The Grand Narrative

“Maybe outsiders felt that in this green preindustrial continent it might still be possible to avoid the horrors that had come to Europe–war, machines, materialism, frozen food–to develop a happier place. He often felt that, as well as a sense of responsibility, almost the conceit of ownership. As long as Africa remained unfinished, there was hope.”   – “The Lower River”, Paul Theroux

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The aerial photo I took while flying from South Africa to Malawi

The lines are drawn from the novel “The Lower River” which I brought to Malawi. In fact, I chose this book randomly by searching “Novels about Malawi” online. I never thought this book would stimulate such reflection on my stay in Malawi.

“As long as Africa remained unfinished, there was hope.”

 The Narratives Created by NGOs.

There seems to be some conflict of interest in this statement; and I sometimes found myself stuck in this contradiction as well. During my stay in Malawi, interacting with local communities, working as an intern at an NGO, and writing blogs on social media, I couldn’t stop thinking the “narrative” of Africa created by myself and most development workers. “How would you depict Africa?” “Are we building hope for Africa by making it remain developing in a devaluing way?” “Why are some pictures chosen to be featured by NGOs?”

There is this long existing “grand narrative” of this continent, shaped by public media, NGOs, and even individuals, which often shows great poverty and tragedies that attracts aids. A single picture or story can be so influential and serve fundraising purpose. However, though the depiction may be true, this kind of partial truth may be problematic sometimes. For instance, the pictures used in NGOs publications create a certain image of the great continent which can unintentionally guide the readers and donors’ impression on Africa and further establish various assumptions and misconceptions. People are inclined to think of the entire continent as a big tragedy, ignoring the fact that there are countries with very distinct context and development status.

 The Deficit Orientation

This reminded me of the Participatory Research course I took last semester where we talked about the concept of “Deficit Orientation”, which refers to when individuals, usually members of dominant groups, consider people from various groups (e.g., cultural, social, or communal) as lacking in certain knowledge, skills, or value. (Ravitch & Riggan, 2012) In other words, when thinking of a group of people in a particular context, with deficit orientation, we tend to see what the community are lack of, the inferiority, instead of what they are competent of, which is the strength. The deficit orientation orients the local communities and us. The images the aid workers create underlying their work can further strengthen this deficit point of view which further places African countries in a forever dependent situation and are not able to own their development responsibilities and progress.

Leslie Dodson once spoke on TED (https://www.ted.com/talks/leslie_dodson_don_t_misrepresent_africa): “Real narratives are complicated: Africa isn’t a country, and it’s not a disaster zone” Each of us should take the responsibility of misunderstanding Africa. We, the consumers of the news, the donors, the researchers, the NGO workers, can sometimes promote overgeneralization and misrepresentation.

Reference:

Ravitch, S. M., & Riggan, M. (2012). Reason & rigor: How conceptual frameworks guide research. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Howell, M. (2015). Avoiding a Single Story is Key to Developing the Future of African Leadership. Retrieved August 29, 2016, from http://www.aaionline.org/avoiding-a-single-story-is-key-to-developing-the-future-of-african-leadership/

 

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Getting Connected

The world is big, but it’s also small in some cases. I was connected to a former IEDPer during my internship!

The designer, also the ToT (Trainer of Trainer) workshop facilitator, of the Youth Ready project is currently working with a former IEDPer to create the Youth Ready curriculum in several countries. During the YR workshop, he only mentioned that there’s someone graduated from IEDP consulting on the project and said she’s been doing great work. After the workshop, my colleagues asked me to make some suggestions and modification on the curriculum map and the facilitator’s guide of Module 1. The process of reviewing and adjusting the materials took was more time-consuming than what I had expected, but the experience was interesting that I had learned to pay attention to multiple trivial things- assumptions, practicality of the activities, culture, language, gender issues, religion, and resources, in order to come up with a more “contextualized” curriculum for the youth in Malawi. I shared the work with my colleagues and they shared with the designer from the US office, then I got linked up with the former IEDPer! He said he would like me to provide some inputs using my experience here in Malawi.

