Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Quick Update on Life

While I was in Ghana I had the chance to meet up with some fellow EWBers. Sarah, Trevor and I attended the National Farmer’s day celebration for the Northern Region.

Here are Trevor and Sarah in their Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MOFA) outfits.

The event is organised by the ministry and prizes are handed out to outstanding farmers in different categories (sorghum, maize, millet, pigs, tomatoes, etc…). It was also an opportunity for politicians to get on their soap-boxes (Ghana’s next federal election is in 2008 – of which I was made keenly aware)

The winning Sorghum farmer and his prize

I’ve been back in Zambia for one week trying to catch up on the world of sorghum but being seriously distracted by the pending arrival of my boyfriend Scott! Yippee.

Happy Holidays to all!

Here is a photo of me and Lolita (daughter of a Malawian farmer - I love her expression!)

PS. I just posted two updates - so don't forget to check out the one titled 'Activists'

Activists in Ghana

I just spent two weeks in Ghana as a guest speaker at a retreat for activists (self professed) working with communities affected by the extractive industries. I felt a bit nervous going in but also pretty excited about the opportunity to learn about their work.

I was asked to put together a brief talk about the mining industry. I mentioned the difficulty and expense associated with finding an economic ore deposit, the huge up front capital costs of opening a mine, the risks associated with commodity volatility and political instability, the technical decisions in selecting the mining method and the challenges with regards to waste management. Not to mention modern society’s complete dependence on products derived from mines. (thanks JP & S)

The activists spoke about the affects of waste dumps on agricultural land, the relocation of communities, the impact on water and air quality, the lack of jobs for local community members, the disruption caused by blasting and heavy equipment, examples of aggression and coercion by mining officials, insignificant revenues to local and national governments.

Of course there is a middle ground, where the mining company can mitigate the negative environmental and social affects, benefit the local and national economies AND make enough of a profit for the mine to be worth developing. But it seems like reaching that middle ground requires some form of social pressure, and in certain cases activism is necessary.

The folks at the conference were intelligent, pragmatic and dedicated. I know I don’t have the communication skills, persuasion skills or political savvy to accomplish what they set out to achieve. I respect the work they are doing and for the most part the methods they use. I learnt a lot and gained a new respect for the work of an ‘activist’.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Thoughts on Vulnerability

2 weeks ago my neighbour died. I am not exactly sure what from, I was away at the time, but apparently two days before his death he was chatting with my housemate Mary. Now Rabson's death is surprising for sure, but I’ve become accustomed to hearing about people dying suddenly at a young age for no obvious reason. But what has made me stop and think is the mess his passing has left for his remaining dependants. I know I haven’t figured out all the complexities of who are his dependants but from what I gather it looks something like this:

Rabson's mother was living with him, his 2 youngest children – a boy (20) and a girl (17), his granddaughter and her two children, a grandson and a neice. His wife had died quite some years ago, along with a son and a daughter (the reason his grandson and granddaughter were depending on him). Since he was the only one in the household to work, the family was in a bit of a situation, all sorts of dependants and no providers. Luckily he owned the house – so no one was out on the street. I am not quite sure how they managed to put together the requisite feast for the funeral and continue feeding the family members that stayed behind afterwards. Now that everyone has gone home and things are settling down a bit, Mary (my housemate) has tried to explain the complicated redistribution of the household. Rabson's elderly mother went to live with her equally elderly brother, the grandson was sent to his dead mother’s relatives and the neice went back to live with the mother of her children's father. The son, daughter and granddaughter and her two children are still around but their prospects are pretty dismal. The daughter and granddaughter have not finished highschool and are unlikely to be able to pay the fees.

