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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!

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!).

Millennium Village

Posted in Uncategorized on March 3, 2010 by soilplantfood

Millenium Village 20 Feb 2010:
The driver for the UNDP (United Nations Development Project) was amazing. I had been jolted and jogged over these roads many times before, but with him driving, I hardly know we were in Malawi. At about 8:30 in the morning, the truck arrived to pick Sieg and me up at her home in Lilongwe. In the car was a female Malawian journalist and an employee of UNDP, plus the driver. We left town and headed west toward the Zambian border. We passed through the high density village suburbs near the city and came to where there was actual separation of natural space between maize fields. As we got further from the city we could see the maize begin to get shorter and less vigorously green. About an hour outside of Lilongwe, we stopped at a service station near a dirt road were 2 other UNDP trucks were sitting. A small group of people, were standing there. We were soon introduced to Pedro Sanchez, plus the local directors for this cluster. We were briefed on what we would see in this village, got back into the trucks and headed toward the village on a very rough, wet road. It had rained very hard the night before – waking me several times, and the roads showed the abuse.

The Millennium Village Project was begun in 200X as a way to show the kind of strides that can be made when intensive resources are put into the hands of villagers along with guidance and organization to allow people to decide what they themselves need. The project focuses on agriculture, education, health, connectivity and entrepreneurial development, and ____. The goals are intense – to get all children in the village a primary school education, cell phone access, and access to health care. To improve yields, and the overall goal is to help move the villages from destitute poverty to something resembling hope, opportunity and future. There are 80 Millennium Villages, situated into clusters, distributed throughout 11 African countries.

In the US, we think of a village as a small thing – a town where a couple hundred to maybe 2000 people (adults and children) live. Villages in Malawi have exploded, and the area where we visited was home to several thousand villagers. A village, I learned, is not defined by population, or by proximity to a city, but by lack of infrastructure or resources. The MVP is trying to see what happens when one changes that.

As we approached this village we immediately saw a difference in the maize. It was green, tall and had multiple ears per stalk. Sieg said that when she had visited the area last November, she had witnessed people with string making straight ridges, ox-carts hauling compost and placing both compost and fertilizer in the ridge. While compost is promoted all over Malawi, it rarely seems to be used. Excited, the three trucks stopped and people photographed the Maize. We continued to the village where the first stop was a Zain cell-phone kiosk. Before cell phones, villagers had to travel miles and miles in order to reach a phone. The infrastructure for land-lines is costly, and never arrived, but cell phones did. The kiosk had a solar cell that enabled people to charge their cell phones there, buy minutes, and use a public cell phone for money. This not only allows people to contact relatives or doctors, but to know the price of crops and commodities so they can sell things at the best rate. Several of these kiosks in the village make this connectivity possible.

We also saw a new community center built. The villagers made and provided the bricks and sand and labor to build this. The project provided doors, windows roofs and a contractor to direct the building. In it, it contains a community room, rooms for health clinic, offices for extension workers when they are in the village and storage space for agriculture inputs and seed.

New well pumps allow access to much deeper, cleaner groundwater reserves, and concrete around the well keeps water clean.

The MVP helped build 3 school classroom units, each containing 2 classrooms. The community, upon seeing the number of students who came to school built another classroom unit. A total of 1700 children attend school in these 8 classrooms. I can’t quite imagine how learning happens, but from talking to others, this isn’t unusual. Their biggest problem is that they have no housing for teachers, and no one in the community who already lives there is equipped to teach.


Rain and Music

Posted in Uncategorized on February 16, 2010 by soilplantfood

So I got to see the other Lilongwe this weekend. The real Lilongwe where the majority of the people live. Sieg has told me that the city was designed by Afrikaners before the end of apartheid in South Africa, which accounts for the abundance of walls and the ability of expats to live within spitting distance of Malawians and not see them. The three guys (Names: Alan, JB and Morris) I met at the market place invited me to go to one of their homes to eat and then go to a concert, drink and dance. How could I say no?? We walked from the market through downtown, and then at a particular place, we stepped onto a footpath between two walls. 100 yards later, we came out on the other side into what seemed to be a village that had been swallowed up by the city. Alan – the guy whose house we were going to, referred to it as a ghetto, and it sort of is. There were some foul smelling piles of open compost – rotting fruit and maize husks, people packing charcoal in to sacks that they then stacked on bicycles… On the other side of this square, the neighborhood became much quieter and at a particular point, we stepped behind a wall made of woven bamboo or reeds to Alan’s fathers home. It was lovely. A concrete porch, beside a small yard area, and to the side an out-door kitchen hut, where food is cooked over a wood fire. There were two women there – and I’m not sure what the relationship was, but I greeted them – very awkwardly, with a lot of prompting from JB – in Chechewa. Alan split some wood, and made a fire on the cookstove, there was a tap near the fence for water, and within a bit of time, Alan and one of the women had made Nsima with meat (small bits of mostly cartilage) and vegetables. I actually really liked it. A little salt on the Nsima makes it pretty good, and the vegetable was very similar to thin sliced and cooked collard or mustard greens (dark and bitter). Nsima is white corn-meal starch, cooked in water and then formed into small foot-ball shaped patties, similar to thick grits, but with less “corn” flavor.

After eating, we rinsed our hands, thanked our hosts and made our way not to much further to where the concert was happening. I was delighted to see an even mix of men and women there. It was Valentine’s day so a lot of the girls were wearing red. Apparently the president got married the same day as well.

Today – Tuesday – it finally rained. It seems like I haven’t seen a good day of rain since I arrived and this is the rainy season. I have heard a lot of talk – and worry – about the erratic rain. Maize is tasseling, and without rain, there would be a much smaller harvest. In the US, this would be difficult for farmers, who would make less money, some might even go out of business – but it doesn’t portend mass starvation. In Malawi, no rain = no food. There are many different reactions to this, and it is still uncertain – especially as the dry spell broke today. On Sunday, JB and Morris were saying they wanted to go buy Maize in Zambia to sell for profit, others think that this is an overreaction – we still have two more months to see how this shakes out.