Archive for October, 2008

Seeing the world on two feet.

October 29, 2008

I had quite the little Lilongwe-on-foot adventure today, as I had a lunch meeting at City Centre (the new downtown – basically where all the NGOs and development agencies are). Now, Lilongwe is a sleepy little town, but it’s fairly sprawling. For a town that really only became a city after the capital was moved here in the 1970s, you would think a little city planning could have taken place – not so. According to the gmap pedometer, it was about a 4 mile round trip and during the heat of the day, which made my adventure a little less pleasant. (Frozen midwesterners: it was 90 here today.) The whole adventure made me miss the compactness and grid pattern of DC.

Now, I live in a nice neighborhood, but it’s a little suburban. Since I do not yet have a car, and since other people in this neighborhood all have their own, my primary transport option is my own two feet. I didn’t really how hilly the town was until I was walking it, but actually, I did pretty well. I didn’t miss any turns and I didn’t get lost. On the way back from City Centre, I encountered a minibus and decided to try it. I asked if they dropped in Area 10, and the door man said yes, so I got in. Unfortunately, I should have been more specific (or known more about the bus routes) because it DID drop me in Area 10 – but the opposite corner from where I needed to be. So my 50 kwatcha ride cut MAYBE 5 minutes out of my walking time – I just had to walk home from a different direction. Fortunately, since I had toured the entire neighborhood trying to find my house on Sunday, I knew where I was and made it without incident.

My lunch meeting was actually really helpful, if a little random. Basically, while looking for contacts with organizations who work on crop diversification, I kept coming across this Canadian woman’s blog, so I eventually emailed to ask for help. She’s very nice (I hear this is true of most Canadians, former roommate notwithstanding) and it was great to talk to another woman, as most people I converse with here are men. It seems like there might be some volunteer opportunities for me with her organization (which is basically the development arm of the Catholic Church of Malawi, as far as I can tell). She mentioned a particular need for the development of policy documents – something I might actually be qualified to do! After we finished lunch, she took me by her office – which was on my way back home – and I met a few of the staff members.

While I was out and about, my roommate called to ask if I was home. Our washing machine is malfunctioning and someone was supposed to come to fix it…last week. I told him I’d be home in a hour. Three hours later, no one has yet arrived to make the repairs. (At least this is not a problem unique to Malawi.) It was probably good that I came home when I did, though, because we had a little mini-monsoon this afternoon. The sun was still shining when the downpour started. The rain cooled things a little, but now that it’s stopped, I’m sure things will warm up. I sat on my veranda during the rain and saw all sorts of wildlife: little tiny lizards flitting about, teal birds in the yard, and a bigger lizard (forearm-sized) climbing one of our trees. I’m not sure if I see more animals here because there are more, or because I didn’t really sit outside much at Bunda.

I will pretend this post has a coherent theme by ending with a few photos of my new digs.

This is the the living room and bedroom part of the house (complete with veranda). The kitchen, dining room, and carport are on the other side, perpendicular to this part.

This was taken out the living room window during the monsoon, looking toward the carport.

Part of my jungle-like yard.

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The big move

October 28, 2008

Since I arrived in Malawi, I’ve been staying in a guest house on Bunda’s campus.  On Sunday, I moved to a shared house in Lilongwe, the capital.  Mid-range housing is hard to find here, and I am fortunate to have found not only a space in a nice house, but also housemates, with some internet sleuthing and a fairly small amount of effort.  The atmosphere is different here in several ways, both good and bad, but I am happy to return to some of the conveniences of modern life:  internet access from home, hot water, a microwave and a washing machine.

Between a Saturday nightclub outing with a few Bunda students and my Sunday move, last weekend was an eventful one.  Coupled with my inability to sleep in strange places (and my lack of a mosquito net at this new place), my Monday was mostly spent organizing and relaxing.  Word to the wise:  staying up until 4 AM the night before a move is probably ill-advised.  My packing technique was haphazard at best, and in the end I just swept everything from my desk into a grocery bag.  (I suppose these things matter more when you’re moving a distance or have more than half a carload of stuff.)

My first driving experience was making this move, and I’m happy to report that I didn’t injure anyone or any goat.  I actually didn’t find the experience as disorienting as I expected (they drive on the left here), though I kept turning on the windshield wipers instead of my turn signal.  Since it was Sunday, traffic was pretty light and I got to the right area without incident.  Finding the house, however, was another story.  I called my housemate, but he misunderstood exactly where I was and gave me the wrong directions – so I ended up seeing pretty much the whole neighborhood.  Eventually I found the right street, only to realize that house numbers here don’t go in order – they’re chronlogical, I guess according to when each house was built.  After some wandering, I found the right one.

