They say it’s always better to go out with a bang, and why shouldn’t this apply to university degrees too? Although I was coming to the end of my degree, I was fortunate enough to be offered a position on a 4 week assessment of major issues and opportunities with Project Everest in Blantyre, Malawi. Project Everest is an organisation based in Sydney that is dedicated to developing sustainable solutions to complex issues by designing and developing lean social enterprises.
With our small, but driven team of 8 students and team leader, we set out to uncover the biggest issues facing local communities in the Blantyre region. We designed an interview process using human-centred design, which involved data gathering as well as observations and empathetic insights in order to develop a meaningful understanding of the local people and their lives. Then, across 3 villages, we conducted these interviews again and again as we sought to build our knowledge and data base. We didn’t get through it without some hiccups along the way though. Having designed the interview knowing very little about daily life in Malawi, we soon realised many of our questions were inadequate or even irrelevant.We redesigned the interview process, but it meant that over 30 of the initial interviews we conducted were almost useless. However, such is the way of learning by trial and error, and as a result both our translators and interview subjects congratulated us on starting to ‘get it’ in terms of understanding the local life.
Doing work in a developing country is extremely rewarding, but can also be very challenging. Listening to all of the problems that people face was at times overwhelming, especially when you want to try and fix everything. However, it was amazing and moving to see that despite these hardships, Malawians are some of the happiest and most generous people I have had the privilege of meeting. Even when they had limited resources, they would offer us fruit or nsima, a favourite local dish.
Beyond the work we were doing, spending 4 weeks in Malawi was also an incredibly rich cultural experience. We learnt the basics of the local tribal language, Chichewa, such as how to say ‘hello’ – “Moni!” and ‘thank you very much’ – “Zikomo kwambili!“. We also donned the ‘chitenje’, a piece of fabric wrapped around as a skirt, which is the customary form of dress for women in the village. And finally, we did of course enjoy some local tourism by going on a safari weekend, visiting a fair-trade tea plantation and hiking on the tallest mountain in Malawi, Mulanje.
I couldn’t imagine a better way to finish my degree and say “Tionana!” (‘goodbye’) to the amazing opportunities of the Build program than with such an exciting and challenging experience. Zikomo kwambili, Malawi!
Bachelor of Arts in Communication (MAP) and in International Studies (Germany)