03 November 2009

2009-11-03: Mosquito-net litterbags


I awoke late but not too late, and spent the morning in town doing errands. Most importantly, I decided to commission a set of litterbags, but I was stymied for awhile by the fact that no one in Zomba was selling mesh fabric. Then it occurred to me that I could just buy a mosquito net and cut it up. So I bought a mosquito net and took it to a tailor, along with a sample litterbag and instructions. He's going to make me about 100 litterbags by Monday, at twenty kwacha each - good deal! In the afternoon, I went to Makoka and took some photos (drongoes, frangipani, the main offices, a poinciana tree) before getting back to work on my litterfall quadrats. It was an uneventful evening at home with another power outage.

Main text:

I awoke at 9 (rather dreadfully late, but it could have been worse considering my crazy schedule yesterday). The first thing I noticed was that my throat felt sore; I seemed to be getting a cold. Hmmm... I hope I don't repeat last year's habit of getting sick every two weeks. That was bad for productivity and morale! Hopefully my immune system and digestive system have now gotten used to what they encounter in Malawi. Whatever this was, it didn't feel too serious.

I wasn't in that much of a rush, so I decided to have some Weet-Bix for breakfast, and sat outside by the front walkway. The puppy tried very hard to join me for breakfast by putting his nose in my bowl. After I pushed him away eight times, he conceded defeat, and lay down next to me looking very mournful.

I was out the door around ten o'clock. It was a bright sunny morning, well on its way to becoming a scorching day. Because I had my camera with me, and because Tasty Bites had just put up a new border of whitewashed tyres and was looking spiffy, I took a photo of it:

Next time I'm inside, I'll try to take a photo of the inside too - not that it is spectacular, but I spend so much time there, you might want to see what it looks like.

My first stop was All Seasons Internet Cafe, where I did various semi-urgent odds and ends: got addresses for some of the letters I'd written yesterday; downloaded the application form for my next fellowship; thanked my colleague for ordering transcripts for me. (I'm afraid, dear readers, there will be a few more days this month during which my adventures consist solely of working on fellowship applications.)

Then I stopped by the market to see if I could find some mesh fabric for my litterbags. Since an example is worth a thousand words, I had brought with me one of my litterbags from last year. Unfortuately, none of the shop owners I asked had seen such fabric, nor had any idea where to get it. That's strange; I bought last year's litterbag fabric right here in Zomba Market. Now I was at a loss for where to turn. I hoped I didn't have to go to Blantyre again.

Wait a minute, I said to myself. I had just been asking the shop owners "Do you have any fabric like a mosquito net?" and they understood, but they didn't have any. Well, if I want something like a mosquito net, why don't I just buy a mosquito net?

So I went to Tachirani Drug Store to see if they had any mosquito nets in stock. There was one left. It was quite a bit more expensive (K850) than the equivalent amount of fabric would have been. Hmmm... maybe I should try to think of other places that sell fabric.

I deferred the decision and went to the post office to send the letters I'd written yesterday. One of them, a photo CD, was heavy enough to need quite a lot of stamps. Butterfly couriers! Go, little butterflies, fly away to New York!

The postmark on my letters said 04.NOV.2009. This date worried me. I thought about the rains coming, thought about the urgency of land preparation and the importance of deploying litterbags at the beginning of the growing season, and decided I needed those litterbags sooner rather than later. So they would have to be mosquito-net litterbags. I went back to Tachirani Drugstore and bought what I bet is the only mosquito net in Malawi ever to meet such a fate.

Now I needed to find a tailor who was willing to undertake such a task for me. First I sat down on the steps of a vacant shop and wrote out a page of instructions for making litterbags (the material, their dimensions, which sides should be sewn closed, etc.). I decided I would be willing to pay K20 (US$0.14) for each 20 × 20 cm litterbag. Assuming the tailor could make twice as fast with a sewing machine as I could by hand, that should work out to a fair day's wage.

