31 October 2009

2009-10-31: Annie's application II


I spent a quiet day at Tasty Bites finishing my application for the Annie's Homegrown Sustainable Agriculture Scholarship. Though my morale flagged somewhat when I reviewed my unsuccessful applications from last year, I managed to write what I think was a good Personal Statement about my career motivations and my views on sustainable agriculture. I e-mailed the application uneventfully and spent the evening at home doing... more writing! (Blog writing. I won't start on the next fellowship application until next week.)

Main text:

At least this morning I didn't wake up too late but still tired and say "Ugh, I should get going to Makoka." Instead, I woke up too late but still tired and said "Ugh, I should get working on my scholarship application."

Despite the fact that all I had to do today was sit in a cafe and type, it still took me a while to get out of the house. My goal for today was to convince the Annie's Homegrown Sustainable Agriculture Scholarship Committee to give me money. I had already written a complete draft of the application, but the Personal Statement was still similar to the one I wrote last year, and last year they didn't give me a dime, so revisions were in order.

* * * * *

Goodness, Zomba was lively this morning. A beautiful sunny Saturday in October is the perfect day for weddings, golf tournaments, and many other things, all of which seemed to be happening in town. The golf course is on my way to Tasty Bites, and indeed it was crawling with golfers today, as Mrs Mkandawiri had said it would be. No sign of the president, though - perhaps he was at Gymkhana Club drinking a toast to the eventual victor.

(When I say "golf course" you probably think of manicured emerald lawns. Erase that image from your mind. Zomba's golf course is not watered during the dry season, so in October it is scruffy brown grass scattered with dead leaves.)

A wedding convoy drove past, horns honking in rhythm, newlyweds waving triumphantly from a black convertible. The groom wore a charcoal-coloured suit, and the bride a white gown and a white pearl headdress. Following their car was a minibus containing the wedding party, which I thought looked funny - one doesn't normally see a minibus full of suits and ties. Although traditional marriage ceremonies are still sometimes practised in Malawi, Western-style weddings are very common, especially in towns and cities.

Even Tasty Bites was busier than usual. It is just across the river from the golf course, and the waiter explained that spectators from the golf tournament had been stopping by for refreshments. Knowing my habit of staying all day with my laptop, he told me "If lunchtime is very busy, maybe we ask you to give your table to someone else."

Aw, rats. I wanted to be able to settle down and spend six uninterrupted hours begging for money. But of course I said OK, ordered my usual egg and chips, and got to work.

* * * * *

I started out by writing a cover letter and converting all my finished documents to PDFs, so that they were ready to send. Now, the last and hardest task remained: writing the personal statement. Annie's wanted to know, in three pages or less: why I'd chosen my field of study; what I thought "sustainable agriculture" meant; my future plans; and the expected impact of my work. I found it a little hard to tie these ideas together coherently. The beginning was not so hard:

From my early childhood in Australia, the plants around me have provided the context for my life. ItÕs no surprise that I developed an enduring interest in agriculture when I was helping my mother shell broad-beans at age five, helping my grandfather tackle ferocious brambles at age ten, and honing mango-harvesting skills at age fifteen. How can one not be interested in agriculture? IsnÕt that like not being interested in breathing?

In the process of writing the rest of the essay, I dug out some of last year's applications to see if I could recycle ideas from them. (Last year I applied for six fellowships - each application carefuly wrought and polished, and approved by my professors - but got nothing). I opened my personal statement from last year's Switzer Environmental Fellowship, searching for a particular paragraph, and ended up reading the whole thing from beginning to end. It was really good! Interesting, articulate, touching - I had worked so hard on it. And they utterly rejected me; I didn't even get an interview. This was disheartening. I wanted to cry. What's the point? Did I really want to spend a hundred hours again this year accomplishing nothing?

"You can't give up," I told myself, "you don't have a choice." Well, I suppose accumulating debt is a choice, though not a very appealing one.

* * * * *

I wrangled with the personal statement all afternoon (fortunately no one asked me to give up my table), and when five o'clock came around, I was finishing the final paragraphs. Whew, I would still have time to get to the Internet cafe before six.

I felt pretty good about it - the statement was exactly the right length, answered their questions coherently, and seemed crisper than last year's. I felt odd not to have described my actual research in more detail, but they really didn't ask for it; perhaps that had been my mistake last year. I tried to sum up by saying:

Improving the long-term productivity of agriculture through the application of ecological principles is not only intellectually compelling for me, but personally compelling as well. I always feel this acutely when I walk down the long dirt road to Makoka Research Station, with laughing, chattering schoolchildren following in my wake. I find myself thinking about their future: I hope that they never go hungry. I hope their parents have enough money to pay their school fees. I hope their young country gives them opportunities for prosperity when they grow up. Fundamentally, this all depends upon agriculture Ð productive, profitable, socially just, ecologically sensible agriculture.

All right, time to go! I paid my bill for one egg & chips, one piece of chocolate cake, and two cups of tea. I hurried across town to All Seasons, reached their door by 5:40, and by 5:45 my application was sent.

Well, that was a bit anticlimactic. Since the application was submitted not through a webpage but just as an e-mail with attachments, I didn't get a confirmation of any kind; my days of hard work just disappeared into the cyber-void. And I wouldn't hear a word from the Annie's Scholarship Committee for six months. It was time to forget about Annie's and start thinking about the next challenge.

* * * * *

As soon as I got home, I started looking at the material for my next fellowship application: the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Dissertation Fellowship, due November 16. Unlike the Annie's scholarship, which is cheerfully informal and open-ended, the AAUW Dissertation Fellowship is a Prestigious Fellowship That Makes You Jump Through Many Hoops. I didn't apply last year, so I'll have to start from scratch; a lot more essay-writing (and rewriting) awaits me in the near future. I will start working on the AAUW application next week. For now, a break.

I spent the rest of the evening tenaciously ploughing through some overdue blog entries. Since I had already spent the entire day writing, I was rather tired of it, but a blogger's gotta do what a blogger's got to do.

All right, that's enough writing about writing. I just hope my dream about the Annie's scholarship will come true!

Chichewa word of the day: mphaka = cat; aphaka = cats
(note: the "h" is not pronounced; it sounds like "mpaka.")


30 October 2009

2009-10-30: Butterfly couriers


I departed early for Blantyre, where my main task was to send a package. On the way, I stopped at a bakery for a huge cream bun, and at Chichiri Shopping Centre for a new tape measure and other field supplies. The package is now en route, completely covered with twenty-kwacha butterfly stamps. At Makoka, I rescued a flower spider from the minibus, finished measuring the last of the seedlings at Nkula Field, and was lucky to get a lift to town from Mrs Mkandawire so I could reach the Internet cafe before closing. At home, I ate dinner with my housemates and tried to go to sleep on time.