It turned out that she was interning with Uganda office before and was helping with the development of the curriculum for Uganda at that time. I talked with her and shared my observation gained from work. In Malawi, early marriage is very common young girls, especially the targeted participants in the Youth Ready Clubs, who are often teenage girls who have got married and had kids and dropped out from school. In addition, there is the issue of SRGBV (School-Related Gender-Based Violence). Thus, my colleagues and I proposed to add more components on gender, sexual health, and family planning into the curriculum; and I was able to contribute my experience on other projects and field visits to her to help her better understand the context of Malawi.

One of my supervisors told me: “I want you to be in this from now on!” Though my internship has ended, I have been contacting the curriculum developers in the US as well as my colleagues in Malawi.

To the North

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Last week I traveled to a couple of northern districts in Malawi with the education team: Chitipa, Karonga, Nkhata Bay, Nkhotakota, and Salima. The purpose of the visit was to update the district offices with the budget allocated for the education program this coming FY(Fiscal Year), see what the challenges those offices have on program implementation, and to ensure the offices are clear about the reporting procedures. I was mainly helping with the documentation of the meetings. Apart from having the opportunity to appreciate different cultures, people, and sceneries in those districts, I learned a lot among the meetings with those frontline Area Program managers and Development Facilitators where they shared practical experiences and challenges.

Donor-driven M&E

Since the education program which is going to be implemented in the new FY has a exterior funder providing great amount of money. The log frame, budget allocation, M&E reporting process seem to be more donor-driven than other programs funded by the support offices worldwide. Other than the existing M&E system and usual reporting within the organization, the donor is asking for more frequent reports with detailed targets achievement presented in numbers. Some staff at the field office had shown concerns on the burdensome reporting process which might disrupt their activities. In addition, they mentioned that the money is coming in at a time when the organization is closing the FY, which can also make the activities hard to be carried out.

The organization as a whole

It was also revealed that the structure of the organization could influence program implementation. For instance, the organization is now undergoing a restructuring process where some field offices were going to merge with other offices; some activities are thus not planned for the next year in some areas. There is also the issue of delayed delivery of requested material which requires cooperation with other departments. The education team cannot move along with ideas and practical work. There is a lot of effort needs to be done by other departments such as Supply Chain who provide physical materials, Human Resources who recruit those frontline DFs, and even other Technical Program teams(i.e., Health, Food Security, WASH) who offer technical support on cross-cutting issues.

This shows the importance of communication within the organization. Sometimes, it’s not the program itself, meaning the goal, objectives, and program content, that fail the program, but the issues of organization structure and culture, or even the forces outside the organization. In those situations, communication stands out to be really important. I was glad to see that, with those challenges presented and feedback given, my colleagues were able to proactively respond to those issues and tried to sort them out with staff in the district offices.

“Contextualized”

“The youth are stuck. They never reach the shore of adulthood, and we are here to bridge the gap.”

During the last two weeks, I was helping with the ToT (Trainer of Trainer) workshop for the Youth Ready Project under the Action for Adolescents (A4A) project implemented by my organization and the Government of Malawi. And… I even got to facilitate a session!

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The Youth Ready Project 

While there is this global youth crisis, Malawi is also facing the challenge of high rate of youth unemployment and work poverty. The Youth Ready project (YR) is a project targeting both out-of-school and in-school youths to improve their Literacy skills, Livelihood skills, and Life skills. Partnering with some Churches (Faith Based Organization), my organization is going to provide technical support to the FBOs to run Youth Ready Clubs in 14 targeted districts; and community engagement is used to identify the most vulnerable youths to participate in the clubs.

The Trainer of Trainer (ToT) Workshop 

The participants included FBO representatives and Development Facilitators (staff in my organization) from 14  districts. The first week of the workshop focused on improving the facilitation skills of the participants; while the second week was going through Module 1 of the YR curriculum. Before October, the participants, those who were expected to be trained as the Master Trainers after this workshop, are going back to their respective districts to train more facilitators and start their own Youth Ready Clubs through  implementing module 1. In October, there would be a second training on Module 2.

