My first two weeks in Malawi were filled with nonstop rain, and when I say nonstop rain, I mean it. It was the kind of downpouring rain that shuts off the electricity the first night in your new apartment before you’ve had time to unpack your travel flashlights… the kind of rain that causes a waterfall-like leak from the roof into the hallway beside your closet, so that you have to pop open your pink flowered umbrella every time you go to pick out clothes for 5 days straight. Despite these funny “new apartment” mishaps, I very much welcomed the rain at first. Blantyre is so lush and green over rolling hills and mountains, as far as the eye can see. On long drives from the PCI Malawi office in Blantyre to the PCI Malawi office in Balaka or to our partners’ offices in Lilongwe, the vibrant green of the crops contrast beautifully against the rich rust red color of the dirt roads; it is a brilliant contrast to my more familiar rocky, dusty brown California hillside views from the road. This is all thanks to their rainy season that runs from January through April.

Healthy, vibrant green grass on a drive from Blantyre to Lilongwe.

Healthy, vibrant green grass on a drive from Blantyre to Lilongwe.

Hot, sunny day in a Malawian village.

Hot, sunny day in a Malawian village.

But just as sudden as the rainstorms had begun the first week of February, they stopped just as suddenly during my third week in Malawi. When they stopped, they completely stopped dead and out came scorching (but by then much welcomed), nonstop sunshine and heat. Not quite as welcomed at the time were the swarms of mosquitoes and fleas that emerged once the rain had cleared. I found myself wondering “So when’s the rain coming back?” just as much as I had earlier asked myself “So when’s the sun going to come out?”

Well, here I am now in week five, and rain has just started pounding on the tin roof of the PCI Malawi office in Blantyre. Thunder rumbles our eardrums, and lightning flashes in the windows like paparazzi cameras. I quickly just checked my computer’s battery life because I anticipate the electricity and internet going out very, very soon…

Flooding in downtown Blantyre

These photos of the flooding in downtown Blantytre were taken in February 2013, only a couple days before the sunny photos above.

These photos of the flooding in downtown Blantytre were taken in February 2013, only a couple days before the sunny photos above.

Just a few weeks in Malawi have made it very clear to me how erratic, extreme and challenging the climate is here. Superficially, it is hard enough for me to predict what to wear on a given morning for that day’s weather (especially one-handed while holding an umbrella!); I can’t imagine how difficult it is for farmers to predict what type of crops to plant that will produce the greatest yield against the flood and/or drought potentially headed their way, with their families’ health and well-being at stake.

Thus, I am very excited that PCI has won a $600,000 award from USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) to implement Project ARC (ARC = Addressing Root Causes). This project aims to “…reinforce the coping mechanisms and resiliency of drought-affected households in Balaka District, Malawi…” and “…address the impact of consecutive years of late onset and erratic rainfall, resulting in declining agricultural production and a marked decrease in household food security.” PCI proposes to reach 33,800 targeted individuals (6,500 households) with the following activities:

  • Increasing household access to income through Cash for Work programs
  • Rehabilitating watersheds
  • Improving conservation agriculture practices
  • Introducing household gardens—both open gardens and sack gardens
  • Reinforcing savings through VS&L and GROW groups
  • Supporting local health partners in identifying, referring, and managing cases of malnutrition
  • Rehabilitate part of the 35-kilometer stretch of Liwonde National Park to protect people whose lives and livelihoods are endangered by stray elephants
The entrance to Liwonde National Park

The entrance to Liwonde National Park.

The electric fence that PCI is partnering with the Liwonde National Park officials to rehabilitate ineffective/broken sections.

The electric fence that PCI is partnering with the Liwonde National Park officials to rehabilitate ineffective/broken sections.

Just yesterday, PCI’s newly appointed Project ARC Senior Coordinator, Burnnet Khulumbo, and Program Manager, William Kawenda, presented to some of us in the Blantyre office on the progress the project is already making. Burnnet and William have briefed the Balaka District Executive Council on the project and have received their approval; we have advertisements out to recruit local staff; sensitization and community mobilization meetings have been conducted in all communities but one; all proposed project sites have been identified and are currently being verified, including the confirmation of water sheds; a local name for the project has been chosen, which is “Mdula Mizu” which in Chichewa refers to the project’s goals of cutting the challenges at the root; and the identification and registration of the 6,500 direct beneficiaries are in their mid to final stages, as we are in the process of refining our beneficiary registration and data collection forms.

Both the Blantyre and Balaka offices are working hard to procure supplies and develop our activity tracking systems so that we can start the planting activities and take advantage of the currently high moisture levels in the soil—we expect to receive seeds soon to start planting sack gardens. (Sack gardens are exactly what they sound like—seeds or cuttings are planted in soil inside a burlap sack. The sack helps the soil retain more moisture than it would in an open garden in areas of water scarcity.) The crop focus for this season will be cassava cuttings and sweet potato vines, but hopefully chilies and sorghum will be included in the next season, with a total of three harvests accomplished by the end of this one-year program. As for the activity tracking systems, Jim DiFrancesca, PCI’s Director of Humanitarian Assistance, introduced two innovative web-based programs that will allow for PCI’s staff in all corners of the world to participate in real-time activity tracking and program management updates. We will be piloting the use of SmartSheets to help the program team stay informed of one another’s duties and progress, as well as mapping our activities into ArcGIS, an online platform for designing and managing solutions through the application of geographic knowledge.

I look forward to seeing this program spring to life throughout my next two months here, with both a bottle of sunscreen and an umbrella packed in my purse at all times.