Main text:

I had to wake up not long after 7, because I was planning to go to Blantyre and Makoka today, a feat I had never before attempted. Success would require an early start. I needed to pick up a gift that I had ordered in Blantyre and mail it to the US; then I would return to Makoka and finish measuring the seedlings at Nkula field.

I was out the door before eight, looking even sillier than usual because I was carrying a large empty cardboard box to use for the package. I'd have liked to sleep on the minibus, but I got a seat in the back and it was far too bumpy. So I just looked out the window for the duration of the hour-long ride. Usually, I do some of my best thinking while looking out minibus windows, but today all I could manage was just staying awake.

* * * * *

We arrived in Limbe a little before 9:30. I got cash at National Bank in Limbe (suspecting the ATM queues would be longer in Blantyre), and then set out to walk to Chichiri Shopping Centre, which is about one-third of the way to Blantyre. It's a half-hour walk; I could have gotten there faster by catching another minibus, but not as much faster as you might think, because of the slow and uncertain nature of minibuses. I noticed darkening clouds in the sky and wondered if I should have brought my umbrella.

On the way to Chichiri, I stopped by Sasha's Bakery for a large cream bun, as has become my habit. I should explain a bit about bakeries in Malawi: In Zomba, if you walk into a bakery, you'll see loaves of bread, and rolls, and... that's it. Bread and rolls. The bread is all similar; it's more or less like Wonder Bread. For someone who is used to San Francisco crusty sourdough, Cheesboard cheese scones, and Neto's chocolate babkas, this does not really do justice to the term "bakery."

The bakeries in Limbe and Blantyre are a step up from those in Zomba. They at least have more variety, and they often have glass cases displaying various sweet concoctions made from leavened bread. No pastries or cakes, alas! But you can get:

  • Fruit buns (I tried one once, and learned that "fruit" referred to the two raisins that were hiding in the corner of the bun)

  • "Doughnuts," which are baked circles of sweet dough dusted with powdered sugar

  • Cream buns, which are sweet bread rolls filled with highly unnatural icing (probably a mix of powdered sugar and vegetable shortening)

At this particular bakery, the best value-for-money is the large cream bun. For K120 (US$0.85), you can buy a cream bun the size of a loaf of bread. It is surely a day's worth of calories. I bought one and started eating it (with difficulty, since it far exceeded the height of my open mouth) as I walked down the highway to Chichiri.

I noticed people staring at me. A man passing me in the opposite direction chuckled and said "That is too big for yooouuu!" A group of ladies, sitting under a mango tree, pointed at me and burst into giggles. When I first arrived in Malawi a year ago, I might have felt offended by this. Now that I understand Malawian culture better, I can share the amusement. Malawians can find humour in pretty much everything, and a minor faux pas or misunderstanding will often catalyse uproarious laughter.

So, this morning, I had to laugh at myself along with them. I did look pretty ridiculous. A mzungu eating a cream bun the size of her head, covered with powdered sugar... you don't see that every day.

* * * * *

I quickly did my errands at Chichiri: I printed the photos I took yesterday of Peter's family (yikes, they cost K70 each! - I thought it was K30), bought a kitchen scale for weighing biomass of seedlings at Nkula, bought a new tape measure to replace my dear departed one, and bought a roll of packing tape to make sure the package would be well sealed. Then I caught another minibus to Blantyre. Oh dear - those dark clouds had indeed turned into big fat raindrops, and I didn't have my umbrella. Well, hopefully the showers would soon pass.

Disembarking in Blantyre, I stopped at Arkay Plastics to buy a medium-sized basin for holding leaf litter (my next task is to measure leaf litter in the Tephrosia plots). Then I went to the crafts stalls and collected the item I had ordered. The craftsman helped me wrap it up, and now I had only to take it to the post office.

Two errands awaited me first, though: I needed to buy some more Mefloquin (malaria prophylaxis) at the pharmacy across the street; I'd never bought Mefloquin in Malawi before, but a friend told me I'd find it there. I also needed to get more cash, since upon further reflection, I remembered that sending packages is always more expensive than I expect.

The Mefloquin was a pleasant surprise: I knew it'd be cheaper here than in the US, and it was less than one-third the price! Each weekly pill cost K280 (US$2) instead of the US$7 that I'd paid at Walgreens in California. Now I felt stupid to have bought a seven-month supply before I left California last year. Had I know it was so easily available and so cheap here, I could have saved myself a couple hundred dollars. Well, live and learn.

I ended up having to wait in a long queue at the ATM, as I suspected. Next time I sent a package, I would remember to get more cash than I thought I would need. Live and learn.

On the way to the post office, I passed a casual restaurant-cafe and wondered if they would let me use their toilet. Public toilets are rare in Malawian cities, and where they do exist, they are usually pay toilets (cost K20). I'd willingly have paid that, but I knew there were no public toilets at all in downtown Blantyre. I inquired at the front counter.

"No," said the proprietor, a stout Indian woman with grey hair. "Toilet is only for customers."

"Oh, okay," I said. "I will buy something then. May I have a Cocopina?"

"NO, we don't DO that," she said scathingly. "You can't just buy a drink. It's only for customers who are eating lunch." She turned away.

"All right, then I'll go," I sighed, and added (too crossly, in retrospect) "And I won't come back." I guess I have been spoilt by the friendly staff at Tasty Bites. Still, I did not like being treated as though my polite request was objectionable and unreasonable. I told myself to forget about it and proceeded to the post office.

* * * * *

I'd never been to the Blantyre main post office before; it is a long grey two-storey building on Glyn Jones Road, with walls of post office boxes painted in a black-and-white chequered pattern. Inside the lobby, I spent a few minutes at the side counter reinforcing the package with additional tape, then I carried it to one of the service windows.

The clerk said, "You must go to the parcel office, we don't accept parcels at this counter. Just a moment. Let me call them."

Parcel office? Why did she need to call them? Was my request that unusual?

After a moment, the clerk told me "Go out that door and turn left. You will find someone waiting for you." I followed her instructions, found a door labeled "PARCEL OFFICE," and was welcomed inside by a plump middle-aged Malawian woman. The sign on the door said "Closed for Lunch 12:00 - 1:00." It was currently 12:25. Oh dear!

"I'm so sorry to disturb your lunch hour," I said. "I didn't realise you were closed."

