(IAP 2015) Chrystal Chern ’16

Chrystal spent IAP in Liwonde National Park, Malawi in east Africa.  She conducted on-site measurements and research for bridges which will make the rhino sanctuary at the park more accessible for wildlife protection workers.  She also led interactive science and engineering activities at a local secondary school.  Through this project, Chrystal contributed to the mitigation of high levels of human vs. wildlife conflict at the park and introduced basic engineering concepts to rural students with limited access to education.


Preparing for Malawi.  01/07/2015

Moni anzanga, muli bwanji (Hi my friends, how are you)?  Tonight, I leave for Malawi from Boston (25 hours in planes and airports + 3 hours driving from the airport to Liwonde National Park).

I will first be spending 8-9 days assessing sites for possible bridge construction in Liwonde National Park with Wilderness Welfare, a Malawian organization with the goal to mitigate human vs. wildlife conflict and poverty in the community.  In the past, this organization has helped the community build a fish farm which empowered the villagers by providing a source of local income.  In addition, Wilderness Welfare works for wildlife protection at the park.  There exist issues of poaching of the endangered wildlife at the park, as well as wildlife which can be a danger to humans.  As a result, it is very important that the environmental protection and patrol workers have good access throughout the park.  Malawi has a long, wet rainy season from December to February, and patrol work is very arduous at the park during these months because the workers must trudge through the mud and pouring rain.  I will be working with the managing director of Wilderness Welfare to find suitable sites for bridge construction at the park, which would be of great usefulness to the workers during the wet season.  If these sites are successfully located, and I find that I work well with the community, EWB will be designing the bridges to be built at those sites.

This is a rhino caught in a snare at the park.  Our project will lessen the occurrence of these sad events of poaching activity.This is a rhino caught in a snare at the park. Our project will lessen the occurrence of these sad events of poaching activity.

I have been working all semester with my Engineers Without Borders teammates to prepare a checklist of all the measurements, tests, and observations I must do to obtain adequate information about the sites for starting our design next semester.  Included in this checklist are:

  1. Soil tests (Feel the soil. Roll the soil into a ribbon.  Drop a clump of the soil onto the ground and see how it smashes.  Shake the soil in a jar with some water and let it settle.)
  2. Brick tests (Scratch the brick surface with a fingernail.  Listen to the sound when I hit two bricks together.  Soak the brick in water and see how much it absorbs.)
  3. Streamflow tests (How fast can I fill a bucket with water from the stream?  How fast does a floating object move when put in the stream?)
  4. Surveying measurements (What is the gradient of the river bank along the stream?)
  5. Investigation (What else is built in the area and how?)

…among others.  There are also questions I must ask community members about rainfall and stream conditions, and people I have to look for (a local geotechnical engineer, a local surveyor, local building material suppliers) in order for us to be able to prepare a good design when I return to the U.S.  Finally, I will be meeting with various community contacts who can either help me obtain data for the bridge project or better understand the needs of the people in the Malawi and make sure our EWB projects are calibrated to suit them.  Some of these contacts are located in the major cities of Blantyre and Lilongwe.  I hope to make a day trip to each of these cities to ship samples to the U.S. and meet community contacts.  Naturally, I am very nervous about accomplishing all of this work during my visit in Malawi.  However, I will know to keep in mind that our EWB team has tried our very best preparing for this trip, and it is all a learning experience.

The yellow instrument I am looking at with concern is a builder’s level, which I will lug over to Malawi, along with its unwieldy tripod in the tall box at the back, so that I can measure the gradient of the river banks at the sites.The yellow instrument I am looking at with concern is a builder’s level, which I will lug over to Malawi, along with its unwieldy tripod in the tall box at the back, so that I can measure the gradient of the river banks at the sites.

