Wednesday, March 10, 2010

CCA Debrief

We day 1 of our 2 day CCA debrief sessions yesterday.  The session was facilitated by David, Colleen and Kati from the CCA.  We didn’t talk about reverse culture shock; rather, we discussed some logistics and shared stories with each other.  I am really pleased with yesterday’s session for a couple of reasons.  When I came back from my trip last year, I ended up going to work the next day and didn’t have time to digest the things that I had experienced on my trip.  I had so many stories I wanted to tell, yet I couldn’t seem to piece them together in a meaningful way to share them with friends and family.  Yesterday, we shared our stories and pictures with each other, and David (who is the Manager of Publications and Media Relations with the CCA) helped us piece our stories together.  Again, I’m really pleased with yesterday’s session and I hope I’ll be able to communicate some clear stories to people upon my return. 

I presented three pictures yesterday; two of which I took of the children playing with their soccer balls and toys in the Dilonde orphanage.  I find myself coming back to these photos almost every day – this one, in particular. 

Shortly after I took the picture, I set my camera down and motioned to him to throw the football to me.  After a while, he threw it, and I tossed it back to him.  He caught it in a fit of giggles and ran to a group of his buddies cheering and laughing.  It really was a cool experience.  I keep coming back to this photo and questioning how this child could possibly be so happy playing with a simple football.  I wish I knew more about this child.  I wish I knew his name.  I wish I knew his family.  I wish I knew his story.  With the information that was communicated to us at the orphanage, I can speculate as to what his story might look like.  As he is in an orphanage, his parents are likely deceased or have abandoned him.  He receives one meal a day from the orphanage; clearly not a healthy portion of food, but enough to get by.  So how is it that he could be so happy? 

I brought this up last night with Brad, Bruce, Charlie, Dennis and Paul.  I asked them all how they thought the Malawian people can be so genuinely happy, given various factors that would seem to challenge such happiness (ie: living conditions, poverty, disease, etc.).  There seemed to be two or three common themes that arose:  Faith and Family being the top two.  There really is a sense of family in Malawi, which I absolutely love!  I recall asking Davison (from Dwangwa) about his family last year.  He listed off his immediate family and moved on to list off his extended family and friends.  While my definition of family likely ends at my grandparents, Davison’s definition went far beyond that!  In Canada, we have so many things to distract us from interacting with each other at a personal level (ie: TV, internet, movies, blogs, etc.) that many of us have abandoned that method altogether.   Technology has evolved to the extent that when we do decide to communicate and interact with each other, we more often than not settle for sending a Facebook message, email or a text message which at the best of times comes across directly and to the point, lacking emotion and meaning.  

Dennis told us a story yesterday about one of the hotel staff he grew close to over his time in Mzimba.  The staff member had invited him over to his house to meet his family.  Dennis met the staff member’s family.  The employee was taking care of his 13 year old brother, two of his own children and three of his cousins.  Incredible!  Dennis went on to explain how odd the situation was.  The sun had set and Dennis explained that he was sitting in complete darkness in the house, talking with the employee and his family.  Without electricity or windows, you can imagine as to how dark some of the houses get at night time.  As Dennis was telling the story, he commented “I wonder what they do for fun?”  I think I know.  I think they talk to each other.  I think the kids play with each other.  They eat, share stories of the day and probably really enjoy it!  There is no TV, internet, videogames, etc. to distract them.  That’s really refreshing to see. 

We have another debrief session this morning, and then I’m homeward bound back to Lethbridge.  As much fun as I have had over the past three weeks, I really am looking forward to getting back home. 


Robert Christiansen

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

In tha T-Dot!

So…  We arrived in Toronto yesterday, after a 7 hour flight from London.  I couldn’t sleep and ended up watching a thwack of action movies to pass the time.  Bruce and I made it through customs OK and took a cab to our hotel.  I think our hotel is pretty central – we’re within walking distance of a lot of attractions and what seems like the downtown core.  The weather is great in Toronto!  There is no snow and it was +13C yesterday afternoon.  Awesome! 