"No problem," she said as she walked behind the counter and pulled out a black binder. "I saw you coming up the street with that package and I knew you would come here eventually."

She weighed my package - 2.5 kilos - and looked up the cost in her black binder. Good thing I went to the bank again! It takes quite a fistful of kwacha to convey a package to the US.

Since this post office was clearly more sophisticated than the Zomba post office, I wondered if they might have a machine for printing labels with the exact postage amount. But no... the clerk reached for another binder, and out came the stamps. Just like in Zomba, my package was going to get plastered with thousands of kwacha worth of stamps.

Each Malawian stamp depicts a different species of native butterfly. Malawi has a great diversity of colourful butterflies, so they make a good theme for stamps. The clerk was getting out sheets of K20 stamps, which featured a yellow-and-black Charaxes castor on a green leaf. But K20 was not the highest denomination. I asked the clerk why she didn't use K75 stamps instead.

"These ones are easier to count," she said, ripping off 5-by-5 squares of stamps - each representing K500. "You can help me put them on."

So the two of us embarked upon an art project: covering my cardboard box, which was more than a foot on each side, entirely in butterfly stamps. She procured a little saucer of water (missing its sponge) for us to dip our fingers in. Soon the counter was covered with drips of water, smears of stamp-glue, and discarded strips from the edges of each stamp sheet.

Finally the last butterfly was in place and the last kwacha was accounted for. The package, formerly plain brown cardboard, was now swarming with hundreds of yellow-and-black butterflies in grid formation.

I smiled to imagine the butterflies taking flight and lifting the package, each butterfly attached to its burden by a slender thread. Had the butterflies been real, I think there would have nearly been enough of them to lift 2.5 kilos. Go, butterflies, go!

To my amazement, the clerk put a bar-code sticker on the package and gave me a receipt with the same bar code. A tracking number? This was fantastic. I would never send a package from Zomba again. (I wonder if my parents' 2008 holiday package will ever reach them... it hasn't so far...)

I thanked the clerk profusely for helping me over her lunch break. Her friendliness had cheered me up greatly. I smiled as I watched her carry the package into the back room, hoping and expecting that it would arrive safe and sound.

On the way out, I examined my receipt, which said "Department of Posts and Telecommunications." I think it should have said "Malawi Butterfly Courier Service."

* * * * *

As I walked to catch a minibus to Limbe, I stopped by the big Petroda filling station, where they were happy to let me use their toilet. And they didn't even make me buy petrol. Now I know where to find a toilet in Blantyre - live and learn.

Once in Limbe, I had to find a Zomba minibus and wait for it to fill. While I was sitting in the Zomba minibus waiting to depart, there were two notable occurrences:

  1. I wrote an outline of my dissertation (this I had done in my head last week while lying awake jet-lagged, but it was good to get it on paper);

  2. I noticed a flower spider hiding in the window frame of the minibus.

What was a flower spider doing in a minibus? Its round golden yellow body, somewhat smaller than a pea, would have been well camouflaged on a sunflower but looked very out of place inside a minibus. I thought about tossing the spider out the open window, but that would have been a death sentence - below was a barren dirt shoulder upon which minibus tyres crunched endlessly. At a loss for what to do, I left it where it was, and kept reminding myself not to hit it with my elbow.

Soon after I'd finished my dissertation outline, the bus engine started and we were on our way towards Zomba. The rain had stopped a while ago in Blantyre, and had never amounted to much, but as we proceeded northwards I could see that some places had received heavy rain. Had it rained at Makoka, I wondered? Would I be spending my afternoon struggling with wet Tephrosia seedlings as they soaked the pages of my notebook?

When we passed Namadzi, the last stop before Makoka, I finally had an idea that might save the spider. I got an empty small plastic bag and coaxed the spider into it, blew a little air into the bag, and tied the top closed. I tucked this little bag gingerly into the top of my shoulder bag. The spider should be safe there until I disembarked at Makoka.

My plan worked! I hopped off the bus at Makoka to find, as I expected, only faint signs of raindrops on the dirt road. I carried the spider to the nearest yellow flower - a lantana, whose flower clusters had pink centres and yellow edges. I opened the plastic bag and turned it inside out to reveal the spider, which I placed on the yellow part of the flower. There it sat, looking right at home. I bade it farewell.

I have to say, that was one lucky spider! I'm glad I could save it from its uncertain fate as a minibus passenger.

* * * * *

I passed Chiku on the road, and he told me that someone had already done the next task for my swazi bed, which was to raise the layer of grass to give the seedlings more light. I wanted to check on the swazi bed anyway, so I stopped by the nursery. The grass had indeed been raised; it was now lying atop three small logs that were laid perpendicular across the bed. More than half of the Gliricidia seeds have now germinated; I hope the rest soon follow!

On my way to Nkula, I called Peter, but he said he couldn't help me this afternoon (I didn't catch the reason why). No problem, I should be able to finish measuring the seedlings today even without his help. I left my basin, kitchen scale, and my other Blantyre puchases with the watchman, then I unfurled my new tape measure and got to work. It took a bit of getting used to - it was lighter and more easily bent than my old tape measure, and retracted more strongly. But soon I got into the swing of things.

I enjoyed the afternoon; the weather was cool and cloudy after the rain, and very pleasant for working outside. The birds seemed to like it too. I saw a lilac-breasted roller (a gorgeous blue bird somewhat like a kingfisher) winging over the forest, and I got a close-up view of a male blue waxbill who perched on a grass bough close to me and said "Zwee zwee zwee."

As four o'clock approached, and I still had one Tephrosia plot remaining, I realised I'd need to work very fast if I were to have any hope of getting to the Internet cafe before six. So I ploughed through that plot in record time. All by myself, a Tephrosia plot in less than one hour... not bad! Practise makes perfect, and heaven knows I've had enough practise at this job.

"Eighty-two... fourteen. Done." And thus concluded the grand task of measuring 2,376 seedlings. Rather than savour my victory, I tossed my notebook and tape measure into my bag, slung my bag over my shoulder, and hurried down the path as fast as I could without running.

Halfway down the driveway, I heard a vehicle approach and then slow down. This was a good sign. It meant someone was likely to give me a lift. Mrs Mkandawire! She said she was coming from a Mother's Day party at Makoka. Mother's Day was two weeks ago, but this was the best day for the Makoka staff to hold a celebration.

As we approached town, I asked Mrs Mkandawire why the flagpoles had been erected along the main road; flagpoles usually signify that an important government official is visiting. "Tomorrow the President is coming," she said. "There will be a big golf tournament here in Zomba, and the President will attend the festivities at Gymkhana Club."

