Sunday, 19 October 2014

What am I doing?

An architect friend who had travelled and studied sustainable building in India recently asked... "Nyomi, what have you been doing?"

This is a good question and in summary I am a sustainable architectural consultant. I came to learn about sustainable technologies and share my knowledge and design ideas from my degree.  After my BA Architecture degree at Liverpool University my Masters at Oxford Brookes University was specilaised in sustainable architecture: vernacular / traditional / social architecture with questions about cultures and mannerisms why people behave the way they do and how a space can change the actions of the person. I chose International regeneration and design and thoroughly enjoyed the environmental and technology module where I designed and built many devices (including a water filtration device) based on scientific research and clever design to make people automatically want to use the machine and therefore live more sustainably (recycling the water). I believe the fast ugly concrete block architecture in London made teenagers misbehave. Apart from the depressing spaces created another factor as to why would be, they had no integration or ownership of the designs. People would never damage and ruin properties if they had taken part in building or designing themselves. Community participation throughout a design will solve many problems we face in the council areas in the UK and my research of traditional architecture proves this. Throughout a build the local people should always benefit with skill sharing leading onto employment and money to sustain themselves.

I was a volunteer with Landirani for 7 months and learned off the locals as to how they built with rammed earth. There is a guy from Mzuzu (up north) called George who is the site manager of Landirani Trust. He is an expert in rammed earth. Watching his expertise and learning many controversial things from my theoretical education to the practical hands on building was fascinating. There are many rules I could never even think about when designing back in the UK. For instance people in the village would NEVER grow thatch for their rooves because their precious land is used for subsistence farming and to grow the cash crop tobacco.

These factors and the costly equipment like solar panels make sustainability very expensive which is similar to UK. The only down side is that here very few local people have the money and because of this their care for the environment is a second priority. We also have the problem of education. The village people (including people in the UK) find it hard to comprehend that if you spend more at one time the natural energy provided will be reimbursed and repeatedly provide energy as a free source. There is also maintenance which people find hard, mainly because of poor training and misunderstanding.
Formwork must be built and designed for a certain building especially if there are curving walls 
The door and window frames must be centralised in the wall so they are structurally viable

The timber and thatch is ridiculously expensive so the overall cost of a large 2 storey rammed earth build is actually very high.

After volunteering for almost a year luckily I was accepted to be the architect of Sam’s Village which is an environmental training village. We build wind turbines with plastic bottles, use tyres to raise our pit latrines, will be building a plastic bottle compost toilet, and will test and try several different types of sustainable building techniques. We are currently filling maize bags with moist earth which is known as the super adobe technique.
There are currently 5 rammed earth buildings including:
Storage room / washroom / guards house and kitchen as one house!
CBCC - childbase care centre,
Community library,
Visitors accommodation (currently my house which I share with Shelby my peacecorp buddy!)
Site manager’s house – George
There are 3 more currently being built at present:
Training accommodation: to sleep a minimum of 7 people
Restaurant and Bar
Workshop : for vocational activities so people learn / share skills and build things that can be sold in the local market (20 minutes cycle away)
Lets not forget the chicken and pigeon house, and the 5 acres of land that has been designed for permaculture

It was a busy rainy season designing and a fun dry season overseeing the construction team and designs being built. Landirani have just bought a new plot of land in Lilongwe so I will be facilitating design workshops with all of the Landirani staff so we design the new building together. As there is often office politics and strange hierarchies and disagreements over miscommunication I think it will be a refreshing fun task for everyone to get involved with.
I believe a building should be autonomous so the first thing we did after buying the land was go and see a specialist permaculture friend about how we can design the landscape so it works to its full potential. I implemented Zones 1-3 (based on the permaculture theory) around the buildings of an unknown design and I designed a sustainable water system using the natural gravity of the land. There is a gentle slope on site that we are working with. There definitely needs to be a pump system for all year round irrigation in the dry season.
I have just assembled a simple activities sheet for the Monday morning meeting which includes an explanation of an open plan office with a justification of why we have chosen this design. Then there are spaces which will need priorities ranking scores, then a questionnaire and finally an introduction of designing with words, sketches and photos. Both in the office and in the field I am setting up 2 design boards so people can contribute whatever ideas they like.
This is how people feel satisfied and collective, throughout the design. Let’s see if my idealistic theories can work with our team.
All in all I can’t complain my working life is more exciting than my social life which isn’t so bad either!

