Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ramblings: A Sunrise to Remember

Tuesday November 4th 2008, was a night to remember for all Americans, it marked a decisive change in our countries history, the night we elected an African American to be our President. If I were in America that night I'm sure I would have been in a bar with friends or fellow campaign volunteers eating pizza and drinking beer while we watched the Electoral College maps turn blue state by state on the major news networks. Being here in Malawi my Obama election experience was a little different than that, but I'd say certainly was no less memorable.

Wiz who was my roommate at the wildlife camp set his alarm for 2:00 am which was when we figured the election results from the East coast would start rolling in. We didn't want to disturb the students so we went around quietly waking up the other Peace Corps volunteers and took a wireless radio down to the football pitch where we could comfortably react to whatever results we were going to hear. Instead of beer and Pizza I carried a couple nalgenes of water and a bunch of bananas. Matt Fornoff was kind enough to share with all of us a bit of beef jerkey he had just gotten in a package, which I savored as the first results rolled in.

Since we didn't have Fox News' or CNN's fancy infografic electoral college map, we made our own on some extra flipchart paper that we colored in with blue and red crayons as the BBC world servieconfirmed which states had been called for either McCain or Obama. Between the results we layed on the pitch staring up a beautiful starry night sky. We used my star map to identify constellations and chart our way to different nebulae and star clusters. There must have been a meteor shower that night because we must have seen around 20 shooting stars.

Around the time the first glimmerings of the sunrise began to emerge Pennsylvania, was called for Obama, and I started to feel assured that it was going to go our way. With the roosters first crow, Virginia and Ohio also went for Obama, and we knew we had it. After some very heartfelt cheers and hugs, I settled back into my sleeping bag to watch a beautiful African sunrise over the Vipyha Mountains. I was overcome by a warm feeling of comfort and satisfaction, a new sensation that my country is moving in the right direction, and everything is going to be alright. I felt like I was seeing the entire world around me in a whole new way. My whole body was tingling and I felt like my skin was breathing the cool morning air, as I watched the soft vanilla clouds float over head. For the first time since I started traveling outside of America I felt a pure and absolute pride in my country, which warmed my heart and plastered a contented smile on my face.

We listened to John McCains concession speech as we showered up to get ready for the day. We were having tea and buns as we prepared to load up on the Matola for our field trip, when we heard that Obama came out of his house for the first time to address a massive Chicago audience for the first time as President elect. I called over the students, and explained that this was going to be talked about in their children's history books. We listened to his speech in silence. I don't remember which words exactly brought tears to my eyes, bought as I looked up at my friends who were also teary eyed I realized that we were all feeling the same overwhelming sense of pride, and we acknowledged that mutual feeling as we went around giving each other quiet celebratory hugs.

After the speech my brother called and described the surreal scene. I could hear the car horns honking and people cheering in the streets. My brother said "I've never seen anything like this, it's 2 in the morning and everybody is still partying like we won the superbowl." But the same party was happening in every major city across America. My Dad said it best, "If there is a democratic man who doesn't get laid tonight, he just ain't trying." I think one image that my brother described will always stick with me. He lives on 15th street which points straight to the Washington monument, and he was sitting on his front porch talking to me as he watched an African American man walk right down the middle of the street through traffic with an American flag draped over his shoulders. With the monument in his background, he had his arms raised up as he yelled out "We did it! We did it! That image broght the Huhes poem I wrote about in a previous blog back into my mind; his prayer for America:

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

This is one very big step, now that we have the right leader it's time to really get to work and start making real change. We are facing some daunting challenges: a decimated economy, global warming and a depleted national environment, not to mention two wars and a myriad of forighn policy challenges thanks to Mr. Bushes destructive legacyWe still have a hell of a long way to go as a country, but for the first time in my life I feel like were heading in the right direction, and I know that we are all going to work together to solve these problems and make America into the dream that will be!