Mrs Mkandawire insisted on driving me all the way to All Seasons Internet Cafe. It was my lucky day - thanks to her, I had twenty-five minutes to spare, which at least was enough to check my email.

* * * * *

As I was heading home, just passing Shoprite, one of the taxi drivers shouted "Catherine" at me. "Yes?" I said.

"Come here, I want to tell you something," he said. It was Collins, a driver I've used several times.

Collins gave me a long lecture on how I shouldn't be walking home by myself too late because Zomba is becoming more dangerous. He told me about several recent murders (a soldier at the aerodrome, and a street boy at Mponda River). He said that because I was not Malawian, I wouldn't hear about these things. But he was, and he did, and he was warning me.

"Please, Catherine," he said. "You shouldn't walk late at night. You should get taxi."

"Is this late?" I asked. It was ten past six, and twilight had fallen. I wasn't quite sure when, in his opinion, the streets became dangerous.

"Maybe this is OK," he said. "But seven, or eight, or nine, is not so good. I saw you the other day walking home at seven o'clock carrying many jumbo [bags]. That is not safe for you. You should call me for lift."

I wasn't sure whether to trust his advice, since as a taxi driver he stood to directly profit from my apprehensions. I thanked him noncommittally, but that didn't satisfy him, so he reiterated his warnings about the dangers of Zomba. I was quite relieved to finally get away; I don't really like being lectured by near-strangers for ten minutes at a time. Perhaps there is some truth to what he was saying, but hearing it three times didn't help. I will seek a second opinion.

* * * * *

At home, I joined my housemates for dinner and TV. Then, since I'd contributed to the eating but not the cooking, I washed the dishes. I used up the remainder of my energy scrubbing the pot I'd burned last night. So that was my last useful accomplishment for the day - after that, I only managed to read a few more chapters of "West With the Night."

There was a lot of commotion on the streets outside as I tried to go to sleep. People were yelling, cheering, and hollering; horns were honking. I don't know what it was all for. Pre-wedding festivities? End of term at Chancellor College? Excitement about the President coming tomorrow? Whatever it was, I was glad to be home in bed!

Chichewa word of the day: -bwera = to come; abwera = he/she comes


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


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.

Main text:

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


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.)

26 October 2009

2009-10-26: Annie's application


I somehow managed to sleep late despite the deafening sound of the workmen chiselling away the tile floor right outside my room. No time for Makoka today - I had to finish a draft of an application for the Annie's Homegrown Sustainable Agriculture Scholarship. I went to Tasty Bites and worked on the application all day, sent it off in the evening, returned home to a power outage, went to sleep early, but woke up again. Although my accomplishments for today were OK, my schedule was not so great!

Main text:

I awoke when my phone rang at eight-thirty. The workmen had started chipping away the old floor right outside my room about an hour ago, but I was so tired, the noise had only awoken me momentarily. I'm not sure how I managed that; the chisels right outside my door were so loud, even a phone conversation was difficult, let alone slumber. Crazy jet lag.

My plans for the day were to finish a draft of my Annie's scholarship application; I'd told my recommenders that I would send them a draft by today. Hopefully it would only take a couple of hours and then I could go to Makoka, but it would take as long as it takes.

I should probably end this blog entry here. Who wants to hear about a day spent writing an scholarship application? I'm in Africa, shouldn't I have some exciting tales about nearly being stampeded by hippoes?

* * * * *

In fact, despite the ear-splitting clangs of the chisels, I did go back to sleep for an hour, until my phone rang again. The caller ID said "Mwafongo."

"I came from Lilongwe yesterday," he said, "and I have brought the data sheets from the MZ12 Gliricidia pruning. I left them for you at the nursery. You will find them there with Steve Gomomba."

"Thank you so much," I said. I hoped he couldn't tell I had been asleep, since it was ten o'clock, and he had probably been up since six.

All right, no more lazing around. Even though I wouldn't have time to go to Makoka today, at least I could do a decent job on this application. As a treat, I would go and work at Tasty Bites instead of working at home. That way I could be sure not to fall asleep again. (And the water had stopped working again, which made me even less inclined to spend the day at home!)

* * * * *

Who is this "Annie" to whom I am applying for a scholarship? I should explain. Annie's Homegrown is an organic foods company based in California; they are best known for their macaroni and cheese. Their company mascot is a grey-and-white rabbit, and their pasta is usually made in the shape of little rabbits.

Being an environmentally conscious company, each year they give out a handful of scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students working on sustainable agriculture. Each year one graduate student wins a grant of $10,000, and several others win grants of $2,500. I applied last year, and had high hopes of winning, but after six months had elapsed, I got a boilerplate rejection e-mail.

Later I learned that this is actually a highly competitive scholarship (which explains the outstanding qualifications of previous years' winners). Everyone wants to be sponsored by a bunny rabbit who makes organic pasta! Rejection always hurts, but I told myself not to feel too bad, and to try again.

* * * * *

I was at Tasty Bites by 10:45, and ordered my usual egg and chips before the lunchtime rush. Another mzungu woman my age, who I hadn't seen before, was also there working on her laptop. I was curious to ask her what she was doing in Zomba, but I don't think race alone is a sufficient reason to approach someone. Goodness knows I find it annoying when people rush up and claim they want to be my best friend (knowing nothing about me other than my skin colour). Probably I'll run into her in a more interactive context - at a party, at volleyball, or something.

Uh-oh, I'm letting my thoughts wander to volleyball. I am supposed to be thinking about sustainable agriculture.

I spent the first several hours rewriting my "Academic Experience" and "Work Experience" statements. Under the former heading, applicants are supposed to list their extracurricular activities. I find this rather amusing. Since when do PhD students have extracurricular activities? I did, however, finally come up with one sentence to add to last year's draft:

I wish I had time for another career as a botanical artist, but my
drawings and paintings of flora are for fun rather than profit.

The "Work Experience" essay dragged on into the afternoon, even though I already had a complete draft from last year. Obviously, it hadn't been good enough last year. I rewrote it from top to bottom, polishing every word, and concluded thus:

Once I finish my Ph.D., I intend to seek an academic job that lets me combine all three of these approaches Ð field research, policy advising, and teaching. I see each of these as being equally important to my goal of furthering human and environmental sustainability. IÕve never wanted to be an ivory-tower academic, and my mentors have shown me that academia is as real-world as you make it. An up-to-the-elbows-in-mud academic, thatÕs me.

Whew, now I had earned some refreshment. I ordered chocolate cake and black tea. Hopefully that would get me through a draft of the Personal Statement.

