Poverty in Malawi

I ventured out late this afternoon for another International Week session titled, “Gender, Education and the HIV/AID Pandemic in Rural Malawi.” Presenting were Dr. Anne Fanning, a retired physician, and Rachel Maser, who just recently returned from a ten-month volunteer stint in Malawi with Engineers Without Borders.

Dr. Fanning began the session with a whirlwind twenty minute PowerPoint presentation meant to provide a framework and overview of the factors involved in poverty, including the necessity of infrastructure, good governance and access to education. While the content was there, I wish there had been more time for depth – her spiel can best be likened to a Blender Blaster of statistics, charts, graphs, maps and fact lists. I think she may have made some assumptions that the audience was more familiar with the material than we actually were (or, it may have just been me), and breezed through it without a pause. It’s evident she’s extremely knowledgeable (she is one of the leading experts on TB), so I can only hope to be able to hear her speak again on a future occasion (an exasperating fact – though condom use is not as prevalent in Africa as it should be, Dr. Fanning noted a statistic that an able-bodied, sexually-active man in Africa only has access to an average of fourteen condoms a year).

Rachel also referred to PowerPoint slides, and on them included many pictures she took while in Malawi. Working through EWB, but with an organization called ActionAid, her objective focused on girls’ education. One of her projects while there involved organizing a day where young girls were able to listen to positive role models working in professional jobs, and then job shadow some of those women on the following day. She came away with the sense that more had to be done to change the perception that the domain of the female was in the home. One interesting point – Malawi, at least in the southern part of the country where she was stationed, is quite well connected by cell phone. She talked about how the technology was revolutionizing the way people did business. For instance, a farmer could receive a text message with the current market price for grain, and then decide whether or not a trip to town would be worth it.

In all, it was great to be able to hear perspectives of those who have worked and lived in the field.

Ronald Wright: “The Traps of Progress”

After months of self-flogging as punishment for missing Stephen Lewis’s keynote address in 2006, I made sure to take time out of my regularly scheduled workday this afternoon to attend Ronald Wright’s opening lecture for the University of Alberta’s annual International Week.

Wright’s address was excerpted from his award winning Massey Lecture, A Short History of Progress. Drawing extensively from history and in particular, literary references, he provided an overview of the human population explosion, with the dire warning that the earth cannot sustain growth at such exponential levels.

In all honesty, a forty-five minute talk can only be expected to skim the surface, and Wright didn’t have the time to go much further than the exposition of facts and quotes spanning two millennia. Because of this, I ended up paying more attention to his oratorical style.

No doubt, Wright has an ear for language and cadence (for example, a clever insertion of the descriptor “softened” following a sentence on Viagra), and as expected of a novelist, had many quotable phrases (e.g. “the new religion of the bottom line”). Still, I was a little disappointed that he mainly read from the page, and hardly wavered from his written word.

Following his speech, there was a brief Q & A session. He had an interesting response to the question probing for his opinion on how many people the earth could reasonably sustain. He harked back to the days before the steam age, and estimated that only up to two million people could live comfortably, without the great variations in wealth and poverty that we have today, and utilizing only environmentally pure technologies. This connects back to an article I read in the Globe & Mail recently about reducing our “ecological footprint.” According to a model created by William Rees, an ecological economist, Canadians are living and consuming resources as if the planet were 20-25% larger than it actually is.

At any rate, I am glad I had the opportunity to be exposed to Wright’s perspective on the global issue of sustainability.

Film: “Their Brothers’ Keeper”

Until March, the University of Alberta International Centre will be holding weekly film screenings to increase awareness about global issues that affect the worldwide community, including human trading, conflict, and disease.

Tonight, I went to watch a film entitled Their Brothers’ Keeper: Orphaned by AIDS:

“Filmed over a seven-month period, Their Brothers’ Keepers goes inside Chazanga Compound, a shantytown in Lusaka, Zambia. The crew focuses on two families headed by children, and their ongoing struggle for food, water, schooling and health care. Local community and aid workers offer support but lack any real resources. Throughout the film, excerpts from speeches by Stephen Lewis, UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, fill in the broader social context.”

In Zambia alone, there are an estimated 850,000 orphans. Those children without any remaining adult relatives, or adult relatives nearby, are forced to support themselves. So mature, strong, and brave these young heads of family are that it was easy to forget that they are still children, robbed of the opportunity to play, to laugh, to go to school and to grow up naturally and away from death. The children filmed showed many signs of resilience, most notably, continuing the tradition of storytelling. While the elder sister of one family was away, her brother of eight years made sure his six and three year old siblings didn’t miss their nightly ritual.

Following the screening, a medical practitioner who has worked in Africa, Dr. Stan Houston, led a question and answer session. He noted that the movie was decidedly optimistic, whereas the general tone at which he spoke betrayed his more realistic viewpoint – that tens of millions more people will die before the global community will act aggressively enough to stop the pandemic.

One of the most interesting audience members was a Registered Nurse who had volunteered in Zambia for a number of years, working with an NGO to assist with ARV (Anti-Retroviral) delivery in rural areas. In her experience, while the drugs may be available for distribution, without the infrastructure and support of public health services, the pills would be rendered ineffective.

Something that came out of the discussion that I wasn’t aware of was the effectiveness of male circumcision to decrease HIV infection. In two separate random trials, the transmission rate was 50% less in circumcised men. Though a few pointed out that encouraging condom use would be easier than mass procedures, it’s still a measure worth knowing about.

I was thoroughly engaged, and look forward to similar events in lieu of International Week, that runs next week from January 29-February 2. I encourage you to attend a session or two.