Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Culture Shock

In the weeks leading up to my month home leave (a free trip home as a sort of prize for extending for a third year) it seemed everybody was telling me about the culture shock I was going to experience once I got back home. "You're going to freak out when you get back and see all the excess and waste...Nothings going to be the way you remembered it.....You won't even know how to talk to your own family and friends." I hadn't really thought much about any trouble readjusting to America, but the more people told me about it the more I began to feel a tinge of anxiety. It's been almost three years since I've been outside of Africa, I guess I could see how it's possible for me to have a hard time going back to the richest country in the world and slip right back in.

The culture shock came when I got to the Lilongwe airport. I was sitting in the terminal waiting to get on my first airplane since I came to Malawi. The TV on the wall was talking about Tiger Woods' personal life, and I was surrounded by white people talking about their 9-5 jobs, wedding plans, and the NFL playoffs...a big change from life in Mwazisi. As i started thinking about the trip I was embarking on my heart began racing, my breath got short, and I started thinking "oh man they're right, I'm not going to be able to relate to anybody. What am I going to do for a month if I can't even talk to my own friends." Then, other irrational panics came over me..."I'm going to miss a connecting flight along the way and get stuck in Johannesburg, The department of homeland security is going to bust me for the honey in my bag." I suddenly got very shifty and felt that everybody around me could see my extreme discomfort, and were judgeing away. I didn't say a word to anybody in the airport.

It wasn't until I was forced into conversation with my neighbors on the four flights home that I started to realize just how silly and comical my panic attack was. I had great wandering conversations about nothing with a whole assortment of good folks along my way. I was advised by a lovely thirty-something private investigator from Florida about what movies I needed to catch up on first. I talked to a young man from Wisconsin who had been backpacking all over Africa with his brother about his travels. I also chatted with a newlywed middle aged couple from Alabama who were on their way to Jackson Hole for a honeymoon, the sweet lady shared strips of beef jerky with me while her new husband told be about his beef ranch and how they fell in love as he brought his cattle to her family owned slaughterhouse. I listened happily as a hospital consultant from Minnesota told me all about her three sons that clearly were the light of her life. On the last leg home I talked to an environmental engineer from Grand Junction about fly fishing and and skiing.

With every conversation my anxiety seemed sillier and sillier. No matter where you go people are people, and you can always find a connection with a little effort, espechially when those people are from your home country. Talking to these folks about nothing really made me feel at home and cleared awayany nervousness. Americans are a mixed bag of people, and that's what makes us so interesting, in one flight you might have a western slope rancher on one side of you and an east coast civil rights lawyer on the other.

The past two weeks of being home have just been one great big confirmation of how much I love my home. Since coming home the highlights have been many, an ugly Christmas sweater party on Colfax that reunited me to many long lost high school friends, watching the Griz play in yet another national championship, a great week of skiing at steamboat thanks to the generosity of my brother, dancing in the dumping snow at a free Big Head Todd concert, randomly running into old friends and being able to fall back into our old banter without missing a beat, late night games of 500 with my family, holding my nephews in my lap while I help them put together great Lego creations, and spending time with my Aunt Kathy who doesn't let advanced MS or repeated trips to the hospital keep her from laughing and giving me hell. Just spending time with the people I love has been the main highlight....I've been away an awful longtime and it's good to be back.

So to other Peace Corps volunteers worried about going home and fitting in my advice is don't sweat it. I think the reverse culture shock hubub is bunk. I think ex-pats make a big deal about it so they seem more exotic and worldly. At least for me I feel like I've come home with a new appreciation for my home.

Last night I sat down with my parents to watch the Kennedy Center Honors on TV. I think it says a lot about America's appreciation for the arts when the President of the United States takes an entire night to honor a dedicated actor like Robert Deniro and an innovative Musician like Dave Brubeck. It also says a lot about our ability to find humor in anything that Mel Brooks the man who wrote songs like "Springtime for Hitler" for his play "The Producers" was also honored. We can see the beauty of our melting pot in the honoring of Grace Bumbry, a black women from St. Louis who sings classical opera. And finally we can see how much value we place on freedom of expression with the nomination of the boss Bruce Springsteen, because it's not so much his musical talent that makes him a legend but the way he writes songs that represent the left behind Americans. Songs like "Born in the USA" (people forget that that's a song about a Vietnam Vet who is mistreated by the government that sent him to war). I thought the whole show was a great example of what I love about America, we value our freedom of speech, our diversity, and our arts very much. The past three years in Malawi have showed me how rare it is to live in a country that holds those values sacred, and just how important those values are to me. So it's nice to get a little taste of that while I'm home.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Camp Nyika Day 4- Field Trip Day

The teaching was finished for us, so it was a great day for us to just sit back and watch the students have fun together. It's great to see after just 4 days together, how close the students who come from all over the Northern region have become. On the matola ride to Livingstonia I watched the students laughing and singing as they held onto each other for dear life as the truck hurled up and down the hills of the Phoka valley. Between songs Shadreck would lead the group in screaming random cheers like “Nyika camp is so beautiful!” or “Mr. Dan Ho-Yeaaaa!”We were entertained by Shupe Mzembe's sassy facial expressions as she reacted to every cheer before she buried her laughing face into her new friend Leah's shoulder. The truck driver had to make a stop at the Livingstonia hospital to pay a debt, while we waited Juma Nkhoma one of the smallest boys in the camp spotted some beautiful college aged nursing students, and reluctantly approached them with the encouragement of his friends. We all watched with great anticipation and cheered wildly when he managed to earn a smile from the very professional looking young women, and came running back with a smile of triumph.

Our first stop in Livingstonia was the beekeepers cooperative where the students learned about processing and marketing honey. We then went over to the old stone house museum for some history since it was the first time all of the students had been to Livingstonia aside for the three youth councilors who were with us last year. We took lunch at an overlook over Manchewe Falls. It was a great way to enjoy beans and rice, with the 300 foot plus waterfall on our left and the stretching lake shore below and the escarpment climbing up on our right,.

After lunch we visited the home of Leeza Dupree an expert in Permaculture design, Her assistant Alex gave us a detailed tour of the entire garden which contained many plants the students didn't know, but also many they knew very well, and planted themselves but never inter-cropped with so many different things. The main thing they all noticed was the abundance of perennial trees and crops that don't need replanting every season but continuously provide food so long as they are cared for.

