28 October 2009

2009-10-28: Twice as fast with Peter


Today I measured more seedlings at Nkula, this time with the help of my acquaintance Peter. With Peter recording data and me doing the measuring, the job went twice as fast. It was a very hot day but there were pleasant distractions such as praying mantises. At day's end, we stopped by his house so he could give me masuku from his tree. I reached town in time to go to the market and buy vegetables, and I made vegetable pasta for everyone for dinner.

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At 7:45, as I was getting ready to go to Makoka, my phone rang. It was Peter Mkondambiri, a man in his early twenties who was my neighbour in Kalimbuka last year. (He is described in my blog entry from 2 November 2008). His family lives near Makoka, and he spends a lot of time there, so he knows Mr Tambala, which is how he got my new phone number.

Peter helped me quite a lot at Makoka last season, mainly with clerical and precision tasks such as recording data, labeling envelopes, and making rain gauges. As I've mentioned, most of the Makoka labourers don't have the ncessary education to do tasks like this. Peter, who speaks English fluently and has a high school diploma plus a one-year Accounting certificate, is amply qualified to help with data management, and has generally done quite a good job.

"Catherine," Peter said. "Can I assist you at Makoka today?"

"Well, actually," I said, "yes, you can help me. I'm going to be measuring seedlings today and you can be my data recorder."

"What time shall we meet?"

"I'm still in town, but I'm leaving soon. Let's meet at Nkula Field at nine o'clock."

It was probably a mistake that I decided to sit down and have a proper breakfast of Weet-Bix. That always takes longer than I think. I was going to be a little late, and I texted Peter from the minibus to say that my arrival would be closer to 9:30.

As I walked down the Makoka driveway, rushing so as not to be even later, I heard a vehicle approach behind me and then slow down. It was a white pickup truck with the ICRAF logo on the side. Mwafongo! I opened the door.

"Hallo, Amber," he said. "Get in." I told him I was on my way to Nkula, and he insisted on driving me all the way there, even though his destination was the nursery.

During the brief drive, I asked him what he'd been on this trip to the Southern Region; he said he was collecting mango scions for grafting, and also doing farmer training for a project promoting the use of climbing-bean agroforestry systems. The life of an ICRAF technician is always busy, but Mwafongo's competence and sanguinity never fail to impress me. I thanked him again for collecting the MZ12 biomass data shortly before my return, and told him I'd received the data sheets from Steve Gomomba.

Mwafongo dropped me off at the path to Nkula, and I waved goodbye. That was only the third time I had ever been to Nkula in a car - what a strange feeling, to arrive so quickly and with so little exertion! For a moment I felt like a World Famous Agroforester, driving around in my 4x4 with the NGO logo on the side. But in a moment I was back to my grad student self, walking down the dusty path.

* * * * *

It was 9:26, but Peter hadn't yet arrived, which was a relief - both because I didn't want to keep him waiting, and because it was nice to begin the day quietly with my own thoughts. Measuring seedlings is a slow but pleasant job to do by one's self.

Well, it would have been pleasant if the sun hadn't been so scorching. It felt like high noon in the Sahara. I drank some water, pulled my hat down a little further over my face, and got out my notebook and tape measure. 114, 107. 139, 96. 130, 102. 118, 86...

A little before 10, Peter came walking down the path. We briefly chatted and caught up on our respective family news, and then got to work. I handed Peter the data sheets and the mechanical pencil, showed him how the printed grid corresponded with the plot, explained the notations I used, and then wielded my tape measure again.

"43, dead. 66, 48. 42, 42. 31, 29..." How strange not to have to memorise the numbers! It was so much easier! Although the constant stream of spoken numbers precluded actual conversation, it left my mind free to pursue other thoughts.

I was astonished that Peter and I finished a Tephrosia plot in only half-an-hour. When I was working alone, the Tephrosia plots had been taking me a full hour. So together we really were working twice as fast.

In between measurements, I took advantage of Peter's presence to learn new Chichewa words, and to tell him about the insects amongst the seedlings. There was an abundance of praying mantises (chiswambiya) in various different colours and sizes; my favourites were the little sea-green ones. I wished I had my camera. I also asked Peter to remind me of the word for the katydid species (bwanoni) that is abundant and eaten for food in the wet season, and I asked him the word for ladybug, but he didn't know it. So instead I taught him the ditty "Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home," and demonstrated with a ladybug that had crawled upon my finger.

These agroforestry trees really are a boon for invertebrate diversity. I just don't know whether they're a boon for farmers.

* * * * * *

When twelve o'clock came, we retreated to the shade of a Tephrosia improved fallow to eat our lunch, such as it was. I told him he was welcome to go home for lunch, as is Malawian custom, but he opted to stay and share my food and water. There were enough biscuits for us each to have a handful, and we split the Clif Bar in half. But water was running short. We'd already drunk most of it in the heat of the morning. So after lunch I sent Peter to get more water from the hand pump a kilometre away.

