Kate Middleton
Engineers Without Borders volunteer Kate Middleton

“Don’t use your cell phone as your latrine light.” That’s a lesson Guelph student Kate Middleton brought back from her summer volunteering in southeast Africa with Engineers Without Borders (EWB).

The fifth-year environmental engineering student spent three months in central Malawi during her first-ever trip with the Canadian development organization. It was her job to help organize and observe village meetings intended to improve sanitation and human health throughout a district in the poor landlocked country. The specific assignment: to explain health issues and encourage district villagers to build and use proper outhouses.

Middleton quickly learned that her task was less about hands-on engineering and more about behavioural change. “Not everyone has a latrine. People defecate in the bush,” she says, explaining that unsanitary conditions in many parts of the country lead to diarrhea and cholera.

Some people use grass and other temporary materials to erect latrines that are easily ruined by weather and time. Fewer still build facilities using mud-brick or other more durable materials.

Along with local leaders, Middleton organized monthly meetings in district villages ─ “mostly underneath a tree,” she says ─ to discuss sanitation. During the meetings, she served as an observer.

Even arranging gatherings is a challenge. “People lack a sense of time management. I spent three months nagging people to attend meetings.” Once villagers understood the point, they would come from as far as 25 kilometres away.

Lacking an interpreter, she relied on her host, Pearson Katukulu, whose rudimentary English helped her pick up basic Chichewa. As the only “mzungo” (white person) in the village, she attracted plenty of attention during visits to the market and tea rooms. “I think I was the subject of everybody’s dinner conversation.”

Middleton was the only Guelph student among 12 Canadian EWB volunteers sent this summer to projects in Malawi and neighbouring Zambia. Canadian EWB students have worked on projects in agriculture, water and sanitation, and governance in those countries and in Burkina Faso and Ghana. The U of G chapter raised $6,000 for her trip.

Her host village of about 600 households near the Zambian border is a four-hour drive from the capital, Lilongwe.

About half of the villagers own sound latrines; the others share neighbours’ facilities.

Middleton’s host family owned a brick outhouse, but they hadn’t used it since Pearson had once lost the equivalent of $1.50 down the latrine. “He thought the latrine was cursed.” Instead, they used the thatched-grass outhouse next door. At night, Middleton had to arm herself with toilet paper and her cell phone for light.

Her blog posting just a few days before her return to Canada relates what happened one night: “I got to the chimbudzi (latrine in Chichewa), turned on my cell phone light, inspected all the corners for snakes and then carried on my way. I stood up, and next thing you know, the cell phone slipped out of my hand. It landed at the bottom of the latrine with a smack.”

Amazingly, she says, it was superstitious Pearson who rescued the device, using sticks, plastic bags and a cup.

Besides her governance duties, she worked with Pearson’s wife, Monica, a 23-year-old mother of a toddler and a newborn. Much of their time together was spent in the family’s mud-brick hut and separate kitchen, grinding maize flour for the staple meal of nsima, a kind of pita served with relishes. “It was beautiful. She was my best friend, and we didn’t even speak the same language.”

Leaving her was heart-wrenching, says Middleton, who tears up at the recollection of departing Malawi at summer’s end. “I knew she would spend every day of the rest of her life shelling groundnuts.”

Her hosts asked her to name their baby, born early in her stay. Together they came up with Thomas, brother to two-year-old Edina.

Malawi is among Africa’s least developed countries, with low life expectancy and high infant mortality.

Middleton has returned to Guelph with what she calls a passion for economics, particularly economics of developing countries. “As an engineer, I want to understand systems in the local context around the world,” says Middleton, whose interest in development and environmental issues was sparked during high school in Sudbury. “For the world to be a better place, people need to learn to mobilize, to do the good they want to see. Engineers Without Borders encourages people to do something, to change behaviours.”

Click here to read her blog from Malawi.