Mondays never go quite the way you expect….

Posted in Uncategorized on June 17th, 2009 by Vicki – Comments Off

I started the day with just a little feeling of lightheadedness. I had breakfast (my routine choice since arriving in Malawi, scrambled eggs, toast and “Coffey”) and set out for the day.

I walked to the WUSC office to run some errands. I had borrowed some reference material and wanted to return one and renew another. The one I kept was a very useful piece prepared by VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas) on AIDS advocacy. I wanted to find out if I could get a copy for COWLHA’s ongoing reference. I also wanted to check-in with Jacob Mapemba (who is the Director of the WUSC office in Malawi) on what Daphne and I had developed for my workplan.

The visit to the WUSC office was very helpful and Jacob and I had a good conversation about the workplan. Jacob provided the loan of a cell phone so that Patricia and I could have a way of contacting people/being contacted, as needed. I had asked about the loan of the phone in the context of our weekend plans and offered to pick it up on Friday. Jacob insisted I take it now….and this became very fortuitous.

I also asked about the VSO office in Malawi and was pleased to find it was very nearby. I dropped in to VSO but found that the offices were locked, so decided to come back later in the day.

My ride into Old Town on the mini-bus held a bit of a surprise as we were taking an unfamiliar route….I started to worry I’d grabbed the wrong one! I was assured we were headed into Old Town and, sure enough, that’s where we ended-up.

I stopped into the bank on the way to the office to get some more money. Most people use their VISA to obtain a cash advance…..but I’ve hit a big snag. They want me to have a PIN number on my card and I don’t have one. (I am feeling a bit cranky about this as I called VISA well in advance of my departure and received no counseling on this point.) I had used the card successfully in China and Japan when I traveled there….so this is a bit frustrating.

I headed to the COWLHA office for work. It’s just a 5 minute walk from where I get off the mini-bus and the bank. When I arrived, Lawrence (a consultant) was there working on plans for the next phases of the “Stepping Stones Plus” program that COWLHA is implementing in the regions. This is an up-date of a program developed through the Strategies for Hope Trust, with financial support from UNICEF, the German Institute for Medical Mission (DIFAEM), CAFOD and Plan. The program is designed to activate discussions about HIV and AIDS at the local level.

To quote the author, Alice Welbourn, a victim of AIDs herself who (as of 2006) was 19 years into a life with HIV/AIDs and doing well with the help of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs):

I hope that these new exercises and sessions, designed to supplement the original training package, will provide additional support to communities in understanding how HIV breeds and flourishes on these root inequities and injustices in our lives, and our collective reluctance to look at or challenge them. I hope it will also enable us together to have the courage to stamp out these many injustices – and, in doing so, also halt the spread of HIV.

As I am learning through my work with COWLHA, gender discrimination and attitudes about the roles of men and women in Malawian (and many other African countries) are key factors in the “root inequities and injustices” limiting the ability to address the challenges of HIV/AIDs. This is why COWLHA has been created – to ensure that the issues of women facing the threat and reality of HIV/AIDs are highlighted and addressed.

I talked with Daphne about Jacob’s suggestions for the workplan and we came to an agreement about it, making the changes Jacob suggested. I will be completing an up-date of their advocacy workplan so that it is ‘up to the minute’ and aligns with the COWLHA strategic plan. We will also run a workshop on the “how” of advocacy. (Jacob explained that while many organizations have advocacy plans they struggle with exactly how to put them into action.)

I started to work immediately on the advocacy workplan and began the materials for the workshop presentation. I made some fairly good progress….and met a few more people who came by the office. Among them was a man named Wisdom who used to work in advocacy for MANET+ (a Malawian AIDS-related NGO) but now works for a rubber plantation in the north of Malawi. He was hired because there were problems with bush fires in the communities neighbouring the rubber plantation and the owners of the rubber company wanted to do some outreach to see what could be done to eliminate the fires. Wisdom has been with this work for about a year now and advises that the fires have reduced by 70%. He also explained that he has built a better understanding in the community about how the rubber plantation is a benefit to its schools, roads and other infrastructure.

A driver used by COWLHA and one of Daphne’s nephews also dropped into the office. I also met Daphne’s youngest daughter, Tamara. James dropped by, too. (He is the other consultant COWLHA uses.)

