16 October 2009

2009-10-16: All's well at Makoka


I spent the morning in town doing errands, several of which were frustrating - I had to buy a new phone sim card instead of reactivating my old one, and I failed to convince the post office that a one-year box rental fee should be good for one year. But the day improved when I went back to Makoka for the first time since my return. All is well at the nursery and at my two experiments; the rain shelters are fine, the trees are as they should be, and no one seemed to be overworked in my absence. When I got home, I went out for dinner with some friends at Hotel Masongola. Hotel Masongola was (as usual) almost as good as it is trying to be.

Main text:

Oh no! What time was it? Already seven-thirty, and I wanted to be at the Zain customer service centre when it opened at eight. This was excellent motivation to get up quickly.

I jumped into my clothes, rubbed on some sunscreen and grabbed my hat, and was out the door in record time. I took the shady back road that passed by Sir Harry Johnston International Primary School. It would've been nice to linger and enjoy the frangrance of the frangipanis, but I was on a mission. I arrived at Zain at 8:03.

There was one man sitting alone at the service desk. I explained to him my predicament, and he said "Sorry, madam. It is not possible to reactivate a sim card once it has been cancelled."

"Are you quite sure?" I said. "Someone told me it is possible."

"Well..." he hesitated. "The lady who knows about these things does not arrive until nine o'clock. If you can return later, she can assist you."

I decided to pass the time at All Seasons Internet cafe. I posted a blog entry, answered some more emails, and downloaded a fellowship application. When each webpage takes minutes to load, it's amazing how long you can spend online accomplishing very little. It was nearly 11 when I went back to Zain.

Unfortunately, the senior staff member at Zain told me the same thing: there could be no reactivation of a cancelled sim card. I was surprised and disappointed, but my options seemed to have run out, so I conceded and bought a new card. It's not that sim cards are expensive - they're only K400 (US$3) - but I really wanted to keep my old number. Rats.

On my way to National Bank, I surreptitiously took this photo of one of the main streets in town:

I don't usually take photos around town because it attracts too much attention. This is not a great picture, but it illustrates several of the main features of Zomba: Zomba Plateau in the background, the tall trees lining the main highway, the mosque (on the left, just in front of the trees), the general ambience of small colourful shops, and the narrow paved roads with wide unpaved shoulders, bustling with vehicles and pedestrians.

What a surprise I had when I walked into National Bank! The interior has been completely redone, transformed from 1950s-style dark wood cubicles into a 21st-century lobby with a gracefully curved service counter, electronic displays, a polished floor, and gold accents here and there. Zomba is really on the up-and-up. This was a bank fit for VIPs.

I stood in the Forex queue, and soon had my question answered: my US dollar account was currently "dormant" but would be reactivated upon receipt of a deposit. So that's one thing going according to plan, anyway.

* * * * *

My last errand before going to Makoka was the post office. First, I needed to go home and finish writing a letter that I wanted to send. It sure is nice to have a flat so close to town.

One of my roommates was home, cooking. "Would you like some lunch?" she said.

"I'm sorry, I'm rushing too much," I said. "Thank you though." I hoped she didn't think I didn't like her cooking. I do!

I should explain a little bit about lunchtime in Malawi. In Malawian tradition, the midday meal is communal, hearty, and unhurried. Women cook the meal at home; men return from work and children return from school around 11:30. Everyone eats together; afterwards there is time to rest. (Whenever I eat a Malawian lunch, with large dense blobs of nsima, greasy fried kale, and thick bean stew, I find myself almost unable to move afterwards!) Lunchtime lasts until 1 PM, 1:30, or sometimes even 2.

This tradition has not been entirely preserved with modernisation. In Malawi's urban areas, office workers eat lunch by themselves or with colleagues, as in any city around the world. But in rural areas, going home for lunch is still the rule. (Malawians often don't eat breakfast, so maybe that explains the emphasis on lunch.)

Since I'm so used to eating lunch on the run, the idea of sitting down and relaxing for two hours at midday still feels strange to me. When I'm working with labourers at Makoka, I usually find something else to do while they all go home for their long lunch.