He was gone a long time; I went back to work and got through two Gliricidia plots and half a Tephrosia plot without him. When he returned, we worked for several more hours, our progress somewhat hampered by the many branched Tephrosia that needed to be measured in two parts. (That was necessary if the tallest part was a branch that emerged at a right angle from the trunk.)

Then, a bit after three-thirty, I said we had better call it a day. Peter had asked me to come back to his house to get some masuku, since they had a big tree and more fruit than they knew what to do with. I wouldn't refuse an offer like that, but I also wanted to get to Fegs Stationers before five o'clock, so that I could buy some envelopes for litterfall samples.

Peter led me to his house the back way, through a tangle of paths and abandoned fields behind Nkula. We disturbed several large birds, the size and shape of small guinea hens, that had been hiding in the dry grass. "They are nkhwali," Peter said, and I wrote that down in my notebook. I tried to match their image with an image in my bird book. Francolins, perhaps?

Our shortcut took us just behind the football pitch (which in turn is just behind MZ12), and into a beautiful miombo forest that was recovering from a recent fire. The burnt trees and shrubs were resprouting abundant tender leaves in pastel shades of green and pink. I wished I had my camera with me! I'd have to return soon and take some photos.

On the path to the village where Peter's family live, I noticed a phenomenon I've been curious about, and asked Peter about it: why do farmers' fields have long straight lines of soot and ashes running through them? The answer, as I suspected, is that farmers rake all the surface rubbish (weeds, maize stover, fallen leaves) into a linear pile and then burn it. "They don't know any better," said Peter. "They don't know it is not good for the soil."

At Peter's household, which is a modest cluster of buildings on the edge of a spread-out village, Peter's mother was at home doing chores. I had been to the house before, so she remembered me. I greeted her as politely as possible with my rudimentary Chichewa. Peter explained that we were here for masuku, and I heard her reply something about a fire (moto). Oh, I saw what she was talking about: two-thirds of the masuku tree's crown had been scorched by a rubbish fire that had been lit directly underneath it. The tree's leaves had not actually caught fire, but the heat had shrivelled them. That was a shame, it had been a beautiful tree.

Nevertheless, the existing masuku fruits were still OK, and Peter knocked down a dozen for me with a pole. They were still green and hard, but they would ripen in a few days, he assured me. I thanked him (and his mother, who plied us with raw cassava on our way out), and he walked with me through the village paths until we reached the closest minibus stage on the main road, which was St. Anthony's, just before Makoka.

As we walked, he told me about a controversial proposal to introduce regional admissions quotas in Malawi's universities. Currently, students from the Northern region tend to be overrepresented, and students from the Central and Southern regions are underrepresented; this proposed system would admit students from each region in a fixed ratio. Peter asked me what I thought of the idea.

"I think that solution is too simple," I said. "The problem must be quite complicated. Why are Northerners overrepresented? Is it because they have better secondary schools? Or a different culture that emphasises education? Or something else? In any case, that difference will still remain." It sounds like an interesting debate - I will have to read more about it.

* * * * *

I arrived back in town at 4:55, but unfortunately Fegs was just closing its doors. I'd have to get my envelopes tomorrow. Instead I went to the market and got some vegetables for dinner, then went to All Seasons Internet Cafe. When I got my flash drive out of my pocket, a Tephrosia leaf came along with it.

At home, I decided it was about time I cooked dinner for everyone, so I made a big pot of pasta with cheese sauce. (Not too exciting - it's powdered cheese sauce mix from a packet. But that's better than nothing.) I added fresh green peas, julienned carrots, sauteed onion, and - at the very end - diced tomato. Once that was finished, I sauteed the Chinese cabbage I'd bought at the market, since that doesn't tend to keep.

After cleaning up the kitchen, I was too tired to do anything useful, so I lay down and read a few more chapters of "West With the Night." (I'm not sure whether to be envious that I didn't spend my childhood getting gored by wild boars like Beryl Markham did.) Eventually I mustered up enough energy to write a blog entry.

Before going to sleep, I wanted to figure out how much I should pay Peter for his work today, so I looked through my old notebooks from last year to see if I had made a note of his salary. I ended up spending twenty minutes nostalgically thumbing through my notebooks page by page, remembering why this page was mud-splattered and what that scrawled note meant. I had worked so hard last year! Just look at how many drafts I'd drawn of these rain shelter blueprints. And how I'd calculated the evaporation pan diameter as that of a cone, rather than as a cylinder. And oh - those pages of soil sample moisture data - it made my arms ache just to think of all those hours with the Edelman auger!

Even though last year's work didn't produce the results I hoped for, let it not be said that I didn't work hard. I hope I can work equally hard this year, but be smarter about it, and end up with something worthy of a dissertation.

Chichewa word of the day: chingwe = string, twine


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