Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Nyika Chronicles vol II: A Push Bike Adventure

My friends Elihu, Wiz, Pace and Laura and I had been planning on riding bikes to Nyika National Park, but I wasn’t sure when everybody else was planning to go, and since I don’t have phone service anywhere near my house I was even more out of the loop. Then one day while I was teaching children came running to the school to inform me “Walendo afika,” “The visitors are here.” So I hurried back threw my stuff together and we set off that same afternoon. That day we rode 30 km from my house to Thazima gate through backwoods villages and over some exhausting hills. We took a short cut where most tourists never pass, so most of the people we passed were shocked to see all the azungus on shiny bikes in their village, and even more shocked when we greeted them in Chitumbuka. Pace put it best, “We were azungus on parade.” We got to the gate just after dark, and talked the night watchman into letting us set up our tents just inside the gate, which was a bit bizarre since we were right next to a small trading center, with a small bar and everything, so we had carlsburg around the fire our first night camping.

The next day was a full day of cycling up long rocky roads as we climbed up the escarpment. My absurd concept of distance and time became a running joke throughout the trip, while looking at a map I was sure we could make it to the juniper forest by branching from the main road, have enough time to ride to the Juniper forest, which is more than 70km from the gate and have enough time to start heading North to Chilinda camp. In reality the side road was over several hills and valleys and most of it was so densely vegetated that we had to get off and push our bikes much of the way. But I was still glad we split from the main road though, because the downhills were a blast and we dropped off into some really beautiful and dense Acacia filled valleys that were brimming with life. We called that road elephant road because of all the droppings, knocked over trees, and massive patches of flattened grass where the elephants had been bedding down. We didn’t even come close to reaching the Juniper forest, but found a pretty spectacular camping spot next to the Runyina river where we all had night mares of getting trampled by elephants in our sleep.

The next morning we pushed up the escarpment, and found ourselves on the rolling grass covered hills of the plateau. This is the iconic picture of Nyika, the green open hills that remind me of the highlands of Scotland. The sad part is that in the past these hills were covered with wildlife, it was like something out of animal planet, with all sorts of animals grazing on this massive natural pastur, but in the past 15-20 years the people who were removed from the park in the 60’s and 70’s are returning as poachers, and have wiped out the herds. Now its sad scatterings of zebra, bushbuck, and roan antelope, that pale in comparison to descriptions of Nyika’s past.

The reduced numbers didn’t take away from the thrill of seeing the animals when we did come across them. We first came across a small pack of zebra grazing near the road. The patterns on their faces almost look artificial, because they are so symmetrical and distinct almost like they are painted on. Aside from the stripes, the zebras seemed identical to the wild horses I’ve seen in the Bighorn Mountains, all power and muscle, with an air of freedom and wildness that is lost in the domestic horse. They watched us tensely ready to scatter. When ever we advanced to close, they took off running, until they felt safe, where they stopped to watch us again. One of the coolest monments of the trip came when they allowed Elihu and Pace close enough that when they started running again it almost looked like they were riding along-side the zebras in a pack.

The other major animal we saw that day were Roan Antelope. They seemed like a cross between cattle and a moose. They lumber around and graze with the same kind of ambivalence to the people watching them as what I’ve always seen as a Moose’s stupidity, or brute confidence, as if to say “Yeah I know your there, but if you mess with me, I’m gonna charge the hell out of you.”

That day we rode all the way to Chilinda camp which is where most of the park staff lives. I have gotten to know the director of the anti-poaching program for Nyika and Vwaza who stays at Chilinda. He’s a really generous South African guy who was nice enough to have me in his home to spend Christmas with his family this past year. He put us up for the night and hosted us graciously feeding us his good vodka that fueled a very philosophical conversation about everything from the psychology and sociology of Malawians to global politics and the elections in America.