I was reading an article about how Canada has a social safety net, much like the ones that stretch below the trapeze artists in a circus tent. We are allowed to take risks because we know it is there to catch us if we fall. It takes the form of life insurance, health insurance, unemployment insurance, bankruptcy laws, wills, etc…The average Zambia on the other hand has a bit of a net, but it has holes in it and doesn’t quite reach beneath the swing radius of the trapeze. This means the risks are much higher, in a way that I find hard to fathom. I remember having a childish fear of my parents dying, but really I would have been taken care of by aunts and uncles and my life choices wouldn’t have been dramatically reduced. Here on the other hand, one’s life path can change drastically overnight. Rabson's children and grandchildren will struggle to finish school and their already limited choices have been further reduced. That being said, my neighbours don't show any signs of being down or discouraged. They still greet me with the same smiles and 'good morning's' and go about their daily routines...I am amazed by their strength and determination; life goes on.

My latest news:

I am off to Ghana on Sunday for a retreat with members of Oxfam America's Extractive Industry team. I have been asked to do a technical presentation about mining and participate in a tour of mining affected communities. Oxfam is hoping to set up a learning partnership between mining engineering students and mining communities in developing countries and has asked for EWB's thoughts. Will be very interesting and I hope to share some stories in a future blog posting.

Hope everyone is well!
Lots of love,

Monday, November 12, 2007

Malawi Adventures

After my last blog update, I took off to Malawi for two weeks of EWB related activites. All work no play, of course! But Malawi was beautiful! I spent 1 week by Lake Malawi in EWB training, then a weekend up in the hills of the Zomba plateau for an EWB Southern Africa retreat and then finally a few days visiting a starch factory, where a fellow EWBer is volunteering. Please check out my web album for the full story in photos.

I thought I would talk about the Cassava factory in this blog post.

Thulasy and I traveled by bicycle taxi to the village where Danny lives and the factory is located.

Masinda Cassava Starch Factory was started by IITA (International Institute for Tropical Agriculture) to improve farmer’s livelihoods and demonstrate the economic viability of extracting starch from cassava. In both respects the project has been successful.

Daily the factory buys 2 to 3 ox cart loads of cassava from local farmers.

The extraction process is quite simple and functions in this remote location where they have access to water from a local stream, but no electricity.

The cassava is grated and then passed through a series of sieves. The physical movement of the cassava through the process is aided by water and human muscles. The grating is the one exception, which is done by a diesel powered industrial grinder.

Once the cassava has been grated and sieved it is passed through a series of settling basins. The starch precipitates out of the solution within 45 minutes and then is collected by hand and spread in the sun to dry.

17% by weight of the cassava is recovered as starch by this process. Once the factory has produced a sufficient quantity, it is milled, packaged and transported to a packaging manufacturer in the southern Malawian town of Blantyre. If it were not for the cassava factory, this particular packaging company would have to import 100% of it’s starch. The Masinda factory is one of a kind, but is encouraging copycats to set up shop, as the market for starch in Malawi is large and Masinda has no desire of satisfying the demand on it's own.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

What am I doing here?

I think I need to back up a little bit. I am not sure I have adequately explained what I am doing here in Zambia working with CARE international…

So here goes:

First, Engineers Without Borders partners with existing NGO’s on the ground. Thulasy (another EWB volunteer) and myself have been partnered with CARE here in Zambia and we are both working on the Sorghum Project. The official name is Sorghum Marketing Enterprise Project (SMEP), it is in it’s first year but is based on the Scaled Sorghum Commercialisation Project (SSCP – love those acronyms!) that ran from 2005-2007 in the Southern Province. Essentially SMEP is taking the SSCP plan and introducing it in two new areas. This is where Thulasy and I come in; she is working on the expansion in the Southern Province. SSCP worked with the same 2 cooperatives in the Southern Province during the 05/06 and 06/07 agricultural seasons. This year Thulasy is focusing on introducing 2 additional cooperatives to the program, which will double the participation in the Southern Province.

I am working in the Copperbelt Province, where we are introducing the project for the first time to 6 cooperatives.