As I was writing the instructions, I noticed that four young men had gathered directly behind me and were looking over my shoulder, watching everything I wrote. I looked back at them as if to say "Uhh... is this really that interesting to you?" They acknowledged my glance but didn't budge. Well, I hope my diagrams were entertaining to them.

I went back to the market to find a tailor. I wasn't sure who to ask first, but decided on a small corner stall with an elderly gentleman proprietor. The sign said "Magombo Tailoring Shop."

Mr Magombo spoke some English, so with the aid of the sample litterbag and my written instructions, I was able to explain what I needed (although I didn't even try to explain why - I didn't expect that "decomposition rates of leaf litter" would mean anything to him. I just said I was a scientist doing an agricultural experiment). We were able to agree on my proposed price of K20, and I requested that he make as many litterbags as the mosquito net would yield. I guessed it would be about 100, which would be more than enough. He said they'd be ready on Monday. I had hoped for sooner, but Monday should be OK.

It will be nice not to spend three days sewing litterbags again this year. This seems like a job that is well worth contracting out! I get to support a local tailor and have more time myself to spend on Big Important Tasks, like picking up dead leaves and putting them in envelopes. That would be my afternoon's work.

* * * * *
At Makoka, because I had my camera and it was a nice day, I took a few photos of things that seemed to deserve photos. First of all, here is a close-up of a flower from my favourite frangipani tree along the main driveway. The flowers are a beautiful blend of white, yellow and pink, with a heavenly jasmine-like smell (but sweeter and more tropical). You can see the rest of the tree in the background:

While I was taking this photo, I noticed an avian visitor in the tree. Its shape and colour made it instantly recognisable as a drongo!

Drongoes are among my favourite Australian birds, and they are also native to Africa but I don't see them nearly as often here, so it is cause for excitement when I do. Here are the best photos I could get - sorry my zoom is not too good:

According to my field guide, it was most likely a square-tailed drongo, Dicrurus ludwigii. It flicked its tail and made assertive chirrups, as drongoes usually do, but it was not as bold as the spangled drongoes that visit our birdbath in Queensland. It flew away when I tried to get closer. So that is all the drongo pictures I can give you for now.

My next stop was my office; I wanted to get some large plastic bags from my office to hold the litterfall sample envelopes at Nkula. On my way, I took this photo of the Makoka offices. (The building used by UNDP, in which my office is located, is all the way at the end of the row and not visible in this photo; however, it looks identical to the buildings you see here.)

Then I went to the nursery to check on my Gliricidia seedlings, which are now two weeks old. Aren't they cute?

Although the sprouted seedlings look vigorous, I was disappointed that the germination rate is quite low so far - it looks like less than 60%. That will be enough seedlings for the actual plots, but not for the "guards," the edges of the plots from which I don't collect data. I may have to plant another batch of seedlings for the guards.

On my way to Nkula Field, as I was passing the workshop area (where the tractors, trucks and harvesting equipment are kept), I took this photo of a fabulous little poinciana tree. At this time of year it has more flowers than leaves:

While I was photographing the tree, two young boys came up behind me and watched. I'm sure they'd seen me before - probably everyone at Makoka has by now - but perhaps they hadn't seen my camera before. I let them look at it and asked if I could take their picture. They agreed, so I did, and showed it to them:

I came across Mr Tambala on the road going the same direction as I, on his way home. Oh dear... if the day watchman is going home, it must be rather late. Indeed it was almost four o'clock. Not the best time to be starting fieldwork, but better than nothing... At least my letters and emails were sent, and my litterbags were in the pipeline.

The afternoon's work, such as it was, was uneventful. More quadrats, more Tephrosia leaves, more envelopes. I only got through one plot (four quadrats) by sunset; one quadrat alone took me an hour. I think I need to aim for less accuracy and more speed, lest this job take another week. Perhaps I should aim for less comfort, also. I can reach the ground more easily when I'm sitting down, but since I can then only use one hand to pick up leaves, it's half as efficient.