It was so interesting driving from the airport to the hotel yesterday.  I have to say…  it was comforting to see pedestrians have the right away when crossing the streets!  The drive was also sort of weird.  It was weird to not see people everywhere.  In Malawi, it feels like there are people EVERYWHERE!  People walking in the middle of the roads with large objects on their heads; little kids herding goats and playing in the red dirt on the side of the road; people walking alongside their bicycles with firewood stacked 6 feet high.  Even in Canada’s largest city, in the most central point of the city, the amount of people walking in the streets doesn’t even come close to the amount of people walking around in Lilongwe and Blantyre.  It is odd to come back and see things so… so… organized and structured.  Perhaps I’m experiencing a sort-of culture shock (or perhaps REVERSE culture shock) coming back from Malawi.  I remember going through this same sort of thing last year.  While two-weeks in Malawi is a very short period of time, I think it is long enough period of time to learn and apply the societal rules.  I think culture shock sets in when those rules change.  I see “reverse culture shock” is on our agenda for today’s meetings!  I’ll be sure to share what I learn… 

Last night, Team Malawi and Team Uganda met up for dinner and some drinks at an Irish pub near the hotel.  We shared stories, ate and called it a night.  Airplane rides and jet lag really is exhausting! 

This morning we will be meeting up with a couple of CCA staff for day 1 of our 2 day final briefing sessions.  We will likely share stories with each other, laugh, cry and hug-it-out…  probably not…  regardless, it should be a couple of good days with everyone.  It’s sad to see this program come to an end for me.  I’ve really come to enjoy the company of Brad, Bruce, Dennis and Nicky over the past two years.  Anyways…  the meeting starts in an hour!  Time for a coffee!

Robert Christiansen

Monday, March 8, 2010

In Transit

Greetings, from the London Servisair Lounge at the London Heathrow airport.  We (Team Malawi) arrived at 6:00am local time, cleared security (some of us more quickly than others…  Bruce…) and said goodbye to each other.  Paul, Brad, Nicky, Dennis and Kati ditched Bruce and I with an early flight to Toronto.  J  So, Bruce and I decided to make the best of this layover, and hit up a pay-lounge with free food, free drinks and most importantly of all – FREE INTERNET!  Throughout this trip, I’ve realized just how addicted I am to the internet.  Our hotels carried one news channel in English – BBC News.  They have this great program called Super Power, which discusses the history, importance and power of the internet.  You should check it out!  Super Power

Here’s a photo of Bruce, working hard on his blog.  Check it out!

I really don’t have much else to say.  I’m working on a sort of wrap-up blog entry to tie these two years together, which I’ll post later.  Stay tuned! 
Robert Christiansen

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Goodbye Dinner with MUSCCO! And… Last Day in Malawi

Last night, Sylvester, Dickson, Fumbani (sp?) and Kingsley took us out for dinner at a golf course near our hotel. We had chicken gizzards for a starter and I had what will likely be my last Malawian Chambo meal for a while. The whole MUSCCO executive is an awesome bunch of guys!

Well… Today has finally come. I can't believe today is my last day in the "Warm Heart of Africa". I think I'm going to go walking around, take some photos and take in the last of the 25C weather.

Our almost-2-days-worth-of-flights start at 1:15pm this afternoon.

Blog ya in Toronto!

Robert Christiansen

Friday, March 5, 2010

Bus Trip to Lilongwe…


Paul and I made it back to Lilongwe. We took an AXA Coach from Blantyre to Lilongwe, and the bus ride took about 4.5 hours. The distance between Lilongwe and Blantyre can't be greater than 350Km, but because of the road conditions (POT HOLES!!!) and road side police and immigration stops, it takes a very long time to travel on the highways. At the one immigration stop we encountered, two officers came onto the bus and demanded to see the passports of all foreign visitors. We showed our passports and I explained we were down here volunteering with MUSCCO and visiting SACCOs. I was asked to provide some piece of documentation I had never heard of, and got a little concerned… The officer told me to get the document in Lilongwe. A girl sitting behind us was questioning the officer's decision to see passport's for foreigners. I have to say, it is pretty odd to have to produce a passport to ride on a bus… The only thing I can think of is that the country may have an issue with immigration (ie: illegal immigrants).

We met up with Bruce, Brad, Dennis and Nicky at the hotel restaurant last night and shared stories with each other. It was nice to see everyone again and it sounded like everyone had a good time once again this year.