The next morning Mike took us on an incredible drive to see his favorite part of the park; Domwe peak which overlooks the whole northern part of the park. The views from there were spectacular even though it was a bit hazy that day. The peak is surrounded on three sides by over 500 foot sheer drop-off cliffs, with patches of granite rock outcroppings and rigid mountains off in the distance that reminded me a bit of Glacier National Park. It was the first time since I came to Malawi that I’ve seen such a huge piece of landscape unaffected by human habitation.

As soon as we got back we grabbed some biscuits and set off for the long ride home. We were lucky coming across a truck driving down from Chitipa. The driver agreed to give us a ride saving us about six hours of riding. We threw our bikes in the back and got a ride all the way to within five km of my village. Ending one of the best adventures I’ve had since coming to Malawi.

Project: Wildlife Camp, Nyika Chronicles vol I

I was first introduced to Nyika national Park by a retired lawyer turned Peace Corps volunteer named Greg Dorr about a month into my Peace Corps service. Since then I have had many chances to continue exploring its Brachystegia covered lower slopes, towering escarpment, ancient forests and vast plateau. There’s plenty of room to explore this park, Nyika is Malawi’s biggest national Park stretching across 1210 square miles. Despite being Malawi’s oldest designated national park few people visit Nyika compared to other parks like Liwonde or Majete. I see it as sort of a forgotten park neglected by the government which leaves it open to poaching and destruction from the people living around the plateau stripping its escarpment for firewood. Nyika is a very important ecological niche to the whole Northern region, it is the primary watershed for both Rumphi and Karonga. Aside from being a very important place nyika. Aside from being very important it is also a spectacularly beautiful place, but few people living around it realize it, because they have seen so little of it. For this reason Me and two other volunteers living near Nyika Pace Phillips and Matt Fornoff have organized a wildlife and environment mini-camp for young people living in Rumphi and Karonga.

The camp is called "The Rumphi and Karonga Wildlife and Environment Extravaganza" (I came up with that catchy title all by myself!), and it is intended to provide students with a broader understanding of the value of Nyika, and skills to benefit from Nyika's resources without destroying five days long at the Nchena chena research station which lies at the base of the escarpment. We are inviting student leaders from secondary school wildlife clubs from all around Nyika. We will be teaching sessions on bee-keeping (how to build and manage a hive), soap making, mushroom growing, Jam making, fish farming and plenty of other useful skills, but the highlight of the camp will be a hike up onto Nyika Plateau to see Nchena chena falls and the Juniper forest.

This camp is being completely funded by the Peace Corps Partners Program, which means anybody can donate to it, which is why I am looking back through my journal entries from all of my adventures in Nyika, and typing up blogs for every trip I have taken to Nyika. I'm calling these next few blogs The Nyika Chronicles, I hope these adventures in Nyika might give you all a better idea of what a special place Nyika is, and if any of you want to donate to our camp you can find it on the Peace Corps website


Garden Sanctuary

I think one of the biggest legacies that will come from my service in Mwazisi is the little seed packets that my family and friends send in their letters and packages. Having new and different vegetables available in Mwazisi will have a significant effect on the overall nutrition of the people living in Mwazisi. Being organic seeds they also provide the gardeners of Mwazisi with a reliable reproducing seed base as opposed to the hybrid seeds that are spread all across Africa, by seed corporations like Monsanto. Most of all having these seeds has given me the opportunity to demonstrate simple sustainable gardening techniques like mulching and composting which, slowly by slowly, seem to be utilized by an increasing number of my fellow gardeners in the dambo (river valley). The world is headed into a global food crisis, but it will be particularly hard hitting in Malawi where an erratic rainy season last year devastated the south and central regions harvest and a focus on tobacco farming in the north. So I'd say one of the best things I can do for people in Mwazisi is hand them a pack of seeds.

I have already seen the diversification of Mwazisi's diet improve tremendously in the past year. When I first arrived the only vegetables growing in anybodies garden were rape, mustard greens, cabbage, tomatoes and onions. Not only does it seem they just plant these few vegetables, but these are also the only vegetables aside from wild amaranth and pumpkin greens that people know how to prepare. But since I started giving out different seeds I see scatterings of carrots, spinach, and romaine lettuce mixed into the gardens, and I'd like to imagine that's getting eaten.

