17 October 2009

2009-10-17: Hoe hoe hoe


I awoke at 4:30 so that I could get to Makoka at 6 to help with the land preparation at MZ12. This is a tedious task consisting entirely of hoeing, and I was very slow at it (made slower by the fact that my hoe broke). By mid-morning I knocked off and headed back to town to buy a new hoe. I spent the afternoon working on my computer at Tasty Bites, then returned home to a power outage and a water outage. There wasn't much I could do but eat leftovers for dinner and fall asleep early (though I then ended up lying awake half the night due to jet lag!).

Main text:

My alarm went off at 4:30. I switched it off, not so much in defiance as in disbelief.

But eventually I had to obey. I had indeed said I would be at Makoka at six o'clock. At 4:45, when it was still completely dark outside, I dragged myself out of bed, got dressed and washed, packed food and water and sunscreen, and stumbled out the door by 5:15. The sun was just rising. I'd be a little late, but nothing terrible should come of it.

Zomba was peaceful and cool this time of morning. A few people were out and about, and several pied crows were surveying the streets for interesting edible objects.

I thought I might have trouble getting a minibus so early, but no, a mostly-full minibus picked me up right away. It sped of out of Zomba like a bat out of hell. Maybe I wouldn't be late after all! We were making great time, taking on more and more passengers, until we reached Thondwe (about three-quarters of the way there), where we encountered a police roadblock.

The police were not happy with some aspect of the minibus or its driver. Perhaps it was the fact that the passengers were overcrowded, far in excess of the number of seats. Saturday is market day at Thondwe, so on Saturdays a large fraction of the passengers want to disembark there. Minibus drivers are tempted to pack in as many people as possible, lest their buses be completely empty after Thondwe.

The driver and the policeman had a long discussion, then someone said something in Chichewa and all the passengers started getting out of the bus. Sigh. Looked like I would be late after all.

I was the last passenger off the bus, and I noticed that someone had left behind her chitenje (it must have snagged on the seat). I didn't know how to say "Who forgot a chitenje?", but just shouting "Chitenje, chitenje" and waving it around proved sufficient.

"Zikomo kwambiri," smiled the owner of the chitenje. "Zikomo. Zikomo."

It was then that I realised I didn't know how to say "You're welcome" in Chichewa. Takulandirani means "Welcome [to a place]". Karibu means "Welcome [to share my food]." But what about just plain old "You're welcome"? I would have to find out.

* * * * *

I walked to the Thondwe bus stage and promptly found another minibus. For this I had to pay another K50 out of pocket, but oh well. Minibus passengers have no bill of rights.

By the time I reached Makoka and walked down the driveway, it was about 6:15. The others had already arrived and were at work with their hoes. I put on sunscreen, two pairs of gloves, and got to work. Today we were doing ngwazu, "finish-and-go": each person is assigned a certain area of land to cover, and is free to leave once they have covered it. Today's ngwazu was two plots per person.

I picked up my hoe (which Mr Tambala had been keeping for me) and got to work. Rebuilding the ridges involves two main tasks: (1) burying any maize stover or Gliricidia leaves that are lying on the soil surface; (2) digging the furrows deeper and using this soil to pile the ridges higher.

Buring the biomass is an extremely annoying task. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get a dried maize leaf or a Gliricidia twig to stay underneath a pile of loose dry soil? They keep escaping! And, if too many pieces escape, sometimes you just have to tear the ridge apart and start over again.

Cutting the furrows deeper is an extremely strenuous task. At this time of year, the soil is rock-hard, resistant to even the sharpest hoe. And my hoe was not in the best of shape. The blade seemed to be at the wrong angle, so that it nearly bent in on itself every time I struck.

I did my best, but I could tell I was a lot slower than the others. After I'd finished one of the eight rows within the plot, I asked Mr Tambala to check my work. "No, madam," he said. "You must dig deeper." He picked up my hoe to demonstrate.