The project has three main goals:

1 – Increase food security for small scale farmers

2 – Diversify crops

3 – Increase house hold income

These goals are to be achieved by introducing sorghum as an alternative to the main staple food: maize. Sorghum has the added benefit of being a traditional crop, unlike maize, and was grown for consumption by these farmer’s ancestors. Furthermore, sorghum is more draught resistant than maize, which is of added value in the Southern Province where drought is common.

By encouraging farmers to grow sorghum AND maize, they are less vulnerable to external shocks such as draught, pests and market fluctuations. Both sorghum and maize are grains that can be consumed in the same fashion at the house hold level.

To increase income CARE is facilitating access to market by linking farmers cooperatives to sorghum buyers. This has mainly been achieved through a contract with Zambian Breweries, who is using sorghum to make beer. Another method of income generation is sale of sorghum in local markets. CARE has encouraged cooperatives to mill and package the sorghum for retail sale. This has been fairly successful in the last two years in the Southern Province.

CARE is providing free seed to farmers that volunteer to be a part of the project. We are working through existing cooperatives to help with logistics of meeting the farmers, distributing the seed and monitoring progress, but we are not limiting the participants to cooperative members. Fortunately in Zambia there are many, at times overlapping, cooperatives and so it is easy to find and reach farmers through this means.

The vision of this project is to spend 2 years with the selected cooperatives, facilitating the market linkages and agricultural know-how of the farmers and cooperatives in order for them to continue producing and selling sorghum long after CARE has backed out. The cliché term is ‘sustainable development’.

The actual nuts and bolts of the project involve meeting with the farmers or a network of ‘contact farmers’ to explain how sorghum is grown, harvested and sold. Ensuring the seed distribution occurs smoothly and fairly, that the market linkages are made and the cooperatives and farmers gain knowledge in sorghum growing, business and marketing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Not work related

As I am just about to set off on another whirlwind tour of the Southern Province (a bus load from the Copperbelt are making the 10hr drive to participate in the Sorghum growing festival, a small celebration of the farmers and cooperatives that grew sorghum last season, with cash prizes and t-shirts being given to the highest producers) I thought I would post a quick note.

Once I get back, the Copperbelt Sorghum team is diving in to production training, which means heading out into the feild and talking with farmers bout the key steps involved in growing sorghum this coming season. I am not an agricultural specialist, nor a fluent speaker in Bemba, so my role will be minimal. Ideally, we are simply encouraging farmers to grow sorghum and facilitating linkages between farmers and the government agricultural extension officers as well as agricultural input suppliers (all whose expertise far surpases our own on the topic of sorghum production).

Anyway, I was side tracked from my main topic which was to share my weekend with you. I had promised to take the kids (Chileche, Chisanga, Makuka and Joseph) to the park. (Just a reminder Chileche and Chisanga are Mary's kids, Joseph and Makuka are cousins). So we set off on Saturday afternoon and to save precious kwacha (local currency) we piled Chileche on to my lap and Chisanga on to Josephs - which meant we only had to pay 3 bus fares instead of 5 - good deal! I will have to take a picture someday of the minibuses, some of you may be able to imagine what they are like. For those that are unfamiliar, imagine a mini van or westfalia type vehicle with 4 benches behind the driver and 4 people squished on to each bench. Yup that's 16 folks in the mini bus, not including the driver and 2 passengers on the bench beside him.

So we arrived at the park and proceeded to play...what else do you do in an amusement park?

Sunday, I headed to church with Mary and Chileche because the bishop was coming to visit and it was going to be an exciting service. I was not dissapointed, lots of singing, dancing, yoddling, drumming not to mention extreme heat and loads of people. I gave up after 2 hours, the service was 4 hours!

Hope everyone is well as things start to cool off in Canada (things are heating up over here!)

I am having trouble uploading photos to my blog, but I have updated my web album (follow the link at bottom right of this page).


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Next Ndola Update

Well that was a bit of a longer break than I thought. It is a fact of my new life that things don’t go as planned, so this is my warning that postings will not be regular or necessarily as frequent as promised! After my last post I spent a week in Ndola, getting to know my new family and entering the names of the roughly 1000 farmers who have volunteered to receive free seeds from CARE and grow Sorghum this next growing season. I also was frustrated with the spotty Internet connection at the office. (ongoing frustration that I will just have to get used to).