From there we went to visit a similar farm of a Malawian women named Nya Bwindee who also relies on perennial crops like coffee trees, and Pineapple bushels. In fact her farm has over 2,800 pineapples, if they are sold at an average of 100MK, she's making a pretty impressive annual income from something she doesn't have to recultivate each season....sure beats tobacco. She originally acquired the land for free because everybody said that it's rocky soil and steep hillsides are useless, so she covered those hills with apple, peach, and lemon trees that provide a steady income as each different fruit comes into season. I think her place was one of the most useful sites we visited for the students, it really shows how anybody can make a good living from the land if they work hard and are willing to think outside of the box a little.

The whole idea of the camp was to bring the brightest and most interested wildlife club members together from all around Nyika and provide them with some useful skills and get them thinking about how they can live more in harmony with their land instead of degrading it. Hopefully they will take what they have learned back to their home communities and the ideas continue to spread.

The last morning as students were loading up on a Matola to head back to their various homes Atupele came running up to me with a folded up piece of paper; it was the poem she had read at the talent show, it cracks me up and deeply touches me all at once, here it is:

Bye, bye Dan
The night sky I have observed
The seven sisters not brothers
In the sky I have known and
I will not forget them.

Bye, bye Davie
How to plan I have known
Good record keeping I will do
The good work you have done
No one can believe it.

Bye, bye Mathias
Grafting crops I have known
That sugarcane can not be grafted you have taught me.
Quality fruits all over Malawi because of your knowledge.

Bye, bye tenley
Nursery making I have known
That chibuku packets can be used
Instead of polythene
The knowledge I have it's yours.

Bye, bye Devin
Fish farming I have learned
Scientific names of fish you have taught me
That zooplanktons are small animals
from seeds I know
Although they drive me crazy I will never leave the knowledge behind

Bye, bye Alinon
That a place is good if there is fun
I have believed in you
You really are a Fun-gi.

Bye, bye Nyika camp teachers
With different friends of different cultures we have met
Because they say no man is an island united we have stayed as one.
Ignorance you have buried.
I will never cut down trees carelessly
because it conserves soil
No words can express my cries.

Atupele Mbukwa

Not only did the students pick up some valuable lessons this week but they also had a lot of fun, and none of this would have been possible without the financial support of our family and friends who donated to the camp. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

Camp Nyika Day 3- Banana and Bee Day

I started the day off in the classroom teaching beekeeping theory; including the benefits of beekeeping, as well as how to make a budget for getting started, the demensions of a 29 top bar box hive, and selecting an apiary to hang hives in once they are ready. I also talked about using local materials like maize sack suits, and bamboo hives instead of expensive planks.

After teaching theory we went outside and made a local materials hive as a group. We split bamboos and attached them to two end plates with rina (the wires pulled out of used tires) and nails through bottle top washers to permanently fix them into place. We baited the top bars with melted bee's wax and made a cradle out of eucalyptus branches to hang the hive. After finding a good site in a near-by forest we hung the hive and made a mixture of clay and cow dung to seal any gaps between the bamboo. After putting grass on the cover to keep the black plastic cool, and applying grease to the wires to keep the ants out, our hive was ready to be occupied! We snapped a few kung fu photos to celebrate.

Unfortunately my beekeeping took most of the day (I even teach at Dan speed!) So Matt only had a couple hours to do Banana propagation, which luckily was all he needed. He presented a very clear and straight forward demonstration of how to do split-comb propagation. He dug up a mature banana tree that hadn't fruited yet and cut it down to the core of it's root base. He then started hacking it into small chunks that we planted in a nursery with the same side facing up. After about 3 weeks of watering the nursery at least 10 shoots should have sprouted, each a clone of the original banana tree.

That night after dinner we had the Camp Nyika talent show, and Alinon decided that Elijah the natural born entertainer should be the MC for the event. Elijah did a stellar job, as did all of the students. Some of the most memorable performances included Shadrick Mwakasangira's word for word rendition of the Nas song “I can be whatever I want to be”, Paulina Gondwe (our only Form 1 student at the camp, who everybody called baby Paulina) smiling from ear to ear as she danced and sang a Chitumbuka church choir son, The Kaporo CDSS students doing the electric slide, the Mwazisi CDSS students doing a drama about fidelity, and a poem by Atupele Mbukasa thanking us for the camp. It was a very sweet poem and her kind words got me all misty eyed in front of the whole camp. The students weren't the only ones to perform. All of the teachers showed off our talents at once; Tenley worked out quadratic equations on the blackboard, while I reached back to my high-school basketball days to do some fancy dribbling with old soccer balls, Devin did his gangster crypt walk to an Akon song, Alinon juggled onions, and Matt pulled out his dentures to make the creepiest hand puppet I have ever seen. We were a 5 ring circus of odd Azungus! Then Alinon had the whole room hooting and hollering with an animated telling of the nursery rhyme “The old lady who swallowed the fly.” At the end of the show Al congratulated Elijah for being a great MC by giving him the giant straw top-hat he had been wearing the entire week with a slip of paper tucked into the brim's ribbon that said “Happy Fungi.”. Elijah wore it for the rest of the week with pride.

Camp Nyika Day 2 Agriculture Day

Devin Rippner my site-mate from Vwaza started the day off right with a very professional theoretical session on sustainable agriculture. Devin looking very dapper in his suit jacket and tie talked to the students about the value of good soil, and the benefits of maintaining its fertility and structure by adding compost and inter cropping nitrogen fixing trees. He talked a lot about the economics of conservation farming, and how they could save money by using compost and rotating a variety of crops instead of fertilizer and other inputs to grow just one crop.

After Devin's inspiring lecture the students visited a near-by lead farmer named Fredrick Msiska so they could see conservation farming in action. Mr. Msiska practices a wide variety of sustainable farming techniques in his fields and the students got some hands on experience as he invited them to help him mark the contour lines of a field using an A-frame with a line level across its top. They also got to make Bocash compost a Chinese method where they mix chopped maize husks, soil, wood ash, yeast, and water for fast decompisition in only about 21 days.

Mr. Msiska also showed us his demonstration plots where he mulches like a mad-man, intercrops nitrogen fixing trees and marks all of his boundaries with money making trees, like coffee or macadamia. He also showed the students his two chamber composting toilet which allows one side to decompose for 1 year while he is using the other side, when that side fills he clears out the decomposed chamber and starts using that side again. He also showed the students his liquid manure made by soaking chicken manure in water for 21 days, then dilutes the resulting tea with fresh water 20-1. He then uses that as a nitrogen rich top dressing for maize and tomatoes. It was really great for the students to see a Malawian who doesn't let anything go to waste on his farm, hopefully they take back some of these ideas to try and use in their own homes.

