Monday, August 4, 2008

Ramblings: A Ginger, peanuts, soil blocks, and a crazed elephant

I’m sorry if I’ve fallen out of touch with everybody the last couple months, but it has been the busiest I’ve been since coming to Mwazisi, and I also had Corie (see the Ginger Blog) staying with me for the past month. She was an incredible springboard for all of my projects, and thanks to her help I don’t feel like everything is about to fall apart, which is usually the case. But of course much of my attention was spoken for while she was here, so I’m sorry if I’ve slipped out of touch.

The Agriculture EPA office project is in full swing now, even though the money hasn’t come in just yet, at least I know that it has been approved and is going to get funded. So in the mean time while we wait for the funding all four committees have started doing what they can. The building committee has started meeting in the mornings and digging soil for stabilized soil blocks, with the help of the Gam United football club (see Meathead football player blog) which I have been bribing with 36 pairs of football boots that were generously donated by my wonderful friend Catherine Yirisari who used to work for the US Men’s Soccer team. The guys are so excited for the boots, since most of them usually play bare foot, and their enthusiasm has carried the work much faster than I thought. We have already dug over 1000 wheel barrows of soil from a termite hill near the site of the office. The machine for pressing the blocks, is actually still in Mzuzu, Where I’m working with an extraordinary Malawian engineer named Louis Chinula who is modifying the top and bottom plates in the machine so that the blocks will be interlocking and won’t need cement for mortor.

The tree nurseries committee is led by three strong tree nurseries in Chitanga where they built fences, shades, air pruning benches. We filled hundreds of tubes at each nursery, so we already started sowing fruit seeds like orange, papaya, and Masow, as well as good agro forestry trees like Faidabiera Albedia, and Sienna Spectabilus. I have also been working with a bigger tree nursery in Kwasamesenga that has a lot more people technically working on the project, but I think because of the number of people working on the nursery nobody is really stepping up to invest themselves in the nursery the way the leaders in Chitanga have. In Kwasamesenga lots of people show up chat a bunch and start complaining that it’s tea time as soon as we start working, but we have also managed to get a big jump on the work there, and its going to be a big tree nursery, close to 10,000 trees.

The income generating activities committee is getting started with a groundnut (peanut) sheller that I made at Mid-service training in Dedza. The executive committee chairman Cuthbert Kachali built a strong stand for the machine so that it can be easily used by everybody. As I put all of my weight on the stand to test out its strength he stood over me with a proud smile on his face and simply said “joinery” as an explanation for the good work that he had done. Two weeks ago we set up the concrete machine in a small room next to Nya Bota’s grocery. It’s a simple concrete machine with a rotor that hangs between the rough cement walls of the machine and leaves a small space where the groundnuts fall and get crushed as someone turns the machine. We have only started using the machine, testing it with the groundnuts that I was given by my neighbors. Once we get the process down with very little breakage of the nuts we are planning to start charging the farmers 100 Malawian Kwatcha (less than 1 dollar) to shell a 100 kg bag of nuts. Everybody in my area grows groundnuts, so this could be a good business for the project to generate money for future ventures like an oil press or a juicer. The idea behind this income generation committee is to add value to crops that are already commonly grown in the area by using simple and fast processors. The groundnut sheller is a great example; an unshelled groundnut is essentially worthless, while shelled nuts can be sold for over 100 kwatcha per kg. But shelling groundnuts is a long and cumbersome job, a 100 kg bag would take a family of five a few days of cracking. But with the machine two people can do a 100 kg bag in less than 1 hour.

The fourth committee is the fishponds committee which has only started clearing the area where we are planning to make community fishponds, and now we are stuck waiting for the Rumphi director of fishponds to come and approve of the area, which may never happen.

The rest of my time is occupied at the secondary school getting the Form 2 students ready for this falls Junior Certificate Exams. Actually, these last few months the secondary school wildlife club has been the biggest cause of my headaches, since my fellow patron teacher keeps making unrealistic promises of trips to the students without first organizing transport or any of the necessary details, so I end up running around begging greedy drivers for a decent price and riding my bike to cell phone network to organize.