Anyway, I am now installed at my new house.  It’s enormous and currently only minimally furnished.  At least my DC apartment was small and I had Craigslist to help me with furniture!  I will have two roommates, though only one of them is here currently.  Both are guys in their 20s; one is from Princeton and the other from Holland.  I like the Dutchman very much, and we’ve had discussions of getting chickens and planting a garden, so I think we’ll get along just fine.  It will be nice to live with people who are also learning to navigate Malawian culture!  I’m planning to begin Chichewa lessons (with this housemate) later this week.

The house itself has a very large yard (surrounded by a wall) and lots of trees.  I think I’ve seen more birds here than I had seen at Bunda, but I’m not sure why.  (No monkeys, though.)   The house is one story, and laid out in a way that I find strange – though I suppose perhaps it was designed with security in mind, as the bedrooms can be sealed off from the rest of the house.  Property crimes can be a problem here, especially since it’s a relatively affluent neighborhood, and the house comes with an alarm system.  It has a fireplace and nice veranda (maybe it’s a patio, but veranda sounds better); in other words, it’s nicer than anywhere I could afford to live in the US.  I’d say it was bulit in the 70s, judging from the color of the bathroom fixtures, though it’s a little hard to tell.  It seems like a lot of the doors, screens, etc., don’t fit very well, and all the locks here use skeleton keys (though that was true of Bunda as well, so I’m not sure if it’s an indication of age or culture).

The house is owned by some Zimbabweans, and the whole rental situation is a little ill-defined (some might say sketchy), but I guess that’s how things work here.  (The agent told my housemate not to worry about rent until November, and he’s been living here a couple weeks.)  I’m not sure who we call for maintenance needs.  This intrepid writer managed to fix the (handheld) shower yesterday morning, but can’t be expected to fix everything with only her Leatherman!

There seem to be more mosquitoes here than at Bunda, and I’m being eaten alive.  Some of the screens on the windows are torn and I’ve been spending more time sitting outside, both of which are probably contributing factors to the bites that cover my legs and arms.  I currently have a particularly itchy bite between my pinky toe and the next one (ring toe?  what’s your fourth toe called?), which, let me assure you, is a pretty unpleasant.  The swarms didn’t stop me from having a cup of coffee and sitting on the veranda for breakfast, though.  Actually, in the morning with the breeze, it’s not prime biting time.

(Sidenote:  yes, coffee fiends, I have finally found non-instant coffee here.  It’s no Gimme!, but it’s drinkable.)

The funny thing about the area where I’m living is that I can’t see my neighbors; everyone has walls surrounding their property and houses are set back from the street.  I can hear them, though; earlier a car alarm next door was going off (for 30 minutes), which prompted the barking of every single dog in the neighborhood.  I guess if someone was actually stealing it, they weren’t being very quick about it.

Because I haven’t seen them, I’m not entirely sure who my neighbors are.  I took a walk around yesterday, and there were only Malawians on foot.  Perhaps the ex-pats were driving.  Though the house is located in a fairly residential area, there’s a small shopping center within walking distance that contains a coffee shop and a (small, Indian-owned) grocery store, which I think is fantastic.  I haven’t been to the coffee shop yet, but I got some groceries yesterday afternoon; the prices were reasonable and the store well-stocked, though apparently its owners (or maybe Malawians) don’t believe in cheese (the edible kind).

Finally, with less than a week until the election, how could I resist a little political commentary?  I’ll spare you my thoughts on the presidential candidates, though. In this news this morning, I noted the sinking Republican ship and the contrast between those who are still desperately bailing out water (Ted Stevens) and those who managed paddle away long again.  The New Yorker has an interesting article about Chuck Hagel.  My favorite part is this line:

Cheney…said that he believed “in Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment: thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican. But it’s very hard sometimes to adhere to that where Chuck Hagel is involved.”

Nebraskans, I know your considerable charms may be lost on bi-coastal crowd, but with the world’s richest man and good old Chuck, I’d say you’re in good company.

Flowers and trees

October 27, 2008

It’s remarkable how much the flora and fauna here resembles a Dr. Seuss illustration.  When I first arrived, the purple and yellow trees were flowering.  Now, the trees shading the staff parking lot have exploded into bright red blooms, there’s a tree at the guest house with flowers resembling bottle brushes, and every day on my way to campus, I pass a tree full of puffy green pom-poms.  No wonder my eyes have been feeling a little scratchy lately.