The afternoon was all about fish farming, and was mostly lead by Mr. Masukwa the Nchena chena fisheries extension officer. He started out by giving the students a long and detailed theoretical session that explained how to select a site for a pond, dig it, lime it, manure it, and stock it. He also talked about different types of fish as well as diseases that might become a problem.

After Masukwa's talk we went down to he research center's ponds to see the real thing. These ponds were first dug by the British in the 1950s and they are still very impressive today. There are over 20 ponds, the largest one is about the size of a football field, while the smallest one is about 5x10 meters. The ponds have a constant flow of water into their main inlet canal that allows water into each individual pond through a floodgate called a monk. Each pond also has angle jointed pipes that act as an overspill outlet, or can be turned down to drain the pond completely into the outlet canal. All of the ponds are stocked with talapia. The students were mostly impressed with the sheer size of the operation, the ones who were most serious about fish farming went back to the classroom afterwards and watched my compass II fish farming videos until dinner was ready.

After dinner our Ambassador of Fun Al organized a version of the game “Mafia” with a wildlife twist on it. He called it “Poacher Mob,” the Mafia were replaced by poachers, the sheriff was replaced by a forest guard, the doctor a traditional medicine man, and the citizens were different animals and trees of Nyika. I was amazed how fast the students picked it up, in no time they were tossing back and forth accusations and frantically trying to defend their innocence, “ I couldn't have killed the zebra he's my friend, and besides Moses is the real poacher.” The teachers only lasted a few rounds before Alinon turned the role of God over to Elijah Chipeta one of our outstanding and most gregarious youth councilors. I woke up a few hours later to go to the bathroom and still heard accusations flying in the classroom, “You killed the Msangu sangu tree! I can see it on your face!”

Camp Nyika Day 1- Buisness Day

Yesterday the students arrived throughout the afternoon to be greeted by our enthusiastic “Ambassador of fun” Alinon Arpin, a country boy from Ennis with a smile as big as his home state of Montana. The shy and somewhat nervous students were immediately drawn to his welcoming aora, and left feeling at home in this strange place. Al brought the whole group together for an ice-breaker. We tossed a Frisbee around so the bearer could give their name, number one environmental interest, and favorite dende (dinner dish). The rest of that night we let the students get acquainted with each other and get settled into their dorms.

This morning instead of jumping right into the environmental activities we had Dave Jock teach the students a few basic business skills. I introduced Dave to the kids as the smartest guy in Peace Corps (he's on his way to Harvard Law next fall), so the students were very happy to pick through his brain with a barrage of questions. Dave explained how to make a business plan taking into account any externalities, fixed and variable costs, and how many business cycles it would take to reach the break even point for a variety of businesses. Most of which we are teaching the skills for this week such as fish farming, beekeeping and soap making. His main advice for the students no matter what business they would embark on was to keep good records, and always plan to reinvest.

The second half of the morning was led by Nya Tembo a Malawian women who generously offered to teach the group how to make soap from palm oil. She taught in the matter of fact even keeled sort of temperament that Malawian women always seem to operate in....never too enthusiastic or too dour, always somewhere in the middle just working their way through whatever task is at hand. Making soap is just one more thing to add to a long list of things she's getting done. I thought it was really great for the girls at the camp to see a women who has found a business that nobody else in the community is practicing and make herself an expert in it so that she can carve out her own money making niche.

After lunch it was all trees! First Tenely Scofield a PCV who traveled all the way from Mulanje taught the basics of tree nurseries, then Matt Jones a “bad-ass logger” from Idaho taught the students how to graft fruit trees. Between Tenely's ever positive attitude and ardent support for everything the kids do, and Matt's hands on approach to teaching allowing each student to practice grafting themselves I think just about every student is ready to go start their own tree nursery.

That night after dinner I took advantage of the break in the clouds to lead the students in some star-gazing, I walked them through the northern constellations with my own rendition of the Greek story of Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus and their daughter Andromeda who was saved from the sea monster Cetus by the hero Perseus riding on his flying horse Pegasus. We also tried to spot the rings of Saturn through my binoculars, and took a closer look at the glowing wonder of the seven sisters. Many students stayed out well after the others went to bed asking me questions. I was all to happy to try to answer their curious questions and encourage them to let their imaginations roam about what might be out their in the infinity of space. I was also happy to stay up to see Orion rise so I could share with them my all time favorite constellatioion.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Still Need Money

I'm really begging for money now, the camp is only a month away, and I can't buy any supplies until all $1,200 is in. It's a worth while cause, that's tax deductible. Even a $5.00 donation is appreciated, it adds up! Just go to and search my name or the project number 614212.

Bringing My Vegetables to Market

As I said in the previous blog my greatest sanctuary these past few months has been my garden down in the river valley. In June and July I often went there before sun-up and remained there all day tilling with my jembe, spreading compost, and planting new beds. I usually packed a lunch and took breaks throughout the day to eat sugar cane while I sit and chat with Mr Mkandawire (the old man who keeps the garden next to me). My afternoons were usually spent transplanting the young seedlings to bigger beds.

It's very therapeutic digging my hands into fresh black soil with the late afternoon sun on my back, the aroma of well-cured compost in my nostrels, and nothing but crickets and the cackle of a lilac breasted rollers chasing their mates for backround noise. At the end of the day as I walk back exhausted and happy from a good days work, I turn my hat backwards so I can watch Venus chasing the sunset in the west and the moon rising in the east as the first stars of the night begin to pop out.

I originally started this garden with the hope that my wildlife club would share the labor and sell the vegetables at the local market to raise money for the trip to Nyika National Park that they are constantly begging for, but as the school year got more busy, and the students afternoons got occupied with more pressing matters such as playing checkers in the trading center, or looking cool as they walked back and forth on the road through town I realized that it would just be my garden. I was fine with that since I had much more free time then I wanted, and it always makes such a great escape. I have gotten occasional assistance from my young roommate Sam and my friend John Gondwe who always get pleanty of vegetables in return. In July I bought a treadle pump with Mr. Mkandawire and Mr. Zgambo (my counterpart from the department of forestry) so we can water all of our gardens much easier. So now I have help from Mr. Zgambo's 3 sons once a week as they pump the stair stepper style pump and I man the hose.

