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.