I couldn't contain my excitement and so as we careened through the villages that line the Phoka valley. I stood at the front of the truckbed with the other boys that like having the wind in their face. And started chanting OH-BA-MA....OH-BA-MA. When the boys figured out what I was saying they smiled and joined in, and soon the whole Matola was in on it, and I was hanging on for dear life with one hand, while I pumped my other fist into the air yelling at the top of my lungs OH-BA-MA!!! OH-BA-MA!!! OH-BA-MA!!!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Project: Nyika Chronicles vol III: Wildlife Camp success

Well, last week we held the first ever Nyika Wildlife and Environment Extravaganza! Actually it wasn't quite as impressive as the title makes it sound, but I'd say for the 32 young people who attended, it was an amazing success, especially when you consider that the total cost of the week boils down to less then $45 per student. For many of them it was the farthest they had ever been away from their home village, also for most of them it was there first time to see Livingstonia or the Nyika Plateau, and everybody learned something new that they knew nothing about previously. We definitely got our moneys worth!

I started planning this camp last year with Pace Phillips a Peace Corps teacher who is best described as a high tech red neck from North Carolina, and a fellow environment volunteer Matt Fornoff, a farm boy from Illinois. We saw it as a way to encourage a greater appreciation of Nyika national park for the young people living around the park, and also to provide them with some of the skills needed to earn money while preserving their local environment. All three of us have been busy with other projects in our own villages, so we did all the planning, budgeting, and logistical organizing in bits and pieces individually, or together on the rare occasion when our schedules meshed and we could meet in town. We employed the help of our Peace Corps friends to teach the various Income Generating Activities (IGA's), and kept the whole thing as bare bones as possible. So I must say I was pretty impressed with how well the whole thing went off.

The students arrived Monday afternoon to be greeted by our nominated ambassador of "happy fun time" Matt Wiznewski (for those of you who know Wiz, you know that this is all too fitting role for him) who is also an environment volunteer from San Fransisco. He was pretty incredible the entire week, always keeping the kids entertained during down time between sessions. He split them up into three teams and had them each come up with a team name, moto, and draw a poster. So we ended up with the Elephants, Terrible Tigers, and Team Nyika.

After Dinner we took all of the students out on the football pitch for night sky observing, which the kids were found interesting, but I definitely failed to convey the huge distances between stars, and the vastness of the universe the way Carl Sagan did....."billions and billions!

Day 1 was jam packed with IGAs; first Jim Kasper a volunteer from Ohio explained the basics for mushroom growing, and then gave them the chance to get practical experience in inoculating the growing bags with mushroom spores. Jim did a great job of explaining all of the necessary steps but still kept it reasonably simple enough that everybody could understand. The students were really impressed with Jim's ability to explain such a technical subject in Chitumbuka. The rest of the morning was facilitated by a local woman named Mrs. Zgambo who taught the students how to make soap from palm oil. The students were amazed how easy the process was and because Mrs. Zgambo was teaching the students saw that it was something they could definitely feasibly do in their own village.

After lunch it was all beekeeping. Elihu Isele a volunteer from Missouri who is working with a small beekeeping company in Nkahata Bay gave them a talk explaining the benefits of Beekeeping. Then I demonstrated a cheap method of making standard top bar beehives using bamboo tied and tacked to a hive frame, then we filled any holes paper-mache piñata style using soaked waste paper with cassava flour as glue. Each group got to make their own hives, which went back with some of the students to be hung by their schools wildlife club. After that the students got some real hands on experience as they put on bee-suits and opened up a bee hive with Elihu and saw for themselves the different stages of comb development, how the bees behave, and more importantly how they should behave around the bees. Some of the students looked pretty petrified, but Elihu was great about talking them through the whole process, and they were all smiles as we tasted some of the honey we harvested.

It was a good thing that day 2 was a field trip and none of the volunteers had to teach, because we were all zombies because we were up all night listening to the election. We were still in a state of euphoria from the reality that Barack Obama is going to be our next President (all of which is the subject of my next blog.) We loaded all the students up in the back of a two ton truck and took them to the Historical Mission of Livingstonia that sits halfway up the escartment and overlooks the whole Northern lakeshore. We only spent about an hour at the mission because the real purpose of the field trip was to visit Leeza Dupree's Permaculture farm that sits just beneath Livingstonia.