Just for the heck of it, here is a picture of me in a Tephrosia relay intercrop plot, after finishing my last quadrat for the day:

I had an uneventful and pleasant walk down the driveway at sunset. At the main road, while eating a masuku I'd just bought at the fruit stand, I saw a familiar figure approach: Mr Singo! (In case you weren't reading my blog last year, Mr Singo is the Makoka carpenter; he and his team built all my rain shelters, which are the foundation of my experiments. They did an excellent job, and I was really impressed with Mr Singo's attention to detail, as well as his willingness to question my ideas and improve upon them.)

We shook hands and I told him how glad I was to see him. We'd scarcely had time to ask about each others' families when a pickup truck pulled over on the side of the road near us. It was my neighbour wanting to give me a lift. No minibus for me today!

* * * * *

The power was out when I got home; fortunately one of my housemates had already cooked dinner. It was a long power outage. I worked on my computer (and downloaded the day's photos) until my battery ran out two hours later. I was secretly glad that the power was still out, because it gave me an excuse to lie down and listen to a Sherlock Holmes story on the iPod. My sore throat, although not serious, is definitely a real one caused by a real virus, so having a restful evening seems like a good idea.

(P.S. After the power came back on at nine, I then stayed up too late again working on blog entries. Will I ever learn?!)

Chichewa word of the day: mavembe = watermelon.


2009-11-03: Ten letters


This was not an eventful day at all. I woke up late, decided it was too late to go to Makoka, spent the rest of the day writing emails, had dinner with my housemates, and spent the evening hand-writing letters (ten of them, to be exact - so it was a productive evening, but doesn't make for an exciting blog entry). As a postscript, I describe several interesting tidbits from the past week, such as a soldier on a very delicate mission, and a rare airplane sighting.

Main text:

I should probably just leave this entry blank, since that is more or less how the day turned out. It began with, unfortunately, what has become my normal routine: seven o'clock, alarm goes off. "Uggghhh," I say, "it can't be time to get up already." (hits snooze) (hits snooze) (zzzzzzz)...

This morning, I got a phone call at nine, and by the time I wrapped up the conversation, ten o'clock was approaching. By the time I got out the door, it would be ten-thirty. I'd be arriving at Makoka just at the hottest part of the day. That didn't appeal to me, but I'd have to suck it up. Maybe I would lie down again for a little while first...

When I finally woke up, it was lunchtime, and I was very cross with myself. I suppose yesterday's victory of getting up at 6:30 was short-lived, and partly responsible for today's failure.

* * * * *

Since I only had half a day, I decided to stay at home and write some follow-up emails regarding fellowship applications. I also wanted to go to the main market and find a tailor who could make some litterbags for me. (I've decided to outsource that job this year; last year it took me nearly three days to make 36 litterbags!) But the afternoon glided away so quickly, I found myself rushing straight from home to the Internet cafe. I'd have to commission my litterbags tomorrow instead.

After I sent my emails at least I felt as though I'd accomplished something, but it was not nearly worthy of a whole day's labour. I didn't feel as though I had earned my dinner. But I shared dinner with my housemates anyway.

After dinner, I didn't feel like spending any more time on my computer, since that was how I'd passed the whole afternoon. So instead I decided to write some letters that I'd been meaning to write ever since I got here. I sat at my desk with my lamp switched on, armed with paper, pens, envelopes, cards, scissors, and glue. By the end of the night, I had produced:

      3 hand-made thank you cards;
      3 postcards;
      2 handwritten letters;
      2 small packages.

It was a satisfying feeling to put the stamps on these and put them in a stack one by one. The packages would need to be weighed at the post office, but for letters and postcards I already knew the standard rate: K115 to the US or Australia; K110 to Europe. This is about US$0.80, which would be reasonable if only the letters arrived a little faster! Last year, I seem to remember the average was about three weeks. All the more reason to get these in the mail sooner rather than later.

* * * * *

Since today was so uneventful, I will conclude today's entry with some miscellaneous happenings from the past week. I think these events were interesting enough to mention, but for one reason or another, I didn't describe them on the day on which they occurred.

