27 October 2009

2009-10-27: Litterbag homework


Yet again the day got off to a late start, made even later because I spent several hours at home writing e-mails, but I did eventually make it to Makoka. I checked on my Gliricidia seedlings at the nursery, brought a torch to the night watchmen at Nkula, and brought back some litterbags to sort for my "homework." At home I played with the neighbours' kitten, and started a reading a new book, "West With the Night," about a female British pilot in Kenya. Although I only got through one litterbag, at least that was a beginning!

Main text:

The morning was nearly over before I managed to do anything useful. I decided I should reply to Festus' email from yesterday about the seedling experiment, so I sat down at my desk and wrote a detailed response to his points. Since he had disagreed with my root excavation proposal, I tried to explain more clearly what my goal was for measuring the root biomass of individual seedlings: I just wanted to get some rough idea of total below-ground biomass and average root-shoot ratio, not look for treatment effects or quantify fine root activity.

By the time I'd finished writing that and several other emails, it was somewhat after two o'clock. "But I will make it to Makoka today!" I said to myself. "I have to get into the habit." This goal was beginning to seem rather silly by the time I finished at the Internet cafe at 3:30. But I was determined.

I stopped by Versyani & Sons Hardware to buy a torch for Mr Malalo, the night watchman at Nkula Field. I wished I could buy him a rechargable LED torch with a solar panel; I have one of those here at my flat (that I got as a gift in the US) and it is absolutely invaluable. How wonderful to be able to convert daytime sunlight into nighttime lamplight, effortlessly and with no cost, hundreds upon hundreds of times. But solar torches don't seem to be available in Malawi, which is really a shame - especially because there is no proper waste disposal here, and used batteries end up rusting by roadsides and in village rubbish heaps.

I had an uneventful trip to Makoka, stopping at one of the little shops (by which I mean grass shacks) at the front entrance to buy eight tomatoes for forty kwacha. That's quite a bit cheaper than in town. Note to self: Buy tomatoes at Makoka.

My first stop was the nursery, in the hopes that Steve Gomomba (or someone else) might still be in the office to give me the pruning data from MZ12. Fortunately, Steve was there, and he not only gave me Mwafongo's tidy hand-written data sheets, he had already typed up the data in Excel for me - completely unbidden and very helpful. He transferred it to my flash drive while I waited. "Thank you so much!" I said. "I will definitely put you in the acknowledgements when I publish these results."

I went to check on the baby Gliricidia in my swazi bed. It has been five days since planting, and they should have begun to emerge. I lifted the grass mulch to find only tiny weeds sprouting here and there. Oh, wait - there were the pale green cotelydons of a Gliricidia. In the whole swazi bed, I found only two sprouting. Hopefully the rest would soon catch up.

Then I set off to Nkula Field to give Mr Malalo his torch. It was a bit silly to do so (the walk is twenty minutes round trip), but it was a matter of principle - I said I'd bring the torch next time I came, and this was the next time. Besides, I always enjoy walking to Nkula. It's a beautiful open road surrounded by fields and framed by hills. The land feels vibrant, the sky feels vast, and I always smile to think of the possibilities of this country and this continent.

As I walked down the road to Nkula this evening, I enjoyed the gentle warm breeze and the sunset, with bold blue-grey clouds highlighted in orange. The temperature was perfect, and the surroundings were so peaceful, I felt as though I were on holiday. Just at that moment, there was nowhere I'd rather be.

* * * * *

The watchman's hut was empty - Mr Malalo must have gone home to the village to get something. So I left the torch inside the hut with a note. As I returned to the main road, I saw him hurrying back, carrying a yellow jerry-can. "Madzi" (water), he explained. "Chabwino" (OK), I said, and then in English, "I brought your torch. I put it over there - apo," pointing at the hut.

"Zikomo kwambiri," he thanked me, and I said the same to him. I have much more reason to thank him than vice versa. It still astounds me that anyone would be willing to work as a watchman twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for less than two dollars a day.

My last stop at Makoka was my office. The building had long since been locked by the UNDP staff, but in anticipation of this, I had left my litterbags on the desk very close to the window, so that I could reach in and retrieve them. This is mostly how I use my office: as a place with a window that I can use as a deposit-box.