* * * * *

Last year's Personal Statement I had written in quite a hurry, and although I think it provided a good narrative about my dissertation project, it didn't directly address all the points they wanted, such as "Your vision of what the phrase 'sustainable agriculture' means." I would rather have talked about my fieldwork - who needs another definition of "sustainable agriculture"! - but I guess it is best not to argue with the instructions of the scholarship committee.

As I chopped my Personal Statement apart and started slowly weaving the bits together, I realised there was no way I'd be able to finish a near-final draft by the time the Internet cafe closed. The essay probably needed at least another half-day's work. Oh well, at least it wasn't actually due until Saturday. My recommenders could make do with whatever I put together by five o'clock.

To get me through the final push, at four o'clock I ordered a chapati and another cup of tea with milk. Alas, these didn't arrive until 4:45, and the tea turned out to be instant coffee, without milk. I pointed out to the waiter that tea and coffee are not in fact interchangeable, and he said the mixup was due to the lack of milk, which had caused my order to be confused with someone else's. All right, I said, but the coffee was too strong for me, and I couldn't drink it (I'd only managed a few sips).

You'd have thought the coffee would be taken off my bill, right? You'd be wrong. For all Malawi's charms, the restaurant service here is... er... rather hit-or-miss. (Tasty Bites is actually pretty good in a relative sense.)

* * * * *

I uneventfully sent off my draft application to my recommenders, and saw with interest that I had a new email from Festus in my inbox. It was a detailed reply to the questions I'd sent on Saturday about the seedling experiment. Skimming it through, I could see he disagreed with my approach for measuring root biomass. I downloaded the message to my flash drive to study later. It is incredibly helpful to have a supervisor who replies so promptly and thoroughly, even to a two-page-long email.

Six o'clock was nigh - closing time - and I was just finishing a final email when the Internet cafe plunged into blackness. The power cut had come early tonight. But at least my application draft, or rather the ones and zeroes representing it, had safely winged its way across the globe.

* * * * *

At home, I followed the usual routine: greet housemates, light candle, put together a meal that doesn't require cooking (in this case, coconut biscuits with peanut butter), work on computer, wait for power to return. At least the water was back on - that was something to be glad for, anyway! Eight o'clock came and went; eight-thirty approached. Now my computer battery was nearly finished. This was an unfairly long power outage.

But it was a good excuse to curl up with the iPod and listen to a Sherlock Holmes story, "The Great Gandolfo." Half an hour later, although the murder had been solved, the power was still out. Well, now I had no recourse but to go to sleep.

I awoke again a bit before 9:30. The power had finally returned, and my phone was beeping to announce a text message. One of my neighbours had invited me over for homemade potato soup. I love her potato soup, but I was feeling too groggy to go anywhere (even if it was just walking up the stairs in my stocking feet). I told myself I should go back to sleep so I could get an early start tomorrow.

Well - that would have been a good idea. I actually stayed up another few hours, had another snack (since peanut butter and biscuits isn't much of a dinner), wrote a blog entry, and finally went to bed feeling a mixture of pleasure at accomplishing the day's goals (almost) and disappointment for doing it on such a nonsensical schedule.

Chichewa word of the day: mwana = child; ana = children


25 October 2009

2009-10-25: The tape-measured forest


After a reasonably on-time departure for Makoka, I spent the day measuring the heights of seedlings at Nkula Field. When I do this by myself, I have to use a special system to remember several consecutive numbers before I can write them down; that system is reproduced here in more detail than you care to know. In the afternoon, a fire started in the nearby Gliricidia forest; it probably posed no threat to my experiment, but it made me worry and the smoke was annoying. I picked up my hidden butterfly wings on the way home, enjoyed the rare presence of electricity at bath-time, and spent the evening in front of my computer.

Main text:

It was an uneventful morning, with the usual routine of waking up too late and getting ready to go to Makoka. My task for the day was to make good progress on measuring the heights of seedlings at Nkula Field.

I didn't want to be slowed down by breakfast, so I just ate a few lemon cream biscuits and made it out the door around 9:30, which at least is an improvement over previous days. When my minibus stopped at Thondwe, I bought a cob of roasted maize and ate half of it as the rest of my breakfast. The other half would be lunch or dinner. Good thing I'm not on a low-carb diet.

It was 10:20 when I disembarked at Makoka. Nearly an hour better than last time! Hey, if I can get to Makoka an hour earlier each day, by week's end I'll be arriving at 5 AM, just in time for first light. (That would be one of the nice things about actually living at Makoka: being able to roll out of bed and into the field. As you may remember, I tried to get accommodation at Makoka last year, but my request was repeatedly deferred. Now that I am comfortably settled in town, I don't think I'll pursue that request again. But let's see how I feel in December when I have to plant Gliricidia seedlings before sunrise...)

As I walked down the road, a teenage boy who had been kicking a ball in the road with his brother abandoned the game and fell into step with me. He asked me the typical questions that Malawian schoolchildren learn to ask in English: "What is your name? Where are you from? Where are you going? How old are you?" I answered these, unsure how much he would understand. But his English turned out to be fairly good. He said he was a Form 1 (Year 9; 9th grade) student at St Anthony's Secondary School. I asked him polite questions about himself until his path diverged toward the church and mine toward the water pump.

He walked away a few steps, then turned and followed me again. "Madam," he said, "I am going to church. Can you give me money? For church?"

"No, I'm sorry," I said. "I don't have enough." (This was true; today I'd only bought enough money for my minibus fare. But even when I have extra, as a rule I do not give people money just because they ask. I get asked a lot.)

"OK," he said. "See you," and loped down the path to the church. I hoped I remembered his face; this scenario happens so often, with so many dozens of different children, I'm not always sure who I've met before. But they always remember me: I am Catherine, the eccentric mzungu who walks around with hoes and wheelbarrows.

As I approached the path to Nkula Field, I encountered three young girls climbing the trees in the Gliricidia seed orchard. "Catherine," one shouted. "Give me your money."

"No, sorry," I said. They giggled.

Despite these typical examples, I'm quite sure that I am not being asked for money nearly as often this year as I was last year. I suppose people know me now, and know that I am not likely to start handing out fistfuls of kwacha upon request.

* * * * *

I greeted the day watchman, found the plot where I'd left off, and got out my notebook and tape measure. Immediately I encountered a problem: my tape measure was stuck. I had reinforced the battered end with duct tape, which made it stronger but also bulkier, and now the duct-taped end was caught inside the casing. I grabbed hold of the hook on the end and tried to pull the measuring tape out.

