22 October 2009

2009-10-22: Chameleon and swazi bed


I was disappointed to wake up far too late to keep my appointment with Chiku (I'd told him I would be at the nursery at 7:30 to make a swazi bed). But I did make it to Makoka in the late morning. I unburied my litterbags at MZ12 - unfortunately, about half of them are missing. I measured some more seedlings at Nkula. On my way back to my office, I saw a fantastic little chameleon, and I took some photos of it as it crawled on my arm. Then I went to the nursery and belatedly constructed my swazi bed (a raised nursery bed for tree seedlings), sowing it with 420 Gliricidia seeds. I came home to a power outage, had peanut butter sandwiches and watermelon for dinner, stayed up late writing a letter, and happily fell asleep listening to Berlioz' "Symphonie Fantastique."

Main text:

Having been awake from 2 AM, I was most unhappy to hear my alarm go off at 5:45, just after I'd finally fallen back asleep. "I must get up," I said to myself. "I told Chiku I'd be there at 7:30." Well, I could sleep for another 15 minutes, anyway, and then hurry a little to make up for it.

6:00 seemed like an even more horrible time to get up than 5:45. And 6:15 seemed worse still. At that point I just admitted defeat. I was so tired that even lifting my hand to turn off the alarm seemed like a herculean effort.

Instead of getting another few hours' sleep, though, I tossed and turned miserably, plagued by bad dreams about being late. Then, finally, at 830, I sat up and the fog of sleep cleared. No matter when I fall asleep, I seem to wake up at 8:30.

Now that I was so late, it didn't really matter exactly what time I arrived at Makoka. I still felt discouraged by my disrupted schedule, but I would have to get over it. I puttered around getting ready to go; I even washed some laundry that needed to dry by tonight (since it included my nightgown).

As if I needed more delays, my minibus was intercepted at a police roadblock near Seven Miles. (The towns immediately south of Zomba along the main road are named for their distance from Zomba.) Apparently the policeman discovered a serious problem with the vehicle's insurance, or the driver's license, or something equally significant. The passengers, crammed together to the point of immobility, waited and listened. As a non-Chichewa speaker, I had only an inkling of what was going on, but judging by the passengers' interest, it was quite dramatic. The driver's expression was so bleak that I thought for sure we would have to get out and wait to be picked up by another bus.

But lo and behold, after about twenty-five minutes, the policeman and the driver reached some kind of agreement. Grinning, the driver dashed back to the minibus and jumped in. We sped off to Thondwe, where the driver pulled up next to the police station and ran inside. He returned in a few minutes and we continued on our way. I wish I knew what that was all about!

* * * * *

When I finally disembarked at the Makoka driveway, it was nearly eleven o'clock. This would not be a convenient time to go to the nursery and start working on a swazi bed, because the task takes several hours, and Malawians usually start their lunch break at eleven-thirty. Also, I didn't want to force the nursery staff to work in the middle of the day when the sun was hottest. So I decided I would return to the nursery around 3 PM, and go to MZ12 and Nkula Field in the meantime.

At MZ12, Angelina (the UNDP girl-of-all-errands) and the guard were shelling groundnuts again. They insisted I take a handful. I tried eating one raw, which made them laugh. I wasn't doing it purely out of ignorance - I remembered trying raw groundnuts as a young child when we lived on the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland, and I thought they were fine. But this one tasted... well, raw. I think I will boil the rest.

Today I had remembered to bring my list of which plots contained litterbags, and where exactly the litterbags were buried. So I got a white plastic sack and set out on a litterbag hunt. I was not too optimistic about what I would find, because I had forgotten to alert Mwafongo (or anyone else involved in the MZ12 land preparation) to the fact of the litterbags' existence. Many of them had doubtless been either damaged beyond redemption or buried so I could never find them again.

For those readers who aren't ecologists, I should explain what a litterbag is. It is a simple device for measuring the decomposition rate of biomass. It is a small mesh bag (usually made of material with ~1 mm holes, such as you might use for a window screen or a mosquito net). Inside the bag is placed a known mass of plant material - leaves, twigs, or whatever is of interest in your ecosystem. The bag is sewn up, so that none of the contents can fall out; it is then returned to the environment (either at the soil surface, or shallowly buried). Moisture, nutrients, and soil organisms can pass through the mesh, but large pieces of biomass cannot. As the litter decomposes, it gradually disappears from the litterbag.

A litterbag is left in place for a specified period of time, then exhumed and opened. The contents are carefully scraped out, cleaned of any dirt, dried, and weighed. Comparing the pre-burial weight with the post-burial weight tells you how much decomposition has taken place.

I placed a series of litterbags (with Gliricidia leaves) in MZ12 last April because I wanted to see if the drought treatment decreased decomposition rates. It did! Look, here are some nifty data that I got from the first set of litterbags, which I unburied after four weeks:

But the other set of litterbags was still in the ground. When I buried them under the ridges in April, I carefully left an emergent string with a bright orange tag, so that I could find them again. If those strings and tags had gotten buried during land preparation - well, I'd have to dig up the entire plot to find the litterbag, and that was far too destructive to be worthwhile.

