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!).