Flaherty’s Fulbright trip to Malawi takes some unexpected turns

November 27, 2017

In November of 2016, SILS Assistant Professor Mary Grace Flaherty was looking forward to traveling to Malawi to fulfill both the research and teaching goals of her Fulbright Award. Her plan to research how people with HIV acquire and evaluate health information sources hit a bureaucratic snag, and when she arrived in January 2017 at Mzuzu University, where she had intended to teach and advise students, the faculty was on strike and classes were canceled.

Disappointed but determined, Flaherty looked for other ways to contribute and soon found opportunities that drew on her extensive background working in academic, medical, health research, and public libraries.

The library at Mzuzu University, or Mzuni for short, burned down in December 2015. Flaherty helped advise a team from the Virginia Tech School of Architecture and Design on service provision and unique considerations for library building design for a new facility.

Flaherty found other libraries in the area to work with. At Mzuzu International Academy, a primary and secondary school for the students in Malawi, the library was filled with books literally coming apart at the seams. Some of the books were completely outdated, covering topics like micro computing from the 1960s. Flaherty said this stems from the belief that any book is better than no book, a policy she is not entirely at peace with.

“I think if you’re going to send books that might fall apart, don’t uses the resources it takes to ship them overseas,” Flaherty said.

She helped rearrange the library and reorganize the bookshelves so even the smallest students could reach titles on the highest shelves. With part of her book stipend from her Fulbright award, she purchased four boxes of books from Scholastic and taught library staff how to create an online catalog, process materials, and add to the library collection. Flaherty also purchased books from the African Books Collective, focusing on Malawian and South African authors so students could see themselves reflected in the literature. Flaherty’s purchases were supplemented with books donated by SILS, in an effort spearheaded by Associate Professor Brian Sturm.

Students noticed the change, with one of them exclaiming, “These look like Africans!” Flaherty said this really, “inculcates this enthusiasm that the library hadn’t been enjoying because it had these yucky, old books.”

With a new library set up for the kids at this school, freshly placed books, and a story time area, Flaherty was onto the next library. This time, one set up by a Scottish woman in the 1950s that serves half a dozen schools in the region. Flaherty focused on scrubbing the floors, getting rid of the old books, and replacing them with new.

Flaherty didn’t only work with libraries, though. The Kwithu Kitchen, a group dedicated to serving food to AIDS orphans, operates as a community hub for the people of Luwinga in Mzuzu. Flaherty and SILS Associate Professor Cliff Missen, who was in Malawi through his role as director of the WiderNet Project, had an idea: set up an information resource center at Kwithu using WiderNet so everyone in the community would have access to more information.WiderNet, also known as the internet in a box, hosts information from educational websites on a local area network (LAN) that does not require an internet connection, a good fit for countries like Malawi, where only about 9% of the population has access to the internet.

“In a class of 50 grad students, I asked how many had used the internet to do research for their master’s theses,” Flaherty recalled. “Only three raised their hands.”

Early in October, the U.S. Embassy approved their application for a Public Diplomacy Small Grant to install WiderNet at Kwithu.

Before Flaherty departed Malawi in June, the strike at Mzuni ended, allowing her to deliver some stand-alone lectures to students on how to access high quality health information.

Flaherty said her trip to Malawi helped her develop human connections with the people of Malawi, despite having to change her plans upon arrival. “I think that information is really important,” Flaherty said. “But behind all of that is the human connection. That’s hard to contrive over Skype with places that don’t have internet.”

-Story by Christen Murphy, SILS Communications & Marketing Assistant