During the second half of my project, I will be spending five days teaching at Namalomba Community Secondary School in the nearby town of Ulongwe.  I will be commuting to the school every day from the park by minibus and bike taxi.  To be honest, I am more than a little excited to ride a bike taxi.  I have a lot of fun lessons planned for the students, including:

  1. Polyhedron folding (culminating in a dodecahedron globe!)
  2. DIY balloon powered cars
  3. Bottle rocket building and launching
  4. DIY flashlights
  5. Bridge-building contest with paper cups and coffee stirrers

As you can see, the entire right-hand side of my suitcase is filled with materials for these activities.  My hope is that the lessons will not only be fun for the students, but also teach them some skills or ideas that might be applicable to their lives.  For example, the flashlights will give the students an idea of how lighting works, which applies to a daily challenge they experience: lacking light at night to study by.

My EWB teammate, Lauren, and I built the bike pump-operated bottle rocket launcher.My EWB teammate, Lauren, and I built the bike pump-operated bottle rocket launcher.


Bottle Rocket Launcher

Ideally, my work in the country will have a positive effect on the community, I will be able to gain enough information about the bridge sites for our EWB team to continue to do valuable work when I return to the U.S., the students will enjoy my lessons, and our relationship with the school will give way to a long-term mentorship that can benefit the students by empowering them and teaching them engineering skills that may be applicable to their lives.  These expectations are ambitious and it is easy for me to get caught up in my concern of meeting them.  So, I will be extra careful to enjoy this new experience and not worry too much.  I will be sure to enjoy the view of hippos and elephants and the taste of Malawian summer foods.  The managing director of Wilderness Welfare also invited me to his daily morning workouts with his construction manager, another exciting thing to look forward to.  Finally, I always love meeting new people with different perspectives, and Malawians are some of the most polite, welcoming people around.  I will take as many pictures and write down as many things as possible.  I will tell you all about my experiences on this blog.  I am confident that I will come back to MIT with a lot more stuff in my brain and a new appreciation of the fact that it isn’t a constant downpour where I live.

Insert Cool Experiences


Mid-Project Reflection: Liwonde National Park.  01/13/2015

Muli bwanji?  I am happy to report that I have learned more than I could have hoped in the 5 days I have been here.  The situation in Malawi is different than my expectations.  I knew there was a poaching problem in the park, but I did not know that it is extreme and frequent, and pervasive throughout the countries in the area.  The national parks system unfortunately has been unable to solve the problem.  Many NGOs simply donate money or equipment and do not look at the bigger problem of administration for the park rangers.  As a result, the money is does not effectively come back to the park workers or improving the park.  Equipment is used incorrectly and broken quickly due to a lack of training for the park rangers.  In addition, contrary to popular belief, there is no cultural desire to take care of the wildlife.  The wildlife takes the local livestock, tramples crops, and kills beloved relatives.  It does not make sense to the community to fight the extinction of the endangered animals.  Also, it is a cultural value to have many children, and at the rate the population is growing, the people will quickly crowd out the wildlife.  It is not an exaggeration at all to say that there will soon be no more hippos, elephants, or rhinos.  Lions are already pretty much extinct: there is no chance of seeing one in Malawi. Therefore, conservationists are unfortunately fighting a losing fight, but they are still trying to do something to slow the process of extinction down.

I am working with Mike Labuschagne, an ex-Special Forces South African army member with an MBA.  He is internationally recognized for turning parks around and fighting poaching.  I am also working with Mark Hiley, an ex-wildlife filmmaker and conservationist who has been to over 100 countries in the last 10 years.  He will be able to help with the organization of their wildlife protection initiatives and get the right people involved.  Mark explained to me that Malawi’s tourism sector is barely at all utilized, despite its enormous potential.  Malawi’s wildlife is a gem for the country’s prosperity, but it is not treated as such.  Within the small span of the entire country, there is wildlife that people travel all over the rest of Africa to see, a beautiful beach around Lake Malombe, delicious local cuisine and agriculture including mangos, macadamias, coffee beans, and avocados, and the friendliest locals you will ever meet.  However, the tourism department is unorganized, the parks are full of poached animals, and there is no cultural desire to change either of those things.  Although I do not have a background as a conservationist, it has been extremely educational and eye-opening to me to observe Mike and Mark’s work.  I have been getting used to (but not quite comfortable with yet!) the way work in developing countries is accomplished.  The plan changes every day, but we are always getting something done and moving on the twisting, winding path towards our goal.

