My name is Blake Reynolds, and for the next few weeks I will be travelling to Malawi as part of the Canadian Co-operative Association's Management Coaching Program!

Thanks for stopping by as I prepare for, travel to, experience and finally bid farewell to the 'Warm Heart of Africa'!

Monday, January 31, 2011

Relaxing, Running and Reggae

Sunday was actually was a pretty early morning as we wanted to catch Laurie and share some breakfast before she and Dickson from MUSCCO headed south to Blantyre.
Afterwards I grabbed a rare nap and spent some time catching up on my blog.  I took a quick dip in the pool and got ready for the rest of the day. 
After a late lunch we decided to walk to find a local private school where a friend of mine who has been here previously said there was some Ultimate Frisbee going on.  It was a long walk (when you are not sure where you are going) but we managed to get there eventually.  The challenge is that on a map all the streets are named but in real life most of them are not as people don’t refer to them anyway.  The residences in the area had high fences and guard dogs etc. but that afternoon it was pretty quiet.  About 100 metres from the site someone stopped and offered me us a ride, but since I didn’t know where on the campus I was going it was a good idea regardless.
Once we got there, I threw on my shoes and jumped on the field.  It was +30 and VERY muggy but it was cool to play with some locals and ex-pats from 8 or 9 different countries.  Once the games came to a wind-sucking and sweaty end, we took a tour of the school.  It was a slightly informal tour as the gate we came in was locked so we wondered around looking for an exit.
We were already near the golf course, so we made are way down to the “Black Missionaries”, a Malawian Reggae band who was playing on the concert grounds there.  The music was great and fortunately with Reggae it really doesn’t matter if some songs are in Chechewa as it’s the melody that takes you away.  There might have been a couple thousand people there but I am pretty sure we were the only two ‘mazungos’. 
We enjoyed the music for a bit and were asked to join in some dancing by a mellow Rastafarian guy and a few kids.  The 3 kids turned to about 13 and it was so much fun!  We gave them some Canada pins and took their pictures which they could not get enough of, but I think some of the crowd was busy taking pictures of Erin and I and all the kids dancing!   It was a really good time that I won't soon forget. 
We should all at least once in our lives know what it’s like to be the minority, and hopefully realise that like through the eyes of children, it really doesn’t matter much at all...and it’s always fun to dance!
Until next time,

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Our trip to Lake Malawi

Eye Openers
On Saturday, Erin and I decided to travel east to Lake Malawi, just outside of the town of Salima.  It was an interesting start as the driver picked up his friend to come along with us, but we’ve learned to ‘go with the flow’ and it was nice to have another person sitting in the back of the car who could point out little points of interest.
I have to say the drive was a real eye-opener.  As 85% of the population live in rural areas, it was very humbling to see the dichotomy between rural and urban living, especially after spending the first week in the centre of Lilongwe.  Cows, goats and chickens are common either at markets or crossing the street, and there was no shortage of tomatoes and maize (corn).

One thing that I found very interesting is the use of bicycles.  Not as personal transportation but as a business venture.  Our driver Daniel pointed out that many town residents will buy a bike, place what looks like a reinforced bike rack on the back, add some padding and ‘presto!’ bike-taxi.  We even saw one passenger on the back calmly reading his paper while the driver peddled away!  It was an hour-and-a-half drive, but it was really worth it.

Lake Malawi
When we asked to be taken to Lake Malawi, we really didn’t know beyond that we'd see "the lake".  We were actually taken to a Sunbird resort, and since we were staying at a Sunbird hotel in Lilongwe were given full access to the grounds.
The beach was very nice.  It's so big in fact, that from the shore it’s difficult to tell that the body of water in front of you is actually a lake.  Even along the beach it was common see fishermen with their dug-out canoes fishing Chombo.  One fisherman brought is catch right up the beach and into the hotel kitchen....fresh.
The one downside is the water itself.  Even though we saw Americans and locals splashing in the waves, Erin and I were good little Canadians and stayed on the beach as we were told not to go swimming in the lake by our doctors.  It was relaxing nonetheless and I was a bit tired as we headed back into town.
Now, all week I have seen large catches of chombo tied too, and hanging off the wipers of mini-buses, so I wasn’t completely surprised when our driver and his friend began tying the fish they had bought to the mirrors of their little Toyota!  I guess it beat bringing them IN the car…

