14 October 2009

2009-10-14: Bus trip to Zomba


In the morning I went to ICRAF Lilongwe to meet with Festus, Sileshi, and Olu. We agreed that my rain manipulations this year should simulate both early-season and mid-season drought, so I may have to build some more rain shelters. After my meetings, Lorraine drove me to the Lilongwe bus station, where I spent ninety minutes sitting on a crowded and hot minibus waiting to depart. The bus trip to Zomba was uneventful until a breakdown at Liwonde, at which point we all changed to another bus. We reached Zomba about 8:30 PM, and I was glad to get home.

Main text:

Even in the early morning, it was very warm outside, without a hint of breeze over the river. I should've unfurled the mosquito net over my bed, but that would have made the air even more stifling. Since the windows were screened and mosquitoes were nowhere in sight, I felt safe enough without a net.

Except... I still hadn't taken my first Mefloquin anti-malarial pill, had I? I groggily got out of bed, turned on the light, and rummaged in my suitcase for the Mefloquin. I thought I remembered where I'd put it, but it wasn't there. I looked in my duffel bag too. No Mefloquin.

Oh dear. I hoped it hadn't fallen out when the TSA searched my suitcase at Dulles, or when I opened it for Customs at Lilongwe Airport. I'd have to have a more thorough look when I was more awake.

* * * * *

Finally, at 6:30, I sat up with a start. Maxwell would be here in half an hour! And I had scarcely thought about what to discuss with Festus. I rushed to get dressed and pack. My heart sank as I saw a blood-filled mosquito sitting on the bathroom wall. Only one, but one is enough. I really had to find that Mefloquin.

The restaurant wasn't yet open for breakfast, and anyway I hadn't time. At a few minutes past seven, I hauled my bags downstairs, returned my key, and waited for Maxwell in the foyer. ("Lobby" would be too grand a term for three sagging chairs and a bouquet of dusty plastic flowers.)

The young Malawian man sitting next to me tried to strike up a conversation, but I couldn't really muster up the energy to reciprocate. At least when he asked for my phone number I could truthfully say I didn't have one.

Ah, here was Maxwell in the minibus. I piled in with my luggage, and sat next to a staff member I didn't recognise. He said his name was Anthony (I think), and this was his second day on the job. He is a forestry technician specialising in community-based nurseries and seed banks. He was in Lilongwe only for hiring paperwork - he will be based in Mozambique.

Rush hour in Lilongwe isn't as bad as Los Angeles or Washington DC or Nairobi, but for a small city the traffic packs a punch. Maxwell made some daring right turns to escape from the congestion. Once we were outside the city proper, it was a fifteen-minute drive to Chitedze Research Station.

It was 7:45 when we arrived at ICRAF. Festus wasn't yet in, so I sat in his secretary Lorraine's office and waited. I didn't mind - I needed to write a list of topics to discuss, anyway. As I did this, I was pleased to hear a wine-glass bird (the never-seen bird that sings "Eeeeeee, eeeeee" in pure tones) outside the window. Perhaps it was the very same bird that welcomed me here a year ago.

* * * * *

Lorraine interrupted my thoughts. "Festus won't be in for a while," she said, "but Dr Sileshi is here now. Can you meet with him?"

I packed up my things and headed into Gudeta Sileshi's office. He's trained as an entomologist but has a wide knowledge of Malawian agriculture and agroforestry in particular, and he's given me helpful advice in the past.

Today I wanted his opinion on the best timing for my rainfall manipulations. This question had arisen last year, too, but since my rain shelters weren't finished until late in the season, we just put the roofs up as soon as they were finished. This year we had an opportunity to manipulate the timing however we wanted.

Sileshi and I discussed three possibilities:

  1. Intercept a certain fraction of the rainfall throughout the growing season. This has the advantage of being sort of a null decsion with regard to future rainfall patterns, but the disadvantage of perhaps not achieving any effect on the crops.

  2. Intercept early-season rainfall, because most climate models predict that southern Africa's early-season rains will be reduced by climate change.

  3. Intercept mid-season rainfall, because that is when maize is most vulnerable to drought, and thus when the manipulations are most likely to have a measurable effect.

I'd assumed I would have to choose between these options, but Sileshi pointed out, "You know, it would be very interesting if you could look at both early- and mid-season rainfall, and compare the effects."

"That's a good idea," I said, "except that I don't have any extra plots to add another treatment." I thought for a moment. "Unless... unless I eliminate one of the other treatments. Maybe I could forget about the nitrogen treatment. I think drought is more interesting, anyway."

