Students for Malawi
Issued: Thu, 20 Oct 2016 11:06:00 BST
Earlier this year I volunteered with the Students for Malawi charity alongside five other students designing and building a two classroom school located in a village called Chisitu in Malawi. I was fortunate to receive an award from the GU68 Engineers Trust which enabled me to be a part of the project and travel to Malawi to construct the school.
Nearly a quarter of a million people were affected by the floods that ripped through Malawi in January 2015, destroying homes and farmland across much of Malawi and Mozambique. Chisitu village, situated in the district of Mulanje, was one of many villages destroyed by the floods. The priority and aim of the project was to support the people of the village to rebuild their community, homes and livelihoods, in an innovative and sustainable way. Schools are an important part of the community and our aim was to provide a comfortable learning environment where children can be taught and locals can gather. Access to sophisticated building materials and techniques are restricted in Malawi and budget limitations mean that generally schools are too hot, dark, and lack community facilities. Moreover, many of the school buildings have broken windows and as a result of this the classrooms are vandalised. Our aim was to overcome these issues through our design to create a comfortable and secure learning environment.
My role as the only Civil Engineering student in the team was to oversee the structural integrity of the building. Additionally, I assisted in the design and also in the selection of appropriate materials and carried out the necessary research on materials and connections. On the construction site it was my job to oversee the execution of drawings, inspect the work being carried out and provide advice to the builders. I also worked along side the labourers making concrete and cement, painting and brick-laying. The inter-disciplinary nature of this project meant that I developed a number of skills, by working with architects, quantity surveyors, builders and local people. These skills include: improved communication, listening to others ideas objectively, effective team work and the ability to express and deliver technical ideas and information in a clear and concise manner. Additionally, I learnt to approach problems with an open and flexible mind. This came from working with people from different backgrounds, cultures, personalities and perspectives.
During the design stage there were many problems to overcome. Initially gabions were going to be used for the walls of the school. Our decision to use gabions was made because they would offer better protection against future floods; however the location of the school was later changed to the top of a hill which would protect it somewhat from floods anyway. We came to the conclusion that too many issues could arise with using gabions, one of which being the weight of them on top of the foundations. After looking into it further the team decided to use clay bricks instead of gabions. Clay bricks are used widely in Malawi therefore they are readily available and inexpensive.
This was a fantastic project to be a part of and it was incredibly satisfying to see the school completed successfully. One of the key reasons I have chosen civil engineering as a career path is because I want to make a positive change in the world and improve people’s lives. Being involved in this project was a rich experience and a fantastic opportunity to design a creative solution and get involved with design and construction work through a real life, humanitarian project; one which is going to have a huge positive impact on people’s lives within the community.