The climate here is sub-tropical, and fairly arid at the moment.  There’s quite a bit of irrigating that happens on campus, though, and I have to smile whenever I see a garden of amaryllises (amarylli?) which I have previously known only as a houseplant.  (And, in true college-gardening fashion, they are removed and replaced after blooming.)  At the Bunda Ltd. farm, I saw some thriving roses, though in many places on campus the gardeners water scrubby brown grass in vain.  Some of the more interesting plants are thorny, flowering bushes and a shrub-like specimen with flowers that look just like a vinca.  There are lots of succulent plants here, too, cacti and aloe as well as the occasional palm tree and those bright red, yellow, and green leafy plants, like the one in my mom’s kitchen.  Throw various fruit trees – mango, paw-paw, lemon – in the mix, and it’s quite a sight to see.

Surprisingly, though, it’s hard to get good pictures of these things.  The colors aren’t quite as bright on my camera, and the abundance of plant life creates a visual cacophony when I try to do wide angle shots.  Since it’s spring but not raining yet, the plants are in various stages of growth – some trees are green, some flowering, and some bare, and shurbs are often stick-like in the foreground.  I’ve also had trouble capturing scale – whether it’s my (new) camera, the lighting, or user error, I don’t know.

Here are a few of the photos I’ve been able to get (of varying quality).  Let me know if they’re too small – I’m trying to optimize uploading time.

Visual cacophony!  I took this a few weeks ago when the yellow and purple trees were still in bloom.  Note the cacti in the foreground.

This is the pom-pom tree.  It reminds me of The Lorax.

Don’t the flowers look like bottle brushes?

Amaryllises – blooming outside!

If you don’t find plant life all that interesting (my mom does, and this is her blog), stay tuned for my next post:  moving to town and the conveniences of modern life!

Labor pains (and gratuitous monkey photos!)

October 24, 2008

The guest house got a new house boy this morning; this is the third since I’ve arrived. It’s not so much that they’ve been fired, but rather, shuffled, I think. Early this morning, I heard the other woman who lives here talking to someone in English. The previous (number 2 of 3) house boy spoke very little English – I would say “Good morning,” and he would say, “Fine, how are you?” – so I ventured out of my room to find out what was happening. Lo and behold, it was a new house boy. This one speaks very good English, actually, and even asked me if my room was okay. If I weren’t planning to move this weekend, I would have been very pleased.

Though hiring help is quite common here, I still find it a little uncomfortable. My soon-to-be housemates were asking my opinion on hiring someone to clean and do laundry. Labor is cheap here, and I suppose, depending on how you value your own time and labor, perhaps it is cheaper to hire someone to wash the dishes than to do it yourself. Still, the Protestant-work-ethic part of me rebels against the idea. I told said housemates that I would go along with whatever they wanted, but would probably clean my own room and do my own laundry (because the don’t-touch-my-stuff part of me rebels against the idea, too). No word yet on the final decision.

I’m not sure WHY hiring house staff is so common here; is it the combination of low-cost labor and lazy people with money? Is it that labor is so much cheaper than appliances, so you hire a dishwasher instead of buying one? Is there a compelling argument to be made about the importance of Westerners/people with money contributing to the local economy? I haven’t figured out all the answers yet.

My week has been relatively boring, hence the lack of blogging. I’ve finished the literature review for my project, drafted my survey tool, and am currently in the process of scouring the internet for Malawian crop diversification projects sponsored by donor agencies. Unfortunately, most of these donor agencies don’t bother to list contact info for the projects, so I may have my work cut out for me in terms of tracking all these people down. It’s not yet clear to me if I’ll be able to email or if I’ll have to call. Phone calls are absurdly expensive, so I hope it’s the former – or at least that calling won’t lead to a US-style automated maze of options, none of which apply to me.

Instead of rambling on, I will leave you with some more photos; these are from around campus.  (They’re also being stretched funnily, but after an hour of messing with this post, I can’t figure out why.)

This is Bunda mountain, namesake for the college. It’s actually larger than it looks in this photo (about 1,000 feet up); there are some funny things going on with depth perception due to the plants in the foreground. There is a tentative plan to hike it sometime soon; after the rains start, the snakes come out. I’ve also heard rumours that this is where the killer hyenas live (long story for another time), so I’m not planning to climb it alone.

This is the cafeteria, used by undergraduates only. I haven’t been inside, but it looks pretty nice. The building is a relatively recent addition to the campus. I’m not sure when it was built, but one of the “mature” students was telling me that a different building was the cafeteria when he was here in the 90s. Though the students complain about the food, my housemate was explaining that it’s actually a very good deal for the students; the government feeds them three times a day, which is not generally the case. (The educational system is highly subsidized by the government here – more about that at another time, too.)

This is supposed to be a women’s hostel, still under construction. I haven’t actually seen anyone working on it (though to be fair, it’s not really on my regular route around campus), but I thought the scaffolding was photo-worthy.

Finally, a gratuitous monkey photo. The composition isn’t great, but this is the fence around the guest house. How many monkeys can you spot?