  • One night I felt like a late snack, so I went into the kitchen to see if there were any leftovers. There was nsima and stew, but I didn't want something so heavy as stew. So I decided to try eating nsima as dessert, with honey and butter (sort of like cornbread, I reasoned). Nsima doesn't make a very good dessert, I am sorry to say - especially not cold. Oh well, nothing ventured, nothing gained...

  • When I was on a minibus on its way out of town, we stopped at the Army barracks, and two soldiers boarded. One of them was carrying a crate of eggs. (Egg crates in Malawi are similar to the paperboard egg cartons in US supermarkets, but are open-top and large, usually holding 30 eggs.) It was an incongruous image, the soldier in his camo fatigues and black boots cradling the egg crate on his lap. I imagined how this had come about: "We have a top secret and very dangerous mission to carry out! Any volunteers?"

  • On another minibus trip, I was surprised to see a heavily pregnant woman board. Visibly pregnant women usually don't appear in public in Malawi - I think I can only remember seeing one or two others in all my time here. I wonder how they manage to run their households if they can't go out in public? They get help from mothers and sisters, I suppose? It turned out that this woman was going to Namikango Maternity Clinic at Thondwe, so she had a very good reason for breaching the usual rules.

  • When I was measuring seedlings with Peter at Nkula Field, I heard a familiar droning noise from the sky, and then realised that in this context it was not familiar. It was an airplane. It's surpassingly rare to see an airplane over Zomba; there's no airport here, and although there's a small aerodrome nearby at Chinamwali, the nearest proper airport is 70 kilometres away in Blantyre. This airplane was flying right over Makoka; it was a small white prop plane (not a jet), and that's all we could tell. Where had it come from? Where was it going? Who was flying? We'd never know. I thought of the book I am reading, West With the Night, the autobiography of a female British pilot in colonial Kenya. She describes vividly the freedom of flying over the unmarked African landscape, effortlessly traversing plains and forests, mountains and lakes. I wonder what Malawi looks like from up there!

Chichewa word of the day: -limbikira = work diligently / bravely


02 November 2009

2009-11-02: Fellowship quest


I meant to go to Makoka and continue litterfall quadrats, but I ended up spending the entire afternoon at the Internet cafe looking up information on fellowships (application deadlines are often in late fall, and I didn't want to miss any). I found a few new possibilities, and wavered between optimism and pessimism about the whole fellowship application process.

Main text:

Finally, I got up early today! My alarm rang at 6:40, and I gladly obeyed it, because I had a personal video-conference call at 8 and I didn't want to be late.

If I want to talk on Skype (to have a video call instead of just a normal phone call), I can't use a regular Internet cafe. Those computers don't have the necessary hardware or software (or privacy - I'd drive the other patrons to distraction). For Skype I need to use my own computer, so I go to one of the few places in Zomba that has decent wireless access: Annie's Lodge, a nice hotel in the foothills of Zomba Plateau. It's a fifteen-minute walk uphill from my flat. They sell one-hour wireless access cards for K900 (US $6.50).

Since I was going to be seen on video, I put more thought than usual into deciding what to wear. (More than none, that is.) My two best shirts were drying on the clothesline, so I wore my third best shirt, a red T-shirt with a collar. "Best" is a relative term - it is laughably faded and has developed a small hole near the shoulder. I trust the people around me not to judge me by my attire. I'm a farmer, after all.

* * * * *

I was out the door at seven-thirty. The day was already hot, and the streets were bustling with pedestrians and cars; this is when most Malawians go to work.

I always enjoy the walk up to Annie's Lodge; the northern suburbs of Zomba are the oldest part of town, and the most gracious. Tucked amongst shady trees are government offices, Chancellor College administration buildings, big old houses, and several upscale hotels. Annie's Lodge is one of these; it's a sprawling complex set in manicured garden terraces.

A moment after I arrived at the reception desk and bought my access card, the power went out. This was very poorly timed, because when the power goes out, the Internet goes out also. I'd have to walk all the way back down the hill and miss my video call.

