Of dry rivers and full buses

April 30, 2018

I arrived in Blantyre three weeks ago. Blantyre is the second largest city of Malawi, with around 1 million inhabitants (at about 17 million in total). Luckily, I arrived at the end of the rain season which has several advantages: A) It doesn’t rain cats and dogs every day. Rather, the weather is very pleasant with every day blue sky and around 25 degrees. B) Everything is nicely green and not bare and dry like at the end of the dry season. C) Most important for daily life: As Malawi generates most of its electricity from hydropower, the power supply is more or less stable at the moment. At the end of the dry season, when the rivers and water reservoirs are dried out, it is quite common that there is power for 12 hours, followed by no power for 36 hours. Same holds true for the water supply, which is then quite frequently turned off (meaning that you literally open your tap at home, and there is no water coming out). In the high-income areas, where basically all the expats and white people live, most houses have either a generator or a battery system which lasts for up to three days, as well as an additional freshwater tank. In all the other neighborhoods, people just sit in the dark without any water.

No stable power supply is of course also not ideal if you have to run experiments which require power like I do. Luckily, the university is on the same power line as the hospital and has therefore always power. Some of my experiments, however, I have to carry out at the lab of an NGO. There, I had the situation this week that the power went off in the middle of my experiment. Luckily, the generator switched on after a few minutes, but still this is not optimal in terms of reproducibility of the results.

But before I talk more about my work, maybe a short wrap-up of my project as not all of you are familiar with it: Most households in the Global South don’t have their toilets connected to a sewer system. Rather, the toilet is connected to either a tank or simply a hole in the ground where the excreta are collected. Once this system has filled up, a company comes with a truck, pumps it empty and brings the content to a treatment site. To design this treatment site correctly, certain parameters of the sludge have to be known (water content, oxygen demand, etc.). However, faecal sludge (that’s the technical term for the content of the toilet when it’s emptied) varies strongly in these parameters, making the design process very difficult: The engineer would actually need to go to a number of households, take a sample of their sludge and analyze it. This is obviously very costly and laborious. Therefore, the idea of my project is to find out if there exist correlations between the chemical parameters and other parameters which you can assess via an online survey that you send to the households (f.ex. income level; number of toilet users; system type; does the bathing water go into the toilet). If these correlations exist, you could simplify the design process by sending out a questionnaire to a number of households and then estimate the average chemical composition of the sludge at the treatment plant from their responses. So what I’m doing now is both: I send out the questionnaire via Facebook and then hire an emptying company which empties the system of some of the responding households while I take a sample of their sludge to analyze in the lab. Afterwards, I can then check if there is a correlation between for example the income level of the household and the water content of their sludge.

As I had already done the Facebook survey while I was still in Zurich, I could directly start with the preparations for the sampling campaign when I arrived. During the first week, I was mainly busy buying all the missing equipment. This took quite long as many shops here are specialized in one type of product, meaning that for the 15 different things we needed, we had to go to around 8 different shops (which are obviously also not one next to the other, but nicely distributed all over the city ;)). But in the second week, I could already start sampling and interviewing the first households. We also interview each household that we visit to check if what they answer on Facebook is more or less reliable. So far, I’ve already done 14 households out of a total of 30-40. How the emptying procedure works exactly, can be seen from the pictures in the slideshow below this post. 


What was a bit challenging in the beginning was the question of getting around. There are basically three options: A) You have your own car as more or less all expats do (but I don’t). B) You walk. C) You use minibuses which constitute the public transport system. While I can go to work by car with my housemate in the morning (she works in the hospital next to university), getting home in the evening proved to be a bit more complicated in the beginning. Walking is not really an option as it would take around 45 minutes. So I had to figure out how to get home using minibuses. The problem here is that they don’t operate after any fixed schedule. There are assigned stops where you can board them, but then you still need to know where they are going. Sometimes they have a hand-written sign behind the front window, sometimes they shout it while approaching the station. However, I always ask them to be on the safe side (for that you obviously need to know what to ask for, but at least that I’ve found out by asking local students). Next, you have to squeeze yourself inside which is not very easy when you’re taller than 1.70 m. The buses usually have 15 regular seats including the driver, but as they want to maximize their profit, they squeeze in more people (the maximum I’ve had was 20 people). If you then also carry your sampling supplies, you can imagine how comfortable the ride will be ;). If you board the bus at their first stop, you also have to be prepared to wait for a while as they only start when the bus is full (or more than full, respectively).

Once the bus is on the road, the payment procedure starts. The crew of the bus consists of the driver and a second guy who sits in the first row of the back area next to the door. He is responsible for shouting out the direction, for squeezing in people and for collecting the money. The pricing system is completely intransparent and depends on the time of the day and the demand, I guess. So if you pay 150 K for going to work, it may cost 200 K when going back in the evening. And as a white person, I quite often have the feeling of paying an extra 50 K for being white, but as the prices for one ride are 20-25 ct, that’s not really a problem. Also, what’s very convenient about the buses is that they can drop you at basically any point on their route. You just have to alert either the driver or the second guy a while before. That’s especially useful when going home as there is no official minibus stop close to my house (as none of the rich people use minibuses). But luckily there’s a bus line that goes down the street where I live so I can just tell them to drop me in front of my house. The only worrying thing about these minibuses is that they are used until they fall completely apart. Sometimes, they don’t start anymore by themselves, so people have to get out the bus and push it every time the engine goes off. Sometimes, the doors nearly fall out when you open them. The other day, I also had a funny experience when the driver all of a sudden started to drive wiggly lines. The explanation was that the tank was almost empty and they use this method to use the last drops of gasoline to make it to the gas station.

Whereas I was warned quite sharply to use minibuses in South Africa due to security reasons, it’s no problem at all here. In general, I experience people as extremely friendly. Whenever I have trouble finding the right minibus (which can be quite tricky at the big transfer stations where buses depart in all directions), I just ask the next person and they would guide me personally to the right bus and even explain to the driver where I need to go. Also when walking on the street in the city center or back home, I never have an unsafe feeling and I also get approached far less than in SA by people who want to sell something to me or who want money.


At first, I found this a bit surprising: If you look at the list of Gross Domestic Product per capita, South Africa is at rank 88 with 5275 $ whereas Malawi is at rank 181 out of 182 countries with a mean annual income of 300 $ (yes, it’s really 300 $ per year). Still, you’ll see much less obvious poverty or misery on the streets here than in South Africa. One possible explanation I’ve found is the Gini-coefficient which describes how equally or unequally income is distributed within a country. Here, Malawi has a better value than South Africa, meaning that the distribution is much more unequal in South Africa than in Malawi. So, to get to 5275 $ average income, there are a few people who earn a lot more and there are a lot of people who earn a lot less, meaning that they live in extreme poverty. In Malawi, however, it’s maybe more equal in the sense that most people are poor or very poor, but only a few are extremely poor so that they would need to beg on the streets. But in the end, that’s all just speculations. Maybe it’s also just that there are much less white people here, so that it’s not worth for parents to send their children begging. Who knows.