Dry season

Posted in Malawi, Uncategorized on September 13, 2011 by soilplantfood

The first time I came to Malawi, it was the rainy season, and the most remarkable feature of the landscape was the abundance of maize (corn) growing everywhere – planted along roadsides, in tiny vacant lots, in yards, between buildings, anywhere a few maize plants could fit, they were planted. Somehow, this gave the city a sort of grand feeling – walking on a path in a vacant with maize plants on either side of you made you feel as if you were in a large field, despite the fact the maize may only stretch for 10 feet in either direction. Now, it is the dry season, and the most noticeable thing is the absence of not only maize – but any green plant life. Even large trees have dropped most of their leaves for lack of water. This isn’t a drought like that which has affected large parts of Ethiopia and Somalia – the dry season is just that, a season that comes and goes in late November – December. Other things I hadn’t previously noticed include cacti, and this beautiful tree covered in purple blossoms (picture soon). The wind bows dust around in little clouds a phenomena called “fumbey” in chechewa, which sticks to the skin leaving a dry dirty film. Before I left the US, I stayed for 3 or 4 days in Baltimore where it rained constantly, for several days before and after my stay. In many ways it feels like I have been plucked from a steambath and into an oven – except that it is not that hot here – only a few degrees above 80. But my skin feels the dryness. I think I will be very happy for the rains.

For this first week, I am staying at a “hostel” called Mabuya Camp. It offers private rooms for mk3300 per night (exchange rate varies somewhere between mk160 – mk195 per $US), or a dorm room for mk1300. Because of my luggage I took a private room. The accomodations are basic – communal bathrooms and showers, thatched roof on the rooms, simple screen on the windows. It’s not bad, it’s cheap for the amount of privacy it offers, but the lack of a kitchen and the ability to prepare my own food is difficult for me. But! Soon – next week I will be moving into a house with a family I met last time – they are not Malawian – although he has lived here most of his live, but I am really looking forward to living with people. Especially being new.


Back to Malawi

Posted in Malawi, Uncategorized on September 4, 2011 by soilplantfood

I have two suitcases sitting in my bedroom, one at 49.85 lbs, the other at 49.6. Most of the weight in the suitcases is from glass petri dishes, powdered growth media, sterile plant growth pouches and a printer. The few clothes I am taking are crammed into a carry-on bag. The rest of my belongings are packed into plastic boxes sitting in a friends garage, besides my furniture, which I am lending to the person renting my room. After finishing a Masters degree, publishing a paper, writing a proposal and taking my PhD comprehensive exams and orals, I am finally heading back to Malawi! It only took me 17 months! This time, I go for the whole growing season. I will be on my own. I

In less than a week I will land. I am excited, nervous, happy and apprehensive. Since I have left, Malawi has gone through some troubles. There are fuel and foreign exchange shortages, the government is preparing a budget without the help of foreign aid (which made up around 40% of the national budget), and there is concern that this will damage food security even further. All this lead to nationwide protests against the current government in July. In addition, whereas in my previous visit, I was there to watch and learn and gather information, this time I actually have to do something. And while I know, more or less what awaits me, I know that there is absolutely no way of predicting the our path – especially when it involves one or more of the following: travel to developing countries, agriculture, weather, marginally-stable political systems, and/or research. So with that in mind, here I go!

“sustainable farming can feed the world”

Posted in food systems with tags on March 12, 2011 by soilplantfood

Great opinion article in the New York Times today.
(read here)

While I have yet to read the full report mentioned (here), For what it’s worth it is nice to have recognized in a major publication that those of us who propose a “sustainable, agro-ecology” framework for food production are not “hippies” but actual scientists.

Kitsch, Carcases and Carnivores

Posted in food systems, meat, philosophical on February 14, 2011 by soilplantfood

It has been a while since I posted anything on here but this evening I had an experience that pushed me to a desire to write and so I’m going with it. I have been in North Carolina for nearly a year, and this post will have nothing to do with Malawi – or at least not overtly.

Tonight, I am going to talk about shit, and death, and meat… and how these things are vital to a humble understanding of our existence. In Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Sabine tells Tomas that she likes him because he is the opposite of Kitsch. When pushed, she explains that kitsch is the absence of shit, or a world in which the existence of shit is denied. The talks about communist parades filled with shiny smiling little girls and flags waving, confetti and unbearably cheerful music; a world that is falsely clean, a world that denies the existence of desire, pain, or death. She is horrified by kitsch, and her idea of hell would be to live in a world filled with cheerful propaganda music and parades forever.