It turns out Mary’s son Chisanga was in the house all along…I had understood he was a cousin! Oops. Anyway, I think I have the family sorted out… but don’t ask me to explain the family next door, according to Mary there are 14 kids (not to mention several dogs and a radio that is never turned off)! Please check out my web album for more photos. Chileche is 8 and Chisanga is 11 and I am really enjoying living with them! It’s a bit of a hike to the office (20 min minibus ride) but otherwise it’s pretty cushy. I am eating dinner with them and generally hanging out. Everyone speaks English but is trying to help me learn Bemba.

I was only able to stay for 1 week with the Malauni’s before I headed back to Livingstone to join Thulasy and her gang in a post harvest survey. We had a very interesting time interviewing farmers about their harvest last season (planting is done when the rains comes in December-January and the grain is harvested in May-June). She and I spent two nights with a family in the village. (see the web album for more photos). I also learnt a bunch about witch craft, polygamy and food aid. They all exist in Zambia and the debate continues as to whether they are good or bad or somewhere in the middle.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

First Days in Ndola

I have arrived!

Just over a week ago I said good bye to Thulasy and Josephine (what was left of my EWB support crew) and caught a bus from Livingstone at 6:30 am, arrived in Lusaka at 1:00pm and then proceeded to drive the 4hrs up to Ndola with the Sorghum team’s project manager Evans. We made it to town after dark and just in time for dinner and sleep. The next day I was able to contemplate my future home. Ndola is a very developed city, the second biggest in the Copperbelt Province, with wide boulevards, trees and green spaces. CARE’s office is located in the Development House near the center of town.

CARE's office is in the Development House

My first few days in Ndola were spent with Evans and the rest of the Copperbelt’s Sorghum team (which consists of myself, Sunday and Romanohs). We are working in parallel with the Southern Province’s Sorghum Team (Thulasy, Whyson and Silvester). We met with several cooperatives to explain the Sorghum Project (also know as SMEP – Sorghum Marketing Enterprise Project) and leave volunteer registration forms with them to fill out.

Sunday, Romanohs and Evans did most of the talking, but here is me talking about SMEP's partners with the help of a co-operative member/translator.

Since arriving I have been staying in a dorm room at Nortec – a technical college. It has been fun, with my own room, an awesome shower (communal) and a constant stream of visitors to help me with Bemba and chat about life. The proper school term is starting on Monday and the school needed my room, so yesterday I moved in with Mary Malauni and her two children. Mary is a schoolteacher, whose husband passed away several years ago and who lives just around the corner from my colleague Romanohs in a suburb called Mushili Kansengu. I have my own room in the 3 bedroom bungalow and there is an indoor toilet and shower (!). From what I have gathered so far, water is available most mornings but not in the evenings. So the family fills a large barallel with water for use after the taps don’t work. It is really very comfortable and with my mosquito net set up I feel like I am sleeping in a royal chamber. Mary is super nice and I haven’t met her children yet as they are away on holiday but I have met her neice, who lives with them as well. I am really pleased with my new living arrangements and will post some pictures soon.

Some of the students at the college.

Hope all is well!


Monday, August 20, 2007

August Photos

Photos taken in Toronto, Amsterdam, Lusaka and Livingstone

Friday, August 17, 2007

Some random first reactions

Hope everyone is doing well. So far Africa is dry and hot and a little overwhelming. I guess I didn't spend too much thinking about food and language and living conditions before arriving. So the whole food thing is about eating a lump of ground maize (or sometimes sorghum!) called schima with your hands and some kind of meat or vege dish wich is called the relish. It actually tastes pretty good and I do enjoy the whole hand to mouth thing, but it can easily be eaten for every meal and get a little tiring... Dave,Thulasy, KaHay, Heather and myself about to chow down on some schima and relish.