But I decided to wait around and see if the power returned; morning power outages are usually briefer than evening ones. While I waited, one of the staff members (who remembered me from last year) talked to me for a little while. Last year, when I mentioned I wanted to find a Chichewa tutor, he said his wife might be interested in the job, and he wanted to let me know she was still interested. I am still interested too, so I gave him my new phone number. It sure would be nice to make some more progress in Chichewa.

Fortunately, the power came back after about ten minutes. I took my laptop and sat at my usual outdoor table under a shade umbrella. The login worked, and the connection was fast enough, and soon I was on the call. It's always a relief when information technology works properly in Zomba - that is not to be taken for granted!

When my alloted sixty minutes were drawing to an end, I wrapped up the phone call and headed back down the hill. Time to start the day's work...

* * * * *

My plan, of course, was to go to Makoka and continue the litterfall quadrats from yesterday. But first I had to go home and drop off my laptop. And since I was at home - well, I might as well cook a quick brunch (scrambled eggs and potatoes, toast and jam, and instant coffee). And if I was going to eat brunch, I might as well type some emails to send in the meantime. And if I was going to sit around writing emails, I might as well finish my next blog entry too.

So it was almost noon by the time I got out the door, and I still had to stop by the Internet cafe. Even when the day starts at 6:40, it's amazing how quickly it can be frittered into nothing!

The Internet cafe wasn't going to be a very quick stop, either. I wanted to spend an hour or so looking up information on more fellowships for which I might apply; I didn't feel as though I had enough options so far. My department at Berkeley had compiled a list of potential fellowships for PhD students, and I wanted to go through the list and see which ones fit me.

This turned out to take a lot more than an hour. The connection was slow, and the list was outdated, and I kept thinking of more things I needed to do - email professors about recommendation letters; order transcripts; and so on. I felt the afternoon inexorably slipping away, and realised that I was not going to make it to Makoka today after all. Well, hopefully this day would prove to be well spent, if I actually did get any of these fellowships.

* * * * *

I didn't budge from my seat at All Seasons until 6 PM, closing time. Whew. That was a lot of hours in front of the computer, and I was thirsty, hungry, stiff, and somewhat dazed. At least I had chased up some new possibilites that I hadn't been aware of last year:

1. Josephine de Karman Fellowship
2. Resources for the Future: Fisher Dissertation Fellowship
3. UC Dissertation Year Fellowship

None of these were quite perfect for me, but at least I was eligible for all of them, so it was worth a shot.

I had also spent a long time exploring the National Science Foundation webpage, and learned that the deadline is approaching for the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG) in Biological Sciences. November 20 is the stated deadline, but these grants have to be submitted by the university, so the deadline for the student applicant is much sooner. I wondered if I'd still have time to apply?

I was disappointed to visit the START webpage and discover that their Call for Proposals for African climate adaptation projects had already come and gone over the summer. How frustrating! This spring I'd emailed the organiser several times asking when the Call for Proposals would be announced, but I didn't get a reply. And the deadline had come and gone over the summer when I was busy with other things. Now I wished I'd checked back.

The START funding would not have been for me; I had wanted to write a proposal with Festus to get funding for a Malawian student to work on the rainfall experiment at Makoka. Well, maybe we can apply for this grant next year, to fund a student who will take over from me and continue this project another few years. There's lots of life in those rain shelters yet!

* * * * *

After paying my final bill at the Internet cafe (K2450, probably a new record), I stopped by People's Supermarket for brown sugar and margerine, and headed home. I walked into the kitchen and found that one of my roommates had bought a cake, which was a nice surprise. So my dinner was Vegemite on toast, yoghurt and fruit, and of course a piece of cake for dessert.

While eating, I sat at my desk and organised all the fellowship information that I'd collected today. Tomorrow, another round of emails will be in order, to clear up some questions I have about these new applications.

Argh, how is a scientist supposed to get research done and go begging for money all the time? This was a day I could've spent measuring Tephrosia litterfall! Time will tell whether my efforts today were worthwhile.

Chichewa word of the day: chenjelani = look out; beware. Chenjelani ndi agalu = beware of dogs.


