Friday, February 11, 2011

Scott's Adventure in Malawi!

Our time in Rumphi

Time to catch up on Malawi!
Well, it was quite a two week period for me in Malawi.  For starters, there was no access to the internet for the 10 days spent in Rumphi so, with apologies, I will try and bring you up to date in one posting!  Not an easy task.
Heading North
With my co-coach, Brad Schultz, we headed north out of Malawi at the start of week one.  The drive was a long and tiring one.  The roads were reasonable but in Malawi, everyone walks along the roads.  Highways, dirt roads, foot paths, whatever – anytime, day or night, someone is walking along the roads, and it makes driving hazardous at times. 

There was also much to see in the way of villages – in all parts of rural Malawi the villages are all made of mud bricks, heat fired to harden them and thatched roofs.   If a husband was well to do he might have built his bride a home with a sheet metal roof but those were certainly not in the majority. 

Speaking of transportation, people rode or walked bikes everywhere too and normally had them loaded incredibly heavily with bags of maize cobs, bundles of firewood, long lenths of construction lumber – whatever they needed to get them home, the bike would carry it. 

Women are also the ones who do most of the carrying of everyday goods, always well balanced on their heads as this pic shows.  The highway is the villagers main access to some semblance of an economy, too.  Depending on the time of year, and the area of the country in which the villagers live, there are different things for sale at roadside - women and children would stand for hours, raising their produce to attract the drivers attention.  Mangoes, potatoes, huge forest mushrooms, fresh fish - whatever they had would be on display.  These fresh mangoes caught the eye of Swanzie, our driver, and she and Brad hopped out to purchase some.

We even met one farmer who had tied a live pig to the back of his bike and was taking it home for a feast!

We stopped in Mzuzu for one night and carried on into Rumphi the next morning.
Phindu Community SACCO:
We call them Credit Unions, they call them SACCO’s – same thing.  Our first stop was Phindu SACCO where we met with Board and management. 

L-R are pictured Swanzie, our driver and Business Development Officer for MUSCCO, Brad, my partner, Patrick, the Acting Manager, SACCO President Peter, Director Matthias and myself
Right behind the SACCO - and I mean, right behind (not one inch of land seems to wasted in the country, a widowed woman lived with her five kids - we counldn't resist and went back to see them and hand out Canadian flag pins that they just loved to get.

In the northern region, where Rumphi is located, the greatest majority of people are small plot farmers with tobacco as the main crop.  As country’s world wide are encouraging their people to stop smoking the price farmers can get for tobacco has slowly been dropping.  In Rumphi, poverty is endemic and the members must borrow on an annual basis to finance the planting of this years crop.  If the price tobacco commands on the auction floors is too low the farmer/member can’t make enough to pay off his debt to the SACCO.  This leaves him in a very tough spot the next spring when he has to start again.  It also leaves the SACCO in tough shape because they have to carry loans for another full year or they have to write off the debt.  This was probably Phindu’s biggest issue as a cooperative.  Over the course of the 3 days with them, we spoke with many members and non-members about the tobacco reliance issue, we even visited a farm first hand to gain a better appreciation for what they go through. 

The farms owner, Harrison Mhango, is pictured centre with Acting Manager Patrick to his right as they look over Harrisons crop of tobacco.  He remembers well when a 100 kg bale of tobacco would fetch MWK$40,000 on the auction floor - today the price is closer to MWK$5,000 - a level below which he says he could not afford to grow any longer.  By the way,  MWK means Malawian Kwatcha, their unit of currency.  MWK$5,000 is worth about Canadian $27.50 Every member of the family works, too.  Below is Harrisons wife (R) and his Sister-in-Law (L) preparing tobacco leaves to be hung for drying.

They also grow maize, a staple food of Malawians, especially in rural areas of the country - Harrison was enjoying this cob!

