From Brown to Green to White

Balaka has for many months been very hot, dry and dusty. There were, miraculously, trees that continued to produce beautiful flowers and sustain green leaves and even produce delicious mangos. But at the same time, the air was often filled with a choking haze from smoldering leaf litter fires. In fields and along roads it was common to see blackened ground where people set fire to dry grasses. It made the landscape at times look very desolate.

During the last two weeks however, previously barren ground has quickly turned green! Grass is sprouting all over, dormant trees and bushes have sprouted and it now rains almost every day – sometime a little, sometime a LOT. After months of cloudless skies, the clouds are shielding us from the scorching sun. Today the temperatures are in the low to mid-20s (that’s under 80 for those who prefer the Fahrenheit scale) in marked contrast to the typical 35-38C (95 to 100 F) temperatures for all of October and November.

Meanwhile back at home, the first snow storm of the year is dumping copious quantities of snow on southern Ontario. One week from today I will be arriving back in Canada and hopefully there will still be enough to go skiing in Waterloo.

My return to Canada will no doubt include some time reflecting upon my experiences in Malawi. I will add additional comments to this blog to share some of those thoughts and I have several draft postings awaiting me – some that have been waiting for weeks – as I work through some of my thoughts and the challenges they present. Please let me know if you want to discuss them by phone or email or in person.

For the moment though, it is back to the computer to complete a document.

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Laugh or Cry ?


I struggled with the decision of whether to post this. It is the most incomprehensible thing I have encountered while in Malawi. It is probably easier to read on the
newspaper site

It must be a long difficult and bizarre chain of life circumstances that leads someone to this. I have read there are three reasons for stupid, unsustainable action: greed, ignorance and desperation. This man must have been very desperate. Or he wanted to find a new way of qualifying for the Darwin Awards.

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Pumpkin Pie

My belly is pleasantly stuffed with mashed potatoes, dressing and pumpkin pie. Ahhhhh Thanksgiving, American style !! A bunch of christian missionaries are in Balaka from Minnesota and there was no way they were going to miss the quintessential American Holiday meal. They brought cranberry sauce and canned pumpkin pie filling and colorful (not colourful) paper napkins. Turkey are hard (but not impossible) to find in Malawi, so they cooked up half a dozen chickens that were fantastic. I understand they even staged a mini Macy’s Parade this morning.

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Bestings is probably about ten years old and Sunday morning he joined me a few hundred meters after I started my run. Many children, usually in groups, will do the same, but they usually drop away quickly amongst a chorus of laughter, so I don’t normally slow down; we might exchange greetings and maybe names which I usually forget within a few moments as my thoughts go elsewhere.

Saturday night was the start of the rain season, it rained from late afternoon until late night. Sunday morning was overcast which kept the temperature down. There were large puddles on the road. It smelled of wet earth. I saw and heard new birds and there were new bugs all over the ground. Small African wildlife that was all very new and interesting to me.

Last week the Wildlife & Environmental Society of Malawi invited me to speak to the Wildlife Club at a local school. They discussed the club’s tree planting project which lead into my talk about the forest reserve around the Mpira Reservoir. The Mpira water system delivers tap water for about 500,000 people including our water in Balaka. Maintaining, expanding and improving the Mpira system is the primary responsibility of the District Water Office where I work.

As Bestings and I continued our jog around his block, we struggled to find words we both knew, generally I had to respond with the Chichewa version of “I don’t understand”. Then Bestings said “Mpira !”. Now I understood why he had the big smile and why he joined me — I had used my very limited Chichenglish to tell people I go running in the morning and they should join me. I was very happy that Bestings remembered me and more importantly, he remembers the source of his water.

I don’t know the name of the trees that are all flowering right now with incredible pink / red / orange blossoms, but they make any road look beautiful.

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Pass the Tobacco

My EWB colleague Mark Abbott posted an excellent comment on his blog today about changes in Thai cuisine and what it could mean for people in Ghana.

I think his conclusion applies here in Malawi where something like 70% of the foreign exchange coming into the country results from one single crop — tobacco. Malawi needs to diversify their economy in a BIG way. Unfortunately to kick the tobacco habit is tough for both smokers and farmers.