Rated PG: In which Amy tries the local brew

October 21, 2008

I’m not sure that I have emphasized enough how much of Malawian life revolves around corn.  Corn is the staple food of the Malawian diet, not in the abstract way that corn is at the center of the American diet (in your beef, in your soda, in your Doritos), but in a corn-for-every-meal way.  Corn is consumed in various forms here, but the most common is nsima, a thick dough made of ground corn flour and water.  A big block of nsima comes with most meals in Malawian restaurants.  (Thankfully, they also usually offer rice as an alternative.)  You eat it with your hands: break off a piece, roll it into a ball, and use it to sop up whatever else is on your plate – some vegetable relishes, and meat if you’re lucky.  The taste and texture is a little like plain grits, or maybe corn meal mush (as far as I can recollect from the one time my mom made corn meal mush), though the corn is ground more finely and they only grow white corn here.  I’ve tried nsima and am not a huge fan, though I imagine it’s an acquired taste.  (I also prefer eating with silverware, since most bathrooms here have neither soap nor any way to dry your hands.)

Corn is the major crop that people grow here, and they grow it on every little bit of land they have.  (As my mom pointed out about the village photo I posted last week, you can see how the furrows go right up to the houses.)  And, as I discovered yesterday, they also drink it.

The local brew here is called Chibuku.  I always laugh when I see it because it comes not in bottles, but in cardboard milk cartons.  (Or, cardboard cartons that I associate with milk cartons; milk here comes in plastic bags if it’s fresh, and those vacumn-packed cartons if it’s long-life.)  The Chibuku trucks are full of milk crates of milk cartons of beer, and it’s hard to twist my associations from milk time in 3rd grade to beer.  Anyway, having received from advance warning, I had been avoiding Chibuku thus far,  but on Sunday, a friend decided that I needed to try it to have a real Malawian experience.  Most people here drink it warm (well, at room temperature, but when it’s 90 degrees out, that’s warm), but he suggested that I try putting it in the refrigerator first.  I brought it home and put it in the fridge.  I showed it to my housemate, and she had never tried it, either, so we had a little drinking adventure together last night.

The carton says “shake, shake,” so we did.  The main ingredient is corn, though it also (according to the carton) contains soybeans, sorghum, yeast, and water.  As far as I can tell, it’s all sort of ground up and thrown in there together.  There’s no alcohol content listed on the carton, because it continues to ferment as you let it sit.  I opened the milk carton cautiously, not sure what I should expect to find.  I didn’t expect to find something that LOOKS LIKE MILK – but Chibuku does.  It’s white, and sort of creamy, but with little brown specks in it (who knows what those are).  It’s not smooth, but like very thin Cream of Wheat, or baby cereal.

Having inspected it visually, we moved on to the taste test.  I optimistically poured myself a quarter glass, took a drink, and…made a terrible face.  My housemate almost fell over laughing at me.  She tried it and wasn’t as put off – but she’s Zambian and loves her nsima, too.  She didn’t drink much, either, but thought that maybe she would try it over the weekend.  If you like to get drunk off of thin, bitter porridge, I guess Chibuku is for you.  My housemate explained that it’s actually very healthy, and that pregnant women drink it, mixed with milk, to have big, strong babies.  I remain skeptical.

To be fair, the second drink was a little better than the first – the bitterness wasn’t so abrasive – and I guess if you keep drinking, after a while you don’t realize what it tastes like anyway.  (I didn’t reach this point, having stopped after two tastes.)  The main appeal, though – especially for the college students – is the price; a liter of Chibuku costs K65 (~ 50 cents).  I would think that you might get full before you would get drunk, but maybe that’s part of the appeal for poor Malawians: it’s eating and drinking at the same time.  And now, I’ll leave you with a (slightly blurry) illustration:

Looks like milk from here!

Looks like milk from here!

Aid dependency and everyday life

October 20, 2008

Official development assistance to Malawi about $35 per capita annually (this, in a country where the gross national income is $170).  ODA only accounts for bilateral and multilateral transfers of money between governments; money flowing in through NGOs and non-profits bumps this number up a little higher.  And yet, has any country ever developed because of development aid?  I haven’t been here long, and I haven’t seen everything that development has to offer, obviously, but I am becoming increasingly doubtful that aid actually builds capacity to govern or to “develop.”  In other words, development agencies are not very good at putting themselves out of a job.  The problems of aid dependency range from large scale to minute.  While I know about some of the societal problems (the classic example being the erosion of the social compact between government and citizens, as government is more accountable to donor agencies/foreign governments than to its own people), most of what I’ve experienced is at the individual level.