With Daphne’s agreement, I left around 2:00 p.m. so I could drop into the VSO office about the copy of the publication I was looking to obtain for COWLHA and so I could go onto the internet. As I made my way, I started to feel unwell.

I completed my errands at VSO (…not looking good to get another copy of the publications…) and I did a few emails via wireless connection in the lobby of the Capital hotel. By the time I got back to the Country Garden Lodge, I could tell I was battling a high fever.

I got into bed after taking some ibuprofen and tried to sleep. Other than the fever, I had no other symptoms – no vomiting or diarrhea. At dinner time, Ruth – the woman who looks after the operations at the Lodge – came by my room to see if I planned on having any supper. She saw my state and got me an extra blanket and offered to bring me something to drink. Later Patricia came by and, with her help, we used the cell phone that we had received from WUSC in the morning to call Jacob. Both Ruth and Jacob were concerned that I had malaria.

Jacob stayed in touch by phone. I started vomiting. Jacob called to say that he had found a 24-hour clinic that was open and had a doctor available and that he sent a WUSC driver to come for me. Ruth kindly offered to accompany me….her presence was a great comfort. Off we went. The clinic was in Old Town and they took me right away. The nurses and doctor were very kind – Hilda, Anne and Azeem. Even with the ibuprofen (which I had continued to take at appropriate intervals over the evening), my fever was still quite high. They were able to determine that I did not have malaria but I did have an infection. Antibiotics were prescribed. I was also given some other medication to deal with any further vomiting and also some pain killers to address the aching that had set in as the evening wore on. Interestingly, the visit to the clinic cost 3,300 kwatcha (about $25 Canadian), including the prescriptions.

As soon as I got back to the Lodge, I took the antibiotics, called Jacob to let him know the outcome of my visit to the clinic, and then tucked into bed. By morning, the fever was gone…but the diarrhea started. (…perhaps, too much information??!!) Thankfully, I had brought medication for this from home! Jacob and Lawrence from the WUSC office came by to have a look at me and get assurance that I was on the mend. Jacob agreed to let Daphne know what was happening with me. I will not go to the office today (Tuesday) but will plan on going in tomorrow.

As I write this, it is about 2:30 pm on Tuesday. I am still a bit achy but otherwise feeling much, much better. I haven’t eaten too much, but I will see what I can do to get something into me over the day.

Meanwhile, I’ll nap a bit and also work on my COWLHA writing this afternoon/evening so that I can continue to make progress within the limited time available.

Posted Photos

Posted in Uncategorized on June 14th, 2009 by Vicki – 1 Comment

I’ve been able to post photos for some of my earlier posts. Take a look!

Sunday in Lilongwe

Posted in Uncategorized on June 14th, 2009 by Vicki – 3 Comments

I slept-in to 7:30 a.m. this morning. I got a cup of “coffee” (instant) at the Lodge and sat in the patio area at the back enjoying the morning sun along with my coffee, a scone I bought the day before, a fresh banana and a yogurt I also bought at the store. One of the resident cats at the Lodge joined me…prefering to stay in a shady corner while I grabbed up the sunshine. (The cats are for looking at and enjoying from a distance. They are aloof and — almost certainly — carrying various bugs and infections best avoided by humans. Nice company, nonetheless.)

I read for a while — still working my way through Stephanie Nolan’s 28 Stories of AIDs…feeling more able to read and, if necessary, let some tears roll as I absorb the information and tragic tales they provide. There is hopefulness, too….and I am happy to be part of some of the hopeful work around AIDS in Malawi.

Now I am sitting in the nearby Capital Hotel lobby, having a coffee and working on the internet wirelessly. It costs 2,000 kwatcha (approx $15 Canadian) for 5 hours on-line in this mode. I can get internet more cheaply in Old Town, but this is very convenient (only 5 minute walk from the Country Garden Lodge) and very congenial.

My work week in Lilongwe

Posted in Uncategorized on June 14th, 2009 by Vicki – 3 Comments

For those of you who prefer chronological presentation of information, brace yourself….this is all about Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of the past week!

Wednesday June 10

Patricia and I were taken by WUSC to each of our partner organizations. As we began the day by taking Patricia to YECE, so I had the chance to meet the people she will be working with before heading off to COWLHA.