The locals are the friendliest, happiest people you will ever meet.The locals are the friendliest, happiest people you will ever meet.
The avocados and mangos here are delicious and cost only a few cents each if you know where to look.The avocados and mangos here are delicious and cost only a few cents each if you know where to look.

After getting over some initial discouragement, I am very thankful to have learned the true facts about what it is like in Malawi.  The reality is that, at least 9 times out of 10, NGOs are overfunded and resources are allocated inefficiently and ineffectively.  Or, they spend a short time working in the community but do not come back to make sure their projects have been sustained.  I had an idea about this before coming – I am not the only one at MIT who has heard horror stories about failed NGO initiatives in Africa which waste millions of dollars.  However, it has been challenging and enlightening to see that it really is an extensive and almost universal problem.

Yesterday, I visited a beautiful abandoned beach-side school called the Malawi College of Fisheries.  It is built very well; there is great equipment for machining (the type you would see in MIT’s Pappalardo lab), air conditioning, a TV, a generator, and great examples of draining for the wet season.  It is all next to Lake Malombe.  In the right weather, students would get a view of clear, tropical blue water on a sandy beach.  This college is a potential jackpot.  It could have students coming in internationally, paying tuition which would increase revenue into the country, enjoying their lives next to the beach, and giving back by improving a once again unfulfilled potential in Malawi – the development of fish farms.  Fisheries are a potentially game-changing opportunity for Malawi, which is a country that is 40% covered in freshwater.  Fishing is the biggest protein market on the planet.  If this resource was utilized, Malawi’s economic state could rise considerably.  Unfortunately, because of a lack of administration at Malawi College of Fisheries, there are no students, the roofs are rotting because no one is assigned the simple task of emptying the gutters once a year, the vehicles are resting on blocks, and the ground is littered.  However, it is still a beautiful facility which is only slightly run-down: a sad sight.  Again, the problem is not a lack of resources, but a lack of effective administration.

Classroom at Malawi College of FisheriesMachine Shop at Malawi College of FisheriesMalawi College of Fisheries

This is the beautiful Lake Malombe beach in the backyard of the abandoned Malawi College of Fisheries.This is the beautiful Lake Malombe beach in the backyard of the abandoned Malawi College of Fisheries.
The school was clearly built with construction expertise for proper draining.The school was clearly built with construction expertise for proper draining.

In terms of the work I had set out to do coming to Malawi, I have accomplished one thing: brick tests.  It is a bit silly, but I have scratched, hit, broken, inspected, soaked, and weighed bricks in order to analyze the locally available materials here.  I will take some back to MIT for more testing.  I have also asked a lot of questions to find out the process of brick production in Malawi. First of all, everybody makes their own bricks.  You see big stacks of brick everywhere: these are brick ovens where the bricks are fired by lighting a fire underneath.  The strongest clay soil which makes up the brick is found in termite mounds.  The clay is dug up and shaped using handheld, flat metal spades into one of two sizes: the large brick and the small, more traditionally used builder’s brick.  It is then fired in the brick oven and ready to be used for construction.

By playing with the typically-used bricks in the area for a few hours, I hope to have gained some information about this particular building material for Engineers Without Borders to consider its use in the bridges we hope to build at the park.By playing with the typically-used bricks in the area for a few hours, I hope to have gained some information about this particular building material for Engineers Without Borders to consider its use in the bridges we hope to build at the park.

It has been raining almost constantly for 3 days.  As a result, many roads and bridges have flooded or collapsed.  The road into the park is flooded and there is a bridge which is 1.5 meters submerged under water.  This particular bridge is a good example of a well-built structure for Malawi’s wet season.  It was built in 1988 by one of Mike’s cousins, and although it becomes submerged in at least 1 meter of water every year, it is still intact.