Wrapping up the evening with MUSCCO
We finished off the evening catching up with Laurie, who had spent the first week in Uganda and will be spending the upcoming week in city southern of Blantyre.  We went out for dinner with Sylvester and Dickson from MUSCCO.  It was an informal dinner and it was very easy to chat with the two of them, and was great to listen to their stories and insight into Malawi.  Those two men are so important to the SACCO movement and because of that the economic recovery of the country.  With the government having limited resources to aid its citizens, SACCOs and co-operatives allow Malawians to begin taking control of their savings and own their own future.
Dickson, Laurie, Erin and Sylvester
 Until Next Time,


Saturday, January 29, 2011

Wrapping Up at Fodya SACCO

Our first 'Report Presentation"
We finished our last day at Fodya SACCO.  We were met by a smiling Oscar, as well three of the other four board members: Gilder, Wilson and Frederick.  One of the toughest part of presenting is when you are not sure what exactly sure what your audiences expectations are.  However once we got started things rolled along smoothly.  We gave our praise for a job well done to date, and gave our observations and experiences pertaining to several areas such as Security, Membership, Lending and Technology.  Fodya is a fairly young and fairly small SACCO, but they have a lot of good ideas, complimented by a strong board and wonderful employees.  Sometimes as a small SACCO or Credit Union with big ideas, the most important thing is to map out where you want to go, but then also assess what the steps are along the way as sometimes the ultimate destination can seem a frustratingly long ways off.
We were able to get a preview of the interim software that the Alliance One IT guy (who is also a loyal member) created for Brian and Rita and I have to say I was impressed!  I really feel it will help free up the time they need to get out and promote their SACCO, as both have great ideas to increase their membership. 
We presented Oscar, the board president with our CCA certificate of participation, and I gave him a copy of OMISTA Credit Union’s Annual Report as well as a ball cap.  I think he was happier with the cap as he didn’t even take it off for the pictures!
Erin & I with the Fodya Board of Directors
(left to right) Wilson, Gilder, Oscar and Frederick

Fodya director and E.Eng

We were bought lunch at the manager’s cafeteria and I have to say the food was pretty decent.  We asked Frederick what should someone new to Malawi do experience some local culture, as we have been in town all week and would like to see a bit more of this beautiful country.  He was very excited to point out a few points of interest which I hope we will get over the next week.  We are hoping to visit Lake Malawi this weekend, and catch a popular Malawi band called “The Black Missionaries” who perform reggae in both English and local Chichewa!
As it is the off-season, we were able to tour a part of the huge tobacco refinery with Frederick, who is an Electrical Engineer there.  He told me he got his degree at a technology college here in Malawi, and that he is very proud to be an important part of his company’s plant.  He said he was even more proud to be on the board of Fodya as he feels he is able to really help its members save money and build a financial future because otherwise they would not be able to.
Good Bye to Fodya!  We'll miss you!
Brian and Erin inside Fodya SACCO
We walked back to the branch and said our good byes to Rita and Brian.  Brian coyly explained that he was not there yesterday because his wife gave birth to their second son!  He proudly showed off pictures of his wife and sons, Wisdom and Wonderful, and it made more a bit more sad to leave all the people at this wonderful SACCO.  We are planning to stop by briefly next Thursday so we can present the hard copy of the report as well as a flash drive of the electronic report, some sample policies and some pictures of our Fodya adventures.

We ended our work day back at the MUSCCO offices chatting with Swanzie about youth programs.  They have a clean slate, but are hoping to explore youth savings clubs (very successful in Ghana), as well as potential financial literacy programs for schools and leadership camps to help educate young people about co-operatives and SACCOs.  There are many different programs across the country, so my goal is to put these people if possible in touch with Swanzie or at least point her in the right direction.  It’s neat to see how the “co-operative and credit union movement” can so easily and effectively cross borders!
Until Next Time,


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"Macon" out

Ok, so "Culture Shock" is a normal process.
"Humans are never <finished products>.  We refine, we rearrange, we revise, and we evolve.  In this fundamental context, cross-cultural adaptation as portrayed is simply a special case of ever-present learning and development process.  Strangers weather many disorienting dilemmas and in time 'stretch' themselves out of the boundaries of their original cultures.  In this creative process of self-reinvention, strangers discover new forms and symbols of life with which to forge new identities."
Becoming intercultural, Young Yun Kim,
Sage Publications, Inc. 2001.

