Elena Farrar ’10 from Malawi

I went on a site visit on Wednesday. It was organized by Save the Children. It was one of the most special experiences in Malawi thus far. My first visit out to a rural village.

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Children at St. Agnes Primary School doing “buddy reading” before the Boost Literacy Session, an after school program supported by USAID and Save the Children.

Beforehand, I was not editing a briefer to go on a site visit, I wasn’t calling up the Malawi desk officer asking if the literacy stats in the briefer were the most up-to-date. Instead, when we pulled into the village, there was a group of local woman singing and dancing in the local language welcoming me. It was infectious, I was taken aback and to be frank, I was totally out of my element. I must have been grinning from ear to ear because the Malawian women who worked at Save the Children kept asking me if I was excited to be there, which of course I was elated.

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The classroom is essentially a thatched hut with pictures and letters the kids have drawn on cardboard with charcoal ink.

I watched the teacher give a lesson to the first through fourth graders on a book about a hippo (mvu in chichewa). I then led a discussion session with parents and community leaders (many of whom are illiterate) on how they are supporting education. They showed me how they make ink (out of ground up charcoal, sugar and water) and various other materials for the kids to practice reading and writing.

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I’m now a month in and I’m reading a lot and trying to figure out how to hone my research question. I’m spending a lot of time at home, just parsing through articles. Asking myself: How can I glean the most from my interviews, what should my questions be and how should they be worded?

I’m still also at the stage where I’m figuring out how I can make the most of this experience. I want to travel and see the country as well. I recognize it’s important that I make time for that too.

It’s really nice that out here I can learn just for the sake of learning. There’s no pressure of assignments or deadlines. It’s really a beautiful thing to have time for soaking things in and digesting. This has really been invaluable. A part of me still can’t believe that I’m here in Malawi conducting research. It’s a little surreal.

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The Malawi countryside.

I have to say, spending time here and reading about development has really made me question the work that we do and why we do it. In a place like Malawi aid doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. Even educated people are disempowered and from my vantage point, I’m not sure that infiltrating society here with Western ideals/money has done people here much good. Lack of human rights, specifically gender rights (child marriage, birth control), lack of education and civil society will keep Malawi poor, but from what I’ve seen there’s little initiative from Malawians to see these things change. Nearly all initiatives for economic and societal change are donor lead, and therefore, unsustainable.

The living situation is great. My roommate and I take turns cooking and we have regular guests. She’s hugely social and often hosting most of the various events in town like environmental club, book club etc., so we’re a great pair. She faces her own set of challenges working at the metal hospital (she’s a doctor). Despite living, working, and teaching here for two years, most of the staff undermines her, or doesn’t take her seriously likely because she’s a woman. This is obviously frustrating for her. She’s also often working with old equipment and medication shortage – sometimes she doesn’t have either.

I’m certainly trying to keep a free write journal going. However, most of the time, I find that my experiences come out best when I’m sharing them with others, and not just myself. I’m most looking forward to interviewing the kids, teachers and parents one-on-one. I’ll be doing that in the upcoming weeks.