Sileshi and I were excited by this possibility, although I realised it would entail building more rain shelters, which didn't go very smoothly last year!

While rummaging in my backpack to find a pen, to my great relief I unearthed the Mefloquin. I must have put it there because it was too important to entrust to checked luggage. I managed to slip out a pill and gulp it down while Sileshi had turned to look at something on his computer. Now my worries about mosquitoes were eased.

By the time I'd wrapped up with Sileshi, Festus had arrived - but he was having a busy morning and had to defer meeting with me. I went to meet with Olu instead, but he was also busy. So, I sat down and read a paper of Olu's that I had brought with me. There's no better way to impress your mentors than by being intimately familiar with their publications.

"It's Wednesday," said Lorraine, interrupting my thoughts again. "So today we have free tea in the courtyard. Help yourself."

I wish Makoka Research Station was as convivial as Chitedze Research Station!

* * * * *

Festus was soon ready for me, and as always, greeted me with a big smile and an embrace. It's remarkable that no matter how much he has to do - writing million-dollar grants, taking donors on field trips, publishing high-level research papers - he always makes time to give me feedback.

I posed to him the same question I'd asked Sileshi, about the timing of the drought manipulations. He and I had discussed this previously, but without a definite conclusion.

After a few minutes of discussion, Festus said "You know, I think it would be ideal if you could compare the effects of early-season and mid-season drought. That would be very interesting. It would not be a big sacrifice to eliminate one of the nitrogen treatments."

And I hadn't even mentioned to him the outcome of my talk with Sileshi. That seemed to be a consensus, then!

"What about the seedling experiment?" I asked. "Since the focus there is on trees, not maize, perhaps it makes sense to think about that experiment independently."

We agreed that we'd impose a drought on the seedling experiment during late January / early February, when seedlings (especially late-planted ones) are still highly vulnerable and it is not uncommon to experience several weeks of drought.

I wish I could meet one-on-one with Festus more often. The distance between Lilongwe and Zomba is too great to make visits very practical. But, this was a productive meeting and a great way to start the field season.

* * * * *

Last of all, I went to meet Olu Ajayi. He focuses on the economics of agroforestry, factors influencing agroforestry adoption, and payment for ecosystem services. I had attended a workshop he'd run at the World Congress of Agroforestry in Nairobi in August, and was reminded again of the overarching importance of these human aspects of agroforestry.

Olu and I discussed the impact of Malawi's fertiliser subsidy programme on the desirability of soil fertility agroforestry technologies. The fertiliser subsidy programme (now in its fourth year) has been very successful in raising Malawi's maize yields, at least in years with adequate rainfall.

Olu's own research showed that a full dose of nitrogen fertiliser (especially if subsidised) usually produced higher profits for a farmer than did nitrogen-fixing trees. "So is the subsidy programme making agroforestry less relevant, then?" I asked. This is a question I often get asked myself.

"The positive impact of affordable fertiliser shouldn't be underestimated, for sure," he said. "But there are other things to consider." He pointed out:

  • The fertiliser subsidy programme consumes a large fraction of the government's budget, and seems financially unsustainable; it will probably have to be scaled back.

  • Trees confer other benefits besides nitrogen: not only do they improve the soil in ways that fertilisers do not, they can also sequester carbon, enhance biodiversity, and provide many other positive environmental externalities.

"And that," said Olu, "is why we need to find ways to compensate farmers for those environmental services. It does change the equation."

I would have loved to discuss this further, but I didn't want to take too much of Olu's time, and anyway, I now had four new papers of his to read on my flash drive. So that concluded my visit to Chitedze Research Station.

* * * * *

Except that it didn't. Maxwell had already departed to drive the new employee, Anthony, to Mozambique. So there was no one to take me to the Lilongwe bus station.

I asked Fannie, the head administrator, what I should do. "Just wait here in my office," she said. "Lorraine will drive you."

So I waited. I stared at the ICRAF calendars on the wall. I studied a 2005 notice specifying the kwacha-to-dollar exchange rate. I looked at photos from the Cornell PhD graduation of Rebbie Harawa, a Malawian scientist who was Festus' advisee.

Finally Lorraine was free to drive me to town. I hauled my bags from the minibus to the pickup truck. She asked an errand boy, Kondwani, to accompany us and help me with my bags at the bus station. At first I thought that seemed unnecessary, but when I pictured the chaos of the Lilongwe bus station, with desperate drivers fighting over passengers and literally grabbing them, it didn't seem like such a bad idea to have a Malawian man on my side.

