Archive for December, 2008


December 29, 2008

Since several of my recent posts have been of the whine-and-complain variety, I thought I should change my tune a bit today.  While I’m still not ready to write about the things I like about Malawi (though they do exist), a series of recent comments from my housemates has made me realize there are strange things about Malawi that don’t phase me at all.  Confused?  Let me explain.

Malawi, despite its high population density, remains a very rural country.  Driving in the capital seems more like driving in a series of small villages, and the tallest building is not very tall at all.  My housemates, both previous residents of European cities, occasionally find the landscape alien.  But I’ve done rural before.

“It’s so dark outside!” they exclaim, as they flip on the veranda lights to illuminate the garden.  True, it is dark here:  there are virtually no streetlights and those that exist are rarely lit.  The only lights here in suburbia are the ones homeowners pay for themselves, ostensibly to keep burglars out of the garden (or the nightguards awake).  While light from Lilongwe is visible from space, it merits only a few dot on the map – compare it to the United States.   Indeed, in terms of nighttime electrification, Africa does remain the dark continent.  But it doesn’t seem that much darker here than at home in Iowa.  There is more cloud cover at night, and therefore fewer stars and less light from the moon than I’ve experienced in the US – but I’ve done dark before.

On Christmas day, I was at the Nkhoma soccer field, waiting for the players to arrive, when what I heard a bit of a clatter coming down the main road.  What, to my wondering eyes should appear – no, not a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, but a herd of 150-or-so goats.  They were followed shortly thereafter by a herd of cattle.  Some of the Americans in the crowd looked a little startled, but I was nonplussed – I’ve had to wait for farm animals to clear the road before.

Christmas goat parade

In Malawi, there is corn grown everywhere.  Our housekeeper has a plot in our garden.  In villages, the corn grows right up to the houses.  Despite the fact that I live in the capital, I’m not far from the fields.  In fact, there are corn fields at the end of my street.  One of my housemates always comments how surprised he is to see corn in the city!  But I’ve had corn across the road and all around before.

At the end of the street, corn fields in the city

Don’t get me wrong, there is no lack of things in Malawi that seem foreign to me.  But it’s funny to find those things, so strange to other expats, that seem almost normal to me.  While the rural life is certainly different here than rural life in the United States, it retains shades of familiarity.  And now, by way of avoiding a more rambling conclusion:

Gratuitous puppy photo, since we havent had one for a while

Gratuitous puppy photo, since we haven't had one of THOSE for a while


Christmas in Malawi

December 27, 2008

Nkhoma Church

Many people have asked me how Christmas is celebrated in Malawi.  As I’ve indicated in previous posts, it is less commercialized here; there are many fewer outward signs of the season.  Christmas trees are common only among expats, and then only among some.  Most Malawians do not have the financial resources for an American-style Christmas, full of gifts and family and feasting.  A typical Christmas meal for a Malawian family is not far from their everyday fare, they might have rice instead of nsima, and chicken in addition to their regular relish.  More well-to-do Malawians have nicer meals, of course; while at the neighborhood grocery on Christmas Eve, I witnessed a few Malawian families purchasing tremendous quantities of steak, as well as the requisite vegetables and such.  While most Malawians have a family meal at home, the lake is a popular holiday destination for those with resources.

Generally speaking, Christmas in Malawi doesn’t seem to be as big a deal as in the US.  A friend of mine from the college told me he wasn’t even going home because he had a lot of studying to do.  Not bothering with the 4-hour bus trip home?  Skipping Christmas to STUDY?  In the US, even my friends who are unfortunate enough to have a semester that ends after the holidays take time for celebrating with friends and family.  While I don’t think this kind of skipping Christmas is common here, in the US (or at least, in my family) it would be unfathomable.

But back to MY Christmas in Malawi.  I spent Christmas eve making more goodies:  fudge, peanut butter blossoms, and my grandma’s crescent rolls.  All turned out edible, despite my lesson in the perils of instant yeast.  Actually, I was quite pleased with the rolls in a this-is-Africa sort of way.  (I also received an early Christmas present:  the internet came back on the 23rd – only to go out again on the evening of the 24th – but now seems to be up and running.)

Christmas morning dawned cloudy and warm.  My housemates and I had been invited to Nkhoma, a mountain village about an hour’s drive south of Lilongwe.  (Yes, I have two housemates now; I think that news may have fallen by the wayside in my outrage over the water strike.)  Since only one of my housemates was interested in attending, we carpooled with a Dutch couple and their almost 2 year-old son.  The drive was lovely, especially as we started winding up into the mountains.  I tried to get a photo of the patchwork of fields visible from the mountain highway, but this out-the-window shot doesn’t do the vista justice.

A valley of fields and villages on the way to Nkhoma

Nkhoma village is the site of Nkhoma CCAP Hospital, and as such is the home to many expats who work or volunteer there.  A historic link with the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa means that many Dutch citizens continue to come to work there, as well as a handful of expats from other countries.  Built by missionaries a hundred years ago, Nkhoma village is peaceful and the buildings look a bit more stately and mossy than is common in Malawian villages.  We passed by the church and heard Silent Night being sung in Chichewa.  The Christmas meal, however, was at the hopsital’s guest house.  There were probably 40 or 50 people present, including kids.  Most were hospital employees and most were Dutch, though there was also a small collection of people with nowhere else to go (like me), and Americans, Canadians, South Africans, and Scots. The families in the village had also been invited, but only a few Malawians who work at the hospital were in attendance.

