21 October 2009

2009-10-21: Watermelon door-to-door


I awoke at an almost reasonable time, and did some errands in town (transferring dollars to kwacha, paying my PO Box fee) before going to Makoka at lunchtime. Mrs Mkandawire gave me a lift down the driveway; I stopped by the nursery to arrange help for making a seedling bed tomorrow; I discussed blue waxbills with Mr Tambala; and then I went to Nkula to start on the task of measuring the heights of 2,376 seedlings. On my way home, Mrs Mkandawire gave me another lift; we stopped at a fruit stand and I bought a watermelon (which turned out to be juicy but not sweet). I was tired and fell asleep early, but awoke in the middle of the night again.

Main text:

Finally, I woke up a little earlier today. I was actually awake at 8:30 (despite the fact that I hadn't gone to sleep until 5, ugh!). All right, I thought, I WILL go to Makoka today, but - since I'm already late and the shops are open - I'll do some errands first.

If the wire transfer had gone according to plan, there should now be some dollars in my US dollar account at National Bank, waiting to be transferred to my kwacha account. Can this be done online? No. Over the phone? No. By going to the bank and filling out a form, surely? No. The request must be delivered as a formal letter, addressed to the Branch Manager, printed out in hard copy, and signed. "Dear Sir: I would like to transfer funds from my Foreign Currency Demoninated Account..."

When I first learned of this requirement, I was more than a little annoyed, because I not only had to spend time writing the letter, I had to go to the Internet cafe and spend K70 printing it out. But now I just re-use the same Word document each time, changing only the date and the transaction amount.

Life is so much easier now than it was when I arrived last year. It's nice to be higher up on the learning curve!

* * * * *

Indeed my dollars had arrived safely, and after I spent fifteen minutes sitting at the Forex desk in the bank's air-conditioned lobby, they were successfully transformed into kwacha. Amounts of money always sound more impressive in kwacha. Why, now I am a millionaire! Just not a dollar millionaire.

As I walked out of the bank, something caught my eye: a battalion of medium-sized black ants dragging along a particularly large prey item. At first I thought it was a caterpillar, but when I bent down for a closer look, I saw it was a lizard. Perhaps it was a small brown day gecko; the density of ants made it hard to tell. Was the gecko still moving? Or was the motion just a result of the ants jostling it along? Yes... no... yes. Yes, it was still alive, and feebly trying to escape. I tried not to think too much about what I had just seen.

"All right," I said, "nothing that happens to me today is going to be as bad as that!"

* * * *

Certainly the Zomba post office isn't as bad as that. I went to pay my box rental fee, which should have been due on November 7 (since I paid for a year), but for which I had received a renewal notice dated June 30. Last week the clerk had been unable to explain this to my satisfaction, so I went to see the postmaster.

He listened to my complaint, then said what I expected: "Renewal fees for all boxes are due on the 30th of June. It does not matter when you rented the box."

"Even if you rented the box on the 29th of June?" I said.

"In a case like that, we usually advise customers to postpone the rental until after the renewal date," he said.

This seemed silly to me, but since it's been so long since I've had a PO Box in the US (the last time was when I was a Stanford undergrad), I can't remember how PO Box renewals work there. At least the Zomba Post Office didn't start throwing my mail away on July 1st. So no harm was done, really.

I did a few more errands (photocopying a one-page template that I use to survey the seedlings at Nkula field, and buying some envelopes to hold the contents of the litterbags I hoped to unbury today). Then it was time to return home to fetch my new hoe and panga, and take them to Makoka. Needless to say I hadn't wanted to walk into National Bank carrying a hoe. A mzungu with a hoe is bad enough, but a millionaire mzungu with a hoe?

By the time I collected my tools, and walked back across town again to the minibus stage, I felt as though I had wasted a lot of the day. Sigh. But I really did need to do all those things during business hours. It just wasn't as interesting as actual research. I bet you were bored just reading about it, weren't you?

* * * * *

It was with relief that I disembarked at Makoka and began the walk down the long driveway. It was a little before 2 PM, and the afternoon was scorching. I heard a car behind me; it slowed and pulled up next to me. Mrs Mkandawire!

Mrs Mkandawire is the executive director of Makoka Research Station. A friendly middle-aged Malawian woman, she is a cotton specialist who is still actively involved in research as well as administration.

"Amber! Welcome back," she said, rolling down the window. "Let me give you a lift."

"Thank you! May I put my hoe in the back seat?"

"Of course."

At least Mrs Mkandawire was not surprised to see me with a hoe!

She said she'd recently returned from China where she had done an training program on cotton breeding. "Wow," I said, "I didn't even know that China produces cotton. Did you learn some techniques that are applicable to cotton growing in Malawi?"

"Yes," she said, "but not entirely. In this course, we learnt about genomic techniques. With these techniques, the Chinese can create a new cotton variety in one year. But in Malawi it takes eight years, since we must rely only on traditional breeding."