Language is another concern I didn’t spend too much time contemplating before arriving - there are over 70 languages in Zambia, 7 of which are fairly mainstream. I will be in the Copperbelt region where the folks speak Bemba - so I will be learning that, but I have learnt a bit of Nyanja - which is spoken in the capital and now I am in the Southern province where folks speak Tonga and Lozi. It's tough to get ahead! Most folks that I have met speak English very well - so it wont be a significant road block until I get into more rural areas. And finally the living situation, I just have to get my head around the fact that I will be semi camping for the next 12 months! I will not have my living sorted out for another few weeks, but I expect to be in fairly basic accommodation, with an outhouse, perhaps some electricity and running water in the form of a communal tap somewhere in the yard. A far cry from my house in Fort Mac - but nothing I can't get used to. I just had a sponge bath and felt almost immediately afterwards that I was dusty again. I get the feeling that it's impossible to ever feel really clean or at least the feeling is very fleeting.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

First days in Zambia

So I've made it to Zambia. I am just starting week 2 of my year in sounds like a long time stretching out in front of me. So far everything is great. There are signs of extreme poverty as well as signs of economic growth and I can't quite shake the feeling of standing out like a sore thumb wherever I go. But the network of EWB volunteers is really solid and I am still not on my own (it will be another couple of weeks). My first week was spent in the capital Lusaka learning about EWB's history in South Africa, doing scavenger hunts in the markets (visiting a witch doctor for a 'pretend' ailment), learning some basic Nyanja (Muli Bwanji = how are you?), wipping it up on some 200cc dirt bikes and bonding with the EWB crew.

Dave teaching at the hostel in Lusaka. I am in red with my orange water bottle on the table.

Practicing our motorcycle riding skills attracted quite a crowd. I was able to give them a bit of a show when I fell off (forgot the clutch when I tried to stop!)

I think I've got it...

I am now in the Southern Province with 3 other EWB volunteers. Thulasy and I are here to learn about the Sorghum project from the CARE staff and EWB's last volunteer Josephine, who has been living here for the last 12 months. Danny is also here to learn about the Sorghum project, because it relates quite closely to the work he is doing with casava back in Malawi. We are scheduled to spend just over a week going out into the field and talking value chains and market analysis and then I am headed up to the Copperbelt region, where I will be settling in for the remainder of my stay in Zambia. The Sorghum project is now starting into year 3, the first two years consisted of introducing sorghum growing to two cooperatives in the Southern province, and helping establish a market for the grain. This year both Thulasy and I will be working with CARE staff on expanding the project further in the Southern province and into the Copperbelt province. Thulasy will be based either in Livingstone or just outside and I will be based in Ndola.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Departure and Training

After 4 weeks of training in Toronto the time has come to board the plane. Thulasy, Kim, Heather and I are all flying tonight from Pearson Int. to Amsterdam, then on to Nairobi and finally to Lusaka via Harare, Zimbabwe. We are scheduled to reach our final destination just before noon on August 3rd. Even though I am not ecstatic about the idea of spending the next 30hrs in a plane and/or airport I am really excited to be finally on my way. The last month has been a whirlwind of readings, discussions and assignments on agriculture, rural livelhoods, Engineers without Borders, health and safety, integration, gender sensitivity, power and priviledge, participatory approaches, development organisations... etc. I have learnt a lot and really enjoyed hanging out in TO and getting to know the EWB crowd and the 8 other volunteers that are off to either Western or Southern Africa in the next few days. Here is a photo of some of the group on one of our days off (camping at Emily Prov. Park)I am not in the photo but that's my orange water bottle in the foreground!

Once the four of us reach Lusaka we are scheduled to do some in country training which includes but is not limited to some motorcycle lessons! Yoohoo! Then Kim and Heather are going to head to Malawi with Dave our trusty Southern Africa director and Thulasy and I are off to spend some quality time with Josephine who has been working with CARE on the Sorghum project for the past year. Josephine has been stationed in Livingstone, close to Victoria falls - so expect some falls photos in my next post.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Where do I start..?

