It feels GOOD to have internet access again! Haha! I was going through withdrawal not having access to email/internet/etc. Paul and I have been on the Dwangwa Estate in the Nkhota-kota district of Malawi since Monday, February 23, 2009 (4.5 days). We had a great experience in Dwangwa though! The Nkhota-kota district is a very rural area of Malawi. The main cash crop harvested in this area is sugarcane. We were travelling to work with a particular SACCO: DWASCO (a hybrid of the words Dwangwa and SACCO). Paul and I initially thought that Dwangwa was a town, so we “google-earthed” it to see if we could find it. When nothing came up, we were a bit concerned thinking that we were going to be headed well into the jungle. It turns out, however, that Dwangwa is not a town; rather, it is a major river that flows through the Nkhota-kota district. We found out later that Dwangwa can be used to describe all areas around the river.
Where we were stationed, there are three major companies that own the land, sugarcane and ethanol operations; Illovo Sugar Company, Dwangwa Sugar Company and the Ethanol Company. The three companies work very well with each other; two own a total of 6,000 hectares of sugarcane crop and harvest it to produce white and brown sugar, and the other uses the left over molasses from the sugarcane company as a byproduct to create ethanol. In the area where we were working, there is what the locals call “the Estate”, which consists of the living area for the locals on the land that the sugar cane and ethanol companies own. About 15,000 people live in the Estate; the majority of which work for one of the three companies.
As I mentioned earlier, we were assigned to work with DWASCO; the local SACCO in the Dwangwa area. Over the past 4.5 days, we worked very closely with Davison; the Manager of the one-branch-SACCO. He was very kind to both Paul and I, and even let us both drive his van! (it is only exciting because in Malawi, you drive on the left hand side of the road!). DWASCO is a very well managed SACCO and has had many years of great success. It is a closed-bond SACCO, servicing the workers at the three companies referenced above. The more Paul and I looked into DWASCO, the more we realized many similarities from our own SACCOs (or credit unions) in Canada. There are some major differences, no doubt; however, many policies and procedures administered in DWASCO exist within the credit unions we work at. We presented our findings at a board meeting yesterday evening. The board was very pleased with our recommendations and invited us to stay for dinner.
1. Driving! Driving in rural areas is an amazing experience. There are people walking or riding bicycles on both sides of the road, carry large items on their head and usually travelling at a slow pace. I mentioned that you are to drive on the left hand side of the road here. Well… when there isn’t traffic coming from the other direction, you are actually supposed to drive in the middle of the road. There is also an expectation for the driver to “honk” at people walking or riding bicycles as to warn them that they are coming. According to Davison, a “honk” has many meanings in Malawi. It can mean “thank you”, “I am coming” or “get out of the way!”; depending on the mood of the driver and the length of honk! Haha!
2. Another type of driving… Driving of the golf ball! The hotel we stayed at had a 9-hole golf course attached to it. From what we could gather, the very wealthy South African owners and managers of the three companies created the hotel for foreign (ie: South African) workers to stay in while they visited the work-sites. There wasn’t much to do at the resort, so on our down-time, Paul and I went out for a round of golf! It is INCREDIBLY hot here; well above 30C when it isn’t raining. We were lucky and ended up golfing on an overcast day… only about 27C above… The hotel we were staying at was pretty nice, but my room was a bit sketchy… There were some strange bugs in it every day and my air conditioner didn’t work well, so it was super hot! Oh well… at least we got to golf! :) I ended up using my headlamp a lot while we walked to and from the restaurant near the hotel. I also used my headlamp the various times the power went out. Davison mentioned that all of Malawi is powered by one station and that when that station has issues, power outages ensue in many districts of Malawi.
3. School Children. Davison took us to visit a school on the Estate. It was an incredible experience! The school that we visited had 2,600 students and 19 teachers to teach them all. That’s a student-teacher ratio of 137:1. Unbelievable! I think the schools I attended had a student teacher ratio of no more than 30:1 all throughout elementary, middle and high school. We presented some gifts to the head master of the school and some gifts to some students. Davison mentioned that many of the public schools in Malawi have similar problems with their schools (ie: not having enough teachers) because the majority of teachers prefer to teach at private schools.
4. Sugar Factory. Davison arranged for us to visit the Illovo Sugar Company factory, which is located about one block away from the DWASCO. Before the tour, I wasn’t really looking forward to it… I figured I knew how sugar was made and that it would be boring. You know… chop up the sugar cane, put it into packages and send it off to the stores, right? Wrong! The tour was about 3.5 hours long, and we ended up stopping early because we had to get back to DWASCO to finish some work! The process is incredibly complex; filled with many stages and gigantic machines! The bulk of the process is done by machine, however so of the machines are still operated manually. Illovo owns 6,000 hectares of sugarcane and processes hundreds of thousands of tons of sugar each year.
5. Fishing Community. Davison wanted to show us a fishing community near the estate, so we packed up one day and made the trek. This fishing community likely consisted of 150 – 200 people, all of whom rely on fishing and selling fish in the markets to make money. The live in huts made with straw and mud and use both conventional and non-conventional boats (ie: hollowed out logs). Davison told us that the fishermen have the most success fishing at night time with lanterns. As we were leaving, something caught Davison’s eye. We walked over to a table, and there sat three “fresh” (although not fresh smelling…) fish, being tied together by someone ready to take them to the market to sell. Davison dickered with the man for about 5 minutes, finally found a price he liked, and bought the fish. One looked like a catfish of some sort and the other two… well… look for yourself! I have no idea what they were, but Davison assured us that they were very tasty and that his wife would be pleased with his purchase!
This morning, we traveled out of the Nkhota-kota district and into the district of Salima. I’m not sure of any towns that we are near, but the hotel we are staying at is the Sunbird Livingstonia Beach Hotel. It is beautiful but quite expensive. I have to say, I feel very guilty staying here after seeing the living and working conditions of the people living in Dwangwa.
We’re headed back to Lilongwe tomorrow afternoon. The next SACCO we will be working with is FINCOOP. We have seen the branch all ready, as the Lilongwe branch is located on the bottom floor of the MUSCO building. That’s all for now!
PS: Here is a picture of Paul and I at the board meeting. We were given gifts at the meeting and we tried them on! The board was such a great group of people! We ate and talked together for hours! They were really interested in Canada; especially the snow. I told them Alberta produced a lot of beef, and they laughed at me. Finally, someone spoke up and asked "how do the cows survive in the winter? Do you build them houses?!?!". When Paul and I nodded our heads "yes" and explained that we build barns for our animals, they roared with laughter! Imagine that... Building shelter for animals! : )