So finally last week my headaches paid off and the entire club went to Vwaza Game Reserve for an adventurous day trip that included lots of elephants, hippos, baboons, warthogs, impala, and one crocodile. The highlight of the day came when a massive bull elephant charged the truck we were all riding in and the driver had to floor it to escape from the elephant clearing all 40 students out of the truck with his massive tusks. That could have been something great to explain on my Peace Corps description of service.

So that’s what I’ve been up to the last couple months, there’s about a million little adventures, struggles, triumphs , and defeats mixed in there, that I don’t have time to explain in better detail, and I’m sure you all don’t have time to read, but just know that everyday is a rollercoaster ride, with all sorts of huge ups and downs. Every now and then I encounter something that completely throws me through a loop, but by the end of the day when I’m writing in my journal by a candle, no matter how many things went wrong or how many different people I felt like strangling, I’m still glad that I got on the ride to begin with, it’s always worth it.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Mike and Duch's Chitipa adventure

Here's a story I stole from my buddy Mike Hardesty a Finished Peace Corps volunteer who is still in Malawi working on the Clinton Hunter project. I thought it was a classic Peace Corps story, and deserved a bit of public access. Believe it or not this came from Mike's Description of Service Report. I'm planing on heading to Chitipa to see if I can find the fabeled Ronoldi.

This year, I, alone with Duch Routt, were able to successfully deliver and out-plant roughly 1,300 bananas in the month of December around the 22nd. It however did not happen without incident. As part of the original budget for the Banana Orchard Establishment Project, the Chitipa ADD had agreed to provide transport for the banana seedlings which were raised in local nurseries around the district. One month before the tentatively scheduled out-planting date, it was discovered that the ADD was not going to be able to keep their word. Duch and I were forced to negotiate a privately hired vehicle that would be supervised by ourselves. Logistically the task was very challenging. Only having enough money for a one day hire, Duch and I were forced to be innovative in how to pick up 6 improved banana varieties totaling 1,300 bananas from 3 separate nurseries and redistribute them proportionally over 6 orchard sites in a vehicle that could only hold around 750 seedlings at one time. After a morning of collecting and delivering with many temporary drop points in between, we headed for our third, and arguably are most difficult, orchard to access in the hills of Misuku Traditional Authority. At about three quarters of our way in to the hills we had an accident because the driver failed to shift properly on a steep incline and lost control of the vehicle. The driver responded quickly, and before we could gain enough speed to go completely out of control, he cut the wheel at the right angle so as not to flip, but so that we would slam into the side of the hill and stop ourselves about 20 ft after we started drifting backwards. Fortunately no one was hurt, although we were all shookin’ up and some of us were weeping, namely Duch. The vehicle on the other hand, was completely jacked up on the hill and was not able to move, in part because the wheels were off the ground, but mostly because the batteries for the vehicle were dead and the 7 toner could only be started by pushing. This last discovery was deflating to say the least, and frustrating for others (Duch) who claimed to despise the consistent deception that prohibits effective development in the area. “Why would we ever hire a vehicle with dead batteries?” he said with a sigh to no one, kicking a stone in the dirt.

Our initial idea was to phone the boma and get the brother of the driver—and the one we had hired the vehicle from—to come on his motor bike with two new batteries so that we could simply start the motor and drive away. Due to reasons that we still don’t completely understand, the promises of new batteries “imminently” coming were never fulfilled that day and we stayed that night in the bush. For about 4 hours leading up to darkness we dug around the vehicle, which was all rock of course, and entertained other ideas of escape. Then the rains came with the wrath of the almighty and we were forced to retire for the evening. Duch and I stayed with the orchard manager to whom we were delivering bananas, Mr Chilali, and enjoyed a relaxing evening nibbling on dried fish around the warmth of campfire recounting the day’s trying events.

In the morning we rose early to the inviting smell of boiling maize flower. After dining and, with full bellies, we went back to the site of the accident to wake the driver and his lackey so that we could begin again waiting for the batteries not to arrive. To this day, and regardless of what you might think after what I tell you next, I do not claim to be a soothsayer. But sitting their in Bukanaga Village contemplating my contempt for incompetence, I confessed to Duch my sneaking suspicion that the batteries just might not come. And they never did.