Then he put it down again. "Your hoe is not good," he said.

"Yeah, I know," I said. "But I think it will be OK. I'll just keep trying."

Dig deeper! I told myself. Strike harder! But, despite my efforts, my hoe was doing nothing. It felt like it was caving in on itself...

...oh. It was. The blade was now badly bent.

Sighing, I bent it backward against a Gliricidia stump. Each of these straightening attempts endured for a few dozen swings, but I had to be so careful about my angle of impact, it was hopelessly inefficient. I needed a new hoe.

I saw that Mr Tambala had left another hoe for me on the path. I recognised it: it was my other old hoe from last year. That one, too, I had abandoned when the blade began to bend! But maybe it was still an improvement. I picked it up and swung with it.

"No, madam," said Mr Tambala. "That one is also not good."

"Yeah, I know," I said, "but at least it's better."

"Take this one," he said, putting a sturdy short-handled hoe in my hand.

"Whose is this?" I asked. I hadn't thought there were any extra hoes.

"It is for that woman," he said, pointing. "She finish two plots, so she goes home now."

I looked at my watch. It was only eight o'clock. She had finished two plots, and I hadn't even finished a quarter of one plot!

Sighing, I picked up the new hoe. It was sturdier than mine, but the handle was even shorter. Why, oh why, do Malawians use short-handled hoes? Why not add another foot or two to the handle and save your back from breaking?

By eight-thirty everyone else had finished, except for me, who was just starting my third of sixteen rows. I felt rather humiliated. I had done this job last year - I'd done almost every job last year - but last year, we worked as one big team, and I must not have realised how little progress I was making.

The air was now warm and the sun was getting fierce. Sweat appeared on my face. Clouds of dust rose from my hoe. At this point, I would be happy just to finish half a plot, let alone two plots. It's not just that my arms were tired - though they certainly were by now - it's mainly that the job seemed impossible to do quickly. The great force needed to dislodge the rock-hard soil, and the great delicacy needed to bury the biomass, seemed to work against each other.

By ten-thirty, when I'd finished half a plot, the sun was scorching and sweat was running down my face. Time to call it quits for today, and go back to town and buy a new hoe.

I bade farewell to Mr Tambala and the UNDP watchman (who were sitting in the shade under the office verandah) and went to the faucet to wash the dust off my arms, legs, and face. As I washed, I was entertained by a flock of blue waxbills in the bushes nearby. Zwee zwee! they said. Zwee zwee zwee! They are very enthusiastic about everything, are waxbills.

After a long hot walk down the dusty driveway, and a minibus ride to down, it was eleven-thirty. Most shops close at lunchtime on Saturdays, so I'd have to be quick if I wanted a hoe.

Unfortunately I didn't have much cash. I'd have to go to the ATM, which (on Saturday morning) inevitably meant standing in a long queue. Nearly all financial transactions in Malawi are done in cash, so people here are disproportionately dependent upon ATMs.

On my way to the ATM, I stopped by Kulima Gold Depot to see if they had any hoe heads. They did, for K600 - but they were so poorly made and blunt, I decided to forget about them.

At National Bank, only one of the two ATMs was working (sadly a common occurrence!) and the queue was about twenty people. I waited, waited, and waited. When it was finally my turn, I inserted my US credit card (since my kwacha account is drawn down to its minimum balance). I awaited the instructions "Enter your PIN" but instead got:


Oh rats. My credit card used to work in this ATM! Now I was really stuck. The bank lobby was closed, so I couldn't even cash my traveller's cheques. Thank goodness I had set aside some extra cash at home for just such a situation. So I trudged all the way home and unearthed my modest emergency cash supply (this qualified as a hoe-related emergency).

Cash in hand, I went to ATC (Agricultural Trading Company), where I have had very good luck buying anything and everything for cultivation. Sure enough, they had "Best" brand hoes, the brand that Mr Tambala had recommended. 750 kwacha for a hoe head. I bought one right away, and bought a new panga (machete) too, since I had no confidence that my former panga had survived five months in other people's hands.

