Loti Ching’oma: Memoirs of a typical villager

This post was transferred from my old blog. See the original post (with comments) at:




Loti Ching’oma is a former development worker in Malawi, now studying on a full post-graduate scholarship at the National University of Ireland in Dublin.

Loti read my recent article, Stupid Problems (Pillar Version), after it was reposted on a colleague’s blog. He then wrote this response (also originally published on Colleen’s blog).

I’ve never met Loti, but I thought this response was amazing. Please read it. (Also, small world: Loti probably doesn't know it yet, but I’m good friends with one of his old roommates in Malawi. But I digress).

So, with no further ado, a great article on water access in rural Malawi!

Memoirs of a typical villager

I was born in the village and spent 15 years of my childhood in the village and have some considerable traits of a typical villager. I will not claim that I know or remember everything about those years because the other 15 years I have been staying in town has seen my village mindset being progressively transformed and at times forgetting the everyday hurdles that characterized my upbringing and the familiar villagers’ menu of challenges which Mr. Scott has clearly articulated. My village I believe, had more than 2000 farm families (households). It used to be very big and at that time people used to have more than 6 children per household. So I can approximate that there were at least 12000 people. At the time I was leaving the village to go to town, our village didn’t have a standing water point or Borehole or a protected well.

That was in 1993.

There is river that runs through the village and people used to fetch water from there. However the river used to dry up in the month of August every year. At times like these I used to see several shallow wells dug right in the middle of the river stream. This is where my mum could get water which I proudly drunk, bathed, and used for any activity requiring water.

At some point in 1995, I visited my village and one thing caught my attention. There was a ‘shallow well’ a few meters (15m) behind my dad’s grass thatched house. My mum told me that dad had dug it because the distance was far for her (mayi) and that they thought it would be healthier to drink from this new well unlike the one at the river. Both reasons made sense to me because my memory took me back in time and remembered how she felt ill when a big storm of rain had found her on her way to the common shallow well. About the water being good for drinking, I also 100% shared her opinion at that time, because I remembered when I was a young boy, having let my dad’s 4 cows drink from one of the wells which people used.

I spent five days and saw that the shallow well beside my dad’s house served not only my household but also the surrounding neighbourhood.  Mom explained to me that when the shallow well went dry the neighbours came (all of them) to participate in flushing out the mud and deepening it until an aquifer is found and so they were assured that they had water all year round.

Three years later I went back to the village and found that a great number of households had sunk household shallow wells which were fully maintained and running all year round. By the way, there was no water project which facilitated this idea by then.

In 2006, while on leave from my job I paid another visit to the village and found out that the village had been given a borehole (AFRIDEV pump). Just like any other donor funded project it had its own prescribed dos and dont’s.  The borehole is located 1.2 km from my dad’s house. I asked mom if she goes to the Borehole to fetch water. She told me ‘yes’! But just for drinking and ‘mostly if visitors like you (meaning myself) are coming’. ‘Of course I knew what she meant.’ I quickly thought about the distance as possible reason why she doesn’t go to the borehole.  But I also felt that much as the distance was long, I think she should have managed to go get a 5 litre gallon. At this point I knew there should be another reason (but I didn’t know what it could be by then).

The borehole functioned for two years and its now in ruins but on the other hand my dad’s shallow well and the many others that were there before the borehole are still functioning.

The reasons why the borehole is not functioning are the same as what Mr. Scott has pointed out in his article. The whole questions hinges on how did the borehole get to the village in the first place. Who brought it and how did they bring it?

My opinion is that the idea of bringing boreholes to the villagers is not at all bad and in fact statistics claim huge positive impact in diarrhoea prevention as a result of borehole installation. I agree to this because, I fell the victim to diarrhoea during my childhood days and felt significant change when I moved to town.

However, with all the due respect to all the donors and the government policy makers and indeed all development workers (including myself), it seems to me that something is not right with the way projects are designed, funded, planned, implemented, monitored and evaluated. This may apply at all levels of decision making. In my country, Malawi, where Mr. Scott is working, governments have been changing for the past 46 years. Changing governments have been accompanied by changes in policies as well. We are told, promised and coaxed now and again to believe that Malawi is developing (development means change for the better) and one of the indictors which we are told that we should see is infrastructure.

One of the highly, politicised infrastructure development are these boreholes, which to the best of my knowledge most of them are indeed not functioning. The question that I ask is why are things the way they are? Why is dad’s shallow well of 1995 still there and not the borehole of 2006?

The project documents for water and sanitation are awash with such statements like ‘community participation’, participatory rural appraisal, sustainable development, gender, promote human rights etc. These phrases connect so well such that they form a winning formula to convince the bald headed and highly respected donors where ever they are like CIDA, EU, DANIDA, USAID among others. Of course the donors with all their good intentions fund these projects but some of them tie demands to the aid such that it makes it difficult to be flexible to implement the projects that can leave the desired impact. The end result is that more donor money is spent, more non functional boreholes (standing metal museums) are created, more children and other vulnerable groups are denied the opportunity of drinking safe water, and more hospitals are filled with patients that were supposed to be home and work or go to school.

However there are those people who, in addition to reading about poverty issues in Africa on news papers or watching it on TV in the comfort of their houses abroad, have come down right to our villages eating what we eat, sharing beds with rats and the notorious mosquitoes, and sometimes drinking the very unsafe water, not as spectators but being part of the new chemistry of change.

I don’t know Mr. Scott, but I have been privileged to work with some of the Engineers Without Borders volunteers. Through working with these colleagues I found out that their conceptual model to development brings with it both practical and realistic dimensions, in that not only are they willing to mentor and motivate the working partners, they are also able to highlight and help build basic but fundamental implementation and project monitoring tools. Through such tools, lessons are learnt; hopping that if the provisions for flexibility to the projects’ designs were there, some of the policies would have been reformed, donors would have had a bigger picture of development as seen by a villager, and then more boreholes would by now have been maintained and not added to the list of non functioning ones.


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