WOTD: Wokonza sinki

Chichewa word of the day: Wokonza sinki

Meaning: Plumber

As I search for a good, reliable plumber to do some odd jobs around my house in the UK, I remembered a funny story from my Malawi days; which seems like a distant memory now, regrettably.

As you do, when you need some plumbing work that you can’t do yourself done, I asked around for a good pumber in Lilongwe. Starting with the national staff at the VSO Malawi office. I was surprised to be greeted with blank, somewhat confused faces. I thought to myself: Are there no plumbers at all in Lilongwe?

But after a few tries, a colleague responded: Oh, a plum-ber!

Little did I know that it is pronounced like this 😀

All part of my experiential learning curve with Malawian culture and the phonetic Malawian English.

PS. My grandpa always encouraged me to write more about my Malawi experience. After a long hiatus, I will try to continue, and wrap this blog up for good properly one day. Until then, this is for you Ah Yia!

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A to Z: N is for…

  • The Nation – One of the few newspapers in circulation. Probably the most serious, broadsheet-like one.
  • National Bank of Malawi (NBM) – The bank of choice of VSO volunteers, unless there isn’t one near your placement location. It’s no Coutts, but to be fair to them, they had a good number of ATMs (and they mostly worked). If you get in early in the morning as they opened, the wait is usually short. But if you go during peak times – especially on Fridays, Saturdays and month-ends – when you might be literally queuing out the door.
  • Nokia – Bulletproof old mobile phones! Worthless to most of us nowadays, but absolutely priceless to a working class Malawian. Please never throw away your old handsets, lots of charities will recycle and redistribute them to someone in need. A simple mobile phone can be a really powerful tool in a developing country, and it’s simply a nice present to give.
  • Nsanje – Southern most district of Malawi. A very hot part of a hot country! Where my good friend and fellow volunteer Fiona was based. We visited her in September 2013 and had a fantastic time seeing the Elephant Marsh. Really great memories – see here.
  • Nsima – Maize flour and water stodge. Really difficult to cook well – see photo! Staple food of 99% of Malawians, but not a favourite with azungus/foreigners in general. There’s a common saying: “If you haven’t had nsima [in your meal], then you haven’t eaten.” There’s a much improved Wikipedia page on this now, following my fellow volunteer David’s last update.
Front page of The Nation during the Civil Service strikes

Front page of The Nation during the Civil Service strikes

Advert banner inside the NBM - spot the UPSIDE DOWN and out of date diary!

Advert banner inside the NBM – spot the UPSIDE DOWN and out of date diary!

Old Nokia handset - Scrubbed clean by my night-guard after receiving it

Old Nokia handset – Scrubbed clean by my night-guard after receiving it

Cooking nsima requires a lot of arm power!

Cooking nsima requires a lot of arm power!

A delicious traditional meal of chicken stew, beans and nsima - cooked by my friend Auden

A delicious traditional meal of chicken stew, beans and nsima – cooked by my friend Auden

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

A to Z: M is for…

  • Mandasi – Malawian doughnut! But no filling or sugar (too expensive). Favourite street food, especially in the morning when they’re fresh; Not so good when they’re cold and stale. Cost a modest 50-80 kwacha (10-20p). Good choice if you’re desperate for sustenance and don’t want to play “samosa roulette” (the other favourite street food, which may or may not give you diarrhea).
  • Mountains – Malawi is blessed with a beautiful landscape with nice mountains to hike or just look at from afar. Among them is the Zomba Plateau, which is simply stunning to look at and beautiful to look from at the top. Although I’m normally not a fan of walking, the hike up the “Potato Path” is probably one of my favourite outdoor activities. Coming down the steep path while it’s wet and slippy, and being passed by locals without footwear and carrying a whole tree on their head, is a humbling / embarrassing / amusing experience – I’m not kidding, see photo below!
  • Mulanje – The tallest mountain in Malawi, which unfortunately I haven’t hiked, yet. Plenty of (“juju” / witchcraft) stories of lost souls if you dare to try hike it without a guide. Probably best to join or at least consult the Mountain Club of Malawi if you want to try it – seriously.
  • Mvula – Chichewa for rain. Also a popular surname.
  • Mzuzu – Biggest city in the Northern Region. I didn’t spend much time there but passed through a few times. Less industrial than Blantyre and less of a concrete jungle than Lilongwe, bigger than the old colonial capital, Zomba. More rain than any of the other 3 cities due to its altitude, so very green almost all year round.
Fresh mandasis

Fresh mandasis

Mandasi sellers

Mandasi sellers

Road to Zomba

Road to Zomba

Birthday hike up the Potato Path for the first time in 2012

Birthday hike up the Potato Path for the first time in 2012

One of the many beautiful views from the plateau

One of the many beautiful views from the plateau

Model of the plateau at the guide hut

Model of the plateau at the guide hut

A very steep, wet and slippy Potato Path

A very steep, wet and slippy Potato Path

On the way out of Zomba

On the way out of Zomba

Blooming jacarandas in Mzuzu

Blooming jacarandas in Mzuzu

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#MalawiFloods and A to Z: L is for…

Preface: Malawi has suffered terrible, devastating floods over the past few of weeks – see #MalawiFloods. It’s now a humanitarian crisis with a huge impact for the future as well. So it requires our attention and help. Ryan Reynolds has tweeted a direct link to the fundraising campaign of an orphanage he visited in 2007. My friend Kathryn has written a vivid post about it here – please go read it to understand what it’s really like out there. You’ll also learn about the resilience and strength of the Malawian people to endure and carry on living, surviving. So, in an odd way, this quasi-humourous post is a dedication to them and their ability to carry on.




