29 October 2009

2009-10-29: Lunch with Peter


After a slow start to the day, made even slower by a minibus plagued with delays, I finally made it to Makoka in time to meet Peter for lunch at his house. We ate nsima, beans and usipa, and then had a photo session with his family in the courtyard (I had brought my camera for that purpose). Peter and I spent the afternoon measuring seedlings and nearly finished, but not quite; he had to leave early. I tried to finish by myself but my tape measure broke; my bag was full of ants; and I burnt the groundnuts I cooked for dinner. Oh well - at least I successfully prepared everything for my trip to Blantyre tomorrow.

Main text:

I'm sorry to say that I disobeyed my seven o'clock alarm. I even went back to sleep after getting a phone call at eight. Finally, when Peter called somewhat after nine, I managed to wake up completely.

"Are you already at Nkula?" Peter asked. No, I said, I was still in town, but would be on my way soon. I hadn't forgotten that he'd invited me for lunch today, so I suggested that I meet him at his house for lunch, and then we could work a half-day at Nkula Field after that.

I did some errands in town on the way - checking email, posting a blog entry, buying envelopes for litterfall samples. By the time I got on a departing minibus, it was exactly eleven o'clock, which meant I should reach St Anthony's by 11:30, just the right time for lunch.

My choice of minibus proved to be rather unfortunate. The minibus was stopped by traffic police at Three Miles and sat on the side of the road interminably. I was wedged in the very back on the sunny side, and I started to feel more like a braised Thanksgiving turkey than a minibus passenger. I suppose the driver had no license, or the bus wasn't insured, or there were too many passengers (that's for sure!). Whatever it was, it took nearly half-an-hour to sort out.

Even if that were the only delay, it would've been bad enough. We also sat at the Five Miles stage for about ten minutes while the driver went off to conduct some business (perhaps borrowing money to pay whatever fine he had just incurred). And when we reached Thondwe, most of the passengers disembarked (Wednesday is market day) and we sat waiting for the bus to fill again. At least, while I was waiting, I finally got a chance to take a photo of the ladies waiting to sell fruit to minibus passengers:

They sit in the shade awaiting the arrival of a new minibus, then they all rush to the bus windows displaying their wares. If no one wants to buy masuku or mangoes or peaches, they retreat back to their shady spot and wait for the next bus. I wonder what they gossip about in the meantime?

My minibus never did accumulate enough passengers to make the onward trip worthwhile, so the conductor told everyone to get out and board another bus. By the time I finally disembarked at St Anthony's, it was nearly 12:20. I think that's a new slow record: eighty minutes from town. On other occasions I've gotten there in twenty!

* * * * *

Peter was there waiting at the bus stage (I'd texted him to warn him of my very late arrival). I apologised for keeping him waiting; he said he'd been there since eleven but he didn't mind because he had people to talk to. Malawians really never seem to mind waiting.

On the road to Peter's house, we encountered an older gentleman wearing a battered blue suit jacket. He greeted Peter in Chichewa and then shook my hand in Malawian fashion, gripping it for a long time while he continued to talk. Unfortunately I scarcely understood a word, but Peter answered the gentleman's questions (I presume) on my behalf. Once we parted ways, Peter explained to me, "That was the village chief, Mr Blair. He is always drunk."

At Peter's house, lunch preparations were nearly finished. Peter's mother had cooked lunch, and Peter and I were to eat it by ourselves, without his mother or sisters. It seems to be customary for only the man of the household to eat with an important guest, which supposedly I was.

To try to recompense Peter's family for their hospitality, I had brought my digital camera, and I offered to take as many photos as they wanted and print them when I went to Blantyre tomorrow. This is something I am always happy to do for people - it's little trouble for me but means a lot to them.

Peter said we should have lunch first, since it was almost ready. In the meantime, he showed me around: there was a two-room brick house in which he slept (it was comprised of his bedroom and a small sitting room); there was his mother's house; there was his sisters' house; and there was a small separate building that was comprised of the kitchen on one side and the bathroom (i.e. place of bathing, not toilet) on the other. I gather this is a fairly typical layout for a rural Malawian household.

The buildings were made of red brick, as most Malawian buildings are, and roofed with thatch. The nearest electricity and running water are a few kilometres away, at the main road. Peter said that they used kerosene lanterns at night; and if there was no kerosene, candles; and if there were no candles, they slept.

* * * * *

We sat in the low armchairs in Peter's dark sitting room. His sister, Jane, put a bowl of hand-washing water on the concrete floor in front of us. I had the privilege of washing my hands first, because I was the guest. Peter used the bowl after me. (I'm no public health expert, but I wonder if this practise actually cleans anyone's hands - even the first person's, because you dip several times into the same bowl rather than using a running stream of water.)

When our hands were washed, Jane placed in front of us several covered bowls of food. There was nsima - of course! - and boiled brown beans, the size of kidney beans but softer in texture. As a special treat, there was also a small bowl of usipa (dried fish) simmered with tomato and onion. There were five fish, each about the size of my little finger. I took two and left three for Peter. Usipa come from Lake Chilwa or Lake Malawi, not locally, so they must be bought with cash (unlike the other components of the meal, which mostly came from their farm).