01 November 2009

2009-11-01: Litterfall quadrats


My main task for the day was starting the litterfall quadrats at Nkula Field. I want to know how much leaf litter the Tephrosia have dropped, and to estimate this, I am marking small squares (quadrats) within each plot and collecting all the leaf litter therein. It's not a difficult job but it is time-consuming; in four hours' work I finished two of sixteen plots. Since today is a weekend just after payday, there were many drunk men about, and I got a marriage proposal which I rejected. I spent a quiet evening at home doing laundry and cleaning up after an energetic puppy.

Main text:

It's November! By the end of this month, the rainy season will begin. Because of this, I am now making two changes in my day-to-day life:
1. carrying my umbrella;
2. writing shorter blog entries.

Things are going to get pretty busy pretty soon, so, dear readers, you will have to accept somewhat less loquacity on my part.

* * * * *

I had an interesting and novel task awaiting me today: litterfall quadrats. Soon we are going to cut down half of the Tephrosia in the seedling establishment experiment (to determine their biomass and to make room for new seedlings), but before we do this, I want to measure the amount of leaf litter they have dropped. Litterfall seems to be a substantial fraction of the seedlings' living above-ground biomass, and I am afraid that only measuring the living biomass would underestimate their productivity by quite a lot.

It isn't practical to collect all the leaf litter in every plot, so Festus suggested I sample from small sub-plots (quadrats) to make the job more manageable. Thus, I set out for Makoka armed with a tape measure, a bag of sample envelopes, a plastic tub for holding the leaves, and a measure of courage (just kidding - dead leaves are not very formidable opponents).

I got a bit of a late start because I slept in until nine, but I've had enough of these late starts. I keep saying to myself: It's November! There is no time to waste!

* * * * *

Today is Sunday, and it's the beginning of a new month, which means people have just been paid. Therefore, much drunkenness can be observed amongst the populace. When I got a minibus at Total Filling Station, the conductor was drinking a beer and tried to make conversation with me. I restricted my conversation topics to my desired destination on the minibus: "Makoka."

Minibuses are rarely comfortable, but this one was was especially jam-packed and death-defying. We were going over 120 km per hour most of the time - and this on narrow, potholed roads in a rickety vehicle filled to twice capacity. We overtook other vehicles with abandon, as though the right half of the road was a special lane just for us. Had I been the type to pray, I would have prayed to reach Makoka alive.

When I disembarked at Makoka, I said "Zikomo" rather coldly and wanted to add "Thanks for not killing me," but kept quiet. The conductor, who had since finished his beer and thrown the empty bottle out the window, said:

"I want to marry you. I'm a bachelor."

"No thank you," I replied, already walking away.

"I'm a bachelor, I say. Come on. I want to get married."

"Iyayi." (An emphatic no.)

"Come on. I want to marry white girl, have white children."

"Khalani chete!" (Be quiet!)

"Yeah, I want to marry white girl. I want to marry you and have lots of white children."


He continued shouting propositions at me, and I decided just to keep walking and not say anything more. Eventually he turned to the task of helping a boarding passenger load two dozen chickens with their legs tied together.

I was fuming as I walked away. I've had plenty of marriage proposals before, but none that obnoxious. It occurred to me, too late, that I would have been justified in throwing a dirt clod at him. It's probably just as well that I didn't think of it. I probably should have laughed at him.

* * * * *

I'd just missed a phone call from Mr Tambala, and called him back to say I'd be at MZ12 in a few minutes and we could talk in person. Cell phone airtime is so expensive here, long conversations are to be avoided. As it happened, it was nothing important - he just wanted to tell me that the night watchman wanted to swap with him, but he didn't want to swap, which I said was fine.

Since I was embarking from the far end of MZ12, I took a shortcut to Nkula that I haven't taken before, through the football pitch and next to a patch of forest. I heard some peculiar birds calling from the forest - they sounded like babies sobbing or laughing, I couldn't tell which. Perhaps they were... babblers? I got a pretty good look at one - it was s medium-sized grey bird with darker shades around its head and tail. I'd look it up when I got home.

