Thursday, May 15, 2008

Adapting to Malawi

Everything towards the end of April seemed to be moving very quickly. I was cramming for finals while frantically trying to pack and less than 12 hours after my last final I found myself at the airport headed towards training in Toronto. Pre departure training also afforded few breaks. Twenty-three other Junior Fellows heading to Ghana and Malawi all crammed into a house while we engaged in a week of intensive training. Case studies, presentations, role playing, question periods, and reflections made it one of the longest but most valuable weeks of education I’ve ever had.

I think the biggest thing I learned from pre-dep is that how I think is more important than what I know. Overseas, there are no easy answers and the traditional learning environment where we are used to having an instructor present facts isn’t always present and may be incorrect when it is. It is more important to be able to ask critical questions and frame a thought process that will allow one to be effective in any situation. In a foreign environment, little is certain and circumstances can change very quickly. To be effective and create lasting change we need to be able to adapt.

I have now arrived in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, and the pace of life has slowed considerably. Unfortunately, my initial placement with CADECO and TearFund in water and sanitation did not work out and so adapting is exactly what I am doing. The new initiative that TearFund had planned for this summer is not quite ready to begin so, in order to maximize my effectiveness in Malawi, I was partnered with a different organization in the agriculture sector.

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) has been working on improving the market for cassava (a kind of tuber – similar to a potato) in Malawi. Cassava is ideal for the conditions of the region. It is very drought resistant, requires few nutrients, and can remain in the ground for up to three years – a tremendous form of food security. However, the crop itself is vastly overshadowed by the production of maize and cassava has little comparative market value. IITA is working to help pioneer new market opportunities for processing cassava into starch (for adhesives) and flour to improve incomes for farmers and increase food security in rural areas.

However, my jump to agriculture happened only very recently, and since my boss at IITA has been out of the office for the past week, my specific role will not be finalized until tomorrow. Things sometimes move slowly, and in the meantime I will have to be patient and adaptable.

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