Of course it seems that all these “joys” I’ve mentioned are just obstacles, but the actual joy comes from overcoming these obstacles. Like the time we searched far and wide for the house of Area Mechanic- Benjamin Chaula. When we finally found his home after many wrong turns through the endless maize and tobacco fields, he greeted us with a big smile, and told us that we should go back to his shop where he kept his activity records. We had already passed by his shop much earlier that day during our search for him.
While we waited for him to get his bicycle and to get changed out of his farming clothes, one of his wives served us boiled sweet potatoes and roasted corn. After our tasty rural Malawian snacks, we were ready to head back to his shop. The translator and I rode the motorbike while we followed Benjamin on his bicycle. It wasn’t exactly a short distance to go, and about half-way along his bicycle suddenly ran into problems.
Without the slightest hesitation the man hoped off his bicycle and started running with it. He stopped at a hut along the path to try a quick repair for his bike, which seemed so worn out that I wondered how it was even being held together at all. With a really sketchy borrowed wrench, and about 15min of effort he managed to get the back wheel to turn so that it would be easier for him to push along as he ran.
After that we drove ahead of him along a shortcut that he recommended. The shortcut led us to a small ravine that seemed impossible to cross with the motorbike. We managed to walk the motorbike across on a single wobbly plank of wood just as Benjamin was catching up to us, still running with his bicycle, and still with a huge smile on his face.
Interviewing star Area Mechanic Benjamin Chaula at his hardware shop. (Translator holding question sheet)
The man had food served for us, left his farm-work on zero notice, broke his bicycle, and probably ended up running a few kilometers, just so he could answer our questions in the most complete way possible. After all of our own struggles to find him and then make it back to his shop, it was really inspiring to see that he was so eager and willing to put in so much of his own effort to talk to us, with absolutely nothing for him to gain from it.
And so all obstacles were overcome and it felt really good. We finished all our questions with plenty of time to get home before dark, and even heard some funny stories about how some villagers had yelled at Benjamin when he tried to tell them that their pump was broken.
Later that week when visiting the village in question, we found that their side of the story was quite different from the one we had heard from Benjamin. The real-life rural Malawian he-said, they-said drama further added to the “joy” of our encounter with only one of the Area Mechanics.
I’ve now finished all my Area Mechanic field research, including meeting 24 mechanics and about 30 villages. I now have the task of analyzing all the results. I’ll hopefully be able to come up with some useful conclusions about specific habits and mindsets of successful Area Mechanics. Good habits and mindsets that can be passed on to other mechanics, and have a positive lasting effect on the important work they are doing. But it will most likely be “The Joys of EWB Field-Work” that will have the most lasting impression on me.