The Nkhoma Hospital Guest House, decorated for Christmas

Before lunch, there was a surprisingly well-acted Christmas pageant put on by the children, scripture readings and a brief reflection on Isaiah 61, and some Christmas carols.  The sun came out during the program, and I even got a little pink.  (I could definitely tell we had gained some altitude; the sun seemed stronger than in Lilongwe.)  After the program, the food came out – most of it lukewarm, as the electricity had been out in Nkhoma all morning.  Because it was a potluck without much coordination among the various attendees, it was quite an interesting spread:  there were many kinds of bread, but only ham and a beef dish for meat; lots of beans and potatoes but no vegetable dishes.  There were a few kind of chocolate cake for dessert, as well as the cookies and fudge that I took, and several types of super-sweetened fruit juices.  No, Iowans, there were no jello salads, which was fine by me.

Christmas buffet!

Lunch was a leisurely affair, and afterward we walked through town to the soccer field.  The gender divide was quite clear:  the men played soccer and the women sat on the sidelines, watching.  The hospital workers/expats played against the villagers, who were more skilled in their barefeet than most the expats in their sneakers.  Since I was sitting near the field, I was surprised to turn around and see a crowd of children that had gathered to watch.  There must have been a hundred kids who appeared out of nowhere.  (Actually, I think they may have come from the church, which was across from the soccer field and where an afternoon service was being held.)

Post-lunch soccer game

They also appeared silently.  Compared to American (or, I guess, Western) children, Malawian kids are utterly quiet.  I’ve never seen a Malawian child throwing a temper tantrum; they usually just watch everything with enormous eyes.  Perhaps they are less well-behaved in private than in public, but the difference was particularly striking since I had just spent the morning with screaming Western kids, running to and fro.  A few of them who were at lunch still clutched the balloons they had brought from the guest house, blowing them up and deflating them, them blowing them up again.  Even though these children were probably better off than many in the villages, their delight in this simple toy was apparent.  Again, I couldn’t help but compare them to the balloons the Western kids were playing with at the guest house, most of which popped and were promptly forgotten.

Small soccer spectators (only a fraction of the crowd)

We left Nkhoma in the late afternoon and arrived back in Lilongwe before dark.  On the way, the adults sang along to Dutch children’s songs – while the 2 year old chilled with his book.  The rest of my Christmas day was relatively uneventful; the internet was thankfully back up by the time I returned home and I was able to Skype various family members.  My housemates and I had dinner together and talked for a while, then we headed off to bed.

All in all, it was a nice day, though it did not seem terribly Christmasy.  Perhaps this was better than if it had felt more authentically like Christmas at home, because it made me less homesick.  I have not yet received much Christmas mail, but look forward to receiving the cards that have been sent – even if they only come in time for my or MLK’s birthdays.

I hope all of you had a wonderful Christmas, too!  Feel free to tell me about it, so I can live vicariously through those in the land of snow and turkey and Christmas trees.


Can I get an Amen?

December 23, 2008

My mother will be pleased to know that I went to church on Sunday.

Religion is very important to Malawians, a fact I had been warned about even at my Fulbright orientation in June. Depending on whose statistics you believe, 60-80 percent of the population identifies as Christian, 12 percent as Muslim, and the remainder other faiths or nothing at all. The Muslim population is geographically concentrated along the lakeshore, however, and in the Central region, where I live, Christianity is predominant. Religion seems to be more performative here than it might be in the US; blood-of-Jesus bumper stickers abound, most social activities at the college revolve around religious groups, and large gold crosses are worn without the irony of “bling.” During lunch time, street preachers are a common sight; they stand on a corner and tirelessly shout the word of God (in Chichewa). Christian charities play a prominent role in the NGO sector, and Sundays are devoted to church-going and little else; downtown Lilongwe is empty by 3 PM on Sunday afternoon. Certainly, the church is an important social force in Malawi, though the extent to which demonstrations of faith indicate belief vs. performance is not entirely clear to me. At the college level, the only community with which I feel familiar enough to speculate, there seems to be a lot of do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do. That is, I’m not sure that religious values dictate behavior patterns when no one is watching. But I suppose this is a common problem with most religious traditions.

There are many academically interesting aspects of Malawian Christianity; belief in witchcraft exists alongside belief in God, even in devout Christians. In some areas, belief in witchcraft and/or miraculous intervention has prevented the effective treatment of HIV/AIDS with Western medicines. While a discussion of the interaction between religion and economic development is beyond the scope of this blog post, I will merely suggest that Karl Marx may have had a good point.