I was reminded of this passage of by a discussion I witnessed tonight on animal slaughter and responsible meat consumption. This evening some of my fellow soil science grad students and I went to a discussion group at the neighboring university on food systems. The topic being presented was on Feminism and Meat. We were fairly unaware of the topic before arriving, but mostly we were treated to a great dose of culture shock, as five scientists walked into a room of philosophers, theorists, theologians and folklorists. The topic was presented by a feminist who strongly believed that meat can be part of a feminist, wholistic, world as long as the animals in question were treated with respect, given a humane life and humane death. The difficulty she was having was that the small local farmers she was buying meat from were having a hard time finding slaughter houses that were capable of granting to these animals the graceful painless death they would wish. This brief polemic was followed up by a long discussion on the ability for animals to feel anxiety, whether humans ought to use animals for our own gain, a mention of “veganic” farming – in which animals are excluded from the model in terms of manure requirements (save for some passing wildlife), and the spiritual aspects of meat or non-meat consumption, as well as a not-insignificant discussion on what to feed one’s (carnivorous) pets. There was one comment that seemed to come far from left field in which a theologian talked about a painting she had seen of the holy family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, walking down the road, but the point of view of the artist was from inside a butcher shop, thus framing the trio in depictions of animal carcases. And while the discussion passed by fairly quickly after this, I really would like to return to this idea of the animal carcase and the holy family… and kitsch.

So often our memories weave together the past as pure, clean and beautiful. We forget that it was filled with dead animals and shit. That if Jesus was born in a “manger”, he was born into shit. That our eating requires other organisms to die – be they plant, animal or fungus, in order for us to live. Before that delicious steak was cut, it was part of a dead animal, and after I eat it, it will become shit. Affluent western society, and the (urban/suburban) US especially, has embraced a food system of kitsch, in which “meat” is somehow different from a dead animal, and shit is nowhere to be seen. I am purposely avoiding euphemisms such as “manure” “effluent” “waste” and “litter” because I am surrounded by them in soil science constantly. So much of soil science is the study of shit. We are left with the task of dealing with the shit, that has been divorced from our food. Lagoons of hog urine and waste, barns of dairy manure and chicken litter, all must be dealt with on a regular basis. Our food stinks. It always has and it always will. (Unless PETA succeeds in creating fake meat in a lab – then the kitschy people win!!) It is not a bad thing. We stink. The problem becomes that want it both ways, we want the steak to be separate from animals, from death, from shit. But it can’t be. We are animals, we will become dead animals.

So, getting back to the philosophical, theological feminist discussion about meat consumption, I propose two logical options, neither of which are the mainstream option. One can either embrace the kitsch, or embrace the shit. If one has no stomach for the death, and the shit, it makes sense to be vegan. I however, try to embrace the shit; to consume meat in full awareness of the living, breathing, shitting, dying animal that was, that I am, that I commune with upon consuming, to understand the debt of my life. And live in an attempt to fulfill it.

Farmers 2

Posted in Uncategorized on March 5, 2010 by soilplantfood

Betti Lounga lives in the Enwezini region. She and George __ are neighbors and friends. She and her husband have had trials for at least 3 years, and likes being involved with SFHC. She currently has a replication of an intercropping systems trial (which has been running since 2007) and a groundnut variety trial. She is very impressed by what crop residue management can do for maize yields, and she really likes the maize pigeon pea intercropping system. She understood most of what I said, but usually replied in chitambuka.

The first time we went to Mesha Kongora’s farm, I was able to take one soil sample and look at a trial before a sudden downpour started. Mesha’s home and farm are a hike from any drivable path, so we had walked for about 15 minutes to get to the field in the first place. Once the downpour started, we ran back to his home, a two room brick and mud home with a thatched roof. I had never stood under thatching during heavy rain and was impressed at how well it held. We waited until the rain stopped. In Chitambuka, Mesha said that I was a visitor who brought a sharp knife – which is apparently a saying – meaning that I brought the rain.

Mesha Kongora (3rd from left) in his pigeon pea variety trial

George Kauteka is Betti’s neighbor. He has a soya trial on his farm. I wasn’t able to learn much about him as he spoke no English, but he was very nice, and helped excavate roots. He liked that one of the new varieties flowered earlier, and noticed a difference between the inoculated and un-inoculated trials.