The garden is full of a wide variety of vegetables this year thanks to all the seeds sent by good people back home like Carol Suzdak, Bill and Kay Shrenk, and of course my good old Mom. Sam and I have a big salad with every meal and have experimented with several different ways of cooking greens. We share with our neighbors and I always fill up a watering can with lettuce that I hand out to ladies on the path from my garden to the house, but there's no way I can use everything that is growing in my garden, so last week I decided to fill up two large maize sacks with vegetables and take them to Devin Rippner's (the closest volunteer to my site) Saturday market. It's a big market and I figured it would be a good way to show the kids in my wildlife club the profits they missed out on by not helping out in the garden. When I told people about my plans they mostly laughed and said “nobody in the village is going to buy strange vegetables that they don't know how to cook.” I said “they will once they've tasted them.”

Of course when we got to the market and unloaded the veggies from our bikes, everybody gathered around to see what the heck the Azungus were up to. I think the Azungu circus effect was the secret behind our initial sales, we probably could have unloaded a sack of eucalyptus leaves and people would have bought it just to eat what ever the Americans were eating. I used this to my advantage after I laid out a pile of lettuce I stood up and was at least half a foot over every bodies heads and said in Timbuka, “Do you see how big I am? It's because I eat this!” Most people laughed but some teenagers dug in their pockets for ten kwatcha to buy a pile.

A group of ladies were cooking nsima and goat meat to sell to the vendors who come from all over Rumphi west to sell their goods. I went over and gave each of them a pile of Indian mustard greens, and told them to cook it up with tomatoes and onions to add as an extra side dish to their meals. They could have them for free so long as they told everybody where they came from.

When things slowed down in the afternoon Devin made a big salad for sampling. We soaked the vegetables in Watergaurd the day before to kill any parasites and rinsed them. I mixed chigoona red lettuce, arugula, buttercrunch lettuce, mustard, beet greens, broccoli, chopped some onion chives, sliced two kinds of radishes, and one tomato to give people a little taste of everything. Devin cheated a bit by adding some vinegar and oil. People were very hesitant to eat uncooked vegetables, but I reassured them they were safe as I ate a little myself. You'd think I was serving cow dung by the look on the first women's face as she picked off a tiny leaf and slowly lifted it to her mouth, but her eye's grew as big as saucers when the salad dressing hit her tongue. She buried her face in embarrassed laughter when she saw my acknowledging smile. She came up nodding to the crowd and a wave of hands reached in for their own sample. It was hilarious watching people share the same reaction as the first women again and again. Granted a lot of people will be disappointed when they realize they can't recreate the taste of Devin's salad dressing without olive oil, and a dressing mix sent from America, but at least they're tasting some different vegetables for once.

In the late afternoon we got some help from Devin's friends Mackford and a Rasta who goes by the bold title of “God.” They stood behind my piles of veggies eating the salad with embellished moans of ecstasy saying, “Mmmm, kunowa chomene. Zie kuno gulani iyo.” (very delicious, come here and buy this.) I knelt by my heads of lettuce and piles of produce telling people how to cook the different greens; “fry the radish greens with peanut floor, cook the lettuce in in tomatoes, onions, and oil just for a minute, so that it doesn't turn into watery mush. I cut up radish slices with my leatherman and handed them out to everybody that listened.

It all payed off in the end, I was the first vendor to finish off what I carried, and at the end of the day we had either eaten or sold off every last leaf! I made over 2,000 kwatcha in 10 kwatcha increments, but unfortunately a 500 kwatcha note had fallen out of my pocket at some point in the chaos...zimachatika. We used some of the money to buy sweet potatoes, milk, sugar and biscuits to make a celebratory sweet potato pie for dinner.

The next morning in Mwazisi I had no shame in gloating about the profits we made and the fun we had selling them. Benidicto says he's coming with me next week to sell his tomatoes, and he will plant a wider variety of vegetables next year.

Finally out of Limbo

For the last several months my biggest project the agriculture extension office has been stuck in the ninth circle of bureaucratic hell waiting for materials. Last year we we got the project off to a good start; the community quickly made use of the funding that I secured from USAid to get the 10,000 stabalized soil blocks molded, but according to the agreement I made with the Rumphi department of Agriculture, the rest of the materials for the building would be provided by them. But no matter where you are, Malawi or America, things always move slower once they are left up to bureaucrats.

We built up to the window level by the end of last February, then not having any window frames our momentum came to a screeching halt. Ever since then I've become the most annoying fly in the department of agriculture's ear, “Is the money ready yet? Where are my window frames?” To which they always reply “Check back next week, should be an time now.” Back in Mwazisi I kept myself busy with my bee keeping projects, fish ponds, and tree nurseries but was aching to get back into construction mode. My garden down in the river valley became my greatest salvation. I have spent many hours there, tilling, planting, weeding, doing pull-ups on the branches of the mango trees, or just reading in the shade when it gets too hot to work. It's nice having a quiet place away from the village where I can work and think. When things have gotten especially frustrating then I listen to old “This American Life” and “Prairie Home Companion” podcasts while I work. I let the soothing voices of Ira Glass and Garrison Kheeler remind me of home.

Finally a couple months ago I decided to take a different route to getting the money. In my project proposal I stipulated that the funding for the construction of the building would come from the Malawian government, but not necessarily the department of agriculture. I found out about the Member of Parliament's constituency fund that can be used for any development they would like to make in their district. I called the newly elected Member of Parliament Hon. Austin Jatura Mkandawire, and told him about the project, I explained that this would be a very highly appreciated development in a part of his constituency where he got less votes in the last election (the other candidate was from Mwazisi). His reaction was awesome! He came to Mwazisi the next week to see what we had done so far, and promised to use his fund to pay for the window frames which are one of the most expensive items left for completing the construction of the building. I had to write another proposal then get it approved by the Village Development Committee, Area Development Committee and the District Assembly.

I was actually surprised how fast the money came from the constituency fund! The window frames actually arrived in Mwazisi yesterday. As luck would have it the department of Agriculture also just now came up with a large sum of money that we are buying other building materials with, and some of the iron sheets for roofing(which is why I'm in town today). We will start building again on Monday! . It's going to feel so good mixing cement first thing in the morning again Monday.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Hike with the Good Lawyer Revisited

Now is a good time to recount one of my favorite Nyika trips as I beg my family and friends to donate money for a camp that is meant to influence the people living around the park to take a greater stake in protecting it (see previous blog). I think the way we feel about places has a lot to do with the people we associate it with, and I certainly associate Nyika with the man that first introduced me to it; a former Peace Corps volunteer and retired lawyer named Greg Doer.