* * * * *

I rushed out the door again, letter in hand, and went to the post office. Let's see if they would understand my point about me having already paid my box rental through to November.

Flora, the clerk, recognised me at once. "Ah, you're back," she said. "How is the U.S.?" In Malawi it is polite to inquire about the well-being of one's home. Within a village, people ask each other whether all is well ku nyumba (at the house). When I am at Makoka, people ask me "How is Zomba?" And when I have been away from Malawi altogether, the appropriate question is "How is the U.S.?"

"It's fine," I said to Flora. "Thank you. It was very good to see my family. They are all well."

I wished I didn't have to bring up the issue of PO Box rental, but I had no choice. I showed her the slip saying my box rental had expired on 30 June, and explained that I had paid for one full year starting in November last year.

"But this was due on 30th of June," she said.

"I know," I said, "but it shouldn't be. In November, I paid for one year. So I should not pay again until this November."

"Payment was already due," she said. "You have to pay again to renew your box. It has expired on 30th of June."

"But..." I said. "It is wrong to give everyone the same expiration date. What if someone pays for one year on the first of June? Then does it still expire on 30th of June?"

"You need to discuss with the postmaster," she said. "Currently he's at lunch but he will return at one o'clock."

"OK," I said. It was a few minutes to one. I posted my letter and waited in the postmaster's office.

Ten minutes later, Flora came in. "I'm sorry, he has been delayed," she said. "Can you return in one hour?"

"No, I can't, sorry," I said. "I must go to Makoka. I'll return on Monday. Have a nice weekend."

"Nice weekend to you too," she said.

* * * * *

I bought a drinking yoghurt on the way to the minibus (that was my lunch-on-the-go). I also ran into Steve Ching'ota, the proprietor of FedEx Zomba, who saw me frequently last year as I sent off my various fellowship applications. FedEx is actually very reliable... if only it weren't so expensive!

While I waited for a minibus on the edge of town, I was approached by a middle-aged women carrying a basket on her head. She said something to me in Chichewa.

"Sindikumvetsa," I said. ("I don't understand.")

Undaunted, the woman continued talking to me. She took the basket off her head and uncovered it to reveal some tomatoes.

"Zikomo," I said, shaking my head. "Basi. Sindikufuna." ("Thanks, it's OK, I don't want any.")

Perhaps she thought I just hadn't adequately seen how wonderful her tomatoes were. She held one up for me and turned it around.

I wished I knew how to say "We already have tomatoes at home." I nearly could have, but I didn't know the Chichewa word for "tomatoes." So I just continued to shake my head politely.

The woman turned to several other topics of conversation, none of which I understood, before finally shrugging and continuing on her way.

* * * * *

The minibus trip was uneventful, and in twenty-five minutes I was at the entrance to Makoka Agricultural Experiment Station (as the green-and-yellow sign proudly proclaims). Everything looked the same as when I left. As I walked down the long, dusty driveway, I felt a growing sense of excitement, and a smile came unbidden to my face. This is why I'm here! I love being in the field - the natural beauty, the peacefulness, and the endless scientific questions to explore. It's too easy to lose sight of that when I am bogged down doing errands in town.

First, I decided, I would go to the ICRAF nursery and say hello to everyone there. Then I'd go to Nkula Field, and finally to MZ12. On the road to the nursery, I ran into Steve Gomomba. He shook my hand and said, "The rumours are true. I heard you were back in town."

"Yes, the rumours are true!" I said. "I just returned on Tuesday."

"So you are three days old in Malawi," he said.

I said Tionana to Steve, and continued on to the nursery. As I approached the nursery fence, I noticed a nice new gate made out of tidy sticks and straw. It's amazing what Malawians can do with sticks and straw. (Next week I will be making a nursery bed out of same.)

Chiku was in the nursery office. I couldn't tell whether he was surprised to see me, since his demeanor is always so calm. He said everything had been fine in my absence, and brought me up to date on several things:

  • New watchmen had been employed for my two experiments, because ICRAF can't hire temporary labourers for more than three consecutive months, and I had been gone for five months.

  • They had removed the polythene sheets from Nkula field and stored them in my office. (That must have been a lot of work, carrying all those heavy plastic sheets by hand.)