Now, I just needed a handle for the hoe, and for this I went to the market. A friendly old man who sells pre-made hoes was happy to sell me just a handle. "Please give me the LONGEST handle you have," I said, and he did. It seemed as though it would be long enough not to break my back.

He asked me to wait for ten minutes while he burned a larger hole in the handle so that the new head would fit. (This is done by holding the sharp protruding end of the hoe head over a fire until it is red-hot, then simply sticking it into the hole in the wooden handle, a little bit at a time. Amazingly, the hoe-seller did complete this task in only fifteen minutes (sometims when a Malawian says "ten minutes" he means "about an hour").

Off I went with my new hoe and panga. I certainly attracted a lot of comments and stares as I walked through town with these farming implements, but I didn't care. As a mzungu I'm accustomed to looking ridiculous all the time. With a hoe, I look only slightly more ridiculous.

* * * * *

I didn't want to go home because I feared I'd just fall asleep, so instead I went to Tasty Bites Cafe to do some work on my computer. The staff were willing to stash my hoe and panga in a corner for several hours while I sat at an indoor table, sipped on a soda (a warm soda, because the power had gone out), and tried to catch up on blog entries and e-mails.

After awhile, one of the waiters came over to me and said confidentially "We have chocolate cake today." I am a regular at Tasty Bites, and they know I am a sucker for chocolate cake.

So I finished my afternoon with a slice of chocolate cake and a cup of tea. From there I went to All Seasons for a bit of Internet time, and then home.

The power went out again as I was walking home. That was no surprise - there is often a planned power cut around six o'clock in the evening. I was used to showering by torchlight. I came in the front door, stumbled to my room in the dark (trying not to dent the walls with my hoe), took some clean clothes and the LED torch into the bathroom, undressed, turned the faucet, and -

Nothing. Just a gasping sound.

Argh. We had a water outage as well as a power outage!

I put my clothes on again. I was sticky and dirty and couldn't bear to go without a shower, so I would have to use the emergency backup water we kept in a large bucket in the kitchen. The water supply doesn't fail nearly as often as the power supply in Zomba (maybe once every month or two), but when it does, it is certainly a nuisance.

I filed a large plastic bowl with water from the bucket (rather old and funny-smelling water, I must say), and carried this into the bathtub. I would have to be very frugal in my water use. Tentatively I poured a cupful over my shoulders.

"AAAaaah!" I yelped. It was COLD. After a hard day's work, can't I at least have a warm shower? Nope, not today.

* * * * *

Dinner was some cold leftover beans and nsima, plus a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I would have to ration my drinking water; I couldn't buy any until the shops opened tomorrow, and I didn't want to drink the water that had been in the bucket for months, even if boiled. That was a moot point anyway, with no electricity to boil it.

At times like these, one just has to adjust expectations to match reality. So, I said to myself, I am going to lie down on my bed in the dark and listen to a Sherlock Holmes story on the iPod. No utility outage can prevent me from enjoying this.

And I did. I must have been pretty tired, because I dozed off near the end of the story ("The Double Zero," which I'd heard once before). I was only vaguely aware of the electricity coming back on several hours later.

That should have been the end of the day, but I awoke around 1 AM and couldn't go back to sleep. After lying in the dark for awhile, I realised that I was keeping myself awake by thinking, and I needed to do something else. So I listened to Mahler's Symphony No. 1 on the iPod. A fine symphony, that. Very poetic. I stayed wide awake through all 56 minutes of it, then stared at the ceiling some more.

Wow, I don't envy people who suffer from insomnia. Usually I am so good at sleeping! But not tonight. I began to wonder whether I would fall asleep before dawn broke. Fortunately, I just made it.

I am glad to be back, really, even if my circadian rhythms aren't! And even if I'm terrible at hoeing!

Chichewa word of the day: lolemba = Monday


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