“Contextualized” Approach 

At the beginning, I was surprised at this FBO-approach, which utilizes the network and resources of churches to implement the project. I wondered if those most “vulnerable youths” could be identified by the churches and communities. Do those adolescents who have the greatest needs, go to church? How about those of other religions and do not go to church? Will they be brought in to the clubs? However, after the 2 week workshop listening to the presentations and thoughts from multiple church representatives, government officials, and staff in my organization, I started to understand why this approach would be considered applicable. 75% of the population in Malawi are Christians; and the churches here operates like NGOs which build close relationships with the communities around. Thus, Churches have been an important partners of my organization. Another thing is that, the FBOs my organization partner with include groups of other religions such as Islam. My expectation is that, with this approach, youths of different religious background, the marginalized and the vulnerable ones can be recognized and included.

A highlight of the workshop was the modification of the YR curriculum. The YR model has been implemented in Uganda and has shown positive results. However, Malawi is a very different context. Some activities and stories adopted in the curriculum might not be context appropriate in Malawian context.The participants discussed about the strengths and weaknesses in the communities, culture and languages, generative themes among the teenagers, as well as the administrative structure of national and local governments and communities authorizes, to better understand the foundation for project implementation in order to figure out the direction for curriculum modification.

The Eyes of the Frontliners

I always view this kind of workshops and meetings in which practitioners share their experiences as a precious opportunity to see how those frontliners do work and see issues. During the workshop, again, I saw the gaps between practices and theories. Before the workshop, the education team at the national office and the staff from the US office went though the model several times, made some changes, debated again and again that I would say we felt pretty confident about the curriculum and implementation structure before attending the workshop. However, practical and local issues as well as disadvantages identified by those “who get their hands dirty” (described by my colleagues) emerged during the discussions. I was impressed by the participation they put in the workshop and the passion they show for their work.

Reflect on Myself

Another good part of the workshop was that I was able to participate in some activities. My favorite activity was “My Elevation Life Map”, which allowed me to reflect on my life and tried to connect my stories with other participants and even with the youths in needs.

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Write Write Write

Other than facilitating a session, preparing for the materials, and documenting the workshop, I wrote newsletters for the workshop and the A4A program. Since there has been a lot of progress in the past three months, my colleagues think that there is a need to sensitize our partners, stakeholders, and staff from other departments within the organization. In addition, I have been modifying the logframes and M&E as well as writing update reports for A4A and its sub-projects. Also, I helped develop the action plan for A4A for the next three months. The process of writing those documents was interesting in some ways, too, since I got to know more about the details and logic of the program as well as local culture which equipped me with more knowledge to contribute to the program. As for the acronyms… thanks to all those practices, I am now very familiar with them that I no longer need to rely on my notes!

 

 

“This is Malawi.”

To The Field

Last week, I went to Ntchisi, a rural district in central region, with my supervisor and other colleagues to hold a 3-day BSC (Bicycle Supervisor Committee) training workshop for a project providing bicycles to children living far from school to attend school. The purpose of the workshop is to equip the BSCs with capacities to design their own BEEP policy as well as to manage, monitor, and maintain the project on their own. My supervisor told me I need to see the real Malawi and how they interact with local communities to implement projects. I was so excited to know after one week of sitting in the office writing documents and reading reports, I could get of office and out of Lilongwe to explore more of the country. Before departing, I read all the training  manuals for the workshop, attended pre-departure meetings with the facilitators, prepared the materials for the workshop, and did additional readings on schooling and Gender-Based Violence in Malawi.

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Pre-departure Training Workshop in Lilongwe
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BEEP Launch before the training workshop

On the way to Ntchisi, my supervisor told me, “This is Malawi.” Lilongwe is just a tiny corner of the whole country. The scenery outside started to change: huts without concrete walls and firm rooftops, goats and chickens roaming on the road, women wearing Chitenje, children playing on bearfoot…

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On the way to Ntchisi
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Kids excited to see me taking pictures of them

On The Ground

Going to the field and participating in the workshop offers me a great opportunity to see how theories and programs are applied and implemented “on the ground”. There is clearly a gap between “well-designed and assumed” log frame and actual implementation. It was interesting seeing the process of the plans and contents of the project being pushed back and forth, questioned, clarified, discussed, and finally got approved with consensus.  I saw how “dialogue” and “participation” could happen in discussions and how it could lead to a contextualized project in that particular community.