We're meeting with MUSCCO this morning to review our findings, have the afternoon off and going out for our final dinner with MUSCCO later this evening! It's hard to believe my time in Malawi has almost come to an end…


Robert Christiansen




Thursday, March 4, 2010

MBC Presentation and a School Visit in Dilonde

Hello Hello!

First of all… I made it back alive and well from the markets yesterday. I think I got some good deals. It takes time to get a good deal, but with time (and patience…) I was able to string together a couple of deals with "my friends".

Paul and I made our presentation to the MBC board this morning. I think it was really well received. The Chairman thanked us for our work and our recommendations, and told us that he thought there were a lot of good recommendations in our report. Paul and I requested to visit a school this afternoon, and informed the MBC staff and board that we would like to make a financial donation to a government school. The government has changed from offering little financial assistance to the education of Malawians to now offering free education for Malawian primary and secondary schooling. While it is free for children to attend school, the resources for these children have declined over the years. We were told by one of the board members that years ago, when the government did not offer financial assistance, parents would pay a small fee for their children to attend school, and they were given a text book, writing tools, etc. Today, the schooling is free, but the student:text book ratio was 5:1. It's difficult to differentiate which system is better for the students…

The school we visited in Dilonde (same area as the orphanage we visited last week) had 5,400 students. There were 62 teachers currently working at the school. That is about 87 students to 1 teacher at the school. Crazy! Paul and I made a financial donation to the school we visited. Abigail converted our cash, asked the school head master what supplies he required and sent her staff out to buy school supplies with our funds. We then presented 40+ text books and a variety of miscellaneous school supplies (pens, pencils, scribblers, pencil sharpeners, etc.) to the headmaster of the school. In the big scheme of things, our donation was not extravagant, but the school staff sure made us feel like it was! There was a very formal reception, in which the a representative of the ministry of education attended, to receive the gifts. The media showed up and interviewed Paul. It was way too much for our simple donation, but everyone we spoke with made sure we understood that great things can come from small donations.

Abigail and the board vice-president took us out for lunch afterwards. We went to a pizza joint close to where we were staying. Yes! Pizza in Malawi! Awesome! The lunch was great. Abigail presented us with some gifts after lunch and we bid her farewell. She has been so great to us and I am really happy we were able to meet her and work with her at her SACCO.

Tomorrow… We will be catching the 7:00am bus to Lilongwe, and get to catch up with Brad, Bruce, Dennis and Nicky. I'm looking forward to meeting up with everyone (and… looking forward to telling them the prices Paul and I were able to negotiate in the markets. I think there is a bit of a competition going amongst all of us to see who can get the best deal… J haha!). The great thing about the markets is that even if you feel like you have gotten a good deal, you haven't… you've been taken for probably 2 to 3 times what the actual price is… but the sellers will never let on that that is actually the case!

Enough blogging for one day! I hope you enjoy the photos! Blog ya in Lilongwe.

Robert Christiansen

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Good morning,
I felt bad about the last blog post – too many words and not enough pictures! – so I thought I would post some more photos to offset yesterday’s novel.  Enjoy!
Pictures 1 & 2:  There are a lot of potholes in Malawi.  Think of Edmonton in February or March, only 10 times worse!  The potholes are everywhere and some are really deep!  If you hit a pothole, and you have hub caps on your tires, you can kiss those hub cabs goodbye.  I took these photos of Henock’s tires on his Toyota Corolla.  He has his hub cabs tied on to his car with black plastic ties.  As I’ve walked around Malawi, I have seen more vehicles with ties on their hub cabs.  Awesome!  

Picture 3:  I thought I had better post some photos of me working, so you all won’t think I’m slacking off over here.  This is me, working in the boardroom/back office room in the MBC SACCO.  

Picture 4:  On Friday of last week, we had a meeting with Henock, Getrude and the Chairman of the Board of the Sunbird Tourism SACCO.  In this photo, I’m presenting them with a Certificate of Participation.  (Left to Right:  Robert, Chairman, Getrude, Henock)

Picture 5 & 6:  The batteries in my camera died on the way to visit the tea plantations, so I had to grab these photos from Paul’s camera.  On our way to the plantation, we passed through Bvumbwe – a small town and trading centre.  Pictures 5 and 6 are pictures of the markets.  
Picture 7:  This is a great photo!  Some of the locals use bicycles almost as a wheel barrow.  This gentleman is carrying firewood on his bicycle!  

