03 November 2009

2009-11-03: Mosquito-net litterbags


I awoke late but not too late, and spent the morning in town doing errands. Most importantly, I decided to commission a set of litterbags, but I was stymied for awhile by the fact that no one in Zomba was selling mesh fabric. Then it occurred to me that I could just buy a mosquito net and cut it up. So I bought a mosquito net and took it to a tailor, along with a sample litterbag and instructions. He's going to make me about 100 litterbags by Monday, at twenty kwacha each - good deal! In the afternoon, I went to Makoka and took some photos (drongoes, frangipani, the main offices, a poinciana tree) before getting back to work on my litterfall quadrats. It was an uneventful evening at home with another power outage.

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I awoke at 9 (rather dreadfully late, but it could have been worse considering my crazy schedule yesterday). The first thing I noticed was that my throat felt sore; I seemed to be getting a cold. Hmmm... I hope I don't repeat last year's habit of getting sick every two weeks. That was bad for productivity and morale! Hopefully my immune system and digestive system have now gotten used to what they encounter in Malawi. Whatever this was, it didn't feel too serious.

I wasn't in that much of a rush, so I decided to have some Weet-Bix for breakfast, and sat outside by the front walkway. The puppy tried very hard to join me for breakfast by putting his nose in my bowl. After I pushed him away eight times, he conceded defeat, and lay down next to me looking very mournful.

I was out the door around ten o'clock. It was a bright sunny morning, well on its way to becoming a scorching day. Because I had my camera with me, and because Tasty Bites had just put up a new border of whitewashed tyres and was looking spiffy, I took a photo of it:

Next time I'm inside, I'll try to take a photo of the inside too - not that it is spectacular, but I spend so much time there, you might want to see what it looks like.

My first stop was All Seasons Internet Cafe, where I did various semi-urgent odds and ends: got addresses for some of the letters I'd written yesterday; downloaded the application form for my next fellowship; thanked my colleague for ordering transcripts for me. (I'm afraid, dear readers, there will be a few more days this month during which my adventures consist solely of working on fellowship applications.)

Then I stopped by the market to see if I could find some mesh fabric for my litterbags. Since an example is worth a thousand words, I had brought with me one of my litterbags from last year. Unfortuately, none of the shop owners I asked had seen such fabric, nor had any idea where to get it. That's strange; I bought last year's litterbag fabric right here in Zomba Market. Now I was at a loss for where to turn. I hoped I didn't have to go to Blantyre again.

Wait a minute, I said to myself. I had just been asking the shop owners "Do you have any fabric like a mosquito net?" and they understood, but they didn't have any. Well, if I want something like a mosquito net, why don't I just buy a mosquito net?

So I went to Tachirani Drug Store to see if they had any mosquito nets in stock. There was one left. It was quite a bit more expensive (K850) than the equivalent amount of fabric would have been. Hmmm... maybe I should try to think of other places that sell fabric.

I deferred the decision and went to the post office to send the letters I'd written yesterday. One of them, a photo CD, was heavy enough to need quite a lot of stamps. Butterfly couriers! Go, little butterflies, fly away to New York!

The postmark on my letters said 04.NOV.2009. This date worried me. I thought about the rains coming, thought about the urgency of land preparation and the importance of deploying litterbags at the beginning of the growing season, and decided I needed those litterbags sooner rather than later. So they would have to be mosquito-net litterbags. I went back to Tachirani Drugstore and bought what I bet is the only mosquito net in Malawi ever to meet such a fate.

Now I needed to find a tailor who was willing to undertake such a task for me. First I sat down on the steps of a vacant shop and wrote out a page of instructions for making litterbags (the material, their dimensions, which sides should be sewn closed, etc.). I decided I would be willing to pay K20 (US$0.14) for each 20 × 20 cm litterbag. Assuming the tailor could make twice as fast with a sewing machine as I could by hand, that should work out to a fair day's wage.

As I was writing the instructions, I noticed that four young men had gathered directly behind me and were looking over my shoulder, watching everything I wrote. I looked back at them as if to say "Uhh... is this really that interesting to you?" They acknowledged my glance but didn't budge. Well, I hope my diagrams were entertaining to them.

I went back to the market to find a tailor. I wasn't sure who to ask first, but decided on a small corner stall with an elderly gentleman proprietor. The sign said "Magombo Tailoring Shop."

Mr Magombo spoke some English, so with the aid of the sample litterbag and my written instructions, I was able to explain what I needed (although I didn't even try to explain why - I didn't expect that "decomposition rates of leaf litter" would mean anything to him. I just said I was a scientist doing an agricultural experiment). We were able to agree on my proposed price of K20, and I requested that he make as many litterbags as the mosquito net would yield. I guessed it would be about 100, which would be more than enough. He said they'd be ready on Monday. I had hoped for sooner, but Monday should be OK.