Mrs Mkandawire dropped me off at the junction to the nursery, per my request. I really needed to get started on making a nursery bed for this year's Gliricidia seedlings. For that, I would need the help of the nursery staff, so I needed to make arrangements in advance.

Chiku was in the nursery office as usual. I greeted him and apologised for my absence on Monday and Tuesday. It would have been implausible to say I was still tired from my trip, but I wasn't really sure how to explain jet lag. I stumbled through a brief explanation and felt silly about it.

"Ah, it's no problem," he said. "We have already weighed the MZ12 biomass samples for you," and handed me an impeccable data sheet, with clear pencilled numerals in ruler-straight columns.

"Wow," I said. "This is a very beautiful data sheet. Thank you very much." Chiku and Mwafongo had already done a lot of work on my behalf before I returned, orchestrating the MZ12 first pruning and land preparation. At least I should have helped them weigh these final samples from the pruned Gliricidia biomass. But where was I? Asleep!

Hating to ask for any more favours, I said tentatively that I ought to make a swazi bed soon, and would it be possible for me to use some grass and pegs for that purpose? (A "swazi bed" is a type of nursery bed; I'll explain more tomorrow.)

"No problem," Chiku said. "But we need some time to arrange the materials. Can you return tomorrow?"

"Of course," I said. "I can come anytime."

"Just tell us when," Chiku said.

"Uh... how about the morning, before it gets too hot? Say 7:30?" I suggested. I felt apprehensive about promising to be anywhere that early in the morning, but if I didn't push myself, I would never get over this jet lag.

* * * * *

As I walked up the path from the nursery, I realised that my bag was emptier than it was supposed to be. I had forgotten to bring my notebook. Rats. It contained essential elements for the work I was supposed to do today - the photocopies of the template for the seedling survey, and the list of plots with litterbags.

Well, I wasn't going to go on a wild-goose-chase for litterbags; I'd just find the litterbags tomorrow once I had the list. But the seedlings... measuring seedling height was clearly the next and most urgent task to do. I didn't want to waste another day. I'd just get started without the template pages. It meant I'd have to draw a map of each plot by hand, but oh well, no big deal.

Before going to Nkula, I stopped by MZ12 to drop off my hoe and panga, to say hello to Mr Tambala, and to get a pen and paper from my office (in lieu of my forgotten notebook). I hadn't yet been in my office since my return, and I found the door blocked by several bikes used by the Millennium Villages team. I guess they weren't expecting me back! I moved the bikes, opened the door, and was greeted by an even more crowded scene than I had left behind in May.

Over the course of the last field season, my office gradually turned into a storage room. I don't have access to any other locked room, so my office became the repository for soil samples, grain samples, stover samples, evaporation pans, rain gauges, all the rolls of polythene for the whole experiment, six huge sacks of nails, two large chests full of TDR probes, a box of soil-coring equipment, a dozen air-temperature dataloggers in their protective housings, and - most recently - the maize that had been harvested from MZ12 in May. Seventeen bags of maize, nearly one ton! Mwafongo was supposed to take it up to Lilongwe, but he hadn't yet.

After finding pen and paper, I quickly shut the door on this clutter. Mr Tambala was outside on the verandah with the UNDP guard, who was shelling groundnuts. "Mtedza," said the guard to me, knowing I am always interested in learning new Chichewa words.

"Mtedza," I repeated. Groundnut.

As I was gathering up my bag to leave for Nkula, a flock of blue waxbills arrived in the bushes nearby. "Zwee zwee," they said. "Zwee zwee zwee!" It occurred to me to ask Mr Tambala, "What do you call those birds in Chichewa? The blue ones?"

He thought for a moment, and didn't know, so he asked the UNDP guard.

"Kasisisi," said the guard.

I laughed. Chichewa animal names are the best. (According to my Chichewa book, ka- is a diminutive prefix, so the name literally means "little si-si-si," which is exactly what they are.)

On my way out, I managed to take a few photos of the kasisisi:

No, there is nothing more adorable than a blue waxbill! There just isn't!

And (since I had my camera with me) here is a picture of one of the resprouting Gliricidia at MZ12. After being hacked down to a stump two weeks ago, it is valiantly growing once again. Gliricidia are good at that:

I took the shortcut through the patch of forest next to the cassava field, wishing to see a hoopoe, but there were no hoopoes in sight. (I did see a hoopoe in that forest last November, and although I've never seen one since, I'm always on the lookout for them.)

It was a little before 3 PM when I arrived at Nkula. The afternoon was still hot, but the fiercest heat had passed. I greeted the watchman and got right down to work measuring the heights of seedlings.

Why do you measure the seedlings? you may wonder. That's a good question. I'm not entirely sure myself.

Well, I'm sure in a general sense; I want to keep track of how fast the different kinds of seedlings are growing, and whether early vs. late planting (or drought, once I begin the drought treatment) affects their growth. I can't actually measure the seedlings' biomass without destroying them; height is the simplest proxy I can use. Later, when I do cut them down, I'll determine the allometric relationship between height and biomass, and then I can retroactively estimate what their biomass had been at previous intervals. That's the plan, anyway!

