Saturday Mornings

Everybody has a Saturday morning routine.

Mine has changed since coming home and starting work again. I have a recurring calendar entry to remind me to do laundry!

That’s the difference with living back in the first world, as my fellow VSO Malawi returned volunteer, Beth Connolly explains perfectly. Do go read her final blog post: Tionana Holy Family

But I still get a reminder of what it used to be like. Courtesy of Nyack and Catherine, who now run the new Breakfast Club. Nyack keeps me in the loop by WhatsApping me photos of the kids. Thanks big fella, they always brighten up my day!

At the risk of repeating myself once too many, today was worth posting. Because together with a big shout-out for our poster girl Beth, the kids received the photos I sent over with my friend Auden, and you can see the extra sparkle in their eyes. I should have done this sooner.



More photos

More photos

Still remembering to wash hands (I hope)

Still remembering to wash hands (I hope)

Iron Man fans: Georgie (George), Jeradi (Gerard), Dani (Danny)

Iron Man fans: Georgie (George), Jeradi (Gerard), Dani (Danny)

Still loving rice!

Still loving rice!

And apples, that unaffordable treat!

And apples, that unaffordable treat!

Categories: Malawi, Volunteering, VSO | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

A to Z: J is for…

  • Jambo – Swahili word for hello. Used plenty during my trip to Tanzania and Zanzibar.
  • Jumbo – Chichewa word for the ubiquitous plastic bag! Earlier this year, the Government of Malawi banned the sale and use of thin plastic bags. But of course, this is Malawi… so there was considerable legal wrangling to overturn this! Officially, it’s an attempt to protect the environment and curb the scourge of littering which happens in most places. Expectedly so since there is no real working waste disposal system, even in the capital city of Lilongwe. So people (including volunteers and expats) resort to burying, or worse, burning all their rubbish (“zinyalala“).

    All in all, a good idea in principle, going by the progress made on this issue by Rwanda – The Country That Bans Plastic Bags.

    However, as my savvy fellow volunteer David pointed out, the way this was implemented with such a short notice, brought severe livelihoods challenges for many street traders. In most markets, you’d find an invariably young boy trying to sell you a jumbo to carry your fresh vegetables and other groceries. I wonder what’s happened to them and their “trade” now.

Rubbish, kids and a "freshy" / FOB Chinaman

Operation Lap Sap

Categories: Malawi, Volunteering, VSO | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A to Z: I is for iHRIS

  • iHRIS – see all related posts here.

There are many reasons I went to Malawi, back in October 2012. As I discovered after arriving, iHRIS was probably the biggest reason of them all.

It is the system (and project of the same name) commissioned by the Ministry of Health, to be their new human resources management information system: a database of their healthworkers. VSO were engaged to support its implementation and with funding from THET, recruited 6 British volunteers to help that process.

iHRIS logo

iHRIS logo

iHRIS itself is a piece of free, open source software, described as a “Health Workforce Information Solution“. It has been implemented in 15 countries to date and described by the WHO (World Health Organisation) in more detail here:-

WHO logo


WHO Global Health Workforce Alliance logo

WHO Global Health Workforce Alliance


Many developing countries face daunting obstacles to meeting the health care needs of their people. To ensure that the right health care provider is in the right place with the right skills, countries require current, accurate data on human resources for health (HRH). A strong human resources information system (HRIS) enables health care leaders to quickly answer the key policy and management questions affecting health care service delivery.

The iHRIS Suite Open Source HRIS software supplies health sector leaders with the information they need to track, manage, and plan the health workforce, assess HR problems, plan effective interventions, and evaluate those interventions. Both the software and a program of technical assistance are provided as well as expertise to ensure that the technology is transferred effectively and serves the ability of decision-makers to use data to lead and manage. While the iHRIS Suite was designed with the health workforce in mind, it also can be adapted for other types of workforces or organizations. Some relatively advanced computer and quantitative skills are needed to use this software.

Because the software is open source, it can be downloaded for free and customized for local needs. Each product addresses a specific health workforce leadership issue:

  • iHRIS Qualify tracks health worker training, certification, and licensure
  • iHRIS Manage maintains personnel deployment, performance, and attrition information
  • iHRIS Plan models long-term health workforce needs


In Malawi, we were implementing the iHRIS Manage solution because personnel related issues were the most important business problem we were trying to solve. For example, “ghost workers” and the exact planned deployment (i.e. how many doctors, nurses and midwives should be working at each healthcare facility) versus actual deployment (i.e. how many are in reality working at each clinic, hospital etc.).