We took a huge circuit around town to avoid traffic. I got to see neighbourhoods of Lilongwe I'd never seen before - including a "furniture ghetto" where all the furniture-makers congregate and sell their goods on the side of the road. There were plush sofas, full dining sets, elaborate headboards, velvet-backed chairs - all made by hand.

Eventually the territory became familiar again, and we approached the bus station. Picture a vast unpaved area full of buses of all shapes and sizes, with parking areas and thoroughfares organically formed and somewhat fluid, bustling with people, strewn with rubbish, and all hemmed in by concrete walls. That is more or less the Lilongwe bus station. Lorraine parked across the street, since attempting to drive a car inside this bus station will get you nowhere fast.

Kondwani took my wheeled suitcase and I took the other two bags. Sure enough, scarcely had we entered the station when a conductor approached us. "Where to, madam? Where to?"

"Zomba," I said hesitantly. Scarcely had the word escaped my lips when the conductor tried to seize my suitcase from Kondwani, saying "Let's go."

"NO," I said. "STOP. NO." The conductor ignored me, so I smacked his arm to make him let go of my suitcase. A couple of thumps and repeated "NO"s got the point across, and he went away.

Kondwani and I walked over to the coach buses (which are cheaper and more comfortable than minibuses), but the last coach for Zomba had departed an hour earlier. A minibus conductor offered me fare to Zomba for only K1000 (US$7), and the bus was already nearly full, which meant it would leave soon. This was too good to refuse, so Kondwani helped lift my bags on board. I bade him farewell, found a seat in the very back of the 25-person bus, and settled down to await departure.

The afternoon was stiflingly hot, and despite the open windows on the bus, not a breeze could be felt. I was sitting in the sun, which made it even hotter. And it didn't help that I was squeezed between one man on my left and two men on my right, with my backpack on my lap and my duffel bag under my feet.

Once we got moving, all would be well; we just needed some breeze. It shouldn't be long now. The bus seemed completely full. Where was the driver?

The only source of entertainment was the never-ending parade of hawkers going past the window. They were selling sunglasses, pens, Nigerian music CDs, cold drinks, bread rolls, sweets, socks, electric shavers, samosas... anything the weary traveler could want. They were quite pushy and all male, except for one woman selling bananas. I was hungry and bought a banana from her for K10.

Half an hour passed. An hour passed. Being unable to move and perspiring from the heat, packed in with other people who were similarly perspiring, was not a good way to spend an hour.

Finally! At about ten past three, ninety minutes after I boarded, the driver returned to the bus and started the engine. As we rolled out of the bus station, a very welcome breeze filled the windows. It wasn't long before I leant forward with my head on my backpack, and fell asleep.

* * * * *

An hour or so later, I awoke feeling better. Now that there was some scenery going by, I had a continuous source of enjoyment. Malawi really is a beautiful country. Mountains and hills, of the most diverse and fascinating shapes, are always in view. Tiny, impeccably tended farms flank the roadsides. I wasn't able to take any photos from my crowded seat in the minibus, but here is a photo I took last year when I made the same trip with Maxwell in an ICRAF vehicle:

At this time of year, farmers have mostly finished their land preparation (in which they hoe the bare soil into alternating ridges and valleys, burying last season's maize stover underneath each ridge). The purpose of the ridges is to conserve as much water as possible and prevent erosion. This is crucial in a land where cultivation takes place on slopes, often steep ones, and where maize production depends solely on capricious rainfall.

In the agroforestry systems with which I am working, the trees are usually pruned at this time of year, and their branches buried beneath the ridges along with the maize stover. Unfortunately I hadn't returned in time to do this myself for MZ12 (the mature Gliricidia experiment); the Gliricidia had begun flowering in early October, and Festus asked Mwafongo to go ahead and do the land preparation without me. However, the job still needed to be done at Nkula, my seedling establishment experiment. That would be one of my first tasks when I returned.

But October is a very hot month in Malawi, and hoeing the rock-hard soil is extremely hard work. I had to admit I wasn't looking forward to it, even with all the extra hands that would help me.

* * * * *

One of the pleasures of a long minibus voyage is the cornucopia of snacking options that appear along the way. Whenever the bus stops at a town or market, vendors rush to the bus windows hoping to make a quick sale. In the rural areas, they usually sell fruits, vegetables, roasted maize, and boiled groundnuts; in the towns, they may also sell cold drinks, mandazi (doughnuts), hard-boiled eggs, salted dried fish, or - my favourite - chips.