Sorry for the long break from the last post. Even though I’ve chosen not to have a TV since returning from Malawi, I still find myself to be extremely time poor… maybe it’s just my overwhelming inefficiency at everything caused by a need to procrastinate! Anyway, I said that I would finish this A to Z before ending the blog, so here’s another step.

  • “L” is for, well, “R”?!

Malawians have a tendency to use L’s and R’s interchangeably, which can be confusing and sometimes have rather funny consequences. It’s a trait shared with many Chinese people, so it has extra resonance for me.

Long and “rong”
Late and rate
Lice and rice, fry and fly (which is also a simple playground game which every kid plays; it’s kind of like dodgeball)
Laugh and “raff”
A shop sign bearing: “Airwolrd” in Airtel‘s bright red colour scheme is a sight to behold. Lastry, elections can be a funny time for multiple reasons…

Come all and erect our leaders!

Come all and erect our leaders!

  • Lilongwe – The capital city and my home for 18 months.
Categories: Malawi, Volunteering, VSO | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

ICTworks: Lessons Learned From Working Firsthand in Malawi’s ICT Sector

My article from ICTworks, published last Friday. Enjoy! 🙂

Lessons Learned From Working Firsthand in Malawi’s ICT Sector

Published on: Nov 14 2014 by Guest Writer


My name is Herman Fung and I’m a former VSO volunteer in Malawi. In March 2014, I completed an 18-month voluntary placement where I worked with the Ministry of Health to build and implement Malawi’s first national, open source Human Resources Information System for the health sector, called iHRIS.

iHRIS is a suite of web-based health workforce software and it is currently live in 19 countries, supporting over 700,000 health workers.

Our project, iHRIS Malawi, was commissioned by the Ministry of Health in 2012, with support from VSO (funded byTHET) and USAID. The objective was to replace a centralized Microsoft Access database, which became defunct partly due to difficulties in collecting HR data in paper form, from far away rural districts to the MoH Headquarters, in the capital city of Lilongwe. Other reasons for its demise include a lack of working computers and limited continual end user training, which was required due to the generally low levels of computer literacy compounded by a very high turnover of staff.

A total of six volunteers were recruited from the UK and we teamed up with four Malawian colleagues. We regularly received vital help from the Global iHRIS Community, which is a critical part of iHRIS ecosystem and one of the key benefits of choosing iHRIS.


As you might expect, there were many challenges of implementing a new system that impacts critical operations like Human Resources. A fair share of these challenges relate to ICT, but a large proportion were to do with people and processes, too.

iHRIS is a web-based system and requires an Internet connection and power. When we first arrived and began working at the MoH Headquarters, we didn’t have enough sockets to plug our own laptops into. Scheduled electricity load-shedding and unplanned outages were a regular occurrence, and the MoH did not have its own generator. There were also regular water outages.

Once we got our project hub running, we began engaging our stakeholders in slow but constructive dialogue:

  • A separate government department which own the central payroll system for all civil servants, which transpired to be our primary data source
  • District HR Officers who would manage the changes to this data
  • Central HR Officers who would organize the data
  • Planning Officers from another MoH department who would use the data to make key decisions
  • A group of Senior Management champions to back the project throughout

We tried to use an Agile approach with regular feedback loops over many iterations. However, this proved difficult due to challenges with regular access to key people and resources. So we adapted to a more traditional Waterfall methodology, which was easier for our stakeholders to understand and actively participate.

The software itself was relatively easy to set up because we had the required technical expertise in the form of analysts and developers, as well as support from iHRIS teams around the world. However, acquiring the hardware and infrastructure required to run it was a considerable task. The logistical challenge and cost behind this part cannot be underestimated.

A 1024 kbps broadband Internet connection costs $850 USD per month, which we shared with other projects, and our server took 5 months to arrive due to a lengthy procurement and import process.

Throughout the development process, we kept long term sustainability high on our agenda. We endeavored to trainour Malawian colleagues and encourage them to take the lead as much as possible, which was a challenge – and also huge opportunity.


One of the key lessons we learned was that the overall journey of delivering the project was just as valuable as the end product or system itself.

Over the course of the project, we exchanged views and built trust amongst ourselves and with our stakeholders. We took on extra capacity building exercises outside of our project such as the overhaul of the communal Computer Room.


Most importantly, we engaged in a two-way knowledge sharing process with a steep learning curve for everybody: volunteers, Malawians, developers, users and managers.

We analyzed and mapped existing manual processes. Where they were broken, we questioned them, which prompted some remedial actions. We were adamant not to automate a broken process, which would have been counter-productive.

We had success in promoting the value of standardized data by setting up a regular User Forum, which mapped 300 different jobs into meaningful categories in WHO standard cadre groups.


The district-by-district rollout of the system is ongoing. My colleagues still working on the project are running continual end user training workshops. They are also making improvements to the system based on stakeholder feedback before handing the project over to the MoH in March 2015.

The valuable lesson I learned was the importance of gradual change. In our experience, evolution, not transformation,is the best approach to introduce an ICT system in Malawi.


Herman Fung is a British IT consultant, health techie and ex-VSO volunteer in Malawi, where he worked with the Ministry of Health to implement the country’s first national, open source Human Resources Information System for the health sector. Follow him on Twitter: @Fung14

Categories: Malawi, Technology, Volunteering, VSO, Work | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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