There is so much I would like to tell you about, perhaps I will start with a few of the basics.

I am going to Zambia for 13 months starting in August 2007.

I will be working for EWB in partnership with CARE on a scaled Sorghum Commercialisation Project

Engineers without Borders (EWB) is an organisation that was started in 2000 by two University of Waterloo Engineering students. The vision of EWB is the appropriate application of technology in order to alleviate poverty and improve standards of living in developing communities around the world. EWBs focus is on tailoring technology to each community's social, cultural, economic and political context. They send Canadian volunteers overseas to work in partnership with local organisations on projects that involve and empower the local people. EWB also does a lot of work here in Canada raising awareness about issues facing developing countries as well as affecting policy changes at our government levels. Please check out their website at:

Would you like to support me by supporting EWB?
I am fundraising and any donations would be very much appreciated! Tax receipts can be given for donations exceeding $20. All cheques should be made out to Engineers Without Borders. If someone requires a tax receipt they should indicate this with the cheque and provide a return mailing address and contact information.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Preliminary Research

Up to now I know some of you have actually found out a bit more about Zambia and Sorghum than I have (my excuse is that I have been too busy visiting with doctor's trying to figure out what shots to get...) So as incentive to learn more before I fly - this posting will be a summary of my future home country.


Zambia is landlocked and sparsely populated by more than 70 ethnic groups, many of them Bantu-speaking. It has some spectacular scenery, including the Victoria Falls (picture above) along the Zambezi river, the Bangweulu Swamps and the Luangwa river valley. 44% of the population lives in urban areas (Lusaka, Livingstone and the towns in the Copper Belt) most rural Zambians are subsistence farmers. Zambia's neighbouring countries include; Congo, Angola, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania.

Full name: Republic of Zambia (formerly known as Northern Rhodesia)
Population: 11 million (UN, 2005)
Capital: Lusaka
Area: 752,614 sq km (290,586 sq miles)
Major language: English (official), Bemba, Lozi, Nyanja, Tonga
Major religions: Christianity, indigenous beliefs, Hinduism, Islam
Life expectancy: 38 years (men), 37 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 Kwacha = 100 ngwee
Main exports: Copper, minerals, tobacco
GNI per capita: US $490 (World Bank, 2006)
International dialling code: +260

Brief Political History:

In the 1888 Cecil Rhodes and his British South African company took over control of the region, in 1923 he ceded control to the British Government. In 1964 Zambia gained it's Independence from Britain and the federation of Rhodesia and became the Republic of Zambia. From 1964 to 1991 Kenneth Kaunda was prime minister of the one party state. In 1991 a multi party constitution was adopted and Frederick Chiluba became president. In 2002 Levy Mwanawasa was elected and then re-elected in 2006.

Economic History

In the late 1960's Zambia was the 3rd largest copper producer in the world (after the US and Soviet Union) the collapse of world copper prices in 1975 had a devastating affect on the economy. Over the years Zambia has appealed for food aid and financial aid from the international community. In 2002 the Government refused genetically modified (GM) maize to help alleviate the severe food shortages facing three million people. In 2005 the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and Western donors cut Zambia's foreign debt to $502 million from an estimated $7.2 billion.

Other Information

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is ravaging Zambia. Nearly one million Zambians are HIV positive or have AIDS. Over a half-million Zambian children have been orphaned. Malaria is also significantly affecting families and their ability to provide for their own basic needs.

The government has a policy of universal free primary education and health care. Health facilities however are grossly inadequate with only half the required doctors needed to service the population. Some 95% of primary school age children are enrolled at schools with 20% continuing to secondary level and 2% of the 20 - 24 age group in tertiary level. Illiteracy is 27% but the drop out rate at schools is very high. In rural areas, the standard of education is hampered by lack of facilities, transport and teachers.

More to come as I continue to learn...