I am lucky to come to Malawi at this time, because it is a particularly bad rainy season (not quite the 100-year flood event, but maybe the worst for every 10 years).  This means that I can see what the wet conditions are like and a less-extreme version of what EWB should be designing to withstand.

This is a bridge on the Lilongwe-Mangochi road (M3) which fell apart after 24 hours of almost nonstop rain.This is a bridge on the Lilongwe-Mangochi road (M3) which fell apart after 24 hours of almost nonstop rain.
This is the road into Liwonde National Park.  It is completely flooded and inaccessible after about 30 hours of almost nonstop rain.  The water has gotten waist-deep.This is the road into Liwonde National Park. It is completely flooded and inaccessible after about 30 hours of almost nonstop rain. The water has gotten waist-deep.

Next week, I will be making a trip into the park to assess possible bridge sites.  The trip into the park was delayed because of the heavy rain.  After I have assessed these sites, Engineers Without Borders can think of possible solutions for crossing the streams.  The hope is that we will eventually have an all-weather skeleton road network in the center of the rhino sanctuary, so that poachers can effectively be followed during the wet season.  This week, I will make a two or three-day trip up to Lilongwe to meet Angie Mjojo, an MIT Spurs-Humphrey fellow who can give me some more insight into the community needs in Malawi.  Unfortunately, I am currently faced with only making a two-day visit to Namalomba Community Secondary School (I had originally planned a five-day lesson plan.  Note proudly packed entire right-side of suitcase in my first blog post).  However, I will be able to see the school, talk to the Head Teacher, and do some fun activities with the students.  I will find out the best way for EWB to be involved in the school in the future.  Perhaps a one-week visit is much too short if we are looking at a sustainable partnership.  Despite the plan not going as I had initially wanted, I am still looking forward to meeting more and more people and gaining more and more perspectives.

I am reminded every day of what a lucky opportunity this trip is for me.  In addition to learning so much, I am also experiencing the culture firsthand.  It is definitely a different world here.  Daily life for the locals moves much more calmly and slowly than at MIT.  Every day, there are a few simple goals to accomplish: get water, get food, and visit a friend.  The road is always bordered by many people walking or biking alongside it, often carrying a basket or bunch of crops.  This perspective could be very useful to the members of the MIT community, myself included.  To us, every day is a scramble to achieve as many things as possible on an infinite to-do list.  As a result, we forget to live in the moment and appreciate our experiences for what they are.  I would definitely recommend a trip to Malawi to see it for yourself (and not just because your tourism would boost the country’s GDP!).


Mid-Project Reflection: Action Week!  01/22/2015

Last week, Malawi experienced its worst rains and floods in about 40 years.  For me, this meant that my work assessing the bridge sites at Liwonde National Park was delayed for a week – a temporary setback.  It also meant that I would be witnessing extreme wet conditions of the streams for my bridge designs – a great benefit.  For Malawians, the heavy rain and floods meant that friends, family, and homes were being washed away.  The last I heard, there were around 140 deaths and tens of thousands displaced from their homes.  Peggy, a newly acquired friend from this week, told me that four of her friends were taken by the floods.  The horrifying fact was accompanied by a melancholy shrug and the subject was not dwelled upon.  For Malawians, crisis is a common occurrence in life, and they learn early on that they have no choice but to cope and move on.  This is kind of the attitude you have to adopt in Malawi.  Things are constantly falling apart.  There is no use to make very concrete plans because they never work out the way you expect them to.  On the other hand, there is no doubt that progress is always being made somewhere, and when you accept that you have no control over things, life is actually much less stressful.  This is what I have experienced with my project implementation.  Although nothing went according to plan, I still feel like I have moved towards my goals coming in: moving our EWB team forward with the bridge designs for the park, and showing the students at Namalomba Community Secondary school what they can create using their own hands and some practical knowledge.