But back to my church-going experience. I expected a uniquely African setting and service. Instead, I walked into the church and felt like I could be in Omaha, Nebraska. The Capital City Baptist Church, a strangely modernist triangular building, looks a bit like a prison from the outside. Inside, however, the trappings felt familiar; a nice wooden cross hung front and center, greenery with twinkling Christmas lights adorned the edges of the sanctuary, and those ubiquitous appliqued banners hung in along a back wall. The congregation sat on a collection of molded plastic chairs instead of pews, and was a mix of ex-pats and Malawians. (My housemate estimated the mix at 20 to 80 percent, but the church leaders, with the exception of the pastor, seemed to be mostly American.)

Having grown up in a fairly conservative religious tradition, I was expecting something different – but even my expectations of difference were mistaken. Instead of being sung from hymnals, the words to the songs were projected onto a screen behind the pulpit; instead of an organ or piano, the singing was accompanied by the “worship team,” a band (including a keyboard player). The scripture readings, too, were projected, though many members of the congregation appeared to have their own Bibles. Though a projector is certainly more dynamic than a hymnal, this style of worship creates a little cognitive dissonance for me. How strange to find that a church in Malawi is far more modern than my church in Iowa.

So, how was it? Before I go on, perhaps I should qualify my assessment: I’ve only been to one Baptist service in the US, and it was in a historically black church in DC, so I was prepared for the handwaving and the Can-I-get-an-Amens. Actually, here the latter is more of – Amen? (The Malawian Baptist church seemed less based in fire and brimstone than the church of my DC experience, actually.) Also, I was raised to be a staid Methodist who prefers order and hymns written by dead people. So, I found this service a little too praise-and-worshippy for my taste. I also really wanted to sing Christmas carols, but we sang only Silent Night; the rest of the music was of the generic praise-band variety.

Aside from my disappointment in the music, the service was fairly unremarkable. The sermon was standard Christmas fare (there was no room at the inn for Jesus because Mary and Joseph didn’t have a reservation, but since we know he’s coming, we should make room in our hearts), though the pastor’s Malawian English led to some amusing mis-hearings on my part. It took me a couple minutes to figure out that he was saying “angels” and not “NGOs”. To be fair, it is far more statistically likely that a Malawian will say “NGO” than “angel,” though perhaps not in the context of the Christmas story.

After the service, there was a fellowship hour, with instant coffee and children sticky with Jesus’ birthday cake tearing around the church parking lot. This, too, felt very Western to me, and I’m curious if I would find the same familiarity in a Malawian church with a less international flavor. So will I be going back? (I’m anticipating my mother’s line of questioning.) Perhaps. I am determined to sing some Christmas songs, and those played on the radio are almost exclusively in Chichewa. But I’m also curious about other religious traditions that exist here, and I’d like to see more of a mingling of African and Western traditions. More updates as events warrant.

My internet at home continues to fail, so this may be the last post before the holidays. If so, Merry Christmas! I’ll be having a rainy Christmas dinner with some friends, but I will be thinking of home.

Christmas break?

December 20, 2008

Addendum to the previous post: water has returned to Lilongwe and the cell network is in and out. My internet is still MIA. As I was complaining to a Malawian friend yesterday, he laughed and told me I should just get used to it. “You’re in Malawi,” he said. True. And if I hadn’t had these Western amenities available, I wouldn’t be able to complain about their sudden and unpredictable outage (annoying mostly because they are beyond my control). But I still think the water strike was stupid and completely irresponsible, and I hope that this sort of behavior is not acceptable to most Malawians. The newspaper reports 88 cases of cholera and 10 dead so far, which I can only imagine is higher in reality than on paper. Unfortunately the article does not really do an adequate job of describing why strikers cut off water to the city in the midst of this outbreak, but does detail their demands for a 12.5% salary increase and K25,000 (~ $175) Christmas bonus. “Reporting” here is generally a loose collection of quotes and facts and newspapers are mostly devoid of actual information. (I have definitely been spoiled by my US news addiction.) And now, back to your regularly scheduled program: further ruminations on Christmas.

This is the first year in many that I do not have a clearly defined Christmas break. When I was in school at home in Iowa, the anticipation built throughout the month of December. Much activity revolved around the festive season, including advent services, scoping out the ditches for a perfect tree (or, perfect in a Charlie Brown sort of way), baking cookies, wrapping presents, and prancing about the house, full of secrets. When I was in school in Ithaca, Christmas break usually came in a rush of laundry and packing and sleep deprivation the day after my final final, and generally involved a crack-of-dawn trip to the Ithaca airport. Until December 18 or so, I didn’t stop to think much about presents, so my shopping was always last minute, but I still had a week or so to bask in the Christmas sights and sounds before the big day. Last year, when I was working in DC, there were Christmas parties and Christmas cookies, but I looked forward to nothing more than going home for a week of too much food and family, the smell of snow and cedar, and lazing about the house with someone else to cook my meals (thanks, Mom). Though not as long as Cornell’s 5-week winter break, I still had quite a bit of time off work, with no responsibilities beyond cookie testing.

