From Poverty to PhD
As a child growing up 150 kilometers outside the urban center of Malawi’s Mzimba District—a rural region characterized by illiteracy rates of about 62 percent—Beatrice Chisenga spent her evenings poring over her school books, lit by the soft glow of a heavily fumed kerosene lamp.
Exhausted from fetching firewood, pounding maize, helping cook meals for her family, attending school and walking for hours to gather water, Beatrice hunched over the small table in the center of her family’s grass thatch-roofed home, her eyes heavy with sleep and her dusty feet firmly planted in a bucket of the day’s remaining water.
Her mother knew her children’s only ticket to the city—an escape from the vicious cycle of African rural poverty—was education.
By making her kids keep their feet soaking wet for long hours after the African sun slipped below the horizon, perhaps she could keep them awake long enough to study their way out of poverty.
As it turns out, her mother was right.
Nearly 40 years later, Beatrice lives in Manchester, UK, where she earned a PhD in Project Management from the University of Salford and now serves as the African Field Director for Christian humanitarian engineering nonprofit Design Outreach.
Those long nights in the books, those buckets of water she walked miles to fetch and her unrelenting ambition were the catalyst for a life dedicated to bringing hope and change to her native land.
In developing countries like Malawi, which is ranked the third poorest nation in the world according to the World Bank, education and access to clean water are intertwined. Without a safe water source near a village, attending school becomes impossible.
Worldwide, nearly 700 million people lack access to safe water, and women and children spend an estimated 125 million hours each day collecting water. Many have to walk miles to a water source—often a river, stream or open well—and much of the water that is gathered is so contaminated that a child dies every 90 seconds from waterborne disease
“It’s really hard to excel in school if you don’t have clean water,” says Dr. Greg Bixler, CEO and co-founder of Design Outreach, an organization dedicated to solving the world’s water crisis through robust and reliable hand pump engineering. “The distance to collect water … puts women and children in danger of being attacked by animals or bandits. The time it takes to fetch water several times a day affects the children’s ability to attend school, and walking long distances is tiring, so it also affects their ability to study.”
To complicate the issue, many rural communities place the burden of domestic responsibility, including the long treks for water, entirely on the women and girls. In sub-Saharan Africa, Beatrice says, women often work 18 hours in a day.
Beatrice knows this firsthand. Because her mother suffered from illness, Beatrice and her sister did all of their family’s household work, while her brother was excluded from such chores. “Our culture had set high expectations for a girl child in preparation for womanhood,” Beatrice says. “My mother used to state that she would like to ensure we are well-baked so as not to be ashamed should we fail to be educated and continue to live in the villages.” However, her mother ensured they worked hard in school as well.
She remembers the exhaustion that swept over her those long nights spent under the light of a kerosene lamp, her feet soaking.
She also remembers the faces of old friends who were not as fortunate as she was.
“My friend Rose was very intelligent,” Beatrice says. “Rose always attained the highest grade in our first four years of the primary school. Because of the paternal system and placing responsibility on a girl child, Rose’s mother made her drop out of school to help her look after the younger siblings, even though Rose had an elder brother . … All my life I’ve been thinking, ‘If Rose were allowed to go to school, where would she be?’”
The Fight for Water
Beatrice was the third of five children born to two primary school teachers. As early as five years old, she remembers walking up to four miles each day to gather water. As a teenager, she, like most women, became so skillful that she could balance a 20-liter bucket on her head.
While her family moved from one place to another as her parents’ jobs dictated, finding water to drink was always a challenge. Whether it was an open well, the closest river or a borehole, it was a task that took hours, and the risk of water borne disease was an ever-present threat.
One of the first drinking water sources she remembers was a river—the same river they washed their clothes and bathed in. Much of the river water closest to the bank was thick with mud and silt.
“(We thought that) as long as it was clear, that meant it was hygienic,” Beatrice says. “(So) we stepped in deeper because that was the ‘clean’ water.”
Around 1975, Beatrice’s father was transferred to a new location, Kacheche, where she saw a borehole for the first time. As promising as it seemed, the borehole was located more than a mile from the village near an agricultural station, where the government trained farmers in crop and animal management. This was the same borehole used to water the chickens, pigs and cattle.
“That water was very silty, and it was even very hard to get water from that borehole,” Beatrice says. “We waited one or two hours before the pump could produce water. Before we filled two or three pails, it was pumping dry, which meant we had to wait again for the underground water to replenish. It was very usual to be at this borehole the whole afternoon.”
Because the borehole seemed to be more trouble than it was worth, many in the village resorted yet again to water from the Kasito River, increasing vulnerability to deadly cholera and dysentery.
Like the borehole near the agricultural station, many pumps do not reach far enough into the ground to provide a consistent flow, and dysfunctional pumps are a common problem that plagues rural communities in developing countries. Some estimate that a third of the world’s hand pumps are no longer functional, leaving remote villages like those Beatrice grew up in without a reliable source of clean water.
