After 3 weeks of coordination, preparation and training, we begin the field mapping exercise this week. Everyone is excited with the upcoming exercise. Armed with new found knowledge on data collection and editing with JOSM, the team along with ~30 Malawian mappers from the academe, national and local government authorities headed south to Chikwawa district to start the first leg of field data collection.
The road from Blantyre to Chikwawa District has a breathtaking view, you can see the Lower Shire Basin.
We focused the mapping on flood prone villages west of the Shire River. The objective is to identify not only village locations and road access but also individual dwellings and village facilities that may be affected by flooding.
During the discussion to determine the Areas of Interest for field data collection.
For each day, half of the group goes on field in 4 teams while the other half does the editing in our mapping HQ. In the morning, the mapping HQ looks like an amenity=marketplace full of noise inspecting the field equipment, debating on the best route to take and assigning team roles for the data collection. At the end of each day, the field teams return tired but satisfied with the day's output of GPS tracks, annotated FieldPapers and several sheets of survey forms. Before we end the day, we review what areas were covered by the field teams and determine where the next team will proceed the next day.
This continued for the rest of the week and, by Friday, we've covered ~10 villages many of whom were very remote and for the first time, these villages became visible to a globally accessible map.
Field work is a very satisfying activity for me as this is the very essence of OpenStreetMapping. On the other hand, the field mapping activity showed the painful realities of the condition of the communities we visited. In all of these areas, poverty is a harsh reality. Many families subsist on whatever they can produce from their land. Social services like health and education are difficult to access. The land is fertile (from the sediments deposited by the Shire River) but lack the infrastructure like irrigation and good roads to facilitate better farming production and efficient transport of goods.
Some encounters during the field data collection.
Amidst these difficulties, we can sense the community spirit in every community we went to. For example, the first village my team visited was completely deserted. Very few people were in their homes. It turned out that one member of the village died and everyone attended the funeral to help the bereaved family in the preparation for the burial ceremonies. This sense of community spirit is very much alive in the rural villages of Malawi. Some teams also experienced the hospitality of the Malawian villagers by sharing nsima and whatever food they can share to the survey team.
Beyond mapping, the field teams shared stories and experiences with the villagers. Their concerns and aspirations may not be reflected in a map, but, the opportunity to talk with the field team (many of whom are government authorities) facilitated a very productive interaction which we hope allowed for the rural communities of Malawi to raise their concern to its government and in the future, for our government authority mappers to become an instrument in directing development initiatives to these rural communities.
This is my last week in Malawi and for a short 3 weeks, I witnessed the rapid growth of the map created by the young but very enthusiastic mappers of Malawi. Big thanks to my team and the whole Malawi OSM community. I will continue supporting our team remotely in the coming weeks.
Photos by Emir Hartato, CC BY-SA