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The place where we held the workshop
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Members of the BSCs participating in the workshop

I like the community mapping exercise which allowed the community members to identify the challenges in their context based on their knowledge and experiences.Their knowledge  have shaped their understandings on the issue which showed discrepancy with the knowledge of those who designed the project. I learned a lot from those beautiful and passionate people. I did research before I visited the village, but it was actually seeing and listening to those people who live here that I saw their “reality” which was depicted in such a unique and contextualized way.

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Community members developing their own adapted BEEP plan

The Beautiful People 

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I joined the ladies in the BSCs for lunch. Though I can’t speak Chichewa, we communicated with our body language and English pretty well. They taught me the local way to eat nsima. A participant even invited me to her house to have dinner and meet her daughter.

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My friend in Ntchisi!

On the way back to Lilongwe, I saw the beautiful sunset and the shimmering golden field. Sitting back at the car, looking outside of the window, I kept thinking of those people. They are truly “people of the sun.”- persevering, genuine, and powerful.

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Sunset
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Sitting at the back of the car, saying goodbye to Ntchisi

Nsima 101 (video)

A couple of days ago, I went to the shared kitchen and was about to cook dinner. However, the staff at the lodge, Leo, told me he was going to make Nsima and he said he could teach me! I’ve only tried nsima but never seen how it is made. I was so excited and I decided to document my Nsima 101.

Leo, my nsima teacher, has been working at the lodge for 8 months. He learned culinary arts in college and is going to be a chef. I often hear him humming in the kitchen and see him serving the guests with energy.

 

I found that kitchen is a great place to have casual conversations with people on all sorts of topics. I got to know new people while I was making tea in the kitchen at the office and cooking at the shared kitchen at the lodge. We talked about his work, my work, food, culture, Chichewa, movies, our stories…etc. From what I’ve experienced, cooking nsima is an art which requires perfect timing, measurement, strength, patience, and concentration to have the beautiful texture, moist and softness. To my surprise, he left some nsima and beef stew for me! So I got a free dinner and nsima lesson. 🙂

Watch the video I made below:

 

 

 

First Week of Work

Sitting on the couch, reflecting on my first week in Lilongwe, I find the past 7 days hard to be summed up in a couple of sentences. Everything here still somehow seems unreal to me. I am in Lilongwe, the Capital of Malawi, and I am going to stay here for 11 more weeks.

Arrival

Having laid over in London and Johannesburg for 11 hours and been in the sky for 20 hours, I finally landed in Lilongwe, Malawi. Though it was a long flight, I was excited and nervous for the whole journey. A staff from World Vision Malawi came to pick me up and kindly dropped me off at the lodge I was going to stay temporarily. Everything was so new to me. The people, the air, the plants, the sunlight, the sand, and even the cars. There were many times I thought the driver and I were going to crash into other cars because the wheel was on the right side.

IMG_5203(Flying from South Africa to Malawi)

IMG_5205(Heading to the lodge from the airport)

What did I do in the office?

May 31th was the first day of work. I got to the office at 7:30 to attend their morning prayer. Most people were already there when I got in the room. My supervisor was away to the field in the south this week, so I was mainly working with another colleague in the education team. Surprisingly, my first task on the first day was to conduct literature review of School-Related Gender-Based Violence and make logic model of its related project module. On the following days, I reviewed the log frame, made some adjustments, and designed a M&E Framework for the ECD and adolescent literacy project, which is the main project I will be working on for the internship. In addition to the assigned tasks, I read some articles and projects reports everyday, hoping that I could quickly get into the projects and other projects operated by the organization.