I’ve gotten used to children demanding “give me money!” but the first time a guard on campus asked me, I was taken aback.  “Madam,” he said.  “Yes?”  “Give me 50 kwacha!”  Um, no.  I was even more surprised when a similar exchange took place between the house boy (who is actually probably in his 30s) and me last week.  While I understand that attitudes toward money are different here than in the US – namely, that the less fortunate have some sort of right to be shared with – I was frustrated and a little annoyed by the exchange.

It’s not that 50 kwacha is really that much – 35 cents – but to give it would 1) not solve the problem, 2) encourage this sort of behavior in general, and 3) open the floodgates for these requests from others on campus (I’m pretty identifiable).  To be fair, it was a rare occasion when I gave the homeless in DC any of my change for pretty much the same reasons.  Only in the event of a specific request (something to eat, subway fare for getting to New York Ave) could my pursestrings be loosened; the general shaking of one’s Subway cup in my direction was completely ignored.

Mostly, though, I was annoyed (probably in the typical American way) by the sense of entitlement by each of the askers had – the requests were more demands.  Has the influx of development aid into Malawi made Malawians view all foreigners as banks?  Who encourages this behavior?  Obviously someone has.  I understand that wages here are low and that jobs aren’t plentiful, but I can’t shake my Protestant work ethic and pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality.  The houseboy, for example, isn’t doing hard labor and though I appreciate his work, if I come home at an unexpected time (say, 10:30 AM), more likely than not he, the guard, and at least two of his friends will be sitting in the living room watching TV.  Further, until he notifies the appropriate authorities that my hot water has been out for the past 2 weeks (and gets them to fix it), I’m not particularly inclined to provide him with additional compensation.

I have no solutions, no great revelations here – I’m just whining.  On the upside, I successfully obtained a visa (so I can stay here legally) today, my absentee ballot has finally arrived (and you know you’re from a small town when your neighbor puts a sticky note inside wishing you well), and I just got back a really helpful email from a shot-in-the-dark contact.  And I promise the next post will be more coherent!

Travels, beaches, not sweet corn

October 17, 2008

First things first: I watched the final US Presidential debate last night (about 15 hours after the rest of you).  Given some of the commentary I had read, I was expecting to see a little more aggression.  Rather than going for the jugular, it seemed like there was a little tapping on the jugular’s door.  But I digress.  I doubt I have anything to say that some commentator hasn’t already said, but I thought Obama looked Presidential and McCain looked uncomfortable like a little boy in the principal’s office.  I didn’t find myself truly annoyed until the education question, though, which I thought McCain bungled royally, starting with saying we have acheived educational equality in America.  I was also annoyed with the attacks on “eloquence,” but I will spare you the relinking of the Aaron Sorkin column.

Now, here’s what’s happening in Malawi.  I traveled both Tuesday and Wednesday to “help” (if you use the term loosely) with some data collection.  The game plan changed about six times, but we ended up just dropping surveys with three different agricultural district offices.  (The surveys are to examine the training needs of agricultural extension agents and will be completed and returned.)

On Tuesday, we traveled north of Lilongwe, first to Ntchisi (in the east) and then to Mchinji (right next to the Zambian border).  The drive was mostly flat, and between Ntchisi and Mchinji (in the central region) most of the land is in estates, meaning the area is relatively unpopulated.  The estates are owned (according to the Malawian students in the car) by relatives/comrades of the first elected leader after independence, Banda, who fell closer to “dictator” on the political spectrum than “free and openly elected.”  Banda died a while ago, and there is increasing pressure from the citizens for land reform, as the country is small, predominantly agricultural, and densely populated.  For now, however, the land remains in estates.  We arrived in Ntchisi around noon, stopped for lunch somewhere along the way (I can’t remember where and my map is just making me more confused), and finished our visit in the Mchinji office a little after 5 PM.  The drive back to Lilongwe took another couple hours, and we stopped for dinner (supper for some of you) in town before coming back to Bunda.

On Wednesday, the two students took early buses back to their homes (one is from the far south, the other from Salima – west of Lilongwe, along the lake), and the professor and I went to Lilongwe to make copies of the survey and then continued on to Salima.  This drive was through the hills – some might say mountains – and very pretty.  There were lots of small farms and fields prepared for planting, including some on very steep slopes!  I got quite a few photos.  In Salima, we met with the student and gave him the surveys, then stopped by his house to meet his family.  (He’s an older student who has worked for Ministry of Agriculture in Salima for several years.)  After we left him, the professor and I continued on to the lake.  Wednesday was Mother’s Day in Malawi, and the beach was a busy place.  I didn’t have my swimming suit but did some wading.  The water was really clear, and the weather HOT, so I may have to return there to actually swim sometime.