He invited me on one of his adventures to Fingira rock when I first got to country. I was impressed to see the hiking strength of this 60 year old man, but most of all I admired his appreciation for the nature that surrounded him. Over the next year we became good friends, and he became a great source of advice as I was starting out as a Peace Corps volunteer. Greg and I shared some great debates, and plenty of laughs, but I saw him at his happiest in Malawi when we were hiking in Nyika. I was very happy when he invited me on his last hike before the end of his service.

Greg planned an epic trip for his finally that included climbing Nkhonjira mountain, fishing the Rumphi river and visiting Nyika's ancient Juniper forest. It would be all the more of an adventure since we would hike in the heart of the rainy season. He also asked the other two people I most associate with Nyika for the hike; his counterpart and Nyika game scout Manuel Gondwe (a certified bad-ass), and Greg's friend from Jumbi an ex-poacher turned Natural Resource Committee member Kondwani; a man that can best be described as the smiliest man in Malawi, as his name suggests (Kondwani means happy in Chitumbuka). Kondwani dubbed our crew the big four, and it seemed to me like an ideal group to spend my New Years in the mountains with.

Our first day of hiking was a late start because of a long heavy rainfall. We took shelter with a friend of Kondwani's that lived at the foot of Nkhonjira mountain. They generously cooked nsima and eggs for us, which gave us the strength to do one long hard push up the mountain when the storm broke. We agreed that Manuel and I would hurry ahead to set up camp and start the fire before sunset since we got such a late start. I had a hard time keeping up with the five foot tall hiking machine, as he moved up the ridge line at a fast steady pace.

As the sun set over Nkhonjira's shoulder the clouds and mist we were climbing through changed pink and purple. The whole scene became surreal, quiet, and beautiful. There's something truly magical about the calm after a big storm, and it was made all the more amazing by the sunset and the setting. I was already happy being up on the mountain above the noise of daily life in the village screaming children, no blaring music from the beer dens. I only heard the occasional rumble of a thunderhead over Bolero, the wind through the miombo forests, and the call of a falcon that floated on thermals on the other side of the ridgeline which was a sheer drop-off that went down several hudred feet. I stopped and watched him as he hung suspended, and lifted a bit from an updraft then pointed his shoulder blades down and plummeted through the pink haze. My heart was pumping with adrenaline as I got back to climbing.

We slept under a tarp next to a creek that came from a primal forest near the top. After tea and rice porridge, we explored the forest a bit. It was a dense old growth forest brimming with life, vines hung from the branches of ancient towering trees that three of us could not wrap our arms around together. We took some pictures and caught up to Greg who was enjoying the view, of the bolero valley and beyond to where you could even make out the mountains over Mwazisi in the distance.

We hiked down the backside of the mountain through grassland and some extensive Musuku forests until we got bogged down in another heavy downpour. We wrapped ourselves in our tarps and waited it out for a while, before pushing on to Hana cave, a rock shelter that sits just above the Rumphi River. Greg found a huge bunch of large headed white mushrooms that we made into a delicious soup that we ate our Nsima with.

That afternoon Greg fished the Rumphi with a spin rod and lures. Supposedly there are still trout in the Rumphi from the dams that were stocked by the British in the 60's, but the river was way to high to catch anything in the heavy current where Greg was fishing. Kondwani jimmy rigged a small bamboo pole with some extra line and a lead weight, we baited it with crickets. I found a deep calm pool upriver just before sunset and managed to pull out 5 small catfish. We spent our new years eve eating mushroom soup and smoking the fish I caught in the mouth of the cave while greg played his penny whistle before sneaking off to his sleeping bag in the back of the cave. Kondwani, Manuel, and I stayed up late listening to Kondwani's wireless radio as news came in on BBC about the election violence in Kenya. I curled up in my sleeping bag and watched the Southern Cross rise between the horizon and the lip of the cave, as I thought about hopes for a more peaceful world, and the changes I wanted to make in my own life in the coming new year.

We awoke to a rainy and overcast 2008, and took our time enjoying a catfish and rice breakfast before we hiked 5km upriver so we could cross at a point just beneath a falls where the river dives beneath a boulder field that allows for easy crossing. We spent the rest of the day hiking up game trails, and bushwhacking up and down ridges, hillsides, and innumerable small valleys. Throughout the day we found ourselves in vast Msuku forests that slowed us down significantly as we were all hunched over sampling a few plum-sized fallen fruit before moving on to check the flavor of the next tree. As Greg said we were traveling at “Msuku speed.”

Around 5:30 we came across a poachers camp where they had just finished drying wild pig meat on a rack over the fire. The fire was still smoldering when we arrived, and they left various parts of the pig; they must have seen us coming up the valley, and took flight. Manuel went ahead a bit to see if he could catch them and confiscate their guns. We took over their camp and made a shelter out of tarps since it had been drizzling all day, but after sunset the clouds cleared out and the stars were absolutely beaming. I showed Kondwani all the constilations I could find. I fell asleep still watching the hot belt of the milky way turning overhead.

We ate a leisurely breakfast while we dried our socks and boots over the fire. Manuel extracted the tusks from the jaw of the wild pig the poachers left behind and Greg kept them as a souvenir. We spent the morning hiking up grassy hillsides, and scared up a common duiker, and 3 Kilspringers along the way and got to the Juniper forest around noon. There was an old dilapidated watchman's hut there that we took shelter in for the night.

The juniper forest was amazing. Some of the trees were up to 18 ft in circumference and they all towered high above us. We found one fallen juniper that had a kachere tree (a parasitic tree) growing in the middle of the trunk. The kachere tree was massive, at least 10 ft in circumference, but the fallen enormous juniper underneath it still hadn't even begun to rot showing what an incredibly hard wooded tree it was. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the Junipers were over 1,000 years old!

That afternoon Kondwani, Manuel, and I attempted to climb Kasaramba mountain while Greg stayed back at the watchman's hut resting his feet and cooking us beans for dinner. We failed to reach Kasaramba as we were chased back to the hut by an impressive thunderhead. As we hurried back I got some good pictures of a double rainbow at sunset. We fried up the last of my catfish and mixed them with the beans for dinner as the rain pounded on the tin roof of the little shack and thunder clapped all around the plateau. Kondwani did his best to patch the holes in the roof with chunks of Nsima (use # 101 of maize paste!).