It will be nice not to spend three days sewing litterbags again this year. This seems like a job that is well worth contracting out! I get to support a local tailor and have more time myself to spend on Big Important Tasks, like picking up dead leaves and putting them in envelopes. That would be my afternoon's work.

* * * * *
At Makoka, because I had my camera and it was a nice day, I took a few photos of things that seemed to deserve photos. First of all, here is a close-up of a flower from my favourite frangipani tree along the main driveway. The flowers are a beautiful blend of white, yellow and pink, with a heavenly jasmine-like smell (but sweeter and more tropical). You can see the rest of the tree in the background:

While I was taking this photo, I noticed an avian visitor in the tree. Its shape and colour made it instantly recognisable as a drongo!

Drongoes are among my favourite Australian birds, and they are also native to Africa but I don't see them nearly as often here, so it is cause for excitement when I do. Here are the best photos I could get - sorry my zoom is not too good:

According to my field guide, it was most likely a square-tailed drongo, Dicrurus ludwigii. It flicked its tail and made assertive chirrups, as drongoes usually do, but it was not as bold as the spangled drongoes that visit our birdbath in Queensland. It flew away when I tried to get closer. So that is all the drongo pictures I can give you for now.

My next stop was my office; I wanted to get some large plastic bags from my office to hold the litterfall sample envelopes at Nkula. On my way, I took this photo of the Makoka offices. (The building used by UNDP, in which my office is located, is all the way at the end of the row and not visible in this photo; however, it looks identical to the buildings you see here.)

Then I went to the nursery to check on my Gliricidia seedlings, which are now two weeks old. Aren't they cute?

Although the sprouted seedlings look vigorous, I was disappointed that the germination rate is quite low so far - it looks like less than 60%. That will be enough seedlings for the actual plots, but not for the "guards," the edges of the plots from which I don't collect data. I may have to plant another batch of seedlings for the guards.

On my way to Nkula Field, as I was passing the workshop area (where the tractors, trucks and harvesting equipment are kept), I took this photo of a fabulous little poinciana tree. At this time of year it has more flowers than leaves:

While I was photographing the tree, two young boys came up behind me and watched. I'm sure they'd seen me before - probably everyone at Makoka has by now - but perhaps they hadn't seen my camera before. I let them look at it and asked if I could take their picture. They agreed, so I did, and showed it to them:

I came across Mr Tambala on the road going the same direction as I, on his way home. Oh dear... if the day watchman is going home, it must be rather late. Indeed it was almost four o'clock. Not the best time to be starting fieldwork, but better than nothing... At least my letters and emails were sent, and my litterbags were in the pipeline.

The afternoon's work, such as it was, was uneventful. More quadrats, more Tephrosia leaves, more envelopes. I only got through one plot (four quadrats) by sunset; one quadrat alone took me an hour. I think I need to aim for less accuracy and more speed, lest this job take another week. Perhaps I should aim for less comfort, also. I can reach the ground more easily when I'm sitting down, but since I can then only use one hand to pick up leaves, it's half as efficient.

Just for the heck of it, here is a picture of me in a Tephrosia relay intercrop plot, after finishing my last quadrat for the day:

I had an uneventful and pleasant walk down the driveway at sunset. At the main road, while eating a masuku I'd just bought at the fruit stand, I saw a familiar figure approach: Mr Singo! (In case you weren't reading my blog last year, Mr Singo is the Makoka carpenter; he and his team built all my rain shelters, which are the foundation of my experiments. They did an excellent job, and I was really impressed with Mr Singo's attention to detail, as well as his willingness to question my ideas and improve upon them.)

We shook hands and I told him how glad I was to see him. We'd scarcely had time to ask about each others' families when a pickup truck pulled over on the side of the road near us. It was my neighbour wanting to give me a lift. No minibus for me today!

* * * * *

The power was out when I got home; fortunately one of my housemates had already cooked dinner. It was a long power outage. I worked on my computer (and downloaded the day's photos) until my battery ran out two hours later. I was secretly glad that the power was still out, because it gave me an excuse to lie down and listen to a Sherlock Holmes story on the iPod. My sore throat, although not serious, is definitely a real one caused by a real virus, so having a restful evening seems like a good idea.

(P.S. After the power came back on at nine, I then stayed up too late again working on blog entries. Will I ever learn?!)

Chichewa word of the day: mavembe = watermelon.