At COWLHA, my main contact, Daphne Gondwe, President of COWLHA, was not there as she he had to go to a funeral. Daphne was at the funeral of Mildred Sharra who died tragically as a result of a car accident on June 8, 2009. She and 12 others riding in a minibus in Mzimba were killed. Mildred Sharra was with ActionAid Malawi and was a key supporter of Daphne and Victoria when they started COWLHA three years ago.

As a result, I met the other member of the COWLHA staff, Victoria Kalumba at the COWLHA office. While I was there that afternoon, other members of COWLHA — Maureen, Monica and Agnes — who volunteer to staff the organization dropped by to meet me.

I did a bit of reading and chatting with Victoria to try and get a feel for the organization and the work I might be doing with them. Around 4:00 p.m., we ‘knocked-off” and I headed for ‘home’ for the first time…on my own on the mini bus. Mini bus riding in town can be a bit of an adventure. This time, I found myself squished in the front seat with a very large woman on my left and the gear shift at my right. It was just a bit funny as the woman beside me had packages that took up most of the floor space so my knees were drawn up. She was concerned that my dress was showing my knees, so this motivated her to find space so I could put my legs down and pull my skirt over my knees!

Thursday June 11, 2009

After breakfast, I walked to the WUSC offices nearby to run an errand for some materials to take to COWLHA and then headed into Old Town via mini-bus to go to the COWLHA office. (The mini-bus ride is MK 80 …or about 75 cents…per trip.)

Most of the day was spent reading materials I had tracked down and waiting for other business to be completed. At Daphne’s request, I also read through a a draft report, ”Huairou Commission AIDS Campaign Assessment and Perspectives on the Way Forward”. She wanted my comments. I completed this and also read material Victoria provided to me concerning a study and extensive report prepared by the Leitner Centre. Leitner researches worked with COWLHA in 2008 to prepare background information and some preliminary advice on advocacy – particularly at the local and individual level.

Daphne was not around too much due to other meetings. We agreed at the end of the day to focus on the preparation of our workplan on Friday.

At lunch on Thursday, Victoria took me to the neighbouring restaurant. I had Nsima  for the first time – corn maize (sort of like a set-porridge) with beef, stewed rape (a green leaf vegetable) and kidney beans. The Nsima had little flavour but was good to sop up the gravy on the meet and it’s very filling.

I keep working on learning some basic Chichewa….but it’s slow going. Interestingly, I suppose because my brain realizes it’s learning a new language, I start responding in French when I’m stuck. So bizarre!!!

The mini bus ride was eventful, per usual!! The van would not start until 3 (arguing) men pushed it to the incline about half a kilometer away from the Shoprite pick-up point. Quite an adventure seeing this van being pushed along in the midst of the rush hour traffic…. I got home anyways!

Friday, June 12

I didn’t have to take the mini-bus into work this morning as I was offered a ride by the YECE staff who came to pick-up Patricia. (Patricia works in Area 25, a part of Lilongwe that can take quite a while to get to when traveling via mini-bus.) They dropped me in Old Town where I ran some errands at Shoprite and then I walked to the COWLHA office, buying a paper on the way. No one was at COWLHA when I arrived so I had some time to be in the sun and read the paper until Victoria arrived.

I worked on a first draft of the work plan and talked with Victoria to learn more about the organizational structure of COWLHA. I played her some Blue Rodeo music to give her a taste of Canadian music. I am so happy I brought my laptop with me as otherwise, I would have to share a very aging computer with Victoria and Daphne. At least with my own set-up I can keep busy even if they are working on other things.

Daphne arrived part way through the morning after she had run some errands and she was accompanied by another COWLHA member. I was introduced to her and we chatted a little bit before the conversation turned to Chichewa, and then I went back to my work.

There were a few other visitors in the office in the morning, including a consultant, James, who works with COWLHA quite often. He helps them write proposals for funding.

Daphne, Victoria and I had lunch together, eating food from the same restaurant on the campus of the Ministry of Agriculture, where our office is located. (The Ministry offices are very old and they rent out some of the less useable space at very reasonable rates to various NGO’s.)


Everyone continues to try to help me with my Chichewa….but I am progressing only slowly. My mind just doesn’t seem to hold the new language. I am getting frustrated with myself….maybe it’s too many changes all at once. I’ve managed thank you (Zikomo) and how are you (muli bwanji)….but even these get tangled on my tongue and scrambled in my ear.