I followed some small paths that paralleled the main road; although I'd never taken this route before, the landscape was open and I could easily see where I was. I walked through fallowed fields, many of which had been recently burned, and accumulated charcoal streaks on my skirt. Shortly before reaching Nkula, I saw a clump of very tall grass with stiff, straight stems. Perfect for making the edges of a quadrat! I cut four of the stems with my panga.

What is a quadrat, anyway? Don't I mean "quadrant?" Nope...
quadrat, n.
a square area of convenient size laid off for close study of the relative abundance of species or of other questions.

It was a cloudy day, pleasant for working in the field. I greeted the watchman and retrieved the basin and other materials that I'd left with him on Friday. Then I went to the first Tephrosia plot and tried to figure out where to start. (A slim bird the size of a robin - some kind of pipit(Anthus sp.), I think - flew ahead of me, perching on several rain shelters in succession.)

OK, now I had to make several decisions:
  • What size should the quadrat be?

  • How many quadrats should I sample in each plot?

  • Where should I place the quadrats?

For the first question, I found a good solution: I'd use four Tephrosia trees for the four corners of each quadrat (they are planted in a grid pattern). Thus, each quadrat would represent one tree's worth of litter, averaged over four trees. Because the planting distances weren't perfect, each quadrat wouldn't be exactly the same size, but it was probably more important to estimate litterfall per tree rather than per area.

I walked through several plots, looking to see how much variation there was in litterfall, and thus how many quadrats I'd need to sample for a good estimate. The litterfall was quite variable, so I decided to do two quadrats per plot. Now, the scope of my task was determined:

      2 quadrats per plot
      2 planting dates
      2 different Tephrosia systems
      2 rainfall treatments
    × 4 replicates
      64 quadrats to sample

I drew a plot diagram and numbered the quadrats (excluding the edges, which are always discarded):

Hey, this was kind of fun! It reminded me of that pencil-and-paper game I used to play with Cliff as a kid, in which you make a grid of dots and take turns drawing lines to connect pairs of adjacent dots. When you are the one to complete the fourth side of a square, you claim the square by writing your initials in it. The winner is whoever has claimed more squares when all the dots are connected.

It's always nice to have a job that reminds you of a game. I wondered if it would still feel like a game by the time I was finished with it.

Now I just had to decide which quadrats to sample. I decided to choose randomly, as long as the random quadrats weren't right next to each other. If they were, I'd choose again.

And how, you wonder, did I generate random numbers in the field? That's where having a digital watch comes in handy. Whenever I happened to think of doing so, I looked at my watch, and if the seconds displayed were between 1 and 48, I assigned that number (or that number divided by two) to be the next quadrat. Thus I gradually accumulated a list of quadrat numbers.

OK, it's not truly random, but good enough - I'm not aiming to publish this in Science, after all!

* * * * *

Now I was ready to start. I was pleased that my idea of using the trees as corner-posts worked quite well; since there are two trees per corner, I could actually insert the grass pieces in between the two trees, holding them firmly in place.

Here I am collecting the litter in my very first quadrat, in a Tephrosia improved fallow:

The first quadrat took me about ten minutes, which was even easier than I expected - but it turned out to be an especially easy one, with only a small amount of litter and not too many weeds mixed in. The second was more time-consuming. While I was working on that one, I got a welcome distraction: a phone call from Cliff. Unfortunately, his calling card soon ran out, and my calling card wasn't working, and I didn't even have credit to send him a text message. I had plenty of Tephrosia leaves, but that was about it.

Here are some photos of the next plot (an early-planted Tephrosia improved fallow), showing my technique. Here's the quadrat before I collect the litter...

...and after.

It took me about 25 minutes to do that, and the litter filled two A4 envelopes. "Why does it take so long?" you wonder. You'd think you could just grab the litter, put it in the basin, and stuff it in an envelope, but there are two complications:
  1. You must handle the litter carefully, lest it blow away or you drop it outside the quadrat. The pieces of litter are awkwardly different shapes; there are small leaflets, big leaflets, stems, and so on; if you grab big handfuls, you'll drop some.