Monday, 13 October 2014

Lost - Life - Love

 Lost in Translation
So I was really happy, I learnt a new phrase last week that seemed to work:
‘Ti yenera mikisana moi yenera’
‘Let’s communicate properly’
It’s only when I got back to the office I repeated the phrase and was told it didn’t make sense
‘Ti yenera kulankulana moi yenera’
‘Let’s speak properly’

I’m not convinced and now quite confused, what have I been saying? This happens a lot in one day. I am learning that any design rules or important information needs to be conveyed with a Malawian translator so everyone can understand what I am saying instead of thinking they can understand! The African ‘yes’ was something I learnt 5 years ago when travelling through. It was obvious people just agreed and pretended they knew what you were saying then would continue giving wrong information.

It has been a very positive week on the construction site. Everyone building the training accommodation on site have been encouraging each other to be more enthusiastic and work harder. People do it in a fun friendly way, perhaps taking the mick so the other person steps up the mark while laughing to make sure everyone knows the point is not an indent into their soul. I was here to understand my team and all of the different characters so I could work with everyone in a different way. I was always friendly and would often say a few important things to the main guys who would then enjoy being the guys to make sure everyone knew the tasks for the day. I'm still not sure whether this works best because I am a lady on a construction site. I'm not sure how this would work in the UK, would I just be direct? As I took the friendly approach, when I had to discipline and get strict people were taken aback and listened. Some didn't and these people are the ones I am now focusing on to gain a better relationship with, to try and understand them better. I believe there should be a good atmosphere on site so people enjoy work.

Life is too short…
Unfortunately there were 2 funerals in the village last week. 1 boy was playing football on Sunday and was kicked in the intestines and didn’t make it to hospital in time. Another lady died who had slept with someone at the local bar. People said she had died of an STD. This talk didn’t seem accurate and is probably mixed with people’s opinions as I’m not sure if you can catch an STD and die in the 1 weekend. Perhaps it was miscommunication again. I do know people are very afraid of getting checked and wouldn’t necessarily trust the hospital staff that the information stayed confidential so many people prefer not to know. It is not culturally acceptable especially in the villages that have strong traditional values.
The local hospital has been closed due to staff stealing and selling the drugs provided by the government. There are some people who had been given responsibility and therefore power that ruin it for everyone else. This is a recurring theme in many jobs which is terrible for the affected people at the bottom of the hierarchies. It’s been an important learning curve but I am slowly working out who I can trust in my circles.

Love the weekend

After my closed bubble in the village I enjoy the freedom of town for the weekend. As I tried to have a detox for one weekend in Lilongwe I realized how many activities involved drinking! My Friday night consisted of baking and watching a movie with my house mates. Usually I would be very excited about a night out and go straight to the bar at Mabuya Backpackers Lodge. Groups would flock together and all plan the cars for a usual night out which was Living Room, then Harry’s Bar, Discorium and then Chezimtimba!  I would always be slightly more spontaneous and go when I was content to leave Mabuya and there always seemed to be a car in line (unless I came with a certain group). This chose my group and therefore the night out. That was as much excitement on a Friday night unless there were house parties, or perhaps Jazz at Lilongwe Sunbird Hotel which was full of rich seedy men offering to buy drinks for any lady with two legs at the bar. There is a wide variation of bars and some nights I would have the thrill of heading somewhere completely different. Strangely people always stayed in the same groups and went to these same bars. A reason for this may be because most people live locally in area 3 and have no vehicle. Mabuya is the closest bar with a lively atmosphere just down the road. Some sober reflection time had highlighted my curious self-need to look further and beyond Mabuya…
Lilongwe is separated into numbered areas. They are not quite organised in order so when I first arrived in Lilongwe I was very confused. As I continued borrowing bikes, walking and when I was lucky the NGO car I learnt about the different places. I found out many people were incapable of drawings maps which interested me. This must have been left out in the education system.
Area 3 has a street of closed gates, plant frontages, trees and several small shops dotted on the back roads.

