March 27, 2012
Let's Have Class Outside Today: Microfinance in Malawi
Posted by Christine Hurt

This semester, I taught Law and Microfinance with a "study tour" component, which meant that over Spring Break, we would have class in Malawi, a small, landlocked country in sub-Saharan Africa. We left on Thursday, March 15, and returned on Sunday, March 25. Over this week, I will post on some of the substantive things that we did there, but first I thought I would get some of the questions I've received this semster out of the way.

1. Who paid for this? In a nutshell, everyone paid for themselves. When students registered for the course, they paid a course fee, and the cost of the trip was the fee. This, of course, was an estimate, and if the cost of the trip went over, we had to find the money from somewhere else. Our trip may come under budget, in which case the students may receive a refund. I paid my way out of my development budget, and I found program/grant money for the other two administrators, our Dean of Students and a geologist.

2. Was it expensive? Yes. The airfare from Chicago (or any other nearby city) to Blantyre, Malawi is not cheap. The rest of the trip's expenses (hotel, food, etc.) were very low, but we couldn't get past the $2400 transportation bill.

3. How did you pick the students? I didn't. Students who were interested in the course signed up, then there was a lottery to pick 16 students. Once the 16 were chosen, then the students had to irrevocably agree to be in the class and not drop. Even though students knew this from the beginning, many chose not to agree after being chosen. So, many who went were on the waitlist.

4. How did you prepare for the trip? Very carefully. Our class met for two hours a week prior to the trip to cover the basic economics of microfinance and legal structures for microfinance generally and also in Africa. Also, once a week for five weeks we met over lunch to discuss nonmicrofinance parts of the trip. We talked about what to pack, learned a little Chichewa, and heard from local groups that had been to Malawi for various governmental and philanthropic reasons. Also, each student had to do research and present on a Malawi-specific topic, including food, weather, religion, politics, economy, etc.

5. Why Malawi? First, because I have been there twice recently. The first time I went, I knew that I wanted to bring students to see the country. Second, because Malawi is fertile ground for microfinance, and microfinance institutions have grown in number and concentration in just the two and a half years that I have been going there. When we talk about microfinance, we talk about "the poorest of the poor" who live day to day on very little, in rural, remote villages. That's Malawi. India and Bangladesh are also noted hotspots for microfinance, but I know Malawi.

6. Why go at all? From presenting my research on microfinance, I find that even very intelligent academics begin their analysis of microfinance with assumptions about the way subsistence economies work that are just wrong. I guess "naive" is a better word, but "wrong" works also. So, the students not only got to talk to real microborrowers, they also got to walk the 4.5 miles that a villager would have to walk to go to the bank. And drive the 15 miles that a different farmer would have to go to get to the main road to go to the bank. And, our students got stuck in the mud twice at the "end" of the rainy season. They saw how far villagers go each day to get water, and tried to carry water (on their heads) that far once. And, they saw exactly what "the poorest of the poor" means.

7. What was in it for you? This is tough! I quickly realized that this trip was the students' trip, not mine. Beforehand, I warned the students to finish the sentence, "If I pay all this money and go all the way to Malawi and do not _____________, then I will be disappointed." I told them that if they filled the blank in with anything other than "learn more about microfinance" or "learn more about subsistence economies," then they shouldn't go. For the professor, I don't think I should try this unless I fill in the blank with "show my students something about microfinance or subsistence economies." Obviously, the trip was a lot of work -- making arrangements, designing the course, preparing the students, etc. Much more than just teaching a class. And, it was very stressful. But, I think it was worth it. Teaching on the fly is pretty amazing -- I felt like Socrates, walking along a dirt road with students asking me questions about what we had just seen or what we were going to see next. Pretty cool.

8. Was it hard? Yes. Malawi is a difficult country to get to and get around. There isn't much infrastructure and it was hard to make appointments beforehand. Email is iffy and phone service is pricey. Coming up with a schedule before we left and then maintaining the schedule was nervewrecking. I cursed professors who took their students to Paris or Tokyo. It's also hard being a professor 24/7 for 10 days. The Study Abroad office gave me some written materials, and I kept remembering this one sentence: "How would your patience and sense of humor hold up when things do not go right?" Things rarely go as planned in Malawi. The students made up a phrase the first day: "TIA!" (Translation: This is Africa.) I have to admit my patience and sense of humor held up for 7 days, but on the 7th day, I hit a wall. Thankfully, I had two other administrators who could take over and let me take a breather.

9. Will you do it again? This is a complicated question. Generally, the answer is yes. Would I do some things differently? Of course. However, the political situation in Malawi has become tense over the past year. I'm not sure what the future holds for next year, or the elections of 2014. I hope that I continue to be able to take students back to Malawi, so I watch with hopeful optimism.

10. What did you learn? I learned that my students are very impressive. In our first meeting with an MFI, the students started asking questions, and the banker perceptibly had to stop, switch gears and move into "real questions" mode. I was very proud of my students. They also went with the flow very well. They rarely complained about anything, even though our transportation and sometime lodging left a lot to be desired. One of my students never got her luggage. She never, ever complained. I also learned that the best learning moments are completely unplanned. We talk about "teachable moments," but let me tell you, we had them coming at us hard and fast.

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