This year my work schedule is a little haphazard – “whenever I can” would be an apt description. My research is behind schedule from where I would like it to be, but since I’m still in the data collection phase, I’m more or less beholden to the schedules of NGOs and development agencies. I have a few meetings with development agencies next week, but it seems like most NGOs are already on Christmas vacation. But I’m behind schedule, so shouldn’t I be doing work? Do I really need a break, when about half my time is spent not working or creating other work for myself, anyway?

I went to Bunda on Friday to trade in my library books before the college shut down for Christmas break, and was infected by the general giddiness of students out for break. Finally freed, they were chatting in the parking lot, dragging around impossibly large luggage, and cheered when the bus arrived. As for me, I decided I would have a little holiday from the academic books I’ve been reading, and checked out One Hundred Years of Solitude and Wes Jackson’s New Roots for Agriculture. (While Bunda’s library is not very well equipped for academic research, it does have many gems for the casual browser.) So far, both have been quite pleasing, and I’m happy to report that I’m enjoying One Hundred Years of Solitude more than Love in the Time of Cholera.

Marquez’s specialty is magical realism, a genre that I’m never really pursued outside of Spanish lit classes. But maybe being in a strange land for a holiday so closely associated with being home makes it easier to suspend my disbelief. (Speaking in tongues? Ghosts mixing among the living? Fantastical creatures and feats? Okay, then.) As I write this, I’m listening to Christmas music and the pound of rain from our daily monsoon, and trying to remember that it’s the 20th of December. I still have no definite plans for Christmas day, though my housemates and I have tentative plans to do something festive. Iowans, I hope your ice storm subsides in time for holiday travels! If I’m lying on a beach somewhere, I’ll be thinking of you.

Infrastructure Implosion

December 18, 2008

Disclaimer:  Amy in Malawi has had a frustrating week.  She (sort of) apologizes for the rant that follows.

When I got up yesterday morning, the internet was down, the water was off, and my cell phone screen, instead of identifying my network provider, read “Emergency Only.” I felt like I had rolled out of bed and into Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. In fact, after discovering the cell phone outage (the third of three), I considered going back to bed.

The cell network outage was fixed around noon; around 2, my internet provider’s office staff moseyed their way back from lunch and finally started answering the phone. The first person I talked to didn’t know what the problem was, but took my number and promised to call me back. I waited. And waited. An hour and a half later, I called again, only to learn that they had decided to consult my “husband” (my housemate’s name is on the account) about the problem instead of calling me back. Apparently the installation bill has not yet been paid. As the internet is supposed to be paid by my housemate’s employer, this is not my fault, but why no one in this country can pay a bill BEFORE it is due is beyond me. The accountant in charge of paying the bills told my housemate it had already been paid; I’ll believe it only if (or hopefully, when) my internet comes back on.

So, I went to a nearby cafe to check my email, as I had been trying to set up some meetings later this week. As I approached, I could see that the curtains were drawn, though the front door was open. There were a couple people sitting outside. “We’re closed,” one of them told me. “What hours are you open?” I asked. “Nine to six,” he responded. In an elaborate gesture, I checked my watch. “But it’s only 4 o’clock.” “But we’re not open today.” I sighed. He told me they would be open tomorrow. Only time will tell.  (Update:  it is, indeed, open today.)

The water is off because the water board is on strike, though why and how being “on strike” means that the taps are completely turned off, I don’t know. I’m pretty sure that not even Lilongwe relies on workers physically carrying the water from the river to the plant, so I see no reason to turn off water to the city. Isn’t access to clean water included in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights? Isn’t this an area where government should intervene? Apparently, the workers did not feel their Christmas bonuses were adequate and felt their complaints would best be heard if they were protested in a completely irresponsible way. Hopefully the scabs come soon. My respect for organized labor has decreased by about 10 points today. My recent interactions with the water board – both billing issues and the fact that they reportedly stopped chlorinating the water for some time, just for fun – have not left me with much leftover gratitude, anyway.

These ridiculous times do give rise to an illustration of two basic principles of life here, however. First, “one’s word” here is only guaranteed about 50 percent of the time. Secondly, there is virtually no planning for the future, even when current conditions indicate future scarcity.

Though I was anecdotally aware of the first principle, it was most clearly illustrated to me when I was registering my car. I was on the way to the DMV with the Malawian who was going to assist me, and he was going through the folder of documentation. “Your insurance is expired,” he said. No, I responded, the owner of the car [an American] told me it had been renewed in September, and I would only have to change it to my name. We went through a few more rounds of it’s-not-here and but-he-said. The Malawian dug a little more, and eventually found the right insurance paper. Then he turned to me and said, “Oh yes, you Americans are truthful 90 or 95 percent of the time. If a Malawian had told you the insurance had been renewed, you shouldn’t believe him.”

Whether people here lie purposefully or there’s just a predilection for fabrication, I don’t know. The official word was that water was to be restored yesterday. It was not. The official word was that the internet bill has been paid. It has not. These little lies don’t just come from service providers, though. Professors and students will tell you that the work is done when it isn’t, and friends will tell you that they’re stopping by and then don’t. While I suppose all of these things happen in the US, too, what’s surprisingly here is the utter lack of apologies. If I were supposed to show up at a friend’s house and then didn’t, I would at least call to let my friend know and apologize for holding up the plans. If I were supposed to pay a bill and didn’t, resulting in a loss of service, I would apologize profusely. And I wouldn’t lie about having paid the bill, particularly when it was obvious that I had not.