Picture 8:  I blogged earlier about one of MUSCCO’s SACCOs (Bvumbwe Community SACCO) that is currently going online with Bankers Realm – a Kenyan Banking system.  As we passed through Bvumbwe, Paul got a photo of the branch.  According to Henock, this SACCO is a very successful SACCO and, next only to FINCOOP, one of the fastest growing SACCOs in Malawi.  

Picture 9:  Paul brought his camera when we went out for dinner yesterday, and we got a photo taken with the staff.  They are all really great and know us by name now. 

I have to go get mentally prepared for this afternoon...  Blog ya later!

Robert Christiansen 

Day 2 at the MBC SACCO


Paul and I spent our second day with Abigail and her team at the MBC SACCO. I've included some photos with this entry so you can see what the branch looks like (both inside and out). The branch shares the premises with two other organizations: The MUSCCO Regional Office and FINCOOP's Blantyre branch. If you recall, Paul and I worked with FINCOOP, in their main branch in Lilongwe last year – so it was cool to poke our heads into this branch and check things out. FINCOOPs corporate colors are green (similar to Servus!) and similar to the green painted on the outside of this building. The MBC SACCO branch is in the corner of this building. In one of my photos, you can see a brown door in the upper right hand side of the building – that's the main entrance! A single teller (or cashier) station is posted at the entrance, and the members queue up outside of the building waiting to process their withdrawals, deposit or loan applications.

The branch has a cashier station, an area where the accountant works, Abigail's office (which houses the entrance to the cash vault) and a large board room that doubles as a back office room. The branch is a decent size, relatively speaking, but the layout of the branch is a little awkward. Paul and I worked our way through a mountain of documentation today (financial statements, policies, procedures, meeting minutes, etc.) to learn more about how MBC SACCO operates and to try to identify some areas where we could make recommendations to assist them. While there are some similarities between Canadian Credit Unions and Malawian SACCOs, there are some major differences! I think the biggest thing we, as coaches, need to be cognizant of is that the business rules that we follow in Canada are drastically different than the rules in Malawi. Paul and I had to learn how these SACCOs provide banking services to their members before we could make recommendations. I think I have a pretty firm grasp of how business is done now, and I hope that our recommendations to the MBC SACCO Management and Board are well received. We have a good start on our report and I'll finish up the typing either tonight.

In Canada, Credit Unions compete head-to-head with Chartered Banks and offer a very competitive banking solution to members that are being underserved by their Chartered Bank. In Malawi, the SACCO movement started off has a niche-banking system, with a very specific target market – the poor. Chartered Banks were not interested in banking the lower income class of society because it is not a very profitable sector and the risk associated with this sector was deemed excessive. The SACCO target market has changed to some extent and some SACCOs are trying to break this stigma of being the "Banker to the Poor" and operate as a real alternative to the Chartered Banks. The SACCO movement within Malawi truly is alive and well, and it is encouraging to see and hear about growth in SACCOs across the country.

The first Wednesday in March is "Martyr's Day" in Malawi, which happens to be a National holiday. Martyr's Day is a day to celebrate those that fought for Malawi's independence from the United Kingdom. Last year, Martyr's day fell on one of the days Paul and I were in Lilongwe. I recall going to the markets for the first time, and coming back to the hotel mentally and physically exhausted. I read on Brad's blog that the sellers are even more aggressive than ever this year… I hope he means aggressive with their pricing and not their selling techniques (although I have a bad feeling this isn't the case…). Paul and I will probably hit up the markets for round two tomorrow. If I don't get a blog out tomorrow, it's because I'll likely be curled up in the fetal position in my hotel room, repeating "no thank you… no thank you… no thank you…". I've included a couple of quick photos I was able to get off of the markets the last time we were there.