(Those of you who didn't read my blog last year are probably wondering "But why don't you just get a key to the building?" I have never seen a locksmith in Malawi. Locks are pre-made, usually with only two keys. Furthermore, most keys are not of the duplicable type; they are large and old-fashioned, with long round barrels and thick teeth at the end. These can't be easily cut by a locksmith in the way that small flat keys can.

To make matters even more complicated, doors in Malawi often have multiple locks. I'm not sure if this actually enhances security or just the appearance of security, but it is a ubiquitous practice. For example, the front door of my flat has a barrel-key lock, a flat-key lock, and three sliding bar-locks. The door at Makoka has a flat-key lock and then an iron gate with two separate padlocks!

Rather than replace all these locks, I just decided to forget about using my office during evenings and weekends. Since the electricity and water are often out, and anyway my office is full of samples and equipment and bags of maize, it's not really a place to work anyhow.)

So now you understand why I was reaching through the window to retrieve my litterbags. But you may still wonder what I wanted with them. Since I had awoken so late and accomplished so little, I could at least spend a couple of hours tonight sorting litterbag contents. The litterbags were my homework for tonight.

* * * * *

It was getting dark by the time I reached the main road, but nevertheless I took the time to walk down the road to the fruit stall, yelled "Hodi!" to hail the owner (who was inside cooking dinner, no doubt), and bought five masuku for K50. Since I was her last customer of the day, she threw in two extra masuku for free. These I ate while waiting for the minibus.

Minibuses are scarce after dusk, so I had a long wait. Finally a mesobus picked me up, and I got home uneventfully (stopping on the way at Shoprite, Zomba's main supermarket, to buy milk powder and washing powder).

When I arrived at the flat, there was a tiny kitten mewing on our doorstep. It was Cindy, the little calico kitten from next door. She is unbearably cute, as kittens are, but unbelievably small. She is a cat the size of a rat. I keep worrying that I will squish her in the front door, or step on her by accident, and that will be the end of her. I let her come inside and she gambolled around around my feet as I put the groceries away.

That done, I scooped Cindy up with one hand and carried her to the next flat. "Here's your kitten!" I told the neighbours, and gently deposited her inside the front door. Then I went to redeem my other neighbour's offer of potato soup from yesterday.

* * * * *

It was not that late, but I was both tired and sleepy, which was peculiar for someone who woke up nearer to lunchtime than breakfast time. I couldn't be tired! I had litterbag homework to do!

I procrastinated for awhile by starting a new book. I read for pleasure much more here in Malawi than I do in California, because reading fiction books is a nice contrast from fieldwork, but not such a nice a contrast from reading academic books. The book I started tonight was "West With the Night," the autobiography of Beryl Markham, a British woman who spent most of her life in Kenya. She trained race-horses and later became a bush pilot. I got through the first couple of chapters, which were vividly written. It made me wish that I could tell tales of flying solo across the Serengeti and rescuing a downed pilot who was in danger of being eaten by lions. Instead, here I am writing to you about buying torches and sorting leaf litter.

As it turns out, I did eventually drum up enough energy to get started on my litterbags. This is how the process goes: I place my desk lamp in the middle of my white linoleum floor (good lighting is a must), empty the contents of the litterbag onto the floor, carefully pick up each leaf or clump of leaves one at a time, and remove any soil particles from it. It is crucial to remove the soil, since soil is heavier than dried leaves, and the sample's weight is the only source of information about its rate of decay. I then place the cleaned leaves in an envelope for drying and weighing.

One of the good thing about sorting litterbags is that, since it is a non-verbal task, I can entertain myself by listening to music with lyrics and not get distracted. So I listened to a new vocal CD I'd been wanting to hear. This got me through one litterbag, at which point I really was tired, so I decided to call it a night. Well, getting started is the hardest part. I'll try to do some more tomorrow.

Now it's a bit after eleven, and I'm sitting in bed finishing this blog entry, and I am on track to get enough sleep before awakening to my seven o'clock alarm tomorrow. Jet lag, I will beat you yet!

Chichewa word of the day:iye = he or she

(Since Chichewa uses the same word for both, Malawians often confuse the words "he" and "she" when speaking English. To a native speaker, this is an almost unthinkable error: "I visited my mother, and he cooked lunch for me." But it happens so often here that now I scarcely notice the interchange of pronouns.)

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