Street chips are sold on one end of Barron Avenue and vegetables are sold on the final corner before the street turns onto the main road to town. There is a security patrol car that drives around with weapons and large helmets like G4S scary looking people, ready to attack. People talk about not walking around after dark and the many robberies but I have been lucky as to not see any of it. I have always believed negative stories spread rather than the natural human instinct. Having cycled Cairo to Cape Town with no problems (apart from 1 teenage gang in Egypt that could easily happen in London or anywhere else) I am very suspicious about how much of the talk are rumours but unfortunately being a white lady I never risk it. Ok, maybe a few times I have cycled very late in the dark evening but I would be going fast and run them over if people got in my path (this was only in my thoughts of course).
I always walk to town to the markets and random people often stop and offer a lift. I always take the lift and have some interesting conversations about the struggle of the Malawi economy and how everyone needs to help everyone else out. I love human nature, I really do.
There is a close community. I love walking and speak to most people or neighbours I recognise. Many people have walked the hill with me for 20 minutes from town back to Area 3. They are intrigued that I am really trying to learn and practice Chichewa. Not many people in town bother with the language but as I am based in the village I feel the importance of communication! I am also curious about their life; all the locals would walk another 45 minutes further than area 3 and live in Chinsapo 1 or 2. These are the townships that are cheaper but hectic. I love heading over with local mates to drink local brew, Chibuku and continue practicing Chichewa. Chinsapo is lively, crazy, full of markets, music, local bars, and a village scattered within a small space. Each building including schools and churches close onto one another. Boreholes are also scattered for water but there is no sewage or rubbish system. All in all the place is full of energetic and welcoming people which is great fun compared to the closed quiet security ridden area 3.
A usual weekend would include walking into town, stopping off at the local bar and chatting to lots of locals from the markets.

It’s quite disturbing how many people drink in the day,  but at least it’s a Saturday, I wondered how many people continued in the week days? Many local people sit and chat which is a great thing to learn to do compared to my busy life in the UK.
When I manage to borrow a bike I do a lap of the outskirts making sure I appreciate all of the tarmac roads! I would often sit with the Landirani watchguards and learn Chichewa. Now I have moved house I sometimes cycle to meet their families in Chinsapo or the other township Kawale. If I needed a break from everything my expat crowd always have barbeques or do fun activities like walking up Nkoma Mountain (on Blantyre road). I am very lucky to have so many different groups of friends, we are all on the same adventure together, because of this there is a great community and everyone really looks after each other.
My girly friends have all moved in close proximity so I look forward to doing more creative days and chilled activities like baking while I don’t want to drink!

Sunday, 12 October 2014

An introduction to Malawi

80% of the Malawian population live in the rural areas (2010) where they are completely off the grid with no electricity and water. Luckily boreholes have been constructed but people must walk and carry water to their homes which is often uncomfortably far away.

In the first few weeks in Malawi I experienced the rural life of which I am now used to. People enjoyed what they had: constantly joked & laughed about their friends or what planes were going over ahead even though they had never stepped in one. My new family and I were situated 7km from the airport and I tell you now it was still much quieter than the 10km from the airport from Heathrow to the small town of Virginia Water where I was brought up. Virginia Water was definitely a small town and not a village as I compared it to my village called Sam’s Village in Chigonthi. Mteza school, opposite Sam’s village has a school of 1000 pupils and 7 teachers. It does have electricity so this is classed as one of the better schools in the rural districts! The village has a U.S. aid milk factory, tea rooms, several general grocery stores, a grain mill powered by a generator, a few street chips stores, a small market selling fresh veg grown in the surrounding fields and a goat hung up on a tree (fresh meat butchers!). From the one main country road in Chigonthi suburbs sprawl and house around 200 people in total. 