Daphne gave me a copy of the COWLHA Strategic Plan. It has a major element related to advocacy setting out the general framework for activity by the organization in this area until 2011 – including at the national and regional level.

I adapted my initial draft of the work plan to reflect the fact that COWLHA already has a basic framework for advocacy. This means we can focus on development of an implementation plan for the framework that exists, perhaps using Daphne’s desire to influence changes for the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act as a beginning.

I showed Daphne what I had drafted…..and then she showed me another document that they had prepared for COWLHA under the auspices of ActionAids. This had a preliminary workplan – now dated – that pre-dated the strategic plan. We have agreed that I will work on migrating the initial work into a format and approach that ties directly to the advocacy elements of the strategic plan. This will be a key deliverable of our work together.


We finished off the work plan and agreed that I would take it to the WUSC office for review. I headed home around 2:00 p.m. …on the mini-bus…..this time we had to stop to refill the tank with a bit of gas to be able to make the rest of the route through to Area 11, where I am staying…. Always an adventure!

Patricia and I shared stories about our day/week and then we went for dinner in Old Town at Don Brione’s (Kaboka Hotel) and had a very nice meal. I had a Malawian beer – Kuche Kuchie – yep, that’s what it’s called!


Saturday in Lilongwe

Posted in Uncategorized on June 13th, 2009 by Vicki – 2 Comments

This will be a quick post in the hope I can add something a bit more detailed later today.

I have easily survived my first week in Malawi.  The assignment with COWLHA (I understand they actually call themselves the Coalition of Women Living with HIV and AIDS…COWLHA, not COWLA….) is ….well, progressing.  I think we can accomplish our goals before I leave but it may be a stretch.  I take the mini bus to and from work most days…..always a bit of an adventure.  It is a very affordable and (relatively) quick form of transit.  Each way costs about 80 kwatcha….roughly 75 cents.

My office is located in the middle of a campus of buildings for the Ministry of Agriculture….so not unlike life at U of G with OMAFRA right beside us!!  Although, I’ve never seen lizards scampering around work, like I do now!

Everyone is very friendly.  The food is pretty much like at home ….with more emphasis on rice or Nsima (Malawian corn dish) than on meat and other vegegtables.

Today, my WUSC/Leave for Change companion — Patricia Lee from Deloitte in Toronto — and I have been to the market (wild!!!) and then walked around Old Town Lilongwe.

Here’s a picture taken at the market.

Lilongwe Old Town market

This is a photo taken near the Lilongwe market in Old Town.

Old Town Lilongwe near the market

Can you see the man on the bicycle with the chickens loaded on the back? This photo was taken by the traffic circle in Old Town Lilongwe that is very close to the COWLHA office. I have to cross over this traffic circle each day on the way to and from work. The traffic is a bit crazy (and they drive on the left side of the road…!!) so I usually tag in behind local Malawians to be sure I get across the road ‘intact’!!

Old Town Lilongwe at the Traffic Circle near COWLHA.  Do you see the man with the chickens hanging from the back of his bike?

We have booked accommodation to go to Senga Bay next weekend (on Lake Malawi, near Selima).  This will be a nice reward for what we hope will be a productive week with our partner organizations.  (Patricia is giving financial advice to the organization called Youth Empowerment and Civic Education)

Last night we went out for a very nice dinner at the Kubuko Hotel in Old Town.  Tonight, we plan to have dinner at “Mamma Mia’s” ….a recommended location…!!! [It was very nice! A bit of Italy in the midst of Lilongwe. It was located in the Muslim section of Old Town.]

It gets pitch dark here by 6 pm each day.  One does not walk around after dark (not even Malawians), so you pretty much have to take a taxi to any desired location….and you want to have a good idea of where you are going.  There are virtually no street lights, even in the heart of the city….so when it’s dark here….IT IS DARK!!  An added dimension is the occasional power outages …which may last a few minutes or several hours.    At night I can hear the hyenas howling from the nearby nature sanctuary.  The sky is full of stars…  quite a different experience for city living.

I’ll wrap up for now.  We are going to go across the street to buy a few groceries to keep in our rooms and to use for lunches during the week.  Then we’ll hop on a mini bus back to our lodging and clean up.  I think we’ll then go to the nearby hotel where there is wireless internet and I’ll try to post some more details about the week….and if the internet isn’t hopelessly slow (…which it can be at times….) I’ll try and post some photos.