Peter and I each took an empty bowl and served ourselves nsima, usipa, and beans. I ate slowly, not only because I always eat slowly, but because I am still not very graceful at eating nsima with my fingers. Over lunch we talked about goverment and politics, and compared the laws of Malawi and the US.

After lunch, I offered to take some photos of Peter with his family, and said I would print them in Blantyre tomorrow. Unfortunately my camera batteries ran out while we were still taking pictures. That meant there was nothing left but for Peter and me to go to work.

* * * * *

I've already told you all about the process of measuring seedlings, so suffice it to say that Peter and I measured seedlings uneventfully until 4:30, at which point he had to leave to go to town. I paid him for his two days' work and said I'd call him tomorrow.

When Peter left, we were halfway through the last replicate, and I hoped I might be able to finish it myself before day's end. But alas, that was not to be. In the middle of a Tephrosia plot, I accidentally released the end of the tape measure when it was extended a metre or so. As I mentioned the other day, the tip of the tape measure had broken off, and I'd inserted a twig (which I later replaced with a metal ring) to stop the tip from being withdrawn into the body of the tape measure. But this time, the tip snapped back hard, and at a slight angle, so as to suck the ring inside.

That in itself wouldn't have been a problem; I could just unscrew the back of the tape measure as I'd done before, and retrieve the end. But for some reason, when I opened the tape measure this time, it went haywire. The spring got reversed and started pushing the tape measure out of its casing, instead of pulling it in. (Sounds crazy, I know... beats me!) I couldn't get the tape measure back together properly; my repair attempts left it almost completely immobilised.

So that was the end of my faithful tape measure. Requiescat in pace, old friend. I had procured it ten years ago when, as a Stanford undergrad, I bought a tool box to assemble some furniture in my dorm room. Its life was fairly uneventful until I brought it with me to Malawi, at which point it became responsible for measuring the width and length of every plot at Nkula Field, the location of every post of every rain shelter, the height of many hundreds of maize plants, and - its dying effort - the height of many thousands of seedlings.

Now I couldn't bear to throw it out. I should keep it on my desk as a paperweight when I am a Big Important Professor.

* * * * *

That would have been a reasonable end to the day's work, but the unreasonable ants would have none of it. Oh, no. While I'd been at the other end of the field, they had found my pink shoulder-bag that I'd left under a Tephrosia fallow. What did my bag harbour that interested them so? WRAPPERS. The Clif Bar and biscuit wrappers from yesterday's lunch apparently retained just enough sugary crumbs to warrant a full-scale attack of the Unreasonable Ants.

So, instead of heading home, I spent twenty minutes taking every item out of my bag one by one, and blowing and brushing and shaking and tapping the ants off of it. I placed the de-anted items in a pile far away from the horde of angry and confused Unreasonable Ants, who were distraught to lose not only their biscuit crumbs but also their lines of communication with their unreasonable colleagues.

I wasn't in quite such a good mood after that. But at least I was on my way home now, and soon I would be on the minibus, and soon thereafter in the shower, and then at my desk, and then in bed. I was looking forward to all these things.

As I passed the senior staff quarters, a young man with a bicycle approached coming the opposite direction. "Halloooo, madam!" he said.

I looked more closely. It was Gift, a Makoka resident and employee who had been working as a cowherd last year. It had been his job to take the cattle out to pasture each morning, watch over them in the field all day, and take them home in the evening. He and his cattle were often found along the road to Nkula Field, and every time he saw me pass, he would rush up to me and talk to me very enthusiastically.

I greeted him and he quickly told me that he had lost his job, and he wanted to know if I could hire him. He didn't want to take "No" for an answer, but I'm afraid that was the answer, and I got a little impatient with his persistence. I wish I could give a job to everyone who asks - I just can't!

* * * * *

At home, I tried to expedite dinner by putting some groundnuts on to boil while I took a shower. Alas, my timing was off, and by the time I got out of the shower (even though I was rushing), all the water had boiled away, leaving a blackened pot. Confound it, I do seem to have a real talent for burning this pot. I heated up some leftover rice and cabbage to go with my toasted groundnuts that were supposed to be boiled.

It was nice to have a real dinner for a change - so often the power is out, and I just have a peanut butter sandwich. My housemates were each doing their own thing, so I ate in my room while working on my computer. I also recharged my camera batteries, which to my great relief restored my camera to full working order.

The last thing I did before bed was get ready for my trip to Blantyre. I prepared a package I was going to send and made a list of the other things I needed to do. I certainly needed to buy a new tape measure!

This took a while, and it was late by the time I finished. Unfortunately, in my search for packaging materials, I unearthed a Doonesbury book, so I stayed awake even later reading comics in bed. But at least I was genuinely tired by the time I went to sleep!

Tomorrow: I shall travel to the big city, and the last seedling's height shall be known.

Chichewa word of the day: bwanoni = katydid


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