Malawi was recently unsuccessful with their efforts to lobby for delays to tightening international policies on tobacco flavouring (such as chocolate, licorice and strawberry). The International Tobacco Growers Association says the treaty could shrink the economy of Malawi by 20 percent.

While I don’t know the profit per acre for tobacco in contrast to any other crops, it seems to me that Malawi like other developing nations, needs to create and sell value-added products not simply commodities and they need to pass the tobacco baton to some other countries.

This is likely a very naïve review of the agricultural realities of Malawi. Transportation of higher value crops that spoil more easily than tobacco would be a non-trivial constraint. And as Mark points out, domestic consumption of some crops would require some creative cultural introductions.

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Farming Lessons

Last night it rained most of the night and today the radio was saying “the rains have arrived” as they forecasted clouds and rain across most of the central and southern parts of the country. The farmers have been preparing their fields for months and will probably move into planting mode this week. In some places where it has already rained, maize is sprouting.

Over the past few weeks I have learned a few things about farming in Malawi:

Lesson #1 — Everybody farms
Well almost everyone, but with over 80% of people in Malawi depending to a great extend upon their farming income and harvest, it is the foundation of the economy. Obviously we all rely upon farmers, but at home it is easy to forget about them. Here in Malawi, farming, even if you live in one of the large cities, is hard to ignore — there are people selling domestically grown food in the streets every day. Even wealthy Malawians will frequently have some land within their walled and guarded grounds to grow some food, typically mazine (aka white corn).

Lesson 2 — Farming can be Controversial
I started this message about three weeks ago when I discovered enormous lineups for subsidized fertilizer. The photo doesn’t give a sense for the scale of hundreds of people waiting to get seeds or fertilizer. It also doesn’t show hundreds of bicycles like the ones in the foreground that will peddle and push a 50kg bag to a near-by village. The door opens at 7:30, I am not sure when the line starts forming — probably very early if you live 10 or 20 kilometers away. These lineups will continue for some more weeks as some people just received their coupons today.

A few weeks ago the lead story in the newspapers was about a large NGO suggesting the government could not sustain the small farmer assistance program and it should be stopped. The President of Malawi says and does a lot of strange things, but I agreed with his response that western nations have substantial subsidies to various industries and they have no grounds for complaining about his government helping poor farmers.

In each village there is a process for deciding who qualifies for subsidy assistance, with input coming from the village chief, a committee and the Agriculture Ministry’s local staff. Being on the list means you will receive four coupons (50kg fertilizer, 50 kg urea fertilizer, maize & legume seeds) and it seems they must come on different days for each item. The subsidized price for the fertilizer is about $3.50 vs the normal $30-$35 list price. Apparently fertilizer this year is half the price of last year. I can only imagine that someone left off the list would not be very happy.

Lesson 3 — Small change, big result
A few weeks ago a colleague from Canada made a short visit to Malawi on her way to Mozambique and Zambia to check some facts and gather some first-hand stories for a report she is helping edit. Nidhi’s contacts took us to visit some farmers who have been using a technique referred to as conservation farming.

Since I arrived in Malawi, I have watched people all across the country hoe their land into long ridges that contour the land — the standard method for growing maize. Everyone grows white corn in Malawi because virtually everyone eats it a couple times per day in the form of nsima. The conservation method creates pits across a field and they generate about 50-100% more yield for the farmers we met. The logic is that the pit holds rain water better and reduces runoff. In a dry year that is critical. The land is also not tilled every year which helps reduce soil loss and also keeps more water in the soil. Some farmers we met also inter-crop — meaning they plant other species within the pits. Beans are the classic because they put nitrogen into the soil while maize consumes it.

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We had an EWB Malawi team meeting this weekend in Zomba; a short two hour trip for me, not the 12+ hours for some. And since it was Halloween weekend, there was a costume party on Saturday night. My costume was a t-shirt with three shirt collars stitched into the shape of an A: collar-ahh 🙂 The most shocking costume went to team leader Mike Kang who put his hair into a mohawk and truly looked bad-ass ! More pictures to follow when I get some from others.

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