  • Land preparation was still continuing at MZ12. The workers would be starting tomorrow at 6 AM (!) to avoid the heat. (I reluctantly said I would join them.)

"And how is everything at the nursery?" I asked.

"Everything is fine," Chiku said. He paused. "Except, yesterday we had... cylonic winds. They have damaged the greenhouse." He pointed across to one of the greenhouses.

"Oh!" I said. Sections of the roof and walls were torn off. The damage was very concentrated. It must have been a...

"Chimvulumvulu?" I said, remembering my new vocabulary word. (These are small, fierce whirlwinds common in Malawi during the dry season.)

"Yes, it was," he said.

"I'm very sorry about it," I said. "I hope the damage can be fixed." Thank goodness I don't have to worry about my rain shelters being similarly damaged, because zimvulumvulu (plural) disappear when the rains start.

I greeted Mrs Kalipinde, the nursery manager, and asked her permission to build a nursery bed for some Gliricidia seedlings next week. She said that would be fine. Before leaving, I walked around the nursery a bit, and took a picture of the greenhouse damage:

Now, it was time to visit Nkula Field. On the way, I was very pleased to encounter a black-capped bulbul (a cheerful medium-sized flycatcher with a black crest and a yellow underbelly) and a white-browed robin-chat, which looks much like an American robin. I missed you, birds!

The mature trees in the Gliricidia seed bank, just across the road from Nkula, had lost nearly all their leaves during the dry season, and now were mostly adorned just with green seed pods:

As I rounded the final bend in the road, I was relieved to see the roofs of my rain shelters appear. All was well at Nkula. Approaching the plots, I was surprised to see that the seedlings had not grown much since I left. Well, of course not, silly. It hadn't rained since I left!

Here I am with some nine-month-old Gliricidia seedlings:

(Don't worry, Dad, I was wearing my hat today. I just took it off for the photo.)

Next I greeted the new watchman, who I had not yet met. He must have known who I was, because he didn't seem too surprised when I walked up. I wished I could say more to him than "Good afternoon," "[Looks] good," and "Thank you." I hope I got the point across.

Upon a more thorough examination of the plots, I noticed something really remarkable. One of the experimental treatments had been early vs. late planting of the seedlings; I planted half of the seedlings in late December or early January, and the other half a month later. Now that nine months had passed, I expected that the late-planted seedlings would nearly have caught up.

But no! It looked as though the seedlings had nearly ceased growth in April, when the rains stopped. So effectively the late-planted seedlings had only three months to grow, instead of four. And apparently they had missed out on that "teenage" stage, when the rate of biomass production is greatest.

Look at the difference in this Tephrosia improved fallow. The right half of the plot was planted on 30 December 2008 (290 days ago); the left half, on 5 February 2009 (253 days ago):

Amazing. It looks as though the early-planted seedlings have at least three times as much biomass, presumably with a commensurate effect on nitrogen addition. What a difference a month makes! I'm looking forward to quantifying this.

I have a special fondness for Nkula Field. Being more remote, it is quieter and more peaceful than MZ12. I see more birds here; I can rest at lunchtime without passersby disturbing me; and I can think my own thoughts. And I created the whole experiment from start to finish; no one told me what to do. Its virtues are mine alone; its flaws are mine alone.

* * * * *

Now it was time to visit MZ12. I took the shortcut through the cassava field, through the patch of forest (where I once saw a hoopoe and ever since have hoped to see another), and past the football pitch. My first glimpse of MZ12 through the trees revealed a very tidy field, with the Gliricidia pruned to stumps and the rows neatly aligned:

And my rain shelters all looked fine, too. Thank goodness. I walked up the edge of the field, wondering what had happened to the litterbags I'd left buried in May.

Ah, here was Mr Tambala, the day watchman, who I knew well from last year. Hhe greeted me matter-of-factly and told me that everything was fine.

I asked about his family and his home, as is the polite thing to do. Then I asked what had happened since I'd been gone. "Were there any robbers?" I asked.

"There were," he said. "At Nkula field, some polythenes* were missing. The other watchmen knew I was at Nkula that day. They say I took them. This make me very sorry. But I know someone in the village took the polythenes. I find him, and he return them. That is why we shift the other polythenes to your office, because they are not safe at Nkula."