G. Kauteka (on right) in his soya variety trial


Posted in Uncategorized on March 3, 2010 by soilplantfood

The Kepesa brothers live next door to each other in houses that are almost identical except that Anthony Kepesa has blue trim and a thatched roof and Tobias has green trim and a tin roof. Both are thin, wirey, energetic, extremely kind, and super interested in agronomic science. They volunteer for every variety trial SFHC has to offer and Tobias asked that Bunda send seed for all the crops SFHC does not work with. He wants to know how every variety of every crop will grow on his land. When I came to take soya samples, I could have walked away after the first sample and I am sure that they both would have done a stunning job of finishing. As I only had a 30 cm ruler to measure 50 cm or row, Anthony went into his house and brought out a 50 cm stick to use instead. They took extreme care in helping to excavate soya roots and look for nodules – and while he did not know exactly what the nodules were – he explained that he knows they are on groundnut, and that they are a good thing. I explained about nitrogen fixation and my research, and he asked that I send back all my results with Zacharia because he really wanted to know what I found out.


Posted in Uncategorized on March 3, 2010 by soilplantfood

This place is going to spoil me for field work in the US! Despite the mis-communitcations and waiting for vehicles because someone told the driver to go to another city, I can’t imagine a nicer place to do on-farm work. To begin with, there isn’t a spot in the entire region where the view isn’t stunning. Ekwendeni is surrounded by dramatic ridges that rise out of a high plane. In the valleys are nestled small villages (actual villages – with few people who all know one another) and around them farm fields that extend up toward the hills. In the morning – once the vehicle has been situated – we drive up into one of the regions. At first the road is paved, then we turn onto an unmarked dirt road, which in turn becomes something less than a road – maybe a water way that has been driven on occasionally – and that will become something of a foot or bicycle path. Malawian drivers are the best I have ever seen – at least in these situations – they can do things with a truck that would be the envy of any country boy in the US I have ever met. Once the truck truly cannot drive any further, we get out and walk, through fields, along streams until we reach the farm in question. The farms are usually brick huts with thatched roofs, an outdoor kitchen structure, various woven structures for storing maize and often some chicken or pigeon houses. (The birds aren’t penned, but wander about, the houses are just where they sleep). We meet the farmer, they take us out further to their fields and then have always helped me take samples. While there is definitely a language barrier – they are intensely interested in the research process, and everyone I have met so far is extremely excited to have research trials on their farms, even when they don’t do well.

This may not seem terribly exciting, but what I love about it is that when we pass a fruit tree, Zacharia – the extension person accompanying me – makes sure to stop and pick some guavas or mangos. There are usually several farms in an area that have a trial on them (I am working on the soyabean variety trials, but the organization I am working with also has groundnut trials, pigeonpea trials and an inter-cropping/ rotational systems trial with groundnut, pigeonpea and maize), and the farmers from the first will usually come along to see the rest, to see their friends and give each other (and Zacharia) shit the entire time. One woman asked me if I ate pumpkin, and if I had ever had Malawian pumpkin. I had not, so before I left, she ran into her home and brought out a fresh hot steaming pumpkin in a bowl. In truth, visiting farms means visiting villages, greeting everyone in my terrible terrible ChiTambuka (language of northern Malawi), smiling when they laugh, and learning to be generous, open, and humble in a profound way.
On Friday, the day after I arrived in Ekwendeni, I did a training for the Farmer Research Group on nitrogen fixation in legumes. The FRG is a group of about 70 farmers who are leaders in their villages and work with the Soils Food and Healthy Communities NGO within the Ekwendeni Mission Hospital. They meet the 26th of every month, as an entire group, and in the middle of every month in their communities with other farmers. This organization has helped promote crop diversification, use of legumes as protein rich foods, and better understanding of agronomy in the area. It seems to have really empowered the farmers here to experiment on their own with new crops, to ask for new varieties of seed, and to try new combinations. Surprisingly, the biology behind how legumes improve soil fertility had never been communicated, so that is what my training was on.
(To learn a little more about BNF – here is the pamphlet we used at the training here this Friday)
Nfixation handout small

The training went very well – we went through the pamphlet and discussed in the conference room, took a break, and then went to a near by soya plot to pull up some plants and look at nodules. The first 3 plants I pulled up had no nodules. The first was un-inoculated, the second, was inoculated and the 3rd was a cowpea. I didn’t know what to do, so I explained that if the bacteria are not in the soil, there will be no nodules. They went back to finish their meeting, and I decided to pull up one plant on another variety – success, nodules! We took the roots back to the meeting and passed them around, and everyone was extremely excited to see them (including me!).