We spent the next day hiking back to gregs favorite spot in Nyika, Fingira rock. It was a long hike over Nyika's vaste grasslands and through overgrown river valleys. We tried our luck fishing another spot on the Rumphi river around lunch time, but nothing this time. We saw two more bush bucks and spotted two mystery animals watching us from the ridge line silhouetted by the ominous storm clouds behind.

Though there are rock shelters actually at Fingira rock we always sleep down the hill in Mavungu rock shelter which is much closer to a water source. We found yet another patch of Mushrooms that we mixed with Lentils for our last meal on Nyika. I brewed a pot of coffee, and made it Irish with some Malawian gin. We toasted the New Year, and another successful adventure.

My only regret was that we didn't climb Fingira Rock to enjoy the view from the top. Since my first trip to Nyika two and a half years ago that is still my favorite spot in all of Malawi. But on that trip our feet were too sore and waterlogged, and the rock was too slippery to make the precarious 300M+ scramble.

I recently made the exact same trip with Manuel and my friend Mike Fong. We followed the same route but managed to make it to the top of Nkhonjira and descend to Hana cave in one day, then get to the Juniper forest the next day where we met up with four Peace Corps ladies that were hiking from the Eastern side of the park with my friend Dan Zgambo who I organized to guide them. Then all of us hiked over to Fingira rock together. It was an awesome trip, and Mike was the perfect hiking partner. We keep the same pace hiking, he's up for anything, and was ever positive (even when we meandered off of the correct path a bit on long 10 hour days of hiking). Not to mention he is an impressively light packer; he only brought a small day pack and a blanket roll, which was more than enough to support his simple needs. He kept Manuel and I entertained with his songs around the campfire each night. I really enjoyed sharing the brilliance of Nyika with my friends, the same way Greg shared it with me.

The last morning before we hiked out to Jumbi I insisted that we all hike up Fingira. I was the last one to get to the top as I was helping one of my friends get through some tricky spots. I found everybody enjoying the spectacular Panarama, with the wide open rolling grass lands of Nyika on the east side (it's like being up on pride rock in the Lion King). To the west my eyes followed the miomba woodland covered escarpment falling away to Jumbi and the long valley to Bolero, then north to the Mountains surrounding Nkhozo estates tractor plowed fields and on to the mountains that surround my house in Mwazisi. I thought back to my many trips to nyika; hiking, biking, and visiting with Malawians. When I stood on the very top and took in the grand view it sent a shot of adrenaline down my spine and I let out a WHOOOOEE that rang off of every corner of Nyika...I smiled at Manuel and said “I love this spot.”

Gearing up for another Nyika Wildlife Camp

Last year one of the most successful projects I took part in was the five day environmental mini-camp for teenagers living around Nyika National Park (see my blog from Nov 2008). Which is why I decided to organize another camp this year. The idea of the camp is to provide young people living around Nyika plateau with skills that they can use to improve their communities livelihood without poaching or otherwise destroying the parks resources. We also want to impart an appreciation for Nyika's uniqueness, and value to the environmental health of the entire Northern Region,.

This year we will teach the students about business skills, soap making, beekeeping, fish farming, and Jam making. There will be a focus on sustainable agriculture since farming makes up about 98% of rural Malawians livelihood. We will take a field trip to visit a Permactulture farm in Livingstonia, and also visit another Malawian lead farmer who is practicing a variety of sustainable techniques. We'll also teach practical sessions in compost making, contour line ridging and tree nursery propagation. But as I said the main idea of the camp is to impart a greater respect for the park itself, so we will have a lecture from a Malawian bird expert, and he will lead the entire group on a bird walk. We will also hike to Manchawe falls, and will be discussing Nyika's value as the Northern region's primary watershed the entire week.

Nyika is so unique in Africa, because most of it's 3,000 sq km are a grassy plateau that rises over 1800m. It supports a wide variety of birds and wildflowers that aren't found anywhere else in Malawi. More than 200 species of orchid have been recorded in the park, and 27 of them are endemic to Nyika alone. Sadly many people living around the park see orchids value only as a food delicacy. One of my friends working as a game scout, recently told me about catching a villager who had already dug up 9 buckets full of orchid bulbs that she was intending to sell in Chitipa where she can get as much as MK6,000 (about $40) for 1 bucket. This shows the lack of understanding people living around the park have for the uniqueness of this very special place. Which is exactly the issue that our camp is trying to address.

This is also a great opportunity for those of you who are interested to support one of my projects. I wrote the grant to fund the camp through Peace Corps Partners Program, which takes tax deductible contributions from friends and family of Peace Corps volunteers to put directly into our projects. All you have to do to donate is go to and search for either my name or enter the project number 614212 and make your contribution. I appreciate any support anybody can offer.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

An Evening with Lucius Banda

This is an article I wrote for the Peace Corps magazine about my epic birthday with Malawi's best musician

Matt Zald (env 2009) and I were lucky enough to stumble upon a Lucius Banda concert in Mzuzu on a recent Sunday night. We heard the music blaring from the Mzuzu Sunbird hotel in the afternoon and decided to investigate. Little did we know that our wonderings would turn into an epic night in Malawi.

We actually didn't know who's concert we were walking into until the door man told us that Malawi's most famous Musician Lucius Banda would be playing. Anybody who has been in Malawi for more than a couple weeks knows Lucius Banda. He is essentially Malawi's national musician, any ewe you find outside your local village bottle store can recite hits like "Survivors" or "Malawi Wokongola" word for word for you as they shake their booty out of their loose fitting shorts. The man is so popular that he was elected to represent Balaka district as a Member of Parliament, but he quickly got out of that game.

The concert started mellow and easy around 3:30 and went on for over 3 hours. In the warm Sunday afternoon light, it seemed like a family picnic concert, as people who didn't manage to get a seat sat around the stage on the green grass. Children danced on the front steps and Banda crouched down to sing directly to his mini-fans, which made them absolutely loose their minds. One brave boy didn't loose his cool though he stepped up on the stage in front of a smiling Banda with his make believe microphone and lip-synced every word.

After the sun set things took a wilder side. When "Pa Mtengo wa Kachere" came on the whole crowd got to dancing, and really only stopped to watch the mesmerizing gyrations of one of his stunningly beautiful dancers. Banda brought some local Mzuzu rappers on stage to do a freestyle that had the crowd howling.