“There was another borehole that was farther,” Beatrice says. “My mother used to wake (my sister and me) up as early as five o’clock in the morning. Most of the times we found a long queue at the borehole. We would sit down and play. You would expect to wait at least an hour at most. By the time we were back home, we had been away at least two and a half hours.”
The Shadow of Death
While waiting for water robbed villagers of their time, contaminated water threatened to take their lives. In the late 1970s, shortly before her father passed away, Beatrice experienced her own brush with death.
During this time, the Malawian government endorsed campaigns to educate local people about the importance of boiling water to combat dysentery and cholera.
“I remember the songs sung on an immunization campaign under a tree,” Beatrice recalls. “The songs were sung with passion pleading with the women not to be deceived that children are guarded against whooping cough and dysentery and deaths with African herb-medicated ropes tied around the necks or waists of the children, but boiling drinking water and treating the children with oral hydration, homemade sugar-salt water, as a first-aid measure for diarrheal diseases. Although the messages had good intentions, women who were illiterate could not comply to the sugar-salt solutions ratios. Making wrong combinations had devastating effects on the dehydrated children.”
Despite the campaign efforts, Beatrice and her family succumbed to an outbreak of dysentery, a waterborne illness that ravished their small community. For Beatrice, the disease induced months of enervating illness that almost took her life.
Even after the initial diarrhea and vomiting subsided, the illness became chronic and was so debilitating that six months after its onset, Beatrice was still unable to take that year’s final exams.
“I remember my father hired a young man with a bicycle to take me to Jombo Health Centre,” Beatrice said. “Between our school, Kacheche, where we lived and Jumbo Health Centre is a big river called Kasito River with wide banks, and often in the rainy season people were washed away and died in the river, as there was no bridge by then. My legs were tied to make sure I did not slip off. The guy managed to cross me over the river safely. When we reached the health center, I was given an injection of procaine penicillin, as I had even started coughing by then. … Despite being treated, … I never recovered. My parents started to lose hope as I could not eat and had missed going to school more than three months by then.”
As her condition deteriorated, her parents began to contact close relations, who persuaded them to seek help from African doctors. Beatrice remembers being given porridge made of water soaked in tree roots as a last-ditch effort to save her. This, too, was fruitless. At that point, her uncle decided it was time to take her to the Mzuzu city mission hospital known as St John’s.
“It was a long journey in a full bus when we arrived in Mzuzu,” she says. “I do not remember how I managed to get to the hospital, but all I remember was that I might have collapsed because the next thing I saw was (that it was) evening—it was the first time to see electricity—and nurses were handing over that I was the most critical ill patient in the ward.”
After two weeks of tests and treatment, Beatrice was sent home. Still very weak, she slept constantly and continued to miss school. As a final effort to save their daughter, Beatrice’s parents decided to take her to Ekwendeni Hospital, a Presbyterian mission under the Church of Scotland UK. “It was believed that people got better at this hospital because Dr. Irvin, a Scottish missionary and medical doctor, used to pray for patients,” Beatrice says. “This was a rumor known almost everywhere in the country by then.”
After weeks in this hospital, the doctor determined that the dysentery Beatrice had contracted caused her to develop septicaemia, a serious infection-related complication characterized by systemic inflammation and poisoning of the blood, as well as malnutrition.
Beatrice eventually recovered from the infection, but long-term effects have lingered. To this day, she is deaf in her right ear.
“Many people did not believe how I survived after being heavily hit,” Beatrice says. “I am what I am by the grace of God. Many of my fellow children did not survive who were critically ill as well.”
Changing the Story
Despite the waterborne disease that threatened to take her life, Beatrice always excelled in her studies. She and her friend Eliza, who are still close today, were the only girls to be selected by the government to attend secondary school education since their primary school opened two decades earlier at Euthini.
“I was ambitious,” Beatrice says. “With all of that work I was involved in (at home), I started making decisions: ‘I must get educated and get out of the rural area because I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of carrying firewood, I’ve had enough of fetching water, I’ve had enough of pounding maize.’ … My ambition was to get educated so I could get a good job and live in the city.”
The school was called Mary Mount Secondary School and was a reputable girls’ Catholic institution in Mzuzu, a city in northern Malawi. During her time there, her mother’s “harsh” methods of teaching her the importance of education and studying stuck with her. By this time, though, she didn’t need soaked feet to keep her alert.
“At night, the prefects used to switch off all lights as per school policy at 2200 hours,” Beatrice says. “We used to sneak out and sit outside the classroom, reading using security lights in the cold. … Many times, a few of us would be reading outside … until 2 a.m.”
During her time at Mary Mount, she served as a senior student prefect and a leader of the student interdenominational Christian fellowship called Scripture Union.
Right before her final exams, her mother passed away, leaving her an orphan. Though she had always dreamed of following in her parents’ footsteps, her grades did not qualify her to go on to get her teaching degree university. Instead, she was accepted into a university dedicated to training nurses and midwives.