It donned on me as I was walking down the though the market towards the 'Game' store (think Wal-Mart: Africa) that I am becoming much more comfortable with my surroundings.  Yes, I have been here a few days now, but I think it has more to do with the great people I am meeting while I am here.
As I was sitting at the local pizza shop with Erin eating a “Macon & chicken” pizza (Macon is beef bacon…restaurant owner is a nice Muslim man), I was thinking of a few things I have observed that anyone visiting Lilongwe, Malawi should know.  None are that negative but rather observations:
Traffic will not yield….ever.
A wise man told me "Lights or no, do not cross the street unless you are certain you can make it across".
When crossing the street, look RIGHT first.
The people shouting at you to get in thier minivan are actually the “bus drivers”…don’t panic.
When you land at the airport, someone will try to take your bag…then expect a tip.  Just get a firm grip and say “No Thank You”.
When the weather report says "overcast, rain, sun, thunder showers and partly cloudy"...they really do mean all in the same day.

Do not bother looking up weather reports for Malawi.

Visit Don Brioni’s Bistro (in area 4) at least once.  He and his wife are super friendly and will always come talk to you.  Lots of ex-pats, great food too!
There are at least 8 “fried chicken & chips” take-aways in a 1 km radius.
I will NEVER understand Cricket.
There will be a lot of people on the streets…but with nothing but cricket on TV who can blame them?
Malawians are really, really friendly.
I am not good at any non-traditional handshakes.
Though tobacco is one of Malawi’s major exports (guess who one of their top destination countries are), I have only seen maybe 6 people smoking since I have been there. 
When someone tells you “I am Righteous”…that’s their name.  See: Happy, Prayerful, Blessings.  It’s pretty cool really.
If you are at a market, window shop then come back with a local you trust, else pay the 200% “tourist tax”.
If you order “closed Chambo", be prepared to see a whole fish…head to tail.
The mosquito net over bed is there for a reason.
ALWAYS take your malaria meds.
There are many ways to exchange money (Ndalama) from ForEx (Foreign Exchange) offices to someone’s car, and the rate of return (and personal risk) can vary greatly.
North American wallets are not made for a the volume of Malawian Kwatcha (Mk).  Kwatcha bills literally increase in size the higher the denomination.  Also, imagine how many bills you would have to carry if you did not have debit and the highest bill you could ever get was a five. 
Do NOT drink the tap water, and ask for “no ice” in drinks.  No one will be offended.
The Chechewa greeting is “Muli bwanji”, and “Zicomo” means ‘Thank You’.  It gets easier to say each time you try and people appreciate the effort.
Did I mention Malawians are very friendly?
Always keep credits on your phone.
Malawi very beautiful country.  I have only seen a small part but have a feeling I am very correct.
Go to church, at least once.  Don't think about what it means to you...but understand what it means to them.  You are always welcome.
Observe and listen…absorb and learn.
Find out people’s stories, and understand where they are coming from.
“Kulemekeza” means ‘respect’.
“Gona” means ‘sleep’…sounds like a pretty good idea.
Until next time,

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Wonderful Work!

Another day "At the Office"
Today was mine and Erin's and  second day "at work", and I think we are hitting our stride!  I honestly did not know what to expect going into this, and even though I won't get much pity from my family and friends in new Brunswick Canada currently enduring -35 Celsius temperatures (yes it was probably 25 Celsius this morning but it WAS muggy), I can honestly say that this is work... it just happens to be very rewarding and enjoyable work! 
Erin & I in front of Fodya SACCO
We had some wonderful conversations with Rita and Brian of Fodya (Chichewa for tobacco) SACCO (Credit Union), which is a closed-bond SACCO which serves the Alliance One tobacco refinery in Lilongwe.  We were also fortunate to meet and speak with Fodya's board treasurer Wilson and Oscar Phiri the board president.  Fodya is a very small SACCO with a top-notch board and two great employees.  Both Rita and Brian are working full time at the SACCO while going to college studying accounting and couldn't be more enthusiastic!  Rita has almost 20 years of experience in the SACCO movement and could not imagine working anywhere else.  Brian is finishing his first year in the SACCO and already is visionary enough to not only understand the current  importance of SACCO's but also to realize the importance SACCO's will play in Malawi's economic prosperity.
Though part of a small SACCO, Brian and Rita truly see their work as more than a job, and often refer to their roles and the role of the once struggling SACCO "in the movement".  Mr. Phiri proudly talked with us about Fodya's early struggles including an exodus of some members to being awarded MUSCCO's 2009 "Most Improved SACCO".

Rita and Brian in the office
Rita, Oscar & Brian with the
MUSCCO 2009 "Most Improved SACCO" award

The SACCO Movement
In Malawi, SACCOs are the only realistic alternative the citizens have to save their money, and to borrow money when needed as banks view the average Malawian to be to "high risk" to lend funds too.
So how can an entrepreneurial spirit currently living at or below the poverty line find the funds need to build the pieces needed to become financial independent? How can a young woman or man who has worked very hard through school and has been fortunate to be selected to further their education? How can a hard working labourer manage to pay for a relative's funeral? Where in Canada Credit Unions try to become a better alternative to banks, in many cases in Malawi SACCO's are the only alternative...and an absolutely crucial cog in Malawi's economic machine.