Even though it is considerably small right through the center there is a main road (dusty bumpy path for almost 2 cars) that feeds traffic from the North M1 road from Lilongwe to the North West region, Dowa District. The road transports tobacco, maize and other items that people sell at the local market using lorries or ox and carts. There are a few cars but generally millions of bicycles that cycle into Lilongwe fully loaded with goods to sell in town.  Between the village and Lilongwe town lies Kanengo which is where all the tobacco is auctioned for some money. People prefer to grow the cash crop tobacco as maize and other staple foods don’t sell for as much money. Although people need a license to grow tobacco so the government controls how much profit people can make. 80% of Malawian citizens work in agriculture. 


Village life was full of celebrations: 5 funerals and 7 weddings in one week. It was the dry season but still this completely reiterated how fast life was here. The average life expectancy here is the age of 55.

Whatever age, the water borehole is a special place where everyone congregates. Small kids will carry full buckets of water on their head to their homes. People will clean themselves, get water to drink or fill buckets. The ladies sometimes entertain themselves with song and dance, moving in full swing on the hips. The foot stepping dwindles back and forth. Some dances seem simple enough, they love teaching me their traditional dances.


I remember one weekend I stepped out of the village and went to a BBQ which was full of expats and generally quite strange so from then on I decided to stay in the village for the next 3 months. Village life was great but certain culture clashes were noted. After a few months I started spending more time in town. It took me a while to get used to the changes, people with lots of money, the drinking culture and ease of a house with electricity, taps and gas. Now I am familiar with both rural and urban settings and my personality suits me to jump in and out of both areas. The rural area is energetic and refreshing after a long weekend in town and vice versa. Town is a place I can have my own personal space after the hectic week of work. I have made both of these areas my home.

Rural Life - Afternoon

The continuous workload on site made lunch very relaxing. I used to have to cook and help out all the time, really because I felt like I had to help. This all worked well until I realized my whole life was working and cooking. This is probably the life of any other lady I worked with but I wasn’t a born and bred Malawian lady and people finally realized when I snapped one evening from tiredness. The routine and restriction of free time had frustrated me. Now lunch was for relaxing, one of the ladies on site cooked for all Landirani staff. I often wrote some lessons learned from the construction site or an account in my diary. We sat outside of the smoky storage room, all of the Landirani job specific workers and I rested. I would come with my Chichewa book to repeat and learn different phrases. The local language was getting there (in bits) after my year and 2 month stay! We sat in a line shaded by the hanging trees that blossomed natural pesticide flowers. 

Work is work which should be another separate blog page! We always finished the working day at 4. My village life was slightly more regimented. I used to be open and free but I soon got given a set of rules as I was too much of a free spirit. People liked to talk and often spread rumours that caused trouble. I am not allowed to go to the one local bar like all of the women in the village (I used to go!). I often walked into the beautiful surroundings and headed far off the main road, meandering with the ridges and trampled plant paths. As I got back to the construction site people had spoken that had seen me and I would be advised not to go to these places as there may be bad people there. I have found other activities for my evening entertainment: reading, writing and playing guitar. My adventurous self enjoyed wondering and settling into the life in rural Malawi and it was a shame people talk made everything change. Everyone I had met welcomed me into their homes and I hope I will find time to go back there again, perhaps in the weekends when the light doesn’t set so quickly, so people don’t worry about me!
Now a usual activity after 4 was to pump water from the borehole and fill my house water buckets up. My house mate, Shelby and I often learned Chichewa with the Librarian, Chikondi or chatted. The school children opposite often entertained me and even taught me how to hand wash my clothes properly one evening! Watching the sun go down was always a blessing. The orange ball would creep below the trees and fill the sky with soft purples. The sun and colours of light were incredible. This was the time I would reminisce about everything and be grateful for the strength to take me this far from home and feel so at home.

Of course I miss family and friends but life is good here.