This penchant for ignoring the truth is, perhaps, related to the second characteristic of Malawian living: lack of planning for the future. This issue is well documented in development literature, and is a major barrier in seeking long-term change in a monetized economy; there is no culture of saving for a rainy day. Saving crops or livestock to sell for a rainy day is somewhat more effective, but if you have cash, you spend it. These habits infiltrate everyday life, as well. Since the water has gone off, the cold water tap does not flow at all. But because we have hot water heaters (called geezers) with tanks in the ceiling, we continued to have a minimal amount of lukewarm water. (Good for face washing, if not for toilet flushing.) This morning, the water is still not on, yet I awoke to find the housekeeper washing windows, with two full buckets of water – one soapy and one clean. Now, the windows are not particularly dirty, there was no reason for them to be washed TODAY when there’s no water, and the housekeeper has other projects (like building a chicken house) that could keep him busy. Further, the housekeeper knew the water was still off, that there was a limited amount in the geezers, and presumably that that amount would have to last us until the water came back on. Did that cause him to change his actions in any way? No. Did he consider what would happen when the water was gone? I don’t know. I was brushing my teeth when he emptied the last of the remaining water for who knows what purpose. I had to rinse with my water bottle.

So now I’m sitting here, just waiting for the electricity to go out. Apparently those workers are considering striking over their Christmas bonuses, too. Some days, it’s easy to hate Malawi.

Dreaming of a White Christmas

December 15, 2008

It may be mid-December, but Malawi is lush and green.  When it’s 75 and sunny outside, all one CAN do is dream of a white Christmas.  I’ve been feeling decidedly un-holiday-like, however, so I decided it was time to step up the Christmas cheer.

At home, there are lots of sensory cues that Christmas is coming:  twinkling lights, those giant blow-up Santas, long lines at the mall, Christmas cards in the mail, snow on the ground (hopefully – or at least a bitter wind), carols on the radio, and cookies in the kitchen.  Malawi has few of these cues, and the paltry examples seem more to make expats feel at home than a true Malawian celebration of the season.

Okay, so the inflatable Santas do exist here.

The midwestern housewife in me decided that perhaps it would feel more like Christmas with copious quantities of sugar available for consumption.  So, on Saturday, I decided to try my hand at Christmas baking.  I would make fudge, sugar cookies, and peanut butter blossoms, I decided, because those seemed to be the best combination of feasible and festive.

You’ll remember for the last baking post that certain ingredients common in the US are nearly impossible to find in Malawi.  Baking chocolate does not exist here, nor does molasses.  I can’t find marshmallow cream or chocolate chips.  Some ingredients are more easily substituted than others; margarine stands in for butter (available, but very expensive) and treacle sugar for brown sugar, but what stands in for chocolate stars on Peanut Butter Blossoms?  What stands in for an electric mixer, a candy thermometer, and measuring cups?  Obviously, my Christmas baking involved a lot of experimentation.

First came the fudge. assured me that “candy making is an art.”  If they meant it as an oil painting, though, I approached it more like a finger painting.  I used a liquid measuring cup to approximate the appropriate amount of sugar, counted out 8 Tablespoons of cocoa powder, added the milk, turned on the burner (though electric stoves were not advised), and let the heat do its magic.  I also (sort of) figured out how to test the temperature by dropping a bit of the boiling liquid into cold water.  When the “soft ball” seemed about right, I turned it off and let it cool for a bit, then added the butter and vanilla, and started stirring.  It turned out a little sugary, but overall, not too bad, considering my penchant for guesstimation.

The sugar cookies, too, were an adventure.  I found a recipe that suggested mixing them like pastry (that is, cutting in the butter instead of creaming it with the sugar).  This worked well, since I have no electric mixer and it’s difficult to fully incorporate the sugar and butter by hand.  Using a trick I learned when making pie crust last year, I rolled out the dough with a wine bottle.  Now, no cookie cutters, so what’s a baking AmyinMalawi to do?  Make her own pattern, of course.  I decided to go for the most identifiable and geometric of Christmas shapes, the star.  After cutting about 3 dozen star cookies by hand (and knife), I gave up on the rest and made them into circles with a wine glass.  Circles look Christmasy, right?  I mean, they could be ornaments or parts of a snowman or…something.

Having completely destroyed my kitchen at this point, I postponed the rest of the baking until Sunday afternoon, when my friend Anna came over to join in the baking frenzy.  She brought the makings of frosting and red and green food coloring.  As she began to mix, it became clear that she was a much more experienced with frosting than I.  With some makeshift pastry bags (thank you, Ziploc), she went to work.