At the heart of Malawi's "financial co-operative movement" is MUSCCO, the Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Co-operatives. We've been fortunate to meet many of the employees of MUSCCO including Sylvester Fedzola, MUSCCO CEO and member of the World Council of Credit Unions. Through h Sylvester's vision and the capable hands (and minds) of people like Lillian Moyo, Fumbani Nyangulu, Swanzie Mawerenga and Dickson Chidumu (sorry, it's impossible not to mention each of these great people), MUSCCO is helping build a framework and host of services, that many Canadian Credit Unions have not even had until recently in their history. Even at such an early point in the Malawi SACCO movement, MUSCCO is working hard to provide resources like: board training programs, management education, and a computerized banking system. It's with these essential building blocks, that I feel very good about the future of SACCOs in Malawi, and it's now that I am truly beginning to understand the impact that the Canadian Co-operative Association's programs can have to aid in this voyage.

Until next time!


Sunday, January 23, 2011


I have learned only a few words in the native Chechewa (Chech-AY-Wa) language but I find myself saying these few words a lot.  It means "Thank You".  There is such a polite, genuine willingness to help here, coupled with a natural pride in their work, that it helps you become quite comfortable regardless of where you are from.

However, I won't say I am completely comfortable yet. There's just so much new here in this beautiful yet small country. I can say though that today was much easier. I think a lot of that can be contributed to having the first full nights' sleep and actual morning wake up that I have had for several days...or nights...I really can't remember. Another great help, even though perhaps it was by fluke, is that until tomorrow morning all six of the CCA "Malawi Team" are still together. I am by no means a timid person, but it is much easier to bravely explore new things in a new land with 5 other first-time Malawi visitors. So with only the day left before the Brad & Scott head North to the town of Rumphi and Larry and Karen head South to the city of Blantyre, the group wanted to make the most of the day.

Wake up call
The first thoughts of the day were "Hey, we have tin roofs" and "Wow, it rained REALLY hard last night." ... two thoughts that could not have come separately as when I opened my doors I was greeted by the warm sun and lush greenery. Malawi in the rainy season could possibly challenge Ireland for "most shades of green". ..probably as many tones of green as Nairobi seemed to have (looking down from an airplane mind you) of warm beiges.

Before coming to Malawi I was checking the weather on a pretty consistent basis. EVERY day for the whole week showed a cloud with rain and lightning, with a sun behind it. What I didn't realise is that it's very common to witness all of those extremes repeatedly in the same day. There is not rain every day in the rainy season any more then there is snow everyday of winter, and we have been blessed so far as it has only lightly showered in some afternoons and downpoured at night.

Pleasant Surprises

I was so sunny and warm this morning that I was just about ready to jump in the pool when I heard some powerful and intriguing music coming from the building behind the hotel. Brad, Karen and I decided to investigate, and I am very glad we did. We decided to drop in during the "last 10 min" of an evangelical church service at the Christ Assembly. As we left 1 hour later I had no regrets, even when they gave us a microphone and asked us to introduce ourselves. Everyone there was very warm and welcoming (no big surprise really, but nice nonetheless). I think from that moment on I really began to feel more comfortable in my surroundings.
Road to church
Entrance to church

Fish and Chips
In any new surroundings, coming to your own terms with the food is always a challenge, and one that is often rewarded with new and fasinating flavours...even for something like "fish & chips". Although I had been prepped for it, it was still a little intimidating to order "Closed Chambo" for the first time. And I will admit...I didn't. I chickened out! I went for the "Open Chambo" and must admit it was pretty good!

Closed Chambo

Open Chambo

Now to anyone who thinks this look soooo inedible...think about how we in Atlantic Canada eat something like lobster without so much as a pause!

Nature Calls
So with our last afternoon we decided to visit the Lilongwe Wildlife Conservatory. While not quite a "game reserve", the conservatory's main focus is to rehabilitate animals for return to the wild, and to care for those animals which cannot be freed. The areas for the various primates, hyenas, elk etc. are kilometres large, but strategically placed so a trail can provide an observation route to all species.

The main things I took from the trip was that A) Hyenas are larger then I thought and B) if you ever wonder what the difference is between a "Zoo" and a "Wildlife Conservatory" it's this:

As we finsihed up our visit at the Conservatory with a beverage, we headed to the best Italian by an Malawi and wrapped up a great day.
Tomorrow is a work day, beginning with a meeting at 8:30 AM at MUSCCO (Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Co-operatives...similar to our Credit Union Central). As my comfort level increases, my challenge becomes two-fold: try to learn 2 Chichewa words each day and begin to discover the people of Malawi's stories that define them and often break the stereotypes we have of developing nations.