Now we have solar panels, we have electricty. Having a light switch really makes life easier, I feel like I live a very good life in the village. We can chop vegetables and wash all of the dishes after dinner, instead of waiting until the morning for light. Unlike town we never have power cuts or water shortages as the borehole is our continuous water supply. It has lasted 2 rainy seasons so not yet dried out so the level of the water table must be able to cope with the needs for now. We will also be getting a solar pump so the 10 acre site is irrigated. We will be living the high life.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Rural life - Morning!

View across the village in the morning sun

I woke at 5 am to what I thought was my grandfather’s clock. Every hour the musical chime was pronounced in his house in Holland I would descend the stairs of the 3 storey house to open the front door to greet no one! The school bell set me back in place, it oscillated as the headmaster struck a monotonous beat onto the car wheel frame repeatedly.  I could hear the rattling of the bull frog beeping like a car alarm. The birds followed, a chorus set the sky to dim which was the opening of my new day. Ladies sang at the borehole which echoed across the building site.

The beautiful sounds each morning set me in harmony. 

The dark orange light approached turning to yellow through my patterned chitengi (local traditional Malawian woven cloth used as a skirt) curtains. 

Chitengi curtains

The streaks of light bounced off the walls. The happy bee flew through, feeding me with energy for the numerous tasks to encounter. The cockerel shrieked corresponded to the twittering birds. The shape of light on my room wall widened as I planned my forward thoughts and organization for the day.

Top window sending sunlight to the guest room in our rammed earth house

The strength of the light each morning sets me in harmony.

A timber weight rattled with the breeze from the window and patted on the wall. The timber knocking was set in a rhythm that morning. I always found time for my daily yoga stretches, these were very important so my neck wouldn’t collapse after carrying that many water buckets during the day.   The meditation rhythm continued through stretches. The wind was frisk, justifying the strength, power and need to build a wind turbine. I made a wind turbine with plastic bottles that was assembled a long time ago. 

Plastic bottle wind turbine

It was now a project placed on the dusty bottom shelf. It was trampled and disfigured as the wheelbarrows collected and were forced to go on top of one another due to lack of space. The storage room was a dark smoky space linked next to the kitchen and the fumes travelled with the wind directing all senses to get out. My eyes stung and the poignant smells inhaled into my body were definitely out of no choice. The simple cooker or kettle switches were missed when there was no other option but to cook on a fire. This started with collecting firewood, clearing the ash, and then making a good fire from mulch, twiglets and then logs which I hoped would burn well (were not fresh).  Starting the fire in the morning was always the most difficult with no heated embers to feed off although the cup of tea was always worth it. I would always remember my dad that sung:

‘I like a nice cup of tea in the morning, just to start the day we see …and my dearest heaven is a nice cup of tea’. This made me smile as I sung along to the tune.

After breakfast I started emptying the smoky store room lining up the wheelbarrows for the Landirani Trust construction team. There were 42 of us at present. Several were taking part in carpentry on the workshop roof build; others were moving rocks and making cement for the restaurant foundations while 14 men and women worked with me in the training accommodation building at the bottom of the 10 acre site. 

Training Accommodation Build

I walked from top to bottom of the site greeting everyone in turn: ‘mwazuka bwanji?’ chichewa Morning greeting and ensured not to miss anyone out. Then I worked, checking forward stages and communicating them through small bits of Chichewa and sign language, most know the routine which is great. When everything seemed to be understood I continued helping ladies fill buckets at the borehole and taking them down. I joined any activities to make the day run smoothly: checked the earth mix, perhaps helped lift and tighten the formwork into place, then transported the mix. The heat was intense as I often ran up and down the site getting nails and other equipment people needed.

The energy of the people each morning set me in harmony.

Luckily these actions are repeated every morning in the village.  There are often a few variations, perhaps I would walk to the village main trading center to get bread, maybe I find time to play guitar or listen to the news on my solar radio! Sometimes I find the energy to go for a small jog or cycle. 

This is my active rural life. 

Training accommodation construction team