Anna, a talented froster

Anna, a talented froster

While Anna frosted the sugar cookies, I whipped up the peanut butter blossoms.  Fortunately, peanut butter is readily available here, and most of the other ingredients were easy to find or substitute.  Except, of course, the most essential ingredient:  the chocolate on top.  (Otherwise, how would it blossom?)  Having reviewed the options – not many, it turns out – I had tentatively planned to just buy a Cadbury bar and chop it up.  When I went to the store, however, plain chocolate bars were not available: my options were either Mint Chip or Top Deck (mixed white and milk chocolate).  Since peanut butter mint hasn’t been invented for good reason, I went with the Top Deck.  I also bought an (absurdly expensive) bag of miniature Mars bars, as back up in case the Top Deck went wrong.  Fortunately, though they lacked some of the visual appeal of real peanut butter blossoms, these chocolate choices turned out just fine.

Peanut Butter Blossoms & Fudge, up close and personal

Peanut Butter Blossoms & Fudge, up close and personal

Just as we were finishing up the baking, a few other people arrived to help with the eating.  With Ella Fitzgerald on the stereo and friends in my living room, we dug in and discussed Christmas plans, which for most involved some sort of time on the beach.   I’m still dreaming of a white Christmas and the beach doesn’t seem like a sign of the season to me, but at least my kitchen is full of cookies!  Holiday spirit, indeed.

Selling the farm

December 13, 2008

Earlier this week, in a bit of panic about being employed once I return to the States in July, I was cruising around the web.  I ended up on High Country News, ostensibly to check out their classifieds for a job (or maybe a ranch in the San Luis Valley).  Instead of finding job postings, though, I found a fantastically wrenching article about selling the family farm, Julene Bair’s Out in the Cold.

Though I encourage you to read the whole thing, here are some choice bits:

Several inches of month-old snow sheathed the fields, and there’d been a fresh dusting the night before. Ground blizzards swirled across the interstate. I dialed in my hometown radio station. The man who’d owned it for as long as I could remember listed the closings caused by ice and near-zero March cold: livestock auctions, a senior get-together, even I-70. Had I left my home in Longmont, Colo., 10 minutes later, I would not have gotten through.

“But once again, folks,” continued the voice from my childhood, “if you’re looking for some good farm equipment, drive on out to the Harold Bair farm sale. We had a call from the manager out there and the roads are not bad.”

There I was in one of the most anonymous places on earth, inside a car driving down the interstate, and I’d been accosted by the public announcement of an intimate betrayal. My betrayal, of my father. I imagined him bolting upright in his grave. If strangers traveling to places like New York and Chicago had heard that announcement, surely he had too.


When I complained that we were irrigating unsustainably out of the Ogallala Aquifer, the fast-depleting groundwater reserves underlying our High Plains, he told me that the cost of farming would empty out the country long before we ran out of water.

He was right about the costs. The country was emptying. But the water in the Ogallala and the topsoil were more threatened, not less, as farms grew larger. The huge family corporation that had bought our farm specialized in irrigated corn, a thirsty crop and a heavy feeder.

The corporation farmed one hundred sections in three states. That’s 100 square miles. Each farm they’d subsumed had once been a little ecosystem, approaching completeness within itself. When I was a child, our sheep had grazed our pastures in the summer. In the winter, they’d eaten ensilage made from my father’s sorghum crops. We fed all our livestock our own grain, grew almost all our own meat and vegetables, collected eggs from our own henhouse. Rosebud, the Holstein cow my brothers milked each morning and evening, had kept us in milk, butter and cream. Then came the “green revolution.”


Ever since I left our farm, at age eighteen, my home there has been abstract. I never would have moved back. Still, in signing that line, I ran a blade under myself, severing access to my identity as adroitly as the new owners’ plows severed the roots beneath the remaining buffalo grass.

Selling the farm, no matter how many times I rethink it, no matter how unavoidable or rational, will always be the worst decision I made in my entire life.

Spring in Iowa

Spring in Iowa

I thought for a long time about what I wanted to say.  While I found the article poignant and personally resonant, I realize that this type of wistful nostalgia is a luxury.  It is, I suspect, the province of farmer’s daughters, as the farmers I know are much too practical for this type of expansive reflection.  And it is, I know, a phenomenon of the developed world, where the general population has enough distance from the land to want to return, in an abstract way, to the good old days, and where most children learn about farms only through board books and nursery rhymes.

So I find myself thinking about where I am, and where I am from.  And I’m still not sure what I want to say.

I am from a world familiar to Julene Bair’s Kansas, where the number of farms and farmers continue to decrease even as food production increases, where wealth is measured in shiny tractors and sections of land, and where it is not uncommon for the distance to the nearest neighbor’s house to be measured in miles.  As a teenager driving to school in the fall, I would often encounter more combines than cars.

I grew up with dirt between my toes and spent so much time outside in the summer that I would get “brown as a little Indian.”  (I also grew up without much adherence to political correctness.)  The best toy to take to the city pool, on the rare occasion that we went, was an intertube from a tractor tire.  During harvest, we would eat supper in the field, sitting in the back of the old Chevy truck with the combine still running in the background. A whiff of oil and diesel fuel, even in Africa, reminds me of my father and his filthy overalls.