Regular and critical business processes which we take for granted, like payroll, are not reliable in a country like Malawi. This made collecting and organising data for almost 30,000 employees very difficult. We spent a huge amount of effort to locate a good data source and then developing a way to import it automatically, and in the process, transforming it into a more usable structure in the iHRIS database. From Microsoft SQL Server to MySQL, for those familiar with databases.

This may sound like a fairly simple process. Technically, many would probably say it is. What it meant was, we could produce reports such as how many of each of the 300 job titles were supposed to be deployed at each “cost centre”, district or region.

After some data standardisation, we could also report on some fundamental information like how many “physicians” the Ministry really employed. For this, we had to define cadre groups, by adopting the WHO Health Workforce: Aggregated Data definitions, to make sense of the numerous job titles we had in our data source. Several of which included typos, spelling errors and duplication.

Ministry of Health Employees by Cadre

Ministry of Health Employees by Cadre

In many countries, Nurses and Midwives are two separate jobs but they are combined in Malawi, in the form of a Nurse and Midwife Technician (NMT). An NMT is the entry-level job for that professional career path and who many of my fellow VSO volunteers worked to help train more of, to cope with the ever growing population.

We also found out that there were more drivers than actual vehicles! That might sound astounding at first. But many “drivers” were, in fact, casual workers who also did other jobs. Gardening, cleaning, delivering documents from room to room etc. We still had an internal paper-based memo system and runners shuttling from office to office!

Ok, infomercial over… I really do look back at my time on the iHRIS Malawi project with fondness and a sense of achievement.

There are so many funny stories and anecdotes, which will be a source of amusement (and bemusement) for the rest of my career and especially at Team iHRIS reunions! Including spending a whole week and more trying to track down the seemingly only Internet domain registrar in Malawi. After many attempts, we eventually managed to get our server online at… which came after much running around to get an IP address!

Some of my colleagues are still in Malawi, training more and more HR Officers to use the system, which is arguably the crucial step and also the original brief for which we were all recruited. To my personal regret, I’m not there to help Jim, Robin and Judy any more. Although Judy still tries to get Oli and I to troubleshoot, just like this week ;-)

And our response is the same as we were still there: We’ll do what we can.

Funnily enough, I began writing this blog post because I started to look into the current issue and discovered that our system is offline. The server is most probably down because there’s another power cut at our datacentre. Sorry Judes!

(Some of) the iHRIS Malawi team

(Some of) the iHRIS Malawi team

iHRIS Malawi login page

iHRIS Malawi login page

Categories: Healthcare, Malawi, Technology, Volunteering, VSO, Work | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

A to Z: H is for “the Hash”

I must admit that I was very confused when I first heard about the Hash. It was very soon after I arrived in Malawi and I genuinely thought people were advertising drugs on Lilongwe Chat!

Anyway, I was soon enlightened by my housemate Robin, who is a keen runner and explained that it is in fact an international group of running and social clubs. In Lilongwe, the most popular run was on Mondays.

Each week, a different member would organise the run. Map the route with paper-mache the day before and put on snacks. There is a kind of initiation thing for newcomers and returnees. There’s a squeaky rubber chicken involved, which is rather weird. But all for a bit of fun.

I did go a few times but it clashed with “kanema time” when we started regular cinema showing for the kids every Monday.

In January, Robin hosted from our house in Area 11 and he’s hosting again next Monday (28th July).

Unusually high number of fancy 4x4s in Area 11

Unusually high number of fancy 4x4s in Area 11

Post run drinks and snacks

Post run drinks and snacks

PS. Even though my placement has finished and I’m now back (and thankfully working) in the UK, I’m determined to finish this A to Z!

Categories: Malawi, Sport, Volunteering, VSO | Tags: , | Leave a comment

A Good Year

Herman Fung 馮學文:

A poignant farewell blog post from my fellow VSO volunteer. Well said Jess! I miss Malawi. Its good will, adventure and all its frustrations, too.

Originally posted on Malawi Nearly There Yet:

Over the past month that I have been back in the UK I have been trying to find the words to put in a final blog on my life in Malawi. I have failed miserably in this task and have now come to the conclusion that although there is so much to be said knowing where to start is impossible and it always will be.

Returning to the UK everything is the same but different.  Walking down the road I miss the greetings from strangers and cries of ‘Azungu’ from children and quite frankly being completely anonymous again seems a little bit disappointing (I’m getting used to it!). When I sat in one of my first lectures as a student one of the few things I remember was being told that each  theory of international relations was like putting on a different pair of glasses to view the world and…

View original 432 more words

Categories: Malawi, Volunteering, VSO | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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