Rip! The hook came off in my hand. Now I had a tape measure missing its tip, entirely stuck inside its casing. This was not the best start to a day's work that consists entirely of measuring.

Well, thank goodness for my Swiss Army knife. I used the Phillips-head screwdriver to unscrew the back of the tape measure and expose its innermost secrets. I grabbed the elusive tip, pulled it back out, and measured how much was missing. About 2.6 centimetres. Since I only measured to seedling heights to the nearest centimetre, I'd have to slightly underestimate and then add 3.

To prevent the tip from pulling back inside again, I used the pocketknife's auger to make a small hole in the duct-tape flap, and stuck a twig through at a right angle. It worked! Hey, I never said this project was high-tech. (Note to funding agencies: Ecology research gives you much better value for money than does high-energy physics. Please consider buying this grad student a new tape measure.)

* * * * *

When I am measuring seedlings by myself, I have to alternate between two tasks:
  1. measuring seedling height with the tape measure;

  2. recording the height in my notebook.

This may sound trivial, but actually, it makes the task much more difficult. I really need two hands for measuring (especially with such tall seedlings!) and two hands for recording. My compromise is to tuck the notebook under my arm, measure the heights of as many seedlings as I can consecutively remember (usually four), take out the notebook, write down the measurements I have just memorised, clear my memory, and repeat.

Here is a photo I took when doing this same task in April 2009. You can tell it's a different time of year because the maize is mature and the rain shelter roofs are on, but the basic setup is the same:

It is surprisingly difficult to remember four random numbers between 10 and 200 when you are interrupted after each number by the task of measuring a seedling from the bottom of the trunk to the tip of the tallest apical meristem. And yet, if I paused to write down each measurement one at a time, my progress would be laughably slow - taking out the tape measure, measuring, putting away the tape measure, getting out the notebook, writing, putting away the notebook. So I have had to cultivate my numerical short-term memory. It is a mentally demanding task: I've found, for example, that I can't do it while talking on the phone, nor when I am short on sleep. (In those cases I can't expect to remember more than two numbers at a time.)

I can remember words or ideas more easily than I can remember numbers, especially if there is some way to link together these ideas. So, whenever possible, I associate a number with a concept. After repeating these seedling measurements (and similar tasks) so many times, I now have a concept for just about every two-digit number. (Single digits are easy enough to remember on their own.)

Just for fun, I am reproducing here some of my number associations. I didn't sit down and craft this list consciously; it just accreted gradually in my head as I carried out measurement tasks. Some of these linkages will make sense to everybody; some will make sense to no one but me.

13 Bad luck
16 Sweet sixteen...
17 ...Going on 17
18 Legal drinking age (Australia)
22 Catch-22
24 Hours in a day
25 Five squared
26 Old house number
29 My age
32 Freezing point of water, F
35 Age you can be President
36 Six squared
39 The Thirty-Nine Steps
42 Life, the Universe, and Everything
44 The Fox network
45 End of World War II
47 AK-47
49 San Francisco 49ers
51 Area 51 and UFOs
52 Playing cards in a deck
55 Highway speed limit
57 Heinz ketchup varieties
62 Age at which Carl Sagan died
64 The $64 million question
65 Retirement age
66 Route 66
69 Apollo moon landing
71 SR-71 Blackbird
76 U.S. independence
77 G-77 group of countries
78 RPM of old records
80 My birth year
88 Number of keys on a piano
89 Loma Prieta earthquake
94 Year we moved back to Australia
97 Year I started uni
98 Year I was at UQ
101 Dalmatians
102 KDFC Classical
103 A very high fever

In fact, I have an association for nearly every number; I just haven't listed them all here. Most of the unassociated numbers are inherently charismatic ones such as 50 or 99. For the remainder, I usually just remember the difference from the nearest associated number (e.g. "Life, the Universe, and Everything, minus one." And for numbers over 100, I just ignore the first digit - it is usually obvious enough when looking at the seedling. (There are a few three-digit numbers for which I have specific associations, such as 118 and 212, but that is just for fun.)

There's more to it, though. For the Tephrosia seedlings, the numbers come in pairs (because the seedlings are planted in pairs). Whenever possible, I strengthen my memory by linking together the numbers in the pair - either by comparing their relative sizes, or calculating the difference between them, or linking their associated concepts. For example, if I measured two seedlings that were 162 and 151 centimetres respectively, all I would need to remember is "Carl Sagan debunked UFOs." Or, 165 and 149 centimetres: "Retiree watching football."

The pairs of seedlings, and the two-digit numbers, also tend to make me think of couples' ages. If I measure a pair of seedlings that are 21 and 19 centimetres, I think of a pair of college students going on a date. 87 and 82 centimetres, I think of an elderly couple in a nursing home. And so on.

This is all probably much more than you wanted to know, but since it is what I have been spending all day doing, I wanted to write it down!

* * * * *

After getting through two Tephrosia plots (each with 108 seedlings), I was feeling unaccountably sleepy, and the sun was discouragingly hot. I decided to rest in the shade of one of the Tephrosia improved fallows. I lay in a furrow with my head on a ridge, using my hat for a pillow. Ah, it was good to be still and cool for a little while, and listen to the sounds of insects and birds around me.

Scarcely had I closed my eyes when I heard footsteps approach. "Madam," called Mr Machaka, the watchman. "You are OK?"

"Yes, I'm fine, thanks," I said, sitting up. "I am just resting."

"You are not sick?"

"No, I'm OK! Thank you."

Since he spends all day resting in the shade himself, I would have thought he'd understand. But I guess it is peculiar for a white woman to curl up in the shade beneath her Tephrosia trees.

* * * * *

I slept for a little while, then awoke feeling better, though still sluggish. To wake myself up, I ate a mango for a snack (a tasty and messy process, made easier by my pocketknife - I always cut two slabs off the side, score the flesh into cubes, and turn the slabs inside out). Then I went back to work. 174, 167. 190, 174. 191, 172. 241, 213. And so on.

The reason I measure seedling height is because it is the easiest non-destructive measurement to keep track of the seedlings' growth. It's not perfect, though: some seedlings are much bulkier (or much more frail) than their height would suggest. It really depends on their degree of branching. I wondered if maybe I should include another number for "branching index," assesed either subjectively or objectively. But since the measurements are already so time-consuming, I decided I'd have to do without it. Maybe for the next batch of seedlings I will attempt a more sophisticated allometry.

160, 144. 148, 133. 199, 125. 121... What was that crackling sound?