Even half a world away, I still wear the indelible imprint of my farm childhood.  But I wonder, too, about the extraordinarily high rates of Parkinson’s disease among farmers (likely from pesticide exposure), what sort of chemicals we ingested (and continue to ingest) through the well water, pesticide-resistant weeds, and the effects of two-year rotations and tillage on long-term soil fertility.

And yet, the same technologies and innovations that allowed my family to stay on the land despite changes (and concentration) in the agricultural market – bigger tractors, GMOs, petroleum-based fertilizers and chemicals – are the ones that may lead to its disappearance.  The subsidies that paid, in part, for my college tuition are the same subsidies that make industrial livestock production financially viable, including the hog houses that threaten to smother our whole township and pollute our water supply.

And so I’m not sure how to feel about the farm, and I’m not sure that what I miss is something that ever existed in the first place. I’m also not sure that it matters. Despite her fondness for the land and her deep misgivings about Kansas irrigation practices, Julene Bair sold her farm to a corporation. I don’t know if she had a choice.

My nostalgia for Iowa is further complicated by the place I currently call home. I am a world away from industrialization and mechanization.  In Malawi, an ox-cart is a luxury that only about 10 percent of farmers can afford.  Their tools of the trade include short handled-hoes and panga knives (similar to a corn knife, or a very dull machete).  Agriculture here is predominantly organic, not because of consumer demand but because of the prohibitively high cost of petroleum-based inputs.  I can count on one hand the number of tractors I have seen in this country, and I’m here during prime planting time.

Spring in Malawi

Spring in Malawi

Though the terms of land ownership here are somewhat opaque to me, very little land is sold on the open market.  Most land stays in families, as agriculture remains the primary economic activity here.   And land pressure is increasing, not decreasing; already-small farms are getting smaller.  Malawi has one of the highest population densities in sub-Saharan Africa, and a population growth rate of 2.4%.  If carrying capacity has not yet been reached, it certainly will be in the next generation.

Agriculture accounts for 37.8% of Malawi’s GDP.  This reflects both a lack of development in other economic  sectors, and the predominance of agriculture in all of Malawi’s activities.  (By way of comparison, agriculture accounts for 1.2 % of the United States’ GDP.)  But if people can get a job off the farm here, they will.  Even at the agricultural college, I’ve encountered very few students who want to be farmers when they graduate.  Instead, they’ll work in agriculture-related industries or perhaps something completely different, but they will not be the ones in the fields stooped over their short-handled hoes. Of course, I can’t blame them. I have no desire to spend the rest of my life walking beans, either (though current technology has eradicated that necessity in the US, more or less).

An oft-heard goal in agriculture development work is to “improve small farmer efficiency and market linkages.” I’m not sure what this means; I suspect it can mean whatever the donor agency wants it to. But in cases I’ve observed, it means promoting more market-oriented production, to bring more income into a household and, hopefully, to get a few more people off the land. That’s right, I said off the land. Though I think some funders (and Malawians) are loathe to admit it, there is simply not enough land for such a high proportion of Malawians to continue to be subsistence farmers. I am becoming increasingly convinced that the country will not develop until there is some sort of exodus from agriculture into other industries, which are not, of course, at all well-developed.

In short, I think Malawi needs fewer farmers, larger farms, and yes, perhaps some of the technologies that farmers in the US enjoy. (NB: I support appropriate technology transfer, the key word being “appropriate.” Who decides what is appropriate? Theoretically, the farmers, though donor agencies and agribusiness have their hands in the pot as well.) Considering that only a small percentage of farmers use improved hybrid seeds over traditional, much lower-yielding varieties, I think there are huge food security gains that could be made with even minimal new technology.  The smallest farmers, however, do not have the cash flows to allow them to access these (not particularly new) innovations.

The irony of this argument does not escape me. Do I really support the same development practices in Malawi that have virtually eliminated small farmers in the US? Still, part of me wonders if there really is a conflict here. After all, the policy contexts of the two countries are very different. I would argue that the US subsidy system has just as much to do with the disappearance of the small farmer as technology does. And I wonder how Malawians would feel about this scheme, and how they will feel in 20 years, when there will either be a lot of hungry people or some economic development outside of the agricultural sector. Will those who are now students, who will go on to jobs outside of agriculture, still think fondly of their family’s land? Or will they merely be happy to have escaped a lifetime of work on the blunt end of the hoe?

Through the joys of internet communication, I recently caught up with a former kid from “the neighborhood” (if you can deem a sparsely populated rural landscape as such), who now lives in Colorado.  “I do often find myself wishing I could smell turned dirt and crushed cornstalks instead of pine trees,” he wrote.  But things are going well for him, and he mentioned no plans to return. I wonder if we are only nostalgic because we have the luxury of being elsewhere, recalling home through rose-colored glasses. We miss it because we have no obligation, beyond our own guilt, to return.

I spent a long time thinking about this post, and I’m still not sure that it holds together or that it says what I want it to say. But I will cast it out to you, internet readers, for commentary.

Malawi, or Iowa?  You be the judge.

Malawi, or Iowa? You be the judge.