I look forward to the challenge, and will certainly keep you updated as best I can!

Until next time,

Friday, January 21, 2011

Over the Ocean...check!

Well, I've just completed my first overseas trip! It's hard to beleive that the lext leg of our trip from London to Nairobi, Kenya will be an even LONGER flight but it's still a great adventure!

We had already said goobye to our Uganda-team friends yesterday afternoon as they had to leave earlier yesterday, and even though we knew we'd be parting ways with the Ghana team at the airport it still seemed abrupt as we came apon their next terminal and quickly gave our hugs and well wishes.

We are now down to the 6 Malawi participants. We have a pretty huge 8-hour layover before we start boarding for our Air Kenya flight. I'm excited, I'm anxious and I am more than a bit sleepy. One thing the overseas flight provided me was the chance to brush up on some Malawi culture and history.

About Malawi
Malawi is a landlocked country that covers about 118,500 square kilometers in the South Eastern corner of Africa. 80% of its 15.4 Million person population live in rural areas, where agriculture plays a vital role.

The two official languages are English and Chichewa, a Bantu-related language. Over the last 100 years Malawi has moved from a British colony to commonwealth to a fully independant republic.

I could easily write what I have read regarding Malawians, but I do not think that would be fair to anyone. I can say that Stella and Mathias have left me with a great first impression, and I look forward to forging many new relationships in the 'Warm Heart of Africa'.

Thanks for tagging along!


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Meeting New Friends...

Day one in Ottawa is done as I continure my pre-Malawi preparations.  I FINALLY got to meet my fellow CCA adventurers as we convened at the CCA offices for our first day of training!
It's interesting how diverse a fairly small group can be, yet much we also have in common as we come together in this setting.  It's great to hear more stories and experiences from the coaches who are on their second (or more) year of volunteering, and it's great to hear the hopes and concerns of the other "newbs" as our departure dates creeps closer and closer.
For most of the day, we participated in course in Intercultural Effectiveness, facilitated by the Centre for Intercultural Learning (CIL).  What a great session!
It's really a shame that every single Canadian cannot receive this training.  Who do you know that would not benefit from learning more about Human Behaviour, includng our very concepts of culture, personality and human behaviour?  I look forward to resuming this session tomorrow!
I would have to say the highlight of the day was a chance to meet and chat with our 'Country Resource Person(s).  It was a great honour to be able to spend the afternoon with Stella Nyasulu and Mathias Mbendela who are both natives of Malawi and were kind enough to share their insight into Malawi life and culture!

The Malawi crew with Mathias and Stella

I am determined to learn some Chichewa, the national language in Malawi.  If I can master a typical Chichewa greeting (Moni, Muli bwanji?), I will so proud of myself!
Thanks to you both Stella and Mathias, thanks to you both I am feeling more excited than ever for my upcoming adventure!

Mathias, myself, Stella and Erin

Until next time,

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Here we go!

Ok, first post!  Thanks for joining me on the first stage of this adventure!

How do you prepare for an experience like this?  What do you pack?  How do you deal with the travel?  What do I need to prepare for?   Information Overload!
But I think the biggest prepartions for me, are what will be happening while I am away.  While I profess to be pretty laid back, my family and I just don't seem to be able to walk-the-"laid back"-talk.

I am the proud father of three boys, ages 9, 6 and 4, and the husband of a very loving wife who has been very patient with me (and more importantly our kids) while I travelled around to play Ultimate Frisbee, took night classes to get my MBA, and who now herself is doing her MBA while taking on a new job and teaching our oldest's catechism classes.
So the first thing I did when offered this great opportunity is do what any man who appreciates his marriage would do in that position...I asked her if I could go!  Her response: "How can you NOT go?".

So these days leading up to our training and preparation in Ottawa, as I try to figure out what to wear and what I need to bring, I am also preparing my three page spreadsheet on who will be covering what at home to keep life as normal as possible for my three very active boys!

On a professional note, what an honour to be chosen for this program!  I can't wait to put faces to all the friendly voices I have been conversing with the past few months, as we meet in Ottawa next week to prepare for our trips to Malawi, Uganda and Ghana respectively.
And what a great place to work for!  OMISTA Credit Union really is a great place to work, and it's truly awesome that they are supporting me and this program!

Back to preparations!  Thanks for checking in!