So, about once every six weeks, I come out to this field with a tape measure and a notebook, and spend several days measuring the height of each and every one of the 2,376 seedlings in the experiment. It's not an unpleasant job, and I'll describe it in more detail in the near future.

These seedlings are getting so tall they scarcely deserve the name. Look at this Tephrosia candida improved fallow that I planted only nine months ago. These are real trees now! The tallest one I measured today was 210 cm.

Aww, and look at this little guy on a Tephrosia leaf. Both Gliricidia and Tephrosia are susceptible to aphids during the dry season (the aphids congregate on the tender new leaves and buds). The aphids in turn attract ladybugs. For some reason, although Gliricidia seem to have many more aphids, Tephrosia seem to have more ladybugs.

At 5 PM, I told myself it was time to knock off. I hadn't done a full day's work in the field, but I couldn't indulge my typical grad student habit of staying late to catch up. That's not an option at Makoka; the sun goes down, night falls, and anyway you can't catch a minibus after dark!

* * * * *

I enjoyed the sunset walk down the driveway. When I was about halfway to the main road, I heard a car behind me, and the car slowed. It was Mrs Mkandawire again! Well, lucky me. She also lives in town, so I wouldn't have to take the minibus at all. I thanked her for the second lift of the day.

As we were pulling onto the main road, I mentioned (in what I hoped was an offhand way) "I had been planning to buy some masuku on the way home, but I'll just do it tomorrow..."

"You can do it now, no problem," she said, and pulled over on the side of the road across from the fruit stand. I chose five ripe masuku (white sapote) for K50, and then noticed the watermelons. I keep feeling tempted to buy a watermelon, but carrying them home is such a nuisance. Today, however, I had door-to-door transport!

"How much are watermelons?" I asked the fruit-stand proprietor, who speaks a bit of English.

"Three hundred and fifty kwacha," he replied.

Mrs Mkandawire thought this was too expensive. Since I am not an expert on watermelons, I deferred to her, and we got back in the car.

A few hundred metres down the road was another fruit stand, and Mrs Mkandawire pulled over again. "This one also has watermelons," she said. "Maybe they are cheaper here."

They were slightly cheaper - K300 - and I was able to bargain for a free avocado to sweeten the deal. That was good enough for me. I wanted a watermelon, darn it. I chose a nice firm medium-sized one with dark green stripey skin. In the car, it sat comfortably on my lap.

On the drive back Mrs Mkandawire and I talked about chickens (in the villages, each chicken knows its own home; chickens sleep in baskets in their owner's house), goats (which are a source of neighbourhood friction when they escape and start eating things they aren't supposed to eat), and cattle (apparently the cattle at Makoka sometimes escape in the middle of the night and eat the experimental sweet potatoes).

And then we were back in town, and she delivered me to my front door. Wow, that was easy watermelon transport.

I greeted my housemates, then went right to work scrubbing and cutting the watermelon. This is what it looked like inside:

This picture doesn't really do it justice. The flesh was mostly rose-pink, but there were swirls of flesh that looked distinctly different, a pale apricot colour. It was certainly a beautiful watermelon. I cut as much of it as could fit into our large red bowl, grabbed a wedge for myself, and eagerly took my first bite.

Hmmm. It was juicy, all right, as a watermelon should be - but not sweet. Its flavour was somewhere in between a watermelon, a cucumber, and a pumpkin. And it was full of seeds! At first, since I was so hungry and thirsty, I ate several slices seeds and all, but then I started spitting the seeds out and found it to be a time-consuming process.

Oh well, 'tis better to have chosen and regretted a watermelon than never to have chosen at all. I put the rest of it in the fridge (how nice that we have a fridge now!), and made myself a quick dinner of pasta with green peas and powdered cheese sauce.

As I ate dinner in front of my computer, I started to feel very tired. Oh, that's right, I'd only had three hours of sleep. What time was it? Could I go to bed yet? No, it was not much past seven PM. I told myself I had to stay awake until at least 8, otherwise I risked awakening in the middle of the night. So I worked on my computer until 8, then changed into my nightgown and brushed my teeth, and was out like a light by 8:30.

* * * * *

That should have been the end of the day. But jet lag reared its ugly head again, and I abruptly awoke in the dark, feeling alert. What time was it? Nearly time to get up?

It was 2 AM, according to my phone. That was awfully early to get up. I would have to try to get back to sleep.

3 AM came and went. 4 AM came and went. Birds started singing. Around 4:30, I heard the early-morning prayer call from the nearby mosque. This was not good, since my alarm was set for 5:45 (so that I could get to Makoka by 7:30).

The sky outside my window became light. I tried not to think about it. Maybe if I can just doze off for a little while, I said, I'll be able to pretend that I've had a full night's sleep when my alarm goes off...

No such luck, alas. I should stop this entry here; although it's unclear exactly where today ended, the first sunbeams are unquestionably a sign of tomorrow.

Chichewa word of the day: mtedza = groundnut; mitedza = groundnuts

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