At first most of the people that I gave seeds to weren't planting them. I think people asked for the seeds simply for the novelty of taking something new and different from the azungu. Maybe they were intimidated to actually plant them feeling like they wouldn't know what to do with the strange plants if they actually germinated. So I stopped just handing them out and started using them in demonstration gardens at both the secondary and primary schools. These gardens had a whole slew of problems, From the bore-hole drying up to goats breaking through our weak fence , and going to town on anything green, to the students just plain forgetting to water the garden for a week or more while I was away at trainings or trips to Lilongwe. But these first gardens were useful because they were the villages first introduction to the strange new vegetables. The students got to see them raised from seed to harvest, and they saw little things like a pepper plant is grown the same way you grow a tomato plant, or that you don't transplant carrots.

The students also were the first to taste the vegetables as well. As the carrots started to pop up I pulled and skinned them there and gave everybody a taste of raw carrots. They must have thought I was trying to kill them, as they slowly chewed the strange food with nervous smiles on their face looking to their friends for reassurance, only to have their friends watching them intently to see if at any moment they keel over and die. After getting their nod of approval I pulled up enough carrots for everybody and told them to slice up the carrots and mix them with any greens that they might be cooking. Soon students were coming up to me asking for carrot seed instead of the usual tomato and onion request. The vegetable sampling had a domino effect, as students carried home bundles of swiss chard, beet greens, and spinach, I had more and more people coming up to me to ask about what they had tasted and how they could get some more.

Another benefit of those first gardens was that it was a great opportunity for seed multiplication. I was amazed that despite the common complaint about the high price of seeds nobody seemed to be collecting their seeds after the vegetables were finished. So when our garden started to shoot flowers, we let them all go to seed, and I used it as an opportunity to teach my wildlife club about seed saving, as a result we collected a fair amount of spinach, and arugula seed, and bags of romaine lettuce seed. The students were excited to see how much seed could be collected from just a few plants, and I hope that they will continue saving their seeds so that the packets I hand out during my service will be supplying the gardens of Mwazisi for years to come.

This year I've done all of my gardening down in the dambo instead of dealing with the goats and lack of water in the village. It's a short walk from my house, and being a bit outside of village has made it into my quiet sanctuary at the end of the day. The brush surrounding the river is always alive with the sounds of birds and crickets as the sun begins to slide behind the mountains in Vwaza, and the nights first stars begin to appear overhead. These last few months things have become more hectic for me; I feel like I'm running back and forth between teaching, my tree nurseries, and the EPA project. So I think the couple of hours of quiet work in the garden every afternoon have maintained my sanity.

Another benefit of keeping the garden in the dambo is that my plot is together with the most serious gardeners in Mwazisi, so we are always learning from each other, and I know that any seeds I share with them will be put to good use. For example Mr. Mkandawire is a man in his sixties who keeps about a quarter of an acre next to my plot where he spends over three hours a day moving from plant to plant with two broken watering cans. He greets me with a warm smile every afternoon and we always share what we harvest that day. I also shared a lot of seeds with him early on, so now mixed in with his many cabbage and tomato plants, there is a whole section of butter crunch lettuce beds, the occasional bush bean plant, and even a few broccoli flowers. He showed me how to dig out a well when the water level of the river dropped, and I showed him that beet roots and cabbages make great companion plants. I was especially happy when I saw him mimicking the heavy mulching I put on my beds, the day after I explained that I do that so that I don't have to water my garden so often. I have introduced him to many vegetables that he has never tasted before, as I always send him home with instructions of how his wife should prepare the veggie of the day. He comes back with plans for next year to grow whatever vegetable I give him, and judging from what I've seen him do in his garden so far, I would never doubt that he could live up to his most ambitious plans.