over the past decade, often working simultaneously. Some communities were inundated with NGO projects to assist with issues surrounding health, nutrition, education, or natural resource management, while isolated communities have few such opportunities. How can this disparity, based simply on geography, be fair?
2:00 PM: We are sincerely impressed during a tour of the watershed infrastructure, which is maintained immaculately. We see massive stone bunds, contour trenches, and swales. The sheer amount of physical labor that went into the construction of these elements is astounding. It really is incredible to see what a community can do when they come together to solve their problems and make sure they have a sustainable future. This community is so hidden away from urban society that getting to it is time consuming and physically painful, but to be able to see the progress and get a sense of the lifechanging outcomes that result from a single development project really makes me understand the important role that NGOs can play in a community’s development.
3:00 PM: Before we leave, we are asked to sign the community’s visitor book in which I see the names of the Catholic Relief Services Country Director and a United States Congressional Representative. They visited the community in 2019, before the pandemic. This community and all they have done in sustaining and replicating project interventions, since the completion of WALA, is an excellent example of how development projects succeed in changing lives through effective natural resource management thus leading to poverty alleviation and food security.
3:10 PM: We say our goodbyes and are informed that the bridge we had previously thought was not operational is repaired, so we can take the “shorter and better” road back to Blantyre. Looking back on this moment, I realize I have never been so boldly and confidently misled by a stranger. Boy were we in for a treat. If I thought the road coming into the community was the worst I had ever been on, then this road out of the village made the last feel road like the miniature roller coasters for kids under the age of 5 at the theme park. At no less than seven points in the ride, I think the car is going to flip and tumble down a mountain slope. There are not one but two bridges, and the car cannot even make it over the first one, so we actually drive through a river. I do not know much about cars, but I know they do not normally drive through rivers. This is the point in the day in which I tell Cosmas, for the second time, that he is a hero.
6:30 PM: We make it home a full 12 hours after leaving that morning, our brains bursting with information and adrenaline pumping through our veins. The people we met and the watershed interventions we saw today opened my eyes to the good that can come from development projects. But realizing the inequity in the way NGOs allocate resources, based on the level of ease of transportation into a community, makes me ponder the ethical dilemma of doing what is easy rather than doing what is right. This is a message that I have always held close and I will continue to take with me as I enter the sustainable development field after graduation. I am grateful to have had such an eye-opening Tuesday.