I heard some popping noises from the nearby grove of mature Gliricidia trees. It sounded like a fire. I put my tape measure down and walked to the edge of the field to investigate.

Indeed it was a fire. A plume of smoke was rising from the forest, and a flock of swallows was darting in and out of it, eagerly seeking insects that were fleeing the flames. Out of the frying pan, into the swallow's mouth!

Mr Machaka soon went into the forest to investigate. I stayed in the field measuring, but felt uneasy. I doubted the fire could spread to this field because the field-forest border had already been burned a few weeks ago (slightly scorching the edges of several of my plots). Still, there was a lot at stake. I didn't want half my dissertation to go up in smoke.

Presently Mr Machaka returned from his reconnaissance. "There is fire over there," he reported to me.

"Yes, I know," I said. "I can see it. Is it very big?"

"Not very big," he said. "But these fire is bad."

I assumed he meant the practice of setting fire to the forest was bad in general, not that this particular fire was especially serious.

"Did someone make the fire on purpose?" I asked.

"He just burn it and run away. I not find him."

"Why did he make the fire?"

"I don't know. He just burn everything. But it is bad. Those trees is for ICRAF. You tell Mrs Kalipinde. Me, I want to tell her, but she do not listen."

"OK, I'll tell her," I said. Mrs Kalipinde, the ICRAF nursery manager, could in principle rebuke the villagers for damaging ICRAF's Gliricidia seed banks on Makoka property. However, it was too late to stop this particular fire. Hopefully it would do the Gliricidia trees little harm, since they were quite large and had already lost most of their leaves for the dry season. Still, the crackling noises and the veil of smoke made me worried and distracted.

* * * * *

I continued measuring seedlings, trying to focus on the task and not to worry about the fire. I cheered up a little when I found an abandoned bird's nest in one of the bigger Tephrosia seedlings. I bet it belonged to the pin-tailed whydahs who were courting at Nkula Field in April and May.

During the breeding season, male pin-tailed whydahs are laughably absurd: they're small black-and-white finches with a black plumed tail that is - literally! - three times longer than their body. This weighs them down so that they can barely fly. They try to impress the drab, sparrow-coloured females by hovering over them with rapid wing-beats, chirping and dangling their tails. Oh, the effort this must take! However, the female pin-tailed whydahs never seem too impressed. As far as I could tell, even the most earnest fluttering and chirping on the part of the males was met with cold rebuff.

Here is a photo of a male pin-tailed whydah that I took a few days before I left in May. Perhaps he was the architect of the nest I found today:

I had been pleased to see the whydahs using the Tephrosia seedlings as perches for their courtship rituals, and now I was pleased to see that the Tephrosia had been used as nurseries too. Apparently that male pin-tailed whydah scored after all. Chalk one up for positive effects of agroforestry on biodiversity!

* * * * *

The afternoon wore on, and the fire crackled intermittently, sometimes waning, sometimes snapping back to life again. Around four o'clock, the wind changed direction, and the smoke began drifting directly over the field. This made the atmosphere rather unpleasant. By the time I finished at five o'clock, I was feeling positively woozy from breathing smoke for too long. (This was on top of the hours I spent last night being unable to sleep because of acrid smoke from burning rubbish coming through my windows.) I'll be glad when the dry season is over and the country stops being on fire!

I left Nkula Field just as the night watchman, Mr Malalo, was arriving. He asked me (as best he could with his little English and my little Chichewa) to bring a torch so that he could patrol the field better at night. This was a reasonable request, so I told him I would bring one as soon as possible.

My trip home was uneventful. I was glad to get a minibus right away; sometimes on Sundays they are few and far between. I ate the rest of my roasted maize on the way home (cold and stiff thought it was), which would count as dinner, or at least part thereof.

As I was passing the MTL building, I rememebered: my butterfly! What had happened to the feeble but beautiful butterfly I had stashed under a poinsettia bush two days ago? Had it recovered and flown away, or been eaten by something, or died and remained where it fell? I retraced my steps to the same bush, and there - exactly where I had left them - were four perfect butterfly wings. No body, just wings. I was sorry for the butterfly, but my plan had worked perfectly. The ants were welcome to the body, and they had left me the lovely wings. I cupped them carefully in my hand and carried them home, thinking about how I could use them.

Thankfully, the electricity was on when I got home, so I could actually take a proper shower for a change, and see what I was doing. A Tephrosia leaf fell out of my hair, which made me laugh. That's what I get for spending all day amongst Tephrosia seedlings.

* * * * *

I spent the evening quietly in front of my computer. I should have worked on a draft of the scholarship application that I promised to send my professors by tomorrow, but I was too tired, so I just caught up on blog entries instead. I think I'll have to stay in town tomorrow to finish that application draft.

I wish I could spend all day every day in the field, and all evening every evening working on academic writing, but I can't. By the time I get back from the field at six o'clock, it seems that I can only ever muster enough energy to take a shower, eat dinner, and go to sleep. I think I need to train myself to do simple but still useful tasks in the evenings: entering data, sewing litterbags, counting maize kernels, those kinds of things. If I made it a goal to spend an hour on field "homework" each night, I would accomplish a lot more over the next seven months. Then I would feel better about taking the occasional day off to work on grant writing or dissertation writing.

As I write this, smoke is again drifting through my windows. Oh, I hope it clears up before I have to go to sleep. Next month I'm looking forward to the return of rainy skies and clear air.

Chichewa word of the day: moto = fire

24 October 2009

2009-10-24: Plotting the seedlings' fate


After getting a somewhat late start, I spent the day in front of my computer at Tasty Bites. My biggest accomplishment was writing a comprehensive email to Festus and Margaret about what I should do in the seedling experiment this year. Workmen are laying new tiles on our kitchen floor; there was a bird saying "Wooooo" outside my window tonight. It was not a very eventful day - sorry, readers!

Main text:

This was a boring day, and it makes for a boring blog entry. Sorry about that - fieldwork is not always daring and spectacular. Sometimes it consists of sitting in front of one's computer writing emails.

* * * * *

I awoke around 8 again, which wasn't too bad, but I still felt like it was the middle of the night, and I kept hitting snooze until around 9. So I began yet another day by feeling sheepish. (West-to-east is definitely the worse direction for jetlag, since it puts you in direct contradiction with Ben Franklin's advice on how to be healthy, wealthy and wise.)

In a country where most people rise by six o'clock, 9:00 may as well be noon. I felt mortified to still be in my nightgown, all the more so because workmen had descended on our flat and started replacing the floor tiles in the kitchen and front hall. BANG, BANG, BANG went their hammers as they chipped away the old linoleum. I didn't want to venture out of my room without looking more awake and presentable, but there was a catch-22, since I needed the bathroom for that purpose.