Even with depressed prices though farmers remember the good days and continue to believe prices will rebound.  The SACCO will have to put a real effort into meeting with and educating their farmer/members about the prospects for future success. We met with the Board twice and the management three times in an effort to get a real handle on this issue, and others.  By weeks-end we had developed an Issues/Recommendations presentation for them which they appreciated and, I think, took to heart.  Like so many other things in life, it wasn’t that they didn’t know the problems and some of the solutions, they just needed to hear them from an outsider!  The expressed their appreciation for our visit by presenting each of us with a very detailed carving of the globe.  Very Cool.
Everybody gets a weekend off once in a while....
And we were no exception!  On Saturday, we had planned a much anticipated guided day at the Vwaza Marsh Wild Life Centre and what a day it was.  We were picked up about 8:00 a.m. by our Guide, Vasco, who was an amazing source of information on every bird, animal and plant that we saw!  The day started with a three hour hike through the bush around the marsh area.  The marsh is, at different times of the year, a very shallow lake that the hippo’s just love and we saw quite a few of them.  They remain ata distance in the water, knowing we were close to the water (they sense vibration through the lake bottom from a long way away) with just their eyes and nostrils extending above the water.  We also saw beautiful and graceful Impala’s, strong looking Kudu, wart hogs, cautious velvet monkeys, fun-loving and playful Yellow Baboons and a host of beautiful birds. 

A pair of Impala, top, and a Velvey Monkey, below. We also saw signs of the majestic elephants the Park attracts but with no success. It really was a wonderful day!
The next day, we ventured a little further afield as we wanted to see a bit more of the nation and specifically, Lake Malawi.  We had heard much of beautiful Nkhata Bay and it’s neighbour, Chikale Beach, to the south, pictured below. 

 They were both quite beautiful, actually, and very busy with people (Nkhata Bay in particular).  The local market just blows me away – we’re there in the heat of the day – at least 27 C – and there sits a fish vendor with this catch of the day sitting in the sun.

 We're told it doesn't create and specific problems but I don't know!  Our drivers friend joined us this day and bought a fish to take home - to keep it cool, he tied it to the side mirror of the car where in waved in the sun, all the way home - and that was 2 hours! 
Too gross but lots of fun, beautiful scenery too!
Our second week!
We were working with a similarly short period of time this week too as we had to get to Lilongwe Thursday for debrief meetings with our sponsors and prepare for an early flight Friday on our way out.  We attended Rumphi Teachers SACCO. 

Here we are pictured with (from left) Gift Nyirenda (Board Sec), myself, Ellina Zimba, Manager, and her daughter, Faith Akuda, Accountant, John Musamba, Chair of the Board, Regina Msiska, Vice Chair, Romeo Chawinga, Director and Brad.  We're in front of their sole branch, a building they have built on their own, from their own resources, with no debt remaining.  Very proud of themselves and their endeavour.
This is a very successful SACCO as their members are virtually all “professionals” – in this case, teachers.  They have every single teacher in their 12 northern zones as a member and, with payroll deduction, this has given them a real leg up on the competition.  They had recently adjusted their bond to allow more professionals  in and have seen their membership – and therefore assets = increase in the range of 10% - staggering!
Our recommendations for this SACCO largely centered around the potential change to a computerized system, marketing efforts, training etc..  They have a number of teachers who also farm and, where that is tobacco, there is some additional risk.   Their biggest risk though is a threat/promise the government made to require all civil servants (which includes teachers) to have their pay direct deposited to a bank!  Unless we can convince them the legislation should be amended as to what constitutes a bank and what the SACCO  sees in its future, the credit union will be at serious weakness as.
We finished out work with Teachers and had a very positive closing presentation which, in many ways, they professed to support as well. 
Starting the long trip home:
We had to leave for Mzuzu that same day, given the distances involved and the need for another debrief in Lilongwe with our major sponsors, the MUSCCO (Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Cooperatives) before we left on Friday.  Our drive down was probably one of the most stressful parts of this adventure as most “taxi” drivers are actually race car drivers in disguise!  They are also fairly immune to the complaining of tourists and just carry on with their excessive speed.  On the open road, it’s not so bad but as you go through larger villages there are larger crowds – literally – on the road, kids, adults, animals – and the chance for a fatal accident remains high.  Regardless, we got into Lilongwe and had a most productive meeting with the local group.  One of the things you often see are young men making a living taking people around town on their bikes - rain or shine, they have them sit on a little padded platform on the back while he pumps away!  If there's a way to make a few Kwatcha, they'll find it!