Walking around Blantyre is pretty cool. We haven't been able to do a lot of walking around, because of the rain; but we've made the best of our rainy days! According to Abigail, we are right in the heart of downtown Blantyre. There are people everywhere! People walking on the sidewalks. People walking in the streets. People stepping out into open traffic to cross the streets. Oh man, I just thought of a hilarious story. In our first few days in Blantyre, Paul and I did a little walking around. There is a cross walk very close to our hotel and we decided to use it to cross the street. Being laid back (and perhaps naïve…) Canadians, we waited patiently at the cross walk for traffic to slow so we could cross. 2 or 3 minutes passed, and no one slowed down. Finally, someone else needed to cross the street, and he just started walking in front of oncoming traffic, and they sort of slowed (but didn't stop) and dodged him. Classic! I could see the minibus guys pointing and laughing at us, and I felt like a complete idiot. I have used cross walks to cross the street ever since I received a ticket for my first traffic offense (j-walking… not kidding…) in Red Deer. After 8 days in Blantyre, I doubt I'll use a cross walk again…

I took advantage of our hotel's "1 hour free internet" offer, and surfed around the net this afternoon. I noted a couple of cool things:

  • It looks like the CCA is streaming my blog! Awesome! Thanks John, Kati and whoever else is responsible at the CCA! They are also streaming Charlie Collura's blog (Uganda) and Brad Hopfauf's blog (Malawi).
  • I checked out Brad's blog this afternoon, and saw a lot of familiar sights. Paul and I worked with the same SACCOs Brad and Bruce are working with this year. Brad has some great stories and pictures on his blog – you should check it out! I also noticed that Brad posted some pictures of Davison – the General Manager of DWASCO. I miss that guy! He was such a nice guy and took Paul and I all around the Dwangwa Sugar Cane Estate to show us stuff.
  • I also noticed that Anna, one of the CCA employees working in Malawi last year, had commented on one of my entries. As I have no idea how to contact her, I'll try via this blog post… "HI ANNA!". Anna was working with MUSCCO and their SACCOs, assisting them in developing gender and HIV/AIDS policies to incorporate within the SACCOs. All of the SACCOs Paul and I have worked with over the past two years (DWASCO Employee SACCO, FINCOOP, Sunbird SACCO and MBC SACCO) have these policies incorporated into their policies and procedures. Anna also showed us around Lilongwe a little, taking us out for the infamous "loooooong lunch" at Summer Park! Heh heh! (They say you shouldn't drop inside jokes in blogs… Meh, what do "they" know!)
Sorry about the lengthy entry! I guess I had a lot to say today!


Robert Christiansen

PS: Today is my little brother's birthday. Happy B-Day Dan!!!

Monday, March 1, 2010

First Day at MBC SACCO

The weekend is over!

We spent our first day at the MBC (Malawian Broadcasting Corporation) SACCO today. We were greeted by Abigail – the MBC SACCO General Manager. She welcomed us and we met in the morning and afternoon discussing her SACCO.

Unlike the Sunbird SACCO, the MBC SACCO is a common (or open) bond SACCO, meaning that it welcomes more than just members from a single institution. If you recall, the Sunbird SACCO is a closed bond SACCO, as it only offered membership to Sunbird Hotel employees. The MBC SACCO was originally a closed bond SACCO in 2008. They opened their bond when the merged with another SACCO in August of 2008. They have done very well as a SACCO, considering the size of their membership (about 900 members). Abigail had participated in the CCA Women's Mentorship Program, which gave her an opportunity to visit Canada. She stayed in Manning, Alberta with her host at Horizon Credit Union. She also got to travel to Peace River. I told her that I felt sorry for her, having to travel hours upon hours to get to Northern Alberta! Haha! She did have to travel a very long distance to get there (Blantyre to Lilongwe to London to Ottawa to Calgary to Edmonton to Manning = MANY HOURS!!!) but she said it was worth it! She had a great time and really enjoyed the snow.

Paul and I worked for the day, and walked back to the hotel in sunshine – a rare occurrence in Blantyre during the rainy season. We will work with Abigail and her team tomorrow, take Wednesday off (National Holiday!), present our report to the board on Thursday morning and visit a school on Friday. It's hard to believe that we've been here a week all ready! Time flies when you're having fun!

No pictures today! Sorry! I hope to post some of the Sunbird staff and the MBC staff tomorrow.

Robert Christiansen

PS: Paul and I watch the BBC religiously, hoping that sports highlights will come on. We saw that Sidney Crosby scored the game winner for team Canada yesterday! AWESOME! We also highlights of a drunk guy in a bar getting interviewed. He said "eh" 20+ times and started a "Go Canada Go!" chant midway through the interview. CLASSIC! Hahahahaha! With all of the controversy the Vancouver Olympics has seen thus far (death of the luger, no snow!, etc.) it's nice to see Canada win a THWACK of gold medals!