* This refers to the clear sheets of polythene plastic that form the removable roofs of the rain shelters. They had been rolled up and stored inside the watchman's hut.

"Thank you," I said. "Shifting them must have been a lot of work. And I'm very glad you found the thief."

"Ah, we find him," said Mr Tambala. "He has confess."

"It is foolish to steal those polythenes," I said, "because they look so different. You cannot buy them around here. So, if someone has them, it means he is a thief!"

I thanked Mr Tambala for his work over the past months, and told him I'd be there tomorrow morning at six to help with the land preparation. (Although the trees had already been pruned and the maize stover buried, it had been done only roughly, and now it was necessary to go through with a hoe, straightening and building up the ridges.)

* * * * *

As I walked up the long driveway, two young girls fell into step behind me. This happens so often I scarcely think anything of it. They tried to speak to me in Chichewa, and my repeated protests of "Sindikumvetsa" had no effect. Finally they switched to English. They tried on me every English phrase they had learned at school:


"Catherine," I said. (I go by my middle name in Malawi, since it is much easier for everyone to remember.) "What is your name?"

"Margaret," replied one of the girls. They discussed something amongst themselves in Chichewa, then Margaret asked, "Where-do-you-live?"

"Zomba," I said. This catalysed another round of discussion.

The other girl asked me, "How-old-are-you?"

"Twenty-nine years old," I said. "How old are you?"

"I am nine years old," she said, which surprised me - judging by the girls' size, I'd have guessed they were closer to six years old than nine.

The girls again discussed something in Chichewa, perhaps debating whether whether this last answer had been correctly delivered. Then they said "Give-me-money" and ran away laughing. At least they didn't mean it seriously. Often that is the first and only thing children say in English, and they do mean it.

When I reached the main road, I decided to visit one of the fruit stands to buy some masuku, one of my favourite Malawian fruits that is plentiful at this time of year. Their English name is "white sapote," but I'd never heard of them before coming to Malawi. Like a pear, they have green skin and creamy, grainy white flesh; however, they are the size and shape of a Fuyu persimmon (and, like a persimmon, they have five big seeds in the middle). When ripe they are very sweet, with a perfumed flavour that can only be described as "tropical."

Here is a surreptitious photo of the fruit stand just outside Makoka:

The large green fruits that you see in this picture are watermelons. Again I was tempted to buy one, but again I didn't think I could carry it home. So I just bought a heap of five masuku for fifty kwacha. The fruit-seller spoke some English, so I was able to request ripe ones, and I ate one on the spot while waiting for my minibus. Mmmmm. I missed you, masuku!

* * * * *

Back at home, I went out to dinner with some friends to celebrate my return to Malawi. We usually find ourselves returning to Hotel Masongola, which tries to serve nice food, even though its success is mixed.

As usual, ordering drinks and dinner was not a question of what we actually wanted so much as a question of what they had in stock. Since they had only orange Fanta and coconut-pineapple juice, that's what we got. There was no ravioli, so I got vegetable curry instead. The waiter told us our food would be ready in twenty-five minutes. After forty-five minutes, the waiter returned with our food. Hey! That wasn't so bad.

We all enjoyed our meals (though I must say that Hotel Masongola is more expensive than the food warrants; K660, or US$5, for a dish of vanilla ice cream seemed pretty silly. If I didn't like ice cream so much, I would have protested).

Now I'm back at home, writing this, and it's getting late. I really must go to sleep because I said I'd be at Makoka at six o'clock tomorrow morning. That means I have to wake up by four-thirty. It doesn't sound like much fun, especially because hoeing is involved. Well, an agroforester must do what an agroforester must do.

* * * * *

I've written these first few blog entries at somewhat greater length than I intend to be the norm. I hope they have provided a useful (re)introduction to some of the people, places, and things that I encounter in everyday life in Malawi. But if I keep writing this much, I won't have time to actually do anything worth writing about. So in general I'll be somewhat more succinct from now on.

Chichewa word of the day: timati = tomato; matimati = tomatoes


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