I've mentioned to several people what rural village or town "downtowns" look like - we saw this one on our way south from Mzuzu.
After meeting with local leaders we finally boarded our planes to begin the long journey home.  The next stop was London, England where the entire Coaching group together with CCA staff met for the formal debrief before heading home.  A long day of conversation, discussion and analysis as we contributed what we could to ensure the program was every bit as successful next year as it was this.

CCA's Kati Clark is seen here helping the Malawi Six assess their work from the past two weeks.  Of course, there were a few hours for fun and once the day was over people headed out to whatever caught their fancy.  In our case, that was The Tower of London and London Tower bridge.  Both were beautiful in the rapidly darkening night.

Lennie and I found this obliging gent just waiting for someone to take his picture! 
The next day we headed for the airport for the final legs to home, happy for the experiences we have all been through but missing family and friends terribly.

Unfortunately, not everyone made it through the check-in without problems - as Blake can so eloquently testify!  After a couple of try's even he was let on the plane!

So, we're all home safe and sound, hoping we've made some small difference in a nation where poverty is rampant, hard work is the rule of the day and the people are warm, friendly and welcoming.  We're all looking forward to year two!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Our last day with Danwell Credit Union

Yesterday we did our final report with Danwell Credit Union. We had a wonderful time with the staff and Management. We were able to give them a few ideas that they were very happy with. After our meeting was over they presented us with beautiful African dresses, which we immediately put on for pictures. They also gave us talking drums and a few gifts to take home to our husbands. We really enjoyed our time with the Credit Union family and wish them all continued success with their community and membership. One of the great things we noticed at Danwell was every time one of their Board or Committee members entered the branch they would say in a very loud voice "Credit Union" and the staff respond "Happy Family". We did not notice this happening at any of the other Credit Unions that we visited, we enjoyed sharing in that with them. We headed back to Accra today and had to take the unfinished road again, I now know beyond a shadow of a doubt how clothes feel in a washer machine! Actually I believe today the clothes have it a lot easier than we did! We made it safe and sound and we are looking forward to our visit with CUA (Ghana Credit Union Association) in the morning. We will all be wearing our Credit Union cloth so I should have some great pictures to share with you then. It is hard to believe that our Credit Union visits are now over and we are getting ready for the long journey home. Until tomorrow Good Night from Accra. Lennie Hampton

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Another day with Danwell Credit Union

We had our 2nd day here at Danwell Credit Union and enjoyed every minute. We met at the main branch and then headed out to the Kasaam Branch which took us about 45 mins to get there. It was a beautiful village that is known for making Kente cloth. When we pulled up to the Branch the Chief of the village was at the Credit Union making his deposits as he is a member there. He was gracious enough to spend a few moments with us and shared some stories about his village, then he gave both myself and Kristin new village names, my new name is Amma, Amma which translated to a female born on Saturday. After greeting the Chief and getting some pictures Mrs. Philomenia the Manageress and Monica one of the Credit Union members took us on a walking tour of the village. It didn't take long before we had a following of children, they love to see the Abrunee (person with white skin) people, I had one little girl grab my arm so she could feel my skin. We stopped at several members shops and visited a few members that were weavers of the Kente cloth. The last shop that we stopped in we bought Kente cloth to bring home. The colors of the cloth were so beautiful and it was hard to decide which one to pick. On the way back to the branch we were invited by some of the village people to attend a gathering that was taking place with the family and friends of a village elder that had passed away the night before. After spending sometime visiting with them we said our good byes and headed back to the Branch where we spent a little more time with some members and staff. We then headed back to the city to the main branch. On the way back to town at the toll booth Emmanuel our driver purchased some pretzel like food for us to try. It was made out of ground nuts and had a spicy taste they were very good. Yesterday when we were at the branch I was given some Credit Union cloth and was sent to the seamstress next door to have a dress made. When we got back to the branch I went next door to pick up the dress and it is beautiful. We will be wearing them on Friday when we meet with the Ghana Credit Union Association. I will send pictures then. As you can tell from the pictures it was another wonderful day here in Kumasi. Maa ju (good evening) from Kumasi. Lennie Hampton