Thinking of family and friends at home often….especially when I see or hear things that I think might amuse or interest one or another of you!  Thinking especially of Justin….who is heading into exams.  (I know you will do well, buddy!  Lots of love.)

From Lilongwe

Posted in Uncategorized on June 10th, 2009 by Vicki – 3 Comments

I have now had two sleeps in Lilongwe!!  The jet lag seems to be passing quickly.  It certainly has been helped along by the wonderful welcome from World University Services of Canada (WUSC) staff and by those who Patricia (another Leave for Change volunteer from Deloitte, Toronto) and I will be working with.

Monday we settled into our accommodation – Garden Court Lodge – which is very comfortable and in a beautiful, safe setting.

Here is a view at the back of the Country Garden Lodge compound looking down toward the reception.

Inside the Country Garden Lodge compound looking toward the reception

This view is of the Lodge compound looking toward the entrance gate.

Country Garden Lodge looking toward the entrance gate from inside the compound

These are the gardens at Country Garden Lodge in the area behind my room and Patricia’s.


This is the reception where we go to get our keys and advice on anything we need.


This is my bed….all ready to ‘tuck in’ for the night.

Tuesday (yesterday) we received a general orientation from WUSC staff and leaders from our host organizations.  They gave us an overview of the challenges before Malawi, some general knowledge of Lilongwe and some information about how we will work together (WUSC, Malawi partner organization & volunteer.)

We were taken to a beautiful place for lunch.  (SEE BELOW FOR PHOTO I’VE NOW BEEN ABLE TO POST.)  After lunch we learned how to use the city mini-bus system to get around town — a bit wild by Canadian standards!! — and where to buy food and do banking, etc.

Lunch with WUSC staff, Daphne (COWLHA) and Lucky (YECE) at the Four Seasons

All the Malawians are calling the weather cold — extolling the virtues of the low temperatures in terms of reduced mosquito presence.  Both Patricia and I are astonished that anyone could consider this weather cold!  It’s beautifully temperate — just a bit cool in the evening and morning — and not at all humid.  Perfect weather by any Canadian standards!

This morning we have been given internet access at the WUSC offices which are an easy walk from our accommodation.  Much quicker to walk this morning, too….as the traffic nearby was at a standstill for 45 minutes waiting for the President and his entourage to pass through the vicinity.  Shortly we will leave to visit the locations of our partner organizations.  Patricia is volunteering with the Youth Empowerment and Civic Education (YECE) and I am volunteering with COWLA.   My main contact, Daphne, will not be at the office when I arrive.  She has had to leave for a funeral of a woman who has taken a key leadership role in AIDS advocacy in Malawi.

By the end of the week, Daphne and I are to finalize a work plan for my time here.  This may be a challenge.  Daphne is a one woman whirlwind…there is so much to do.  I am hoping we can focus on one or two things that we can do together that will leave her and her colleagues with a framework and tools for going forward.  Their challenges are huge and the need is urgent.

Long lay-over in Heathrow

Posted in Uncategorized on June 7th, 2009 by Vicki – 4 Comments

I have arrived in London.  We landed in a rainstorm with lightening flashing off the wing….a typical British welcome, I presume!  I managed to get some sleep and so have not lost all the ‘lustre’ (!!) on my personality.  Nonetheless, I’ve been doing my best to grab some shut eye in the airport….albeit in some pretty odd looking positions!

The lay-over here is 15 hours, so there’s lots of time for some snoozing and reading.  I’ve been working my way through Stephanie Nolan’s book, 28 Stories of AIDS.  I find I can only read a chapter or two…and then I have to stop for a while because I don’t want to become a weeping soul in the midst of the hurly burly at Heathrow.  I suspect it’s best for a woman travelling on her own to look like she is maintaining some level of composure.

I’ve tuned into CBC Radio…just to keep a toe in the pool at home…and find I am listening to an interview with Edwin Cameron, a high court judge from South Africa, who has written “Witness to AIDS”  (http://www.witnesstoaids.com/index.html) and is currently in Toronto to be part of an AIDS related speaking series.

Already the reality of this plague — a reality my comfortable life has allowed me to keep at a comfortable distance from my mind  — is draping around me…preparing me, I hope, for the work ahead.