The beach was really interesting because it was a microcosm of Malawi class system.  The first beach we went to is privately owned by the Sunbird hotel chain and we had to pay to enter.  It was fairly developed, with cottages along the water, a couple bars, bathrooms, etc.  At the far end of this beach was another tiny beach, separated by barbed wire.  That, a hotel employee explained, is the public beach, demanded by the local population, but kept carefully separate from the paying clientele.  We walked down to the barbed wire, but it went out under water for a little ways and was successful deterring us from crossing.  Obviously, there were no ammenities in sight.  The third beach was on the other side of a rocky point, and getting there required driving down a couple dirt roads.  Though cars entered through a hotel parking lot, it was free, and a mix of people were present, ranging from local women washing their dishes in the lake to wealthier, vacationing Malawians.  There were several hotels along this stretch of beach, though they were not as classy in appearance as the Sunbird.  There were a bars and such associated with the hotels, but they were further from the water and not as “nice” as those on the Sunbird beach.  Still, the atmosphere was much more laid back and it seemed like a nice place to chill out.  The afternoon was fading, though, so we didn’t stay long.

On the way back to Lilongwe, we stopped to buy some mangoes.  The season varies throughout the country, but the student from Salima assured us that this was the best time for mangoes there.  I got a big grocery bag of mangoes – maybe 6 or 8 pounds – for K100, or about 75 cents.  They’re not ripe yet, but I’m excited to try them in the next few days.

Thursday morning I went to the farm on campus, because I had heard rumors of dressed chickens for sale.  They didn’t have any chicken at the moment, unfortunately, but I was convinced to try some corn – immature field corn, not sweet corn.  The field corn they grow here is white, and softer than the yellow #2 grown in the US.  Still, my hopes for a sweet corn-like product were dashed.  I boiled an ear for dinner, and though I boiled it for a while, it was still a little tough to chew and very starchy.  I’m not sure if I will make it through the other five ears I have or not.

An electricity outage thwarted my plans to actually accomplish something yesterday, but I have high hopes for today.  I’ll leave you with a few photos from my travels.

Taken out the window of the car, these are traditional houses.

Taken out the window of the car, these are traditional houses.

This is the beach at Salima; all the people were on the non-rocky parts.

This is the beach at Salima; all the people were on the non-rocky parts.

This is where we stopped to buy mangoes.  The big pile in the center of the photo was the one I picked.

This is where we stopped to buy mangoes. The big pile in the center of the photo was the one I picked.

Further thoughts on sustainable food systems

October 13, 2008

(My road trip got pushed back until tomorrow, which gave me time to write this…)

Sunday’s NYT magazine this week was the “Food Issue,” and prominently featured an article by Michael Pollan about what the next president should do to reform the food and agriculture system in America.  He’s rather long-winded, but the basic gist is that food policy should be resolarized (instead of petroleum-based fertilizer and chemicals, farmers should use longer, more diverse rotations, cover cropping, etc), reregionalized (farmers markets, local meat inspection, federal procurement policies) and reculturized (sit at the table with your family and eat).  Pollan ends with a call for a back to the land movement, starting on the White House lawn and ending up in gardens and small farms across America.

Now, I generally like Michael Pollan – even though he says the same things over and over – and I think he’s done a lot to bring a conversation about sustainable food systems to mainstream Americans.  I also think that his basic premises make sense, even though they would be politically impossible to achieve in Congress (no matter if Obama or McCain is president).  Still, I couldn’t help but find the whole thing a little ironic:  Malawi has what Pollan wants for America (smallholder farmers producing most of their own food), but wants nothing more than an export-oriented agricultural sector.  Americans (or at least those left-wing radicals I hang out with) want to know their farmers and buy fresh, local produce, or even grow their own.

I don’t think that Pollan is advocating for 80 percent of the American population to return to the land (as in Malawi), but he does make the fundamental assumption that staple processed foods will be available to supplement those things you grow in your garden or buy from the farm stand.  This is a question that Malawi struggles with, as well, on a different scale:  Malawian farmers produce most of their own corn, but, depending on the year, not all of it.  What do you do when fresh and local doesn’t produce enough?

As much as I like fresh peaches from my farmers market, they’re only around for a few weeks a year.  I suppose I could can them, if I first mined the how-to info from my mom, but my DC apartment had neither the space nor the infrastructure (ie, a canner and glass jars, a robust air flow system) to do so.  And let’s face it – most Americans don’t have moms who spend late summer putting up food for the winter, so getting that information AND performing the task is probably a little out of reach for the majority.  THIS is what I think Pollan is missing, not a treatise on the virtue of the canner, but a discussion of how to promote small and mid-sized processing enterprises that would actually make local, decentralized food systems possible.  The irony is that this same discussion is one of the things that’s missing in Malawi, too.