The hills are alive

December 10, 2008

Though we are just a few weeks into the rainy season, the change in the landscape is extraordinary.  Today, I spent time walking around Bunda’s campus, taking some of the same photos I had taken a few months ago,  as a means of illustration.  I suppose it should feel no more astounding than the coming of spring in the US, but somehow, it does.

First, we have the student farm, before and after the rains:

This is the greenhouse, and I managed to get almost the same angle in both photos!

The little on-campus forest; I walked through this every day to and from the guest house.  I didn’t even KNOW that grass would grow here, as it’s quite shady.

Finally, the fields!  These are not quite the same angle, but in the first photo you can see the fields prepped for planting.  In the second photo, you can see that the corn is already quite tall.  (This corn seems to be an anomaly, however, as most of the corn planted in the countryside is just coming up.)

This is just a view of the countryside; a month ago, it was completely brown.  My apologies for the lack of focus, as this was taken out my car window while driving (and dodging bicycles, goats, and oncoming traffic).   Don’t worry, Mom, I’m being safe.

And for those of you who doubted the presence of the creepy crawlies, here’s a millipede!  They’re scarier when they’re moving toward you on all their little feet.  The scale is ambiguous here, but I’d estimate this millipede to be about 8 inches long.  (Bunda was also a lot muddier than what I’ve seen in Lilongwe; whether they have had more rain or have a less sandy soil, I’m not sure.)

Next up:  farmer nostalgia in the US…and maybe in Malawi.

Project updates, my pet mongoose

December 7, 2008

To my faithful readers, I apologize for the lack of updates this week.  Maybe it is a sign that I am finally settling in and not everything seems so new (and therefore bloggable) to me!  Or maybe it is a sign that I am finally settling in and at this stage, my research isn’t terribly interesting to read or write about.  Whatever the case, it has been a pretty quiet week in Lilongwe.

I am finally making some headway on my project, and have started to contact donor agencies and NGOs that I hope to have as participants in my survey.  The response rate is highly variable, but so far the winners for quickest response time have been (in order of appearance):  USAID, Oxfam, World Vision International, the World Food Program, and a few smaller Christian organizations.  Africa, in general, is somewhat behind the email curve, so I will probably have to pony up the expensive talk time to do some calling next week.  Given my difficulty understanding Malawian English over the phone, however, I decided to try the email route first.

At this point, I am trying to establish the correct point of contact within each organization to complete my survey.  The survey is still in draft form; I am awaiting comments from my advisers here in Malawi.  Though this may be an unrealistic goal, I hope to have the surveys completed before Christmas.  This will allow for some data analysis and interviews in January, and the selection of sites and start of the field component of my research by February.  It is hard to reconcile myself to the fact that I can only plan in months here, not weeks or days like I am used to, but perhaps I am learning patience.

Aside from my proposed research project, I have a number of smaller research projects happening on the side, mostly as a way to keep myself occupied.  I’ll try not to bore you with the academic details right now, but suffice it to say that I am also working on some questions of processing value chains, GMOs and appropriate technology transfer, and Malawi’s culinary history.  I’ve also made contacts with several NGOs who are interested in utilizing my (free) research skills, though no work has yet materialized from these.  Everyone keeps telling me that things start slowly and that suddenly I will be busier than I ever imagined.  We shall see.

The fight against strange and giant insects continues.  The veranda has become almost unusable at night, given the large swarms of mosquitoes that collect around dusk.  There’s some sort of strange jumping spider that chills out in my bathroom.  We occasionally have battles, but he’s a faster jumper than I am a stomper.  All manner of giant ants, flies, and unidentifiable flying insects now appear outside – and sometimes inside.  My housemate has diagnosed the strange dirt mounds posted last week as termite dens, which I guess are fairly common here.

Apparently mongooses frequently make their homes in termite dens, which may explain the slinky, varmity creature I spotted a few weeks ago.  One day, the birds were making a much noisier racket than usual, and I looked out to see something long and brown scurrying across the yard.  I did a report on the mongoose in 4th grade, complete with an illustration, but was still not quite sure that what I saw was a mongoose.  Further googling, however, suggests that perhaps this is, indeed, the case.

My slightly more domesticated pet, the Dude, has suddenly developed the ability to sit and to fetch, though we didn’t really teach him either of those things.  Do dogs have a natural affinity for fetching?  Despite our efforts, however, he has not yet learned to shake (or, as my housemate says, poche).  Yes, the dog is growing up bilingual.

My social life has been marginally livelier lately; I went out to dinner with some soccer friends last night and to Ethiopian with my housemate and his weekend guest tonight.  Sadly/ironically, Ethiopian restaurants are better in DC than in Lilongwe.  The food was still pretty tasty, though, and a welcome change from most Malawian restaurants’ never-changing menu of chicken or beef stew with nsima, rice, or chips.

I have also been devoting a fair amount of time to planning for a January trip to South Africa, as a friend from DC is coming for a visit.  She’ll first come to Malawi, then we’ll both go to Durban and then Cape Town, where I’ll stay a few extra days to do some work for Telluride.  Because I’ll be gone for two weeks in January, I’m doing my best not to take December as a holiday month!  We shall see if the fates (and the donor agencies, and my advisers) cooperate.