Leeza moved to Malawi 11 years ago and when the chief gave her the land it was an over worked cassava field that was washing away because it is on such a steep slope. She started reviving the garden by planting lots of trees to anchor the soil, and brouht up the water table by digging swales and catchment ponds, now a decade later her farm is a veritable garden of eden. Leeza had to be away teaching about Permaculture but her husband Auck, and her two Malawian assistants were there to show us around. The students learned about plants and crops that improve soil fertility, act as pesticides, and bring up the water table. Some of the things Leeza and Auck are doing were a bit beyond most of the students comprehension; like keeping a compost toilet or zoning the garden into different plant guilds. But the garden really speaks for itself, and it definately planted the permaculture seed in all of students brains.

From Leeza's farm we walked up to the overlook over Manchewe Falls, to eat our packed lunch. Watching a 900 foot waterfall cascade through cliffs and dense rainforest is a good way to enjoy rice and beans.

On our way back we visited another impressive farm, this one was owned by a Malawian women named Nya Bwendi. Her farm was great for the students to see because she does a lot of the same things Leeza does like intercropping trees, fish ponds, mulching and composting on a massive scale, but it somehow seems more accessable to them when they see a Malawian doing it. Nya Bwendi is a wonderful women, a true example of Malawians inherent kindness and generosity. She happily walked us through her whole 70 acre plus plot of land, gladly letting the students climb the trees in her orchards to taste its peaches, citrus, and apples, she also let them take loads of pineapple puffs so they could start growing pineapples at home As it started to get dark she refused to let us leave before sitting down to eat the fruits of her labor. Serving a full meal to 33 students and 10 Peace Corps volunteers goes beyond generous.

Day 3 was "farm day," a good follow up to our field trip. In the morning the Nchena Nchena agriculture extension worker Mr. Milongo taught the students how to make contour lines in their garden to stop erosion, and how to make different types of compost. I tied Mr. Milongo's talk together with Agroforestry and how to make a three year crop plan. I especially talked about intercropping trees like Tephrosia Vogelli, and Gliricidia Sepium to increase crop yields, then I took the students outside to show them the basics of starting a tree nursery, and gave them each tubes and seeds so they could start their own nurseries at home.

We also talked about fruit drying, which we demonstrated throughout the week with our makeshift solar dryers made out of a shoe box and a winnowing basket, which we used in drying bananas, pineapples and peaches. Rob Norris an environment volunteer from Maryland taught the students how to make fruit jam, and they made big batches of both mango and peach jam which made for a great addition to our porridge the next morning. He also added a useful business element to his session, where he had the students do a input/profit margin and figure out what price they would need to sell the jam to make a significant profit.

The last session of the day was fish farming which was led by Bernard Chizute, the head of the Rumphi department of fisheries. We took the students down to the department of agriculture's fish ponds where Mr. Chizute netted some fish so he could teach us about identifying different species and sexing. We also learned about digging and shaping a pond, and making the inlet and outlet. Afterwards we watched a series of videos in Chichewa about different people's success with fish farming in the central and southern region.

After dinner "happy fun time consisted of a talent show that was a mix between a Malawian Idol contest, and stupid human tricks. The talents included rapping, break dancing, church songs, card tricks, flipping their eye lids up and finally Rob blowing spit bubbles.

The last official day of the camp was the hike up to Nyika Plateau. It was about a 6 hour hike on a beautiful day to see the Nchena Nchena falls. The hike was led by Dan Zgambo a Wildlife extension worker for Nyika who talked to the students about stewardship of the land throughout the day. Once on top of the Plateau he pointed out the various water drainages, and explained to them the importance of Nyika as all of their home villages water source. We also had a good conversation during one rest stop about the difference in the number of animals in the park from just 10 years ago due to poaching. The only animals we saw were a few common Duiker which is a small type of antelope, but most of the students were happy just to see Nyika. They were looking through my binoculars the whole day, and took turns helping me carry the pack with everybody's lunches. It turned into an all American day since we carried peanut-butter and mango jam sandwiches for lunch and made a camp fire after we got back to practice another great American tradition, making smores. We capped off happy-fun time with a plastic sack piñata, which once broken open turned into a pretty hilarious dash and mosh pit for sweeties.

Before the students left they gave Pace, Matt, and myself cards thanking us for organizing the camp. Most of the students said that this camp was their first opportunity to do anything like this which I see as a huge success in and of itself. So finally I would like to Thank my Brother Mike and his wife Meta, who generously donated the money needed for this camp. Your donation made for an experience these kids won't soon forget.