Peggy, a student teacher at Nanthomba Primary School, helped me prepare my DIY flashlight lesson for the Form 3 and Form 4 students at Namalomba Community Secondary School.

This past week has seen some great progress for my projects.  On Thursday, I arrived in Lilongwe, a 4-hour drive from north from Liwonde.  I met with Angela Mjojo, a Malawian who has a master’s degree in economics from Malawi and was a SPURS-Humphrey fellow at MIT.  She now works as Acting Director for the Malawi Reserve Bank.  We discussed the various development opportunities in Malawi and how Engineers Without Borders may be able to help.  Angela is trying to start a program that invites university students like me to teach things like computer skills to Malawian students at a “hub” in Lilongwe, and while they are not teaching they can travel to other places in Malawi to implement the various development projects that students at places like MIT are constantly coming up with, such as my bridge project in Liwonde National Park.  Other possible projects which MIT has experience with and could implement through this program are agricultural waste charcoal, rainwater harvesting, solar/wind energy, and information technology.


I am standing with Angela Mjojo and her two children, Nzeru and Ekere.  They go to a school with an American education system, under African Bible College.  Angela’s husband is a pastor and the family lives in a relatively well-to-do neighborhood in the capital city of Malawi, Lilongwe.

Angela and I discussed the state of the education system in Malawi, and its potential as a source of influencing cultural attitudes and improving the living conditions in the country.  We talked about cultural attitudes towards hygiene, deforestation, and developing the tourist industry.  Through education, awareness of many issues affecting the wellbeing of Malawians could be raised.  This includes water-borne diseases, the contribution of deforestation towards flood disasters, and the potential jackpot of Malawi’s tourist industry.  Angela told me that when she was growing up, the education system in Malawi was actually better.  In 1994, the government established free primary education for all children – however, the schools do not have enough resources to support so many students.  Currently, most schools in Malawi have ridiculous student-teacher ratios of over 100 to 1.  On top of that, the availability of jobs is very low in Malawi.  Sometimes, you see that someone who started a business without going to school is better off than those who go to school and end up at one of the low-paying jobs available for them in Malawi.  Therefore, parents often do not force their children to go to school, because they don’t see the value of it.  Instead, they let their children skip school or have them help tend the crops.  Finally, NGOs which come to help the schools in Malawi end up assisting in the less-rural areas, at schools which the government recommends to them.  The remote rural areas which need aid the most do not receive it.  To help mitigate this problem, Angela is planning on using the extensive church network in Malawi, which extends to the remote rural areas, to find the students who would go study at her “hub”.

On Friday, I made a trip to the Lilongwe City Center to visit the Hydrology Department of the Malawi Ministry of Irrigation and Water Development.  For EWB’s bridge designs in Liwonde National Park, we need hydrology information about the streams we are crossing in the park and the drainage basin around them.  At the Hydrology office, I met Piasi Kaunda.  He was able to give me a map of Malawi with the streamflow gauge locations, on which I identified a location I thought might be useful to me.  He provided me the historic flow data from that gauge, and also gave me the contact information of some people at the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services, who could give me historic rainfall data.  Hopefully, with this information, EWB will be able to design some good bridges in the park.


Piasi Kaunda is the Hydrological Officer at Malawi’s Department of Water Resources.  He helped me find some historic stream flow and rainfall data at our bridge sites.

After my trip to Lilongwe, I returned to Liwonde to look at some successful and unsuccessful construction projects which EWB can use for reference when designing our bridges.  Some buildings are well-built but are not maintained or abandoned, so they end up in a dilapidated state.  Some buildings are simply built on poor foundations and collapse.  Some bridges get washed out when the rivers expand after heavy rains.  Some bridges are strong enough to withstand going under 1.5 meters of water during the wet season and survive for decades.  Some parts of the roads wash away quickly in the wet season, especially at points where the river has diverted its path.  With these examples, EWB hopes to come up with the optimal building practices for our bridges in the park.