In Malawi, chips (by which of course I mean french fries) are not quite the same as in the US, Australia or Europe. Malawian potatoes are small, about the size of a hen's egg. They have rough brown skins that are always peeled off before cooking. Inside they are pale yellow, with smooth, dense, sweet flesh. Chips made from these potatoes are short, stubby, usually moist and greasy, and quite delicious with a sprinkling of salt.

So, about halfway through the trip, as the sun was setting, I was happy to part with K50 for a small bag of chips. That was my dinner. Thank goodness I had brought some napkins with me to soak up the grease.

After I polished off the last chip, the fellow sitting to my right (who had boarded recently) struck up a conversation with me. His name was Henry, and he was a student at Chancellor College in Zomba. He was very curious to learn about life in California, and asked many good questions. Unfortunately, the roar of the bus, combined with his strong accent and rapid speech, made conversation difficult. I managed to answer the straightforward questions such as "What is your staple food?" and "Why do fires burn houses in California?", but when he asked me to explain the US health care system, I had to give up.

He seemed like an interesting person though, and I got his phone number. (It would be nice to know some more people at Chancellor College, since it is just down the road from me.) I also borrowed his phone to text Jacintha, saying I would arrive in Zomba by around 8 PM.

* * * * *

My prediction would have been accurate, if only the electrical system in the bus had held out a little longer. Just past Liwonde (an hour north of Zomba) the whole bus suddenly became dark, and the driver pulled off to the side of the road.

The passengers began discussing this development in Chichewa. After a few minutes, I asked Henry to explain what was going on.

"First the headlights stopped working," he said, "and now the engine will not start. The driver is trying to fix it."

I was not optimistic that this problem could be solved on the roadside in pitch blackness, but all the other passengers were waiting, so I waited too. Ten minutes went by, then twenty, then thirty. At that point, another large minibus saw our plight and pulled over in front of us. Passengers deserted the stricken bus en masse and piled onto the new bus. I followed as quickly as I could with my luggage.

Sometimes, when this happens, the conductor of the broken-down minibus will pay the remainder of each passenger's fare to the conductor of the rescuing minibus. However, in this case no such offer was made. I suppose we were expected to wait indefinitely for the bus to be repaired. But I wanted to get home!

The new minibus proceeded mostly without incident, although we were delayed for awhile at a police roadblock. The police seemed especially intent on searching all the large bags of agricultural produce. Perhaps this was part of the marijuana crackdown Maxwell had been telling me about.

As we approached Zomba, we were passed by a speeding, nearly empty minibus. It was our former bus that had broken down! They'd fixed it after all. Oh well - I don't think our desertion was unreasonable.

Finally, around eight-thirty, we entered Zomba city limits. I asked the driver to stop at the BP filling station, a convenient landmark very near my house. Henry helped me lift my bags out of the bus, and it drove away.

Home! At last, I was home-away-from-home.

* * * * *

I wheeled my suitcase up the unpaved driveway to the flats, balanced it precariously, and opened the black metal gate. The security guard who approached was new to me, but I doubted that would be a problem. One of the good things about being a mzungu is that no one suspects you of trying to rob houses.

My bedroom looked just the same: a medium-sized room, mostly empty, with my homemade desk in one corner and a mattress in the other corner. As soon as I walked in, I smelt the fir-scented candle that had kept me company through so many blackouts this year. The familiar scent somehow anchored me, and made me feel once and for all that I really was back. Now Malawi was real, and California was in my imagination.

"All right," I said, "now I need to take a shower and go to bed!"

The routine still felt familiar: get pink nightgown and small blue towel, mix hot and cold water in red plastic tub, kneel in bathtub, pour water over self with bowl. Oh, it felt so good to get clean. There's nothing like seven hours on a minibus to make one utterly grimy - especially during the dry season, with the air full of dust and smoke. The water I poured through my hair came out brown. I supposed there was more of the same on the inside of my lungs.

I was tired, but not sleepy - probably due to jet lag. It was nice to be alone for a little while and have some quiet time to unwind. Finally, at midnight, I switched off the light. It was good to be back. I just wished I didn't have to leave my loved ones quite so far behind.

Chichewa word of the day: nkhumba = pig
(Today, on the road, I saw the first pigs I've ever seen in Malawi.)


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