The nursing and midwifery diploma required completion of a four-year program, which she finished in 1989. She then worked with the government in the Mangochi District, mainly in the maternal and child health section.
“I noticed that diarrhea remained the highest killer of the children in the children’s ward as well as in the community,” she says. “I had passion and many times reflected on how I barely survived with the complications of dysentery whilst a young girl at Kacheche.”
She went back to the university to get her BSc in nursing, with a specialty in community health. “Improving the livelihoods of the rural has been my passion,” she says.
Inspired by the need for improved health care in rural communities, Beatrice worked with key international NGOs at the operational as well as managerial level to improve rural health, including safe drinking water.
The fervor she developed as a nurse led her to work with NGOs that dealt with rural health programs. Because there was no Master’s program for community health in Malawi, Beatrice moved to the UK to earn an MSc in project management and later a PhD with a focus on examining factors that influence maintenance of boreholes in a rural context.
“The particular interest arose because of the experiences of the borehole at Kacheche which is so vivid in my life,” she says. “Now, in Manyamula in the late 1980s, we saw a great development as World Vision had constructed a borehole about 1 mile from my grandfather’s house. When we went again, the borehole had broken down, and my grandmother used to say, ‘The World Vision borehole has broken down. We have gone back to draw water from the dam.’ These two lived experiences facilitated me to explore the factors that influence the maintenance of boreholes.”
Knowledge to Action
In July 2015, Dr. Beatrice Chisenga and Dr. Greg Bixler just happened to be at the same conference at Loughborough University in England, the 38th International Water, Engineering and Development Center Conference.
After hearing Beatrice present her PhD research on how the government and NGOs can improve water supply in rural communities, Greg introduced himself and shared with her the mission of Design Outreach.
“She seemed really interested in what we were doing,” Bixler said. “I just had a gut feeling. How many people have left the village and done (what she’s doing)? It’s just amazing.”
Their initial connection led to a series of Skype conversations and the development of “a high level of trust,” Bixler says.
As a result of those conversations, Beatrice became Design Outreach’s African Field Director and is now serving as liaison between Design Outreach and the local Malawi government in a joint effort to provide improved water access for rural communities—specifically, the LifePump in Malawi and beyond.
Designed to reach depths of up to 325 feet, more than twice that of other hand pumps, the LifePump is a robust, ergonomic hand pump that makes pumping water efficient, reliable and easy for everyone—from young children to pregnant women to the elderly.
Based on a progressive cavity design, the LifePump produces water almost immediately and is still working reliably more than two years after installation in some communities. Because some traditional hand pumps are known to fail after as little as six months of continuous use, the LifePumps’s durability is crucial.
While the pump’s resilience is critical for long-term impact, the Design Outreach team also understands the importance of providing a sustainable solution through proper maintenance training and a readily available supply chain.
“Design Outreach is focusing on a very critical priority problem at an international and in-country level,” Beatrice says. “Improvement of technical capacity and the supply chain is very important. Most NGOs aren’t even involved in the supply chain. If pumps break down, there’s no spare parts. Design Outreach is interested in improving the supply chain.”
Dr. Beatrice Chisenga’s childhood is proof that a long-lasting solution is needed to prevent debilitating illness, provide opportunities for children to attend school and begin to break the cycle of poverty, particularly in the rural communities that are so close to her heart.
“Providing a sustainable LifePump is actually a great thing for the rural areas, improving their lives,” she says. “The pump is more durable and has a greater lifespan than ordinary pumps, and the fact that they have come up with a pump that can retrieve water up to 100 meters (325 feet) is a great asset.” Beatrice believes she has the knowledge and skills to help the Lifepump project excel in different countries by negotiating for sustainable project management principles, which encompass a bottom-up community-based management approach as proposed by UNDP.
Thanks to Dr. Beatrice Chisenga’s understanding of Malawian culture and the inner workings of the government, as well as her web of connections in her country, she is in the process of negotiating with the government for the LifePump inclusion and possible consideration of standardization at country level. “This could be the beginning of policy negotiations and strategy for introduction of the LifePump standardization in Malawi and beyond.’ according to Bixler, “that would open the door for hundreds of pumps in Malawi alone very soon.”
Beatrice says she has always been motivated to use her knowledge of improving world water access to change the story for countless people in her native land.
Now, without question, she is.
Reflecting on her story—both the trials and triumphs over devastating illness and a male-dominated culture—Beatrice sees God’s hand at work in her life. “I was very down that I failed to (meet the requirements) for the teaching degree, but when I look back, I feel it was God’s perfect plan,” she says. “It was in 1981 when I was assured that Jesus died and saved me as a person. Since then, I have been persuaded to imagine that God had a purpose for my life, especially that I escaped death in Kacheche.”
Perhaps now, because of Beatrice’s story and the work of Design Outreach, children in rural Malawi will be influenced to have the energy and health necessary to dream big, to study hard, and to live a life drastically different than those who went before them.
Perhaps now they can find their ticket to a better life through a sustainable supply of safe drinking water provided by innovative, durable technology such as the LifePump.