Well, eventually I braved the commotion, ducked out of my room, and got washed and dressed. But I couldn't muster any enthusiasm for going to Makoka. It would be lunchtime when I arrived, and the fields would be scorching hot. I was hungry, and I couldn't use our discombobulated kitchen, and anyway there were a lot of emails I needed to catch up on. All these factors compelled me to head to to Tasty Bites Cafe down the road.

* * * * *

Ah, Tasty Bites. My office-away-from-home. I'm not too fond of the instant coffee, the often-curdled milk, or the hideously uncomfortable chairs that don't fit under the tables. But the staff are friendly, the prices are reasonable (as long as you order egg and chips, which I always do), the location is convenient and shady, and... there's really no other game in town, if you want a place to sit and work on your computer.

(That's not quite true. Bethel Books and Coffee Shop, on the other side of town, is nicer than Tasty Bites. And they have real coffee! But they're further away, pricier, and their opening hours are much more restricted, so I only go there on rare occasions.)

Tasty Bites has gotten really spruced up since I left in May. They have a new lawn out front, a new patio with outdoor tables and umbrellas, new menus, new wall decorations, and several new signs. It's a very popular place in Zomba, both with Malawians and with expats - the casual atmosphere and spacious seating make it a good place for meeting friends or colleagues. In this case, my colleague was my laptop Clara. I asked her if she wanted anything, but she didn't, so I just ordered my egg and chips.

* * * * *

The most important email I had to write today was to Festus and Margaret, regarding how to proceed with the seedling experiment at Nkula Field. I had so many questions for them I didn't know where to begin. It took me more than an hour just to get all my ideas down, and another two hours to make the questions succinct and coherent. By the time I was finished, it was sort of a mini-research-proposal. Here are some excerpts:


At the seedling establishment experiment, I am going to remove half of the existing seedlings from each plot and replace them with new seedlings this year. This is to compensate for the fact that my drought manipulation came too late last year. I still want to examine the effect of drought on first-year seedlings as well as second-year seedlings, but now I will have to study the two cohorts simultaneously instead of sequentially.

QUESTION 1: How can I best quantify the BELOW-GROUND biomass and rooting depth of the seedlings?

PROBLEM: Land preparation is supposed to take place during the dry season. However, it is not possible to excavate seedling roots during the dry season, since the soil is rock-hard. If I wait to harvest all the seedlings until the wet season has begun, my methods will not represent actual farming practise.

QUESTION 2: How, if at all, should I account for litterfall in the Tephrosia plots?

PROBLEM: The young Tephrosia have dropped significant quantities of leaf litter during the dry season. That litter is now on the soil surface. If I measure only living biomass, I will underestimate total above-ground biomass production.

QUESTION 3: How can I measure the N content of seedling biomass, and how (if at all) can I measure biological nitrogen fixation? (I want to be able to quantify the amount of N added to the system.)

PROBLEM: As far as I know, Makoka Research Station has no equipment for elemental analysis. To quantify plant N content, I would need to use outside facilities.

This was only a small fraction of the total email, but you get the idea.
All these questions had been weighing on my mind for awhile, even since before I came back to Malawi, but it took a couple of hours of sustained concentration to be able to express it all clearly. Now I felt that the questions (and tentative answers) were pretty well organised in my mind. Well, I suppose that was a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon.

I also wrote a few other emails and finished a blog entry, then around five o'clock headed off to All Seasons Internet Cafe. (Although Tasty Bites ostensibly has wireless Internet, it never works.) It was a great relief to send my laboured-over emails to their final destinations (especially the fellowship emails from yesterday, whose dispatch was stymied by my flash drive failure).

As per habit, I walked home from Tasty Bites along the quiet back road (Kalimbuka Road). A few minutes into the walk, I remembered about the dying butterfly I tucked away at the MTL building yesterday. Was it still there? Had it been eaten by ants? Now I'd missed my chance, since I was taking a different route home. I'd have to look tomorrow.

Also as per habit, the power went out during my walk home. I arrived back to a candlelit flat. I did more work on my computer (and snacked on watermelon) until the power came back on. Shortly thereafter, I was flashed* by Mr Tambala. I rang him back and he asked me a ponderous and incomprehensible question about whether he could switch duties with the day watchman. In the course of trying to understand him, I ran out of credit. Drat! I went out to buy more, but the BP shop was closed, and the corner shop was out of stock.

So, there was nothing I could do but go back home and make myself avocado on toast for dinner.

For the rest of the evening, I worked on an application that is due at the end of next week: Annie's Homegrown Sustainable Agriculture Scholarship. I'll tell you more about it later. It is the first of my (probably many) attempts this year to coax someone into giving me lots of money.

Oddly, the power went out again around 10 PM. Usually it is reliable once the dinnertime outage is over. I lit my candle, and used that as an excuse to switch to personal writing instead of academic writing.

* * * * *

So I spent all day in front of my computer. Sometimes it is necessary to have days like that, even in Malawi. And yet, I'll get far too many computer-days when I am back in California actually writing my dissertation. I will long for the days when I was standing under the blazing sun with a tape measure in hand (or a hoe, or a panga...)

Now it's 11:30 PM and I'm alone in my room. The smell of burning rubbish is wafting in through the window. The candle has gone out so I have only the light from the screen. I'm listening to William Wilson's classical guitar music, and outside my window is the bird that says "Woooo!"

Yes, that's right. it is a nocturnal bird and I have only ever heard it at these flats; it seems to live by the river. It just repeats "Wooooo" in a deep, velvety voice. Not "Whooo" like an owl but clearly "Woooo." The pitch goes up a bit in the middle:

wooOOOOoo. woooOOOooo. wooOOOOooo.

Wooo-bird, I shall never see you. You will remain forever hidden in the cloak of night, just as the wine-glass-bird remains hidden by the sheltering trees. (There should be a "Guide to Invisible Birds of Malawi.")

P.S. After writing this, I was kept awake for another several hours by the choking smoke from burning rubbish. The smoke density implied that the fire was right outside my window, but it could've been as far away as next door; perhaps there was an unfortunate wind. I couldn't close my louvre windows because they don't close properly; I don't have a fan; I thought about sleeping in the living room but it was still occupied; I tried putting my blanket over my head but that was too stuffy. Ugh! What a bad idea to burn rubbish right next to residential buildings at night, when everyone is at home asleep, and not in a position to evade the toxic smoke!

Chichewa word of the day: utsi = smoke