To my pleasant surprise, I found the first two litterbags easily (not far from where I had buried them). Their corners were poking out of the ridges, and they were reasonably intact. But when I came to the third plot, I saw nothing. I walked up and down every row, scrutinising each clod, to no avail.

The fourth plot was equally fruitless, and the fifth, and the sixth. The scattered stems of dried grass looked too much like strings, and the curled brown leaves here and there looked too much like faded orange tags. The heat was oppressive, and the air was shimmering, and I began to feel like I was on a fool's errand. In the whole first replicate, I had only found two of my six bags.

The second two replicates were slightly more successful - I found about half the bags - but still, with that many data points missing, I wasn't going to get any meaningful statistics out of this set of litterbags. I felt surprisingly sanguine about it, considering how much time and effort I had invested in making these litterbags (it was a week-long project). Well, I would analyse these few surviving litterbags anyway, and at least I had gotten a full set in May.

* * * * *

It was now about twelve o'clock, still in the midst of lunch hour, so I didn't want to disturb the nursery staff. Instead, I decided to go to Nkula for a couple of hours and measure more seedlings. This I did. It was slow and uneventful work, and the day was very hot. Why was I not sitting in the shade somewhere drinking water or taking a nap? Crazy mzungu.

When two-thirty came around, I closed my notebook, slung my bag over my shoulder, and headed back to MZ12 to get my panga in preparation for making the swazi bed. I had just passed the main administration building when I noticed a small creature crawling across the driveway in front of me. It was nearly the colour of the ground, and moved with slow jerky steps. It was...

A chameleon! A little yellow-brown chameleon! It's not the first time I've seen a chameleon in Malawi, but it's the first time I've had my camera with me.

Look, here she goes across the road! She's going at top speed for a chameleon, which is almost as fast as top speed for a turtle:

I didn't want to let her get away before I took more photos, so I gently put my hand in her path. She crawled onto it, looking quizzical as she tried to figure out what kind of tree I was:

I don't know which feature of chameleons is more amazing: their eyes, or their hands. And I do mean "hands" instead of "feet"; their prehensile fingers wrap around whatever they encounter. As the chameleon crawled on me, her touch felt like the grasp of a tiny human baby.

It was really neat to get a close-up look at her swivelling eyes. They darted forward, backwards, up, down - each eye independently of the other. Her eyes were the biggest part of her head, and her head was the biggest part of her body.

Shortly after taking this photo, I carried her over to a hedge near the driveway and put her down. She crawled away from me through the grass, one eye pointed backwards and looking straight at me.

CHAMELEONS ARE AWESOME! I had thought that making the swazi bed was going to be the highlight of my day, but that was pretty hard to beat. And did I mention that chameleons are AWESOME?

* * * * *

It was a little after three when I arrived at the nursery. I asked for Chiku, and was told he'd gone out for the afternoon with Mwafongo. However, someone else had been assigned to help me make the swazi bed. A slender, middle-aged man with a trim moustache and goatee, he introduced himself as Joshi. Fortunately he spoke enough English so that we could communicate.

"We were waiting for you this morning," he said.

I hoped no harm had been done, but still, I felt chagrined. "I'm sorry," I said. "I know I came very late today." I didn't even try to explain jet lag.

Now I should tell you briefly what a swazi bed is. It's a raised nursery bed for growing tree seedlings, made out of very simple materials - just wooden stakes, bundles of dried grass, and strips of pliable bark to tie it all together. It is designed to be accessible to any farmer, anywhere, since it requires only readily available, zero-cost materials. (I don't know why it's called a "swazi bed," and neither did the nursery staff I asked.)

The purpose of this swazi bed is to nurture the Gliricidia seedlings I need for the next stage of the seedling experiment. Unlike Tephrosia, whose seeds can be sown directly in the field, Gliricidia requires special care and attention for the first weeks of its life. Gliricidia seedlings must be sown in well-tilled soil, protected from direct sunlight, and well-watered until their roots have established. They then must undergo a process of "hardening" (in which their roots are periodically pruned, and their watering gradually reduced) to prepare them for the rigours of transplanting to the field.

If this sounds like a lot of work - well, yes, it is. You'll get to hear all about it as the season progresses. The time-consuming nature of seedling establishment is probably one reason Gliricidia intercropping isn't more popular. You may wonder: why doesn't everyone use Tephrosia instead, then? Although Tephrosia is much easier to establish, its benefits on maize yield are less dramatic. So neither species is clearly the winner when it comes to farmer preference.

So now you know why I am making a swazi bed. How exactly is it done? Here is a list of steps:

  1. Decide how many seedlings you want, and therefore how big a bed you need. It can be any length, but should be no more than 80 cm wide (so that root pruning can be accomplished by running a panga underneath, all the way to the middle).

