This massive continent called Africa always seems to give me surprises. On my first day back here I ate T-bone steak in a very modest market stall, I bought my first cell phone, and I had to wear a sweater to keep warm.
Hi friends! I’ve recently departed on a year long placement with Engineers Without Borders where I’m partnered with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in my new home of Malawi, Southern Africa. I’d like to share my experiences with you. If you want to read this email online so you can see pictures, check out my blog:
How did I get here!?
If I think back to Grade 12 – 2001 - I’d say I was mostly about adventure, friends, and cars. Adventure and friends don’t lend themselves well to traditional views of a career so I went into engineering to design cars. My dream was to walk into a BMW dealership on my graduation day to take out a lease on a Z3.
But adventure wasn’t going to go down without a fight. In 3rd year university I happened upon an organization called Engineers Without Borders where someone like me could go and apply their engineering in the mountains of Guatemala or maize fields of rural Africa. Now that sounded cool.
After having my first application turned down, I discovered that Engineers Without Borders was about more than just adventure. But that application, perhaps for the first time in my life, really made me think far outside of myself by making me ask,
“What is the role of ‘first world’ individuals in international development?”
I guess I’d always known that there were people in the world without the same privilege as me – going to university in a province where the word prosperity is in the newspapers every week. But I really hadn’t given much thought to that. It’s also a tough question to which there is no one answer, and it’s one that has driven me ever since.
A little ways down the road I managed to make it to Ghana with Engineers Without Borders, and I met two people in particular that have stuck with me since. I like to talk about them so you may have been introduced to them before.
In June 2005 I wrote to many of you about Abla, the mother in the household that took me in. This incredible woman amazed me and opened my eyes to the fact that what we call poverty is about much more than not having enough food. She worked a 72 work week outside of the home as a hairdresser, in addition to cooking and cleaning for a family of 5. She got 5 hours of sleep a night. I’ll never know if she was content, but what got me was this: if she’d had a dream of getting more than 5 hours of sleep a night, I couldn’t see how she’d be able to fulfill it. What could she change?
In other ways we weren’t so different. She was two years older than me.
Dauda isn’t the richest person in his village, but he managed to be the first person to graduate from Grade 12. While going to school he was honoured with an award as the second best farmer in his region for the way he managed his 4 acres. When I visited his village I saw his campaign posters everywhere for the local elections. He didn’t get elected, but that didn’t stop him – he was driven by an incredible enthusiasm. I think I can say that he was the most good-natured person I’ve ever met and each morning he greeted his neighbours with what I perceived as a zest for life. For just eight days I joined Dauda working in his fields.
I’m realizing now that surely I’m only painting a partial picture – focusing on what I see as the undesirable parts of Abla’s life and the desirable parts of Dauda’s life. But those are what have stuck with me, and they represent the dichotomy that international development and Ghana are to me.
I recently graduated from engineering and while I can’t deny that I still love BMWs and stick-shifts, my path is driven much more by people like Abla and Dauda. And I’m still exploring that original question that I happened upon over three years ago.
I want to assist African development workers as they help create an environment where Abla can pursue a life of well-being and fulfillment. But I also want to learn a lot more about people like her. And I’m fascinated by people like Dauda.
Just like I do for Canada, I have many hypotheses about the positive and negative aspects of life in Ghana or Malawi. I’m excited about exploring these over the next year as I work with my Malawian co-workers to tackle the negative aspects that they’ve identified.
More to come, but I’ll sum up my first few weeks with this:
The GDP/capita of Malawi is the 2nd lowest in the world. The life expectancy is 39 years - less than half that of Canada.
It’s not uncommon to see “I love Malawi” shirts or hats, and a number of Malawians have told me that they love their country.
Last week I asked a friend what he saw as the good parts of Malawi. His one-word answer was this:
I think I’m going to learn a lot.
I’d like to share my experiences with you. I’ll send emails from time to time, and perhaps post on my blog more frequently. If you’d prefer I didn’t send you these emails, no prob, just send me a note.
If you’re in a communicating mood, get in touch, I’d love to hear from you. Unlike in Ghana, I actually have both a cell phone and an address!
To call me from Canada just dial 011 265 877 2512
My mailing address is:
Danny Howard c/o
IITA - Malawi
Chitedze Research Station
P.O. Box 30258
Lilongwe 3, Malawi