Then, I went to Ulongwe, the town of Namalomba Community Day Secondary School.  While teaching at the school, I will live at the town primary school, Nanthomba, in the HELP Malawi Volunteer House with Katie, a HELP Malawi volunteer who works at the village health clinic and primary school.  It is a 1-hour bicycle ride over the bumpy village road to Namalomba.


I am standing with HELP Malawi workers and Nanthomba Primary School student teachers in front of the HELP Malawi Volunteer House.  From left to right: Matrina and Peggy, Nathomba student teachers; Jessa, HELP Malawi Volunteer Coordinator and primary school teacher; Katie, HELP Malawi health clinic and primary school teacher volunteer; me.

Monday was my first day at Namalomba CSS, and I got to observe a social studies class and a Chichewa class.  After school, I started my activities with the students.  We launched bottle rockets using a bike pump-powered launcher built by our very own MIT EWB members.  The excitement of the students was unreal, and it was very rewarding for me to see the joy brought by this activity.  Try to find high school students in the U.S. who would run and jump around screaming at the top of their lungs after a bottle rocket launch!


Click here for a video of one of our launches!



Preparing to launch!


Post-launch excitement

Wednesday was my second day at Namalomba.  I did a quieter activity with a smaller group of students – DIY flashlights!  The excitement was just as real when they got their circuits to light up the LED.


My lesson on how to build a circuit for a simple LED flashlight.


Martha Richard, a Form 4 (equivalent to high school senior) student holding a flashlight that we built.


A group of students with the flashlight they built.

Amidst all the joy of sharing knowledge and creating new things with the students, there was a slightly dark cloud when I was once again reminded of how lucky I am to have had an abundance of opportunity and comfort throughout my whole life.  Namalomba Community Secondary School is one of the most privileged schools in Malawi, due to funding from Japan for the construction of their beautiful campus, and IFAW and HELP Malawi’s assistance.  However, the conditions are by no means posh.  Student still must walk for miles to get to school at 7:30am and have nothing to eat until after school ends at 2pm.  Some don’t have shoes, although the school uniform includes shoes, and the students can be sent home for not wearing their uniform.  Despite HELP Malawi’s assistance with scholarships, many still struggle to pay school fees.  Everyone must share textbooks – only the teachers own a copy and write everything up on the board.  When the students get home, they have to help tend the crops.  Even I have no running water, but as a teacher I am still very lucky – I get 2 or 3 relatively large meals a day.

On Tuesday, I went across the river to visit the rhino sanctuary at Liwonde National Park.  Once again, the goal is for EWB to design and help build bridges for at least two Ntangai River crossings which are completely inaccessible to cars during the wet season.  These two bridges will be part of an all-weather road network in the rhino sanctuary which will make it possible for park rangers to follow poachers.  I took soil samples, streamflow, and topography measurements at the two sites.


I am not a professional surveyor, but I did my best to map the site elevations to get valuable information back to our EWB bridge team.


I collected many soil samples from the sites.  EWB will need information about the soil to know the dimensions of the bridge foundations.

I was also lucky enough to spot three elephants!


Coming up: today is my second-to-last day teaching at Namalomba.  I will then return to Liwonde, and then, back to the United States.  EWB will have a lot more work to do with all of the information I have gathered here.  It is a very exciting and hopeful time for our projects.  We hope to come help build the bridges at the rhino sanctuary in the dry season (June-August), and perhaps make another, longer-term visit to Namalomba so that we can help the students prepare for exams.


On a nice afternoon walk through the village, we were invited into a family’s house.  The mother is winnowing rice.  In front of her is a big green tub of millet and on the left is a small bowl of sour gum.  Millet and sour gum are two of the ingredients of maize beer, or Chibuku, a popular sour Malawian drink we were invited to try.


I have been trying to soak up the beautiful scenery in the village of Nanthomba.  It’s rare for me to see such beautiful landscapes in the States.  At night, I even get to see stars.  I will definitely miss this!

« All Posts