Foods available in Malawian grocery stores largely come from outside Malawi.  I can’t think of any processed food item that I’ve seen that comes from inside Malawi, except maybe bread, which is baked fresh at the store.  Malawi is also a net importer of wheat, so it’s not even clear that the ingredients for the bread didn’t come from outside the country.  There’s also some Malawian hot sauce, and I’ve seen a few juice and dairy products that are produced internally, but the vast majority of processed foods are transported in.  Malawi is also landlocked and lacks good roads, which means the cost of transportation to bring processed foods in – mainly from South Africa, but also through Mozambique and Tanzania – is quite high.  By way of illustration, I paid $2.50 for a 16 oz can of tomatoes at the grocery store here, and I used to buy a 32 oz can at Whole Foods – WHOLE FOODS – for $1.39.  Malawi produces tomatoes, nice ones, so why is there no infrastructure for processing them in country?

I’ve back my argument into a corner, because I don’t know the answer.  The whole thing has made me curious if anyone here at Bunda is working on small or mid-scale processing, though.  I’m not an economist, but given the abundance of underemployed workers here and food safety regulations that I assume are not as strict and/or idiosyncratic as in the US, it seems like a potentially untapped opportunity for growth with fairly low barriers to entry.  Sure, many Malawians exist outside the realm of grocery stores, but a growing urban population – combined with increasing land pressures that ensure the urban population will only continue to grow – make this a growing market.  While I realize that start-up costs may be more here than in the US, wouldn’t it be nice if some donor agency supplied, instead of maize seeds and a bag of fertilizer, a market for adding value to smallholder produce?

Many parts of the agriculutural systems in Malawi and the US are really incomparable, but I feel like I may have found some common ground here – even if it is a common ground on which both countries struggle.

Rainy days and Mondays

October 13, 2008

The rainy season isn’t supposed to start until November, but I experienced my first Malawian rain on Saturday – and my second on Sunday.  Unfortunately, I chose Sunday to do laundry, so I ended up wringing out some of my clothes a second time.  (There’s an overhang that I thought covered the clotheslines, but turns out it only covers one of the two.)  The rains here are (so far) heavy but relatively short; it thundered a little Saturday night, but not on the same scale as summer thunderstorms in Iowa.  And though Norah Jones may want to wake up with the rain falling on the tin roof, I find it pretty loud and annoying.  (All the roofs here are tin, and there’s a ceiling in my room, but there’s not much (if any) insulation between the ceiling and the roof.

The upside of the rain is that it cooled the weather significantly, and I had a very pleasant jog around campus on Sunday.  The downside (besides my damp laundry strewn across my room) is the promised explosion of the mosquito population.

The undergrad students are off for a week-long break, so campus was pretty quiet this weekend.  The library was closed – not that they bothered to post this information – so if you’re owed an email, I’m not just neglecting you.  Happily, I’ve started making friends here.  On Friday, a couple students approached me in the library to introduce themselves, and I spent time this weekend hanging out with some of the first-year Master’s students.  (Hey Mom, is there an apostrophe if you’re using Master’s as an adjective?) Most of them worked for a few years between their undergrad and Master’s degrees, so they are a little older than me, but in their 20s.  On Saturday, they introduced me to some Malawian cooking.  The staple vegetables here seem to be tomatoes, onions, and greens.  We had those mixed with mince (which is, as far as I can tell, seasoned ground beef) and rice.  It was pretty tasty, and nice to eat with other people, too.  Two of the boys cooked for me, and kept apologizing because “boys don’t cook in Malawi” and they’re just learning.  Their uncertainty reminded me a lot of living with Andrew, though it was the other girl in the kitchen, not me, bossing them around.

One student in particular has made it his job to introduce me to people and help me make friends.  He even accompanied me to town on my first minibus trip, because I was concerned about going by myself.  The whole getting-to-know-people experience has made me wonder if students in the US would as readily reach out to international students, and I’m not sure.  I suppose part of it is because I’m pretty easily identifiable – the only white girl on campus – which would not be the case at US school.  In general, I really like the students here, and I’m glad to get to know some of them better.

I also discovered what Malawians do on Sundays:  church and then absolutely nothing.  The aforementioned mini-bus trip was to see my potential house in Lilongwe.  We got to town around 3:30 and the main business district was dead.  Even the big grocery store closes at 3:00.  Though there were people around, it was much slower than on a weekday.  The student who went with me was concerned about getting a bus back to campus, though we didn’t have any trouble.