Our favorite stage dancer was a man in his mid-forties with a little pot belly and a missing tooth. He didn't look like one of Madonna's dancers, but he could dance anyone of them out of a job, and I'll guarantee you've never seen anybody who enjoys his job as much as that man. He smiled from ear to ear the whole show, and any time we made eye contact he threw us an enthusiastic thumbs up. During the last song he finally pulled Matt on stage so he could dance with the "Soldier" himself.

At the end of the night as the crowd was shuffled out we decided to take a shot and see if we could go and talk to the star. We were shocked when he pulled up two chairs for us and gave us a full interview. For the most popular musician in Malawi I was extremely impressed with his modesty and down to Earth nature.

He told us about growing up in a poor family in Balaka. His first introduction to music was his brother Paul's homemade guitar, made from a jerry-can, a stick and wire. Paul made Lucius into his Rhythm section, having him clap hands to keep rhythm. As Mr. Banda got older he found inspiration in Malawian Jazz guitar great Ungani Mkandawire. He also acknowledges the influence of South African Reggae legend Lucky Dube, and Micheal Jackson on his music. He admitted that he was brought to tears when he heard about Jackson's death.

Mr. Banda is finally gaining a bit of recognition beyond Malawi's borders. In fact he and his band recently returned from their tour of the UK, playing in the Splenda festival, as well as shows in London, Nottingham and Glasgow. He still hasn't made it to America but has had many requests to play in Indiana where there is a large Malawian population.

One of his proudest achievements is the work he has done to help other Malawian musicians get started in Music. As an MP he convinced the director of finance to allow all incoming instruments to enter Malawi Duty-free. He's helped many up and coming Malawian musicians to get established, such as Billy Kaunda, and Luscious Sakalu just to name a few. He thinks he's getting to old now to still expect to hit it big on the international music scene, but he holds out hope for some of the young Malawians he has helped along the way. He still worries that many of Malawi's young talented musicians don't develop because they lack quality instruments.

He became very interested when we told him about fellow volunteer Matt Jones' (env 2008) Malawi Music project that is trying to help introduce young people to music, and get them instruments. He even agreed to come to the upcoming Malawi music project camp if he is available.

Mr. Banda has a soft spot in his heart for Peace Corps volunteers; he had three Peace Corps teachers in secondary school all of which he could remember the full names of. He told us that he even bought his favorite teacher Chuck Thatcher's hiking boots when he went back to America for 200MK. These turned out to be the boots he stomped on his first stages in as a young musician.

After we snapped a picture with him he shook our hands and said "I really appreciate what you Peace Corps volunteers do in my country, I've been to Europe and seen the luxuries you give up to come and live in the bush for two years. It's no joke."

I'm Older Again

Well I've had my third and final birthday in Malawi. I had a great time with Peace Corps friends in Mzuzu. We ate cake, drank beers, saw Lucius Banda, and danced hard. I was happy to have been able to talk to my whole family. But as is more and more the case with every passing birthday (I'm now 28…gettin on now!) I start to think more and more about which direction my life is going. Especially being in my third year as a Peace Corps volunteer, the reality that has been my whole world for the past three years will be ripped away from me, and I'll be dropped back in the alternate universe that is America and have to figure out what the heck to do with myself.

I have decided that a farming apprenticeship would be the best transition from my life in Malawi to the life I want in America. I took advantage of being in town and having computer access to fill in applications for the two apprenticeships I am most interested in one on the Alan Chadwick farm at UC Santa Cruz, and the other at the La Boca Center for sustainability in Durango Colorado. I'm mulling over some other possibilities but these are the most appealing options so far. I actually put a lot of thought into the essays, because they were essentially asking me what I'm going to do with the rest of my life…uh ohh Dan and deep thinking are a bad mix. I want to post some of my essays on my blog because I'd like my friends and family to know that I really do have some direction, I'm just taking the long way around in getting there….It's kind of how I operate.

Explain your interest in an farm apprenticeship and how it applies to your future plans: The practical training I will receive from an apprenticeship is the best way to start down the path of achieving my dream of eventually running an organic farm. I have been an environmentalist and activist all of my life; but, a life of activism and dissent against obscure powers seems futile and meaningless if you remain dependent on the systems those powers put in place. I believe the best way to fight the excesses of greed and exploitation is to build a vital community outside of our current state of total consumerism, while simultaneously interacting with the larger populations that could most use a revival of agrarian values

I have a great deal to learn before I am ready to start the operation that I envision, and I have always learned best by doing. An apprenticeship on a farm that shares my same philosophy is the best way to get started gaining the skills I need to establish a farm in the community in which I eventually settle. Through my apprenticeship I intend to become an expert in organic horticulture, sustainable crop systems and rotations, animal husbandry, running and maintaining all necessary farm equipment, preparing harvested produce, and finally, getting it to market. If possible I would also like to gain more skills in agricultural extension, because I want a farm that is a place interested people can come and learn about sustainable agriculture, as well as how to produce food for themselves and their own community. After my apprenticeship, I would like to spend several years working on other farms that share the same philosophy to learn as much as I can about the logistics of running an organic farm.

I want to settle on one piece of land with people who share the same vision and start a farm that is a positive influence on the greater community. Instead of following the Earl Butz model of overproduction of commodity crops that is destroying our land, water, and farming communities, this farm will produce a variety of crops in a system based on the sun that rotates vegetables with legumes, deep-rooted grasses, then livestock, returning all waste to enrich the soil. This will be an excellent example of how organic farming can revive the degraded land and make a profit by connecting to niche markets to sell at a premium. Since the 1950's farming communities have rapidly failed as corn prices have fallen. We now have more prisoners in America than Farmers, and the dwindling numbers of farmers that remain are married to a horribly misguided system based on monoculture. This reliance on corn and soy farming has based our food system on fossil fuel. As Michael Pollen explains, when you add together the natural gas in the fertilizer to the fossil fuel it takes to make the pesticides, drive the tractors, harvest, and transport the corn, you find that it takes about fifty gallons of oil to grow one acre of corn. Put another way, it takes more than a calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food. There needs to be more examples of how eco-agriculture provides an alternative for farmers.