  2. Gather necessary materials: sharpened wooden stakes about 40 cm long; bundles of long, tough dry grass; peeled, soaked bark to use as twine; panga; watering can or bucket; hoe or shovel; and, if available, hammer and wheelbarrow.

  3. Measure the footprint of the swazi bed, and chop indentations in the ground to mark each corner and the middle of each side.

  4. Fill these indentations with water to soften the soil. Wait a few minutes for the water to soak in.

  5. Pound stakes firmly into the ground in these designated places (three stakes for a corner, two stakes for a side). At least 20 cm of the stake should remain above ground.

  6. Take long bundles of grasses and tuck them between the stakes to build up a wall. Fold the grass around the corners. Continue until the stakes are packed with grass up to their full height.

  7. Tie each group of pegs together with the bark strips, tucking the bark also into and through the grass to secure it. At this point, the structure of the swazi bed is complete.

  8. Fill the swazi bed with good-quality, finely-textured soil. Make the soil level with the top edge of the bed.

  9. Water the soil thoroughly.

  10. Draw a series of parallel furrows in the soil about 10 cm apart, and plant your tree seeds in these furrows. Gently cover the seeds with ~1 cm of soil.

  11. Cover the top of the bed with a layer of dry grass for shade, and place a few sticks on top to prevent the grass blowing away. In 5-7 days, once the seedlings have emerged, this grass layer will need to be replaced by an elevated grass canopy.

Joshi had already completed steps 1, 2, and 3. I helped with steps 4 through 9, and Steve Gomomoba joined us. By the time the bed was filled with soil and watered, four o'clock was approaching, which is about the time most Malawians go home from work. I didn't want anyone to stay late on my behalf, especially since I had failed to show up at the appointed time this morning.

So I told Joshi and Steve they could go, and then I finished planting the seeds (steps 10 and 11) by myself. Of course, I took photos during the process...

Here we are in the middle of step 6, which is the most interesting part of the process: tucking the grass bundles between the stakes.

And now the swazi bed is complete! Just to the right of the bed, you can see a bowl of Gliricidia seeds awaiting planting.

Here is a furrow with Gliricidia seeds before I covered them over. The seeds are about the size of large lentils, but are glossy and slippery like tiddlywinks.

And here (on self-timer) am I with my new swazi bed. I am soon to be the proud foster parent of approximately 420 Gliricidia seedlings.

I just hope that 420 seeds will be enough. If they all sprout (which they usually do, nearly), it will be about 25% more than I need. I'd have liked to have a greater safety margin. But the size of the bed had already been determined by Joshi, and I didn't want to cause any more trouble.

A completed swazi bed really is quite a beautiful creation, despite (or because of) its simplicity. There's something very appealing about big bundles of dry golden grass. Malawians are very good at making things out of grass - they use it for fences, canopies, roofs, baskets, mats, and many other things. During the dry season, enormous bundles of grass are cut and set aside for future construction purposes.

I happen to think that a small swazi bed looks very much like a giant cake. A giant golden cake, with chocolate frosting smoothed on top, and Gliricidia candles. Since I will almost certainly be here when my birthday comes around in January, this swazi bed will be my birthday cake!

Well, that felt like a real accomplishment. I felt very pleased as I walked down the driveway at sunset. When I made a swazi bed for my seedlings last year, I remember how new and difficult everything seemed. (If you are curious to read about that, you can see last year's entry for October 25.) Now I'm like "Yeah, let's make a swazi, whatever."

* * * * *

I arrived home to a power outage, took a bucket-shower by torchlight, and had peanut butter and banana sandwiches for dinner. And watermelon, too, of course. There will be a lot of watermelon consumption in this house over the next few days.

The power outage was a long one tonight. I used up all two hours of my computer's battery life, and still, at 8:20, there was no electricity. My candle had gone out, one of my roommates was using the torch, and I didn't have any credit in my phone so I couldn't even send text messages. That left me with only the iPod for company.

So I lay down in the dark and listened to "Symphonie Fantastique" by Berlioz. It was a very interesting piece of music, which made it a good choice for my undivided attention. Partway through the second movement, the lights flickered back on.

Although it was now quarter to nine, I wanted to write a letter before going to bed. When I finally finished, it was well past bedtime, and yet I still didn't feel sleepy. I coaxed myself to go to bed by promising myself I could listen to the rest of "Symphonie Fantastique" if I brushed my teeth and turned out the lights like a good girl. This turned out to be a bit unwise, because the symphony was so interesting (or I was so jet-lagged) that I stayed awake for all of it. I dozed a little in the fourth movement, but "Witches' Sabbath" woke me right up again.

Oh well. I did get to sleep eventually. I have to say, despite the late start, this was quite a successful day - the best I've had since returning, I think.

PS Chameleons are AWESOME.

Chichewa word of the day: nadzikambe = chameleon
(apparently this name is unique to Malawi's Southern Region; elsewhere it is called birimankhwe)


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