  2. You must exclude leaf litter from other species; stems of weeds and grass; clumps of dirt; termite castings; and anything else that isn't of Tephrosia origin. This is what really consumes the most time.

The plot above is very tidy, but my next plot (a relay intercrop plot) was full of weeds and maize stover, and relatively few Tephrosia leaves. Those quadrats didn't even yield enough litter to fill an A5 envelope. Sorting the leaves from the weeds was picky business; I hope I get faster with practise.

Another complication: I realised that the amount of litter in the quadrat would be expected to depend upon whether all eight of the corner-post trees are alive, and how big they are; fortunately, I now (as of Friday) have that information for every tree!

In mid-afternoon, sleepiness caught up with me and I decided to take a nap under the Tephrosia improved fallow where I have slept before. The carpet of leaves was very comfortable (in fact, it was because of napping there that I first realised I needed to quantify litterfall: if there's enough of it to sleep on, it must be significant.)

The cloudy sky was pleasant, and there were many birds in the field today; I drifted off to sleep listening to them. When I awoke it was nearly an hour later. Lazybones! It's November - lots of work to do!

I completed a few more quadrats uneventfully. It's not a difficult task; it's just a little awkward to do something so precise at ground level. I tried crouching over the quadrat, sitting next to it and leaning over it, and then - eventually - just sitting inside it. Being comfortable was important, otherwise I wouldn't be able to do this all day tomorrow.

Around 4:30, Mr Tambala stopped by on his way home from MZ12. He asked me what I was doing, and I explained as best I could. (Mr Tambala's English is good enough, and he is bright enough, that he can understand pretty much everything I do in the field, as long as I explain it carefully.) He watched me for awhile. Mr Malalo, the Nkula night watchman (who had just arrived), joined and watched too.

I felt silly that the two men were watching me pick dead leaves from a patch of ground. "I know you are watchmen," I said, "but you don't need to watch. It's not that interesting!" They laughed and left me to my work.

* * * * *

At five o'clock I packed up my things; I didn't want to stay too late because it can be difficult to find a minibus on Sunday evenings. I had gotten through two of my sixteen plots, so that was substantial progress but I still had a long way to go.

Hey, finally - a praying mantis! I'd been waiting all day to take a photo of one, and wouldn't you know it, they were hiding today. Now that dusk was approaching, I saw a big tan praying mantis creeping along the edge of a Tephrosia plot. Here is the best photo I could get in the evening light:

I am very fond of these chiswambiya, and they always make me smile. So it was a nice way to end the day's work.

It wasn't so nice to be followed down the driveway by a drunk man on a bicycle who tried to speak Chichewa to me and ignored my protestations of "Sindikumvetsa" (I don't understand). He was probably a guest at the wedding that took place this afternoon at Makoka. Also wedding-related, no doubt, was the large crowd of people in the station yard. (The station is the cluster of buildings where machinery is kept and crops are processed.) Streamers were strung and music was blaring. Nobody was working today except for me!

My trip home was uneventful, except for some rowdy drunk guys shouting on the minibus. When I opened the front door, the puppy dashed inside. He seemed to be in high spirits tonight.

I said hi to my roommates and we talked for a while, then I showered and put some laundry in a bucket to soak, and ate dinner. When I went back into my room, I did a double-take: why was my laundry basket emptied onto the floor? Why were the contents of my rubbish bin strewn around my room?
Oh well, one can't blame a puppy for being a puppy.

* * * * *

For the rest of the evening, I finished washing my laundry, boiled my water for tomorrow, made some tea, slowly worked on my blog, and whiled away some time looking at photos. Tomorrow I will resume the litterfall quadrats where I left off. Eight down, sixty-four to go... I will be very well acquainted with Tephrosia leaves by the time this task is finished.

PS According to my bird book, I think the birds I saw in the forest this afternoon were arrow-marked babblers (Turdoides jardineii).

Chichewa word of the day: nkhwali = francolin