In the wake of this epiphany and Duch’s uncontrollable sobbing, came a miracle. A miracle by the name of Ronoladi. A true Mundali tribesman of the Misuku hills, Ronaldi heard of our troubles and came—probably from far away--to help purely out of the kindness of his heart (or because he heard we were white men and wanted money). Regardless, he arrived in good time and in good humor with a radiant smile that rivaled daffodils in its ability to warm the heart. Standing at 3-4 ft taller than everyone else, Ronoldi was a behemoth of a man. With only his bare hands and a small, well-used hoe, he immediately set about liberating our vehicle from the granite teeth which had captured it the night before. Watching Ronoldi, our world slowed in to a humbling awe. It was an awe that one might only experience witnessing a miracle or watching ice skating. And as he worked in seemingly effortless motions, the earth moved. Other locals, inspired by Ronoldi’s seemingly unceasing power and jubilance, attempted to keep pace with the Mammoth from Misuku, but soon collapsed in failure and lay exhausted at his feet, only offering moans of encouragement mixed with that of fear
for the unknown.

Hours passed like minutes and Ronaldi continued to work. Clouds drifted over head and Ronaldi continued to work. Small insect-like creatures danced around my bosom and Ronoldi continued to work. By mid day, a new light of possibility shown down upon our cloudy hearts. Then Duch, removing the crusted residual mucus from around his nose and mouth--a pathetic result from hours of weeping--looked at me and said, “We might just make it out this thing yet.”

And indeed we did. A full 24 hrs after the accident, Ronaldi had broken enough stone, displaced enough matter, and shifted enough soil so that we--but mostly Ronaldi--could lift the 7 toner inch by inch away from the hill so that it could drift freely backwards—with the breaks this time—and be push-started on a flat surface some 200 yards down the hill.

By 6 o’clock that night we had finished to deliver the bananas to the third orchard man, Mr. Chilali of Misuku and were quickly on our way to the remaining beneficiaries. By 7 o’clock the full moon had shown its cratered, albeit predictable, face. And as we sat there and marveled at its luminescence, we also sat there and wondered why the driver had not turned on the lights to the vehicle. The simple, and potentially devastating answer, “The headlights don’t work. We will have to stop for the night,” deterred me not. “Did Ronaldi ‘stop for the night?’ I replied. (Duch had started weeping again). “Did Ronaldi waver in the face of impossibilities?’ We’ve got the light of the moon my reluctant friend. Fear not, and let us push forward. Those families will have their seedlings before Christmas, this I swear!”

The driver yawned, but did not stop. He did not stop after the 4th orchard drop off. “Better late then never we yelled with Christmas cheer to the white smiles as we departed.” And he did not stop after the 5th orchard drop off. He did not stop the rest of the journey, until the drive shaft to the 7 ton piece of sh*t fell to the ground traveling at 30 km/hr somewhere in Northern Chitipa around mid-night.

So there we were, tired, smelly, exhausted and stinky. But we had no choice. We had no choice but to fix this rotten, over used 7 toner from hell, because we had only 100 bananas left to deliver to the final beneficiary. With Duch demoralized and weeping himself to sleep in the front of the cab, I, along with the driver and his lackey tied the drive shaft back to the vehicle with bark from local trees and some small pieces of nylon rope. It was temporary; I can’t dispute you on that. It could have failed; I am not hiding that. It was desperate; I know desperation. But we finished our delivery, without incident, without tribulation, and puttered back into town at 2:00 Christmas Eve morning, the drive shaft hanging by a thread.

That night in Chitipa Boma, lying next to Duch in a single room in a run down guest house with unwashed sheets from yester year, I realized we had accomplished something. We had succeeded. Despite all odds and Duch’s incessant weeping, we had rallied and triumphed. I realized that in a mean world where incompetent men wield undeserved power……..

And then a deep darkness washed over me and I drifted into an undisturbed slumber, remembering only Ronaldi’s unrelenting smile…..and Duch, with snot all over his face.