Mini-buses are the primary mode of “public” transport in Malawi, as most people don’t own cars.  Mini-buses are actually privately owned rickety Toyota vans converted to hold as many people as possible (four rows of seats, made of plywood and covered in fake leather – think US school buses, but less plush).  At one point there were 22 people in our mini-bus.  (This was not the point where we passed the police road block, as they frown upon that sort of thing.)  Each bus has a driver and an additional person who watches for passengers, hollers the destination to passers-by, handles the door, and collects the money.  Handling the door can be a lot of work: the sliding door was literally falling off the mini-bus we took to town, and the assistant had to get out at every stop to take it off the track and put it back on.  Honestly, besides the tight quarters and dubious mechanical condition of the vehicles, it was not as bad as I expected.  I had no near-death experiences, and the drivers seemed relatively competent.  No one hassled me (though it probably helped that I had my Chichewa-speaking friend on board).  The ride was slow but if you’re not on a timeline, it’s a relatively inexpensive transit option.  The ride to Lilongwe from Bunda cost K200, and the ride back to Bunda cost K250 (or about $3.25 round trip, and it’s 30 KM each way).  My friend explained that the discrepancy has something to do with a tax that is charged at the bus station, and also that it’s easier to fill the bus going to town than coming from it.  I took his word for it.

Once we actually got to town, another person who will be living in the house of interest picked me up and took me to see the place.  It’s a big house with a big yard and several fruit trees, and it is really quite nice.  It comes partially furnished, which is a definite plus.  I still haven’t met the third housemate, but gave the house a tentative yes.  Though I’m not really looking forward to the commute, it will be nice to have a space of my own (complete with internet, hot water, and washer and dryer), and nice to be in town and close to the action.  (It’s also cheaper than continuing to stay in the guest house here.)  I’m hoping that once my project is underway, I won’t need come to Bunda’s campus every day.  If all goes as planned, my housemates will be two youngish guys – one Dutchman who works on soybeans and one Princetonian who works on HIV/AIDs.  I’m not planning to move in until I figure out the transportation situation, which will hopefully be sometime next week.

I say next week because I’ll be traveling part of this week.  The American professor is using his week off to collect some data in Northern Malawi (with the assistance of a couple students) and asked if I wanted to come along – so I’m going!  The data collection sites are near the lake, and rumour has it that there might be some beach time, too.  I don’t know if I’ll have internet access, but stay tuned, and I’ll post when I can.  Thanks to all of you who have commented/emailed – it’s good to hear from home!

What am I doing here, anyway?

October 10, 2008

So I’ve been in Malawi for three weeks now.  I still feel like things are moving really slowly – particularly on my research project – but I am beginning to get a foothold here.  My accomplishments are small things:  I’ve mastered tying my bed net into a knot without struggling.  I believe I may have found a place to live in town (rather than staying at the college all the time).  I have a few leads on the buying-a-car front, nevermind that I’ve never bought a car before.  I know at least some of the students by name and consulted with a couple of them on their articles for the student magazine.  I’m beginning to get to know professors and staff around campus and I’ve met with the librarian and the Vice Principal.  Maybe by the time I’ve been here 10 months, I’ll actually have a handle on things?

Most of you are probably wondering exactly what I’m supposed to be doing here anyway, and that’s a good question.  After Fulbright awards the fellowship, they don’t actually have many requirements.  I, however, am hoping to conduct research here to use for a Masters degree, or (at the least) to figure out if a Masters degree is the next step.  My proposed project looks at how different development aid schemes affect crop diversification on small farms.  Since I arrived, I’ve been working on completing my literature review, identifying key actors, and preparing to make contact with donor agencies.  I’ve also been reviewing a larger body of literature about food security generally, and food security in Malawi specifically.  I’m contemplating doing some additional research on farmers’ role in policy-making (which seems to be implicit rather than explicit) and the potential role of biotechnology here.  All of this basically means that I’ve been spending a lot of time in the library combing through donor and government PDFs.

I’ve also realized I can’t spend all of my time here working on my research projects, so I’m looking for volunteer opportunities at the college and beyond.  Thus far, I’m involved with the student magazine on campus (as a “special assistant”).  I’m also contemplating the possibility of offering some sort of more formal writing tutor program if one doesn’t exist on campus.  The curriculum here is more test-based than writing-based, and because it’s a science college, it seems like 10 page writing assignments are rare.  Still, if the students are planning to go to grad school, I think brushing up their writing skills may be a useful endeavor.  (Plus, you’d be surprised how much you can get away with if you’re a decent writer.)

The students are on break next week, so I imagine things will be pretty quiet around here.  Some of them stay on campus, I think, but even today the library seems pretty quiet.  I don’t have any exciting plans for the weekend, and Monday is a holiday (Mother’s Day here).  I’m hoping to get to town to check out the house where I’ll potentially be living and perhaps do some car reconnaissance.  Wish me luck on this car thing!