IMG_5263(Morning commute to the office)

IMG_5270(World Vision Malawi, National Office)

(Designing the M&E Framework for the ECD and adolescent literacy project & doing the literature review of SRGBV)

Acronyms everywhere!

One thing I’ve learned to quickly dive into the culture of the office is to learn to speak the organization’s language–remember all the acronyms used in the reports, emails, and meetings as soon as possible. I found every document, email, even oral conversation full of acronyms and abbreviations. I am not exaggerating. To adapt to this, every time I saw or heard an acronym, I would ask my colleagues or look them up, make sure I understand, and write them down on my notebook. This not only allows me to communicate with my colleagues in the “local” way, but also helps me get to know what are the works other departments are doing.

 

Getting to know people

Another self-assigned task in the first week was knowing the people in the office and trying my best to remember their names. I had my little notebook and a pen with me all the time in case I met new people or I got chance to learn new Chichewa words. A good way to get into their circle was to attend the prayers on Monday and Friday morning at 7:30 and join the bible study group on Tuesday and Thursday morning. Though I am not a Christian, participating their important rituals allows people to at least acknowledge my existence and provides myself an insight into the organization’s culture. The topics discussed in the bible study group were interesting. One session was on the theme of “transformation”: What is transformation? How can we transform local communities and how we, ourselves, transform while we are transforming others? Those morning meetings, prayers, and bible studies form an intimate community among the organization and provide a safe space and time for people to reflect and share their work with the community.

Language can also be used to get along with people. I have been learning some basic Chichewa such as Muli Bwanji (How are you?), Zikomo (Thank you.), Mwazuka Bwanji (Good Morning.), Ndili bwino, kaya inu? (I am good, and you? ), Tionana (See you.), etc.. I practiced them whenever I saw people in the office. I even got to know the cleaners, the guards, the drivers, and some colleagues upstairs.

 

Some fun observations:

Electricity cut off four times a day

The electricity in the office got cut off four times on the first day of work and I noticed that no one was reacting to it except of me. No one got disrupted that everything was operating as usual. My supervisor told me that electricity shortage is very common in Malawi especially in rural areas. Water shortage is also another issue especially during the dry season from April to September. At the lodge where I am staying now, sometimes they don’t have water. Thankfully, I have myself prepared that I got my hair cut short before I came here, which I could save both water and electricity here.

 

I wish I knew how to speak Chichewa…

Though English is one of the official languages in Malawi which is used in media and publications, Chichewa is actually more commonly spoken in informal conversations. In formal meetings, people communicate in English, but my colleagues speak Chichewa more often when they are having informal discussions. Although my colleagues always kindly translate and explain the contents to me, I still see language, being a part of the group culture and identity, as some barrier which makes me look like an outsider and got excluded in some occasions. I remember reading an article suggesting that development workers should only work countries where they know how to speak the language, because language is something highly related to a country’s context, culture, identity, and history, and that the people who are going to work closely to the locals should be familiar with those things in order to have sensitive conversations and actions. Now I get the point to some extents.

 

The culture in the office

One of the things I love about the office and my colleagues is the culture of checking in with each other. Despite of the busy work on their hands, many people still stop by my desk and say hi to me everyday. I had colleagues ask me to have dinner over their houses, tell me where to visit in Malawi, and even invite me to play basketball with them after work. As an intern who just came to the new environment, I felt warm and comfortable working in the space and reaching out to others.

 The office is busy everyday. Many people, including my supervisor, often work overtime. However, what I admire is that despite the heavy workload, those people I have seen can manage the work with a good spirit. They find ways, such as chatting with others and having short breaks, to maintain their energy. Rather than stressing themselves out, they have a balance between stress and life.

 (The dining area behind the office where locals bring simple and delicious food here to sell! )

So far so good, Malawi! I am grateful that I met nice people here and I was able to get used to the new environment in a short time. More stories and adventures to come. Let me end the first week with the beautiful sunset in Malawi and look forward to tomorrow.

IMG_5279IMG_5293(Walking back to the lodge after work. Bicycle is a very common transportation here.)