The farm I visualize will be a Community Supported Agriculture close to a large urban population not only to be near Organic produce markets but also so it will be accessible to the people who have become the most removed from the land from which their food comes. I want any farm I live on to be a place where city school groups and anybody else interested in agriculture can come and learn about organic farming. I want this farm to be a base for sustainable agriculture extension that will reach sections of society that otherwise would never have access to that sort of thing, such as the urban poor and paroled prisoners. These outcast members of our society who have become dependent on our broken food system only have cheap, highly processed, and unhealthy food available to them. They have become progressively more consumptive and degraded because of that system. Organic farming will not only provide these populations with a good source of safe and healthy food, but it will also give them a better understanding of the natural systems on which they depend. It will also pass on a valuable skill to many people that have little access to jobs. It is a disgrace that so many of our citizens living in the cities are unemployed while so many of our farms rely on illegal immigrants to harvest the food we eat.

I believe in Wendall Berry's philosophy of thinking little: focusing on ones own community and understanding the land they live on, what it offers, and what it requires from them. I believe sustainable organic farming is the best way to improve a piece of the world while spreading the joy of growing your own food to the people with whom you live and work. An apprenticeship on an organic farm is the best way to prepare to make that difference.

Describe your recent work experience: The past two and a half years as a Peace Corps volunteer have been the most transformative experience of my life. I am surer now of the direction I desire for my life then I have ever been. The joy of good hard work done with intention and in a community is unmatchable.

My day-to-day work in Malawi varies greatly, but it usually starts around 5:30 with me heading to either my garden or field depending on the season to till, weed, or harvest armed only with a Jembe (a local hoe). I usually head to the borehole around 9 or 10 am to collect water and prepare breakfast. On most Mondays after breakfast I go and work on a tree nursery with a women's group, Wednesday's I meet with the secondary school wildlife club, sometimes I spend my day building bee-hives with a local carpenter, other days I can be found at the fish ponds digging with a club of farmers who want to start as many ponds as they can before I leave. For the last several months I have spent most days mixing cement working with my team of five builders constructing our agriculture office. I usually return to my garden by late afternoon, and get back after sunset to have dinner with my neighbors, who I eat with to save the time and firewood that would be wasted just cooking for 1 person. I read or write by candlelight for maybe an hour before I start dozing, and am usually in bed by 8:00pm. I love my work in Malawi because I take it as it comes working on the task at hand, and it always has a practical use that I can see. I never have a day where I can't tell you what the purpose of my days work. Working outside every day with my hands is what I love, and as Anna Coomaraswamy said "Pleasure perfects work."

Before Peace Corps I worked for Open Space Mountain Parks near my hometown Boulder, Colorado on the Trail maintenance crew. My work included restoring existing trails, surveying and building new trails, construction of water bars, retaining walls, rock steps, fencing, and when the winter started forest thinning and clearing snags with a chainsaw.

Describe any previous farming experience: I have kept backyard gardens all of my life, but it wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I formally worked on a farm. I went to Scotland to play rugby and found work on Torrance farm an organic dairy farm with about 60 Jersey and Holstein cows. I helped with driving the cows, milking, weeding the pasture, mucking out the barns and milking biers, and spreading slurry on the pasture.

Douglas, the farmer I was working for, introduced me to WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and I spent the next 7months moving from farm to farm all around Europe. During that time I did a variety of work, everything from work as an extra hand on a traditional family dairy farm in Parmigano Reggano Italy, to living in a tent and helping a community of squatters establish a newly acquired piece of land into an organic vegetable garden near Barcelona, Spain.

I am currently a Peace Corps volunteer working in the environment sector in Malawi. During my service my projects have focused on agriculture from bee-keeping to tree nurseries that include fruit trees and agro forestry trees like Gliricidia Sepium. My biggest project is an agriculture extension office that we are building out of stabilized soil blocks. The office will be manned by an extension worker appointed by the ministry of agriculture who will advise farmers on how to make the best use of their land, and maintain a variety of agricultural demonstrations around the office. We have already established some of those demonstrations including rainwater collection ponds, a fishpond stocked with tilapia, contour line ridging, intercropping maize with Tephrosia Vogelli (a nitrogen fixing tree that doubles as a natural pesticide against weevils), growing Rizobium inoculated soybeans to rebuild soil fertility, and a demonstration vegetable garden done with the near-by secondary school's wildlife club. I have also been growing most of my own food since coming to Malawi. In the rainy season I mostly grow maize, pole beans, sunflowers, soy, and peanuts. In the dry season I keep a vegetable garden in the river valley where I grow a huge variety of vegetables, melons, and fruits.

Describe your experience with cooperative living and working, and what you consider the advantages and disadvantages of it: My most memorable experience working in a cooperative living and working situation was WWOOFing on a communal farm in a mountain forest of Summerset England called the Tinker's Bubble. There are about 15 permanent adults and their children living and working there, with an assortment of volunteers working from a couple weeks up to a couple years. The community lives in a group of structures that were built on forty acres of woodland, pasture, garden, and apple orchard allowing them to be completely self-sufficient. The community avoids using fossil fuels whenever possible; cooking on a wood stove or open fire, using wind and solar energy for light, and a workhorse named Sam for any heavy moving or framework. The Tinker’s Bubble residents manage the woodlands harvesting trees that are milled with a steam engine and used for building all of their own structures. Almost all of their produce is grown organically in their numerous gardens, two poly-tunnels, and a single greenhouse. The community also has several cows from whose milk they make yogurt and cheese. Each member of the community contributes about 30.00 pounds a week towards living expenses. Most of the residents earn extra money from cider making, working in private gardens, and wood furniture crafting. Every Monday the community has a meeting where they decide what jobs need to be done that week and they divvy up the work.

I really enjoyed working on this farm, and felt like I quickly fit in as a useful part of the community. The primary disadvantages of cooperative living and working are that it can sometimes be difficult to find consensus so planning can become deadlocked, and of course when people are working and living so close together sometimes tensions can get high and personalities inevitably conflict. But I think all of these problems can easily be overcome with a little patience and understanding; as far as I saw they always were at the Tinker's Bubble.

I think the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages for living and working in a Cooperative situation. Living and working in a cooperative is just like being in a community, it is a support network. Work becomes far more efficient when it can be divided out amongst many people. Working cooperatively allows every individual to fill their own niche in the farm, putting their skills towards the progress of the whole. Wendall Berry explained the goodness of good work in a cooperative setting best; "It brings us home from pride and despair, and places us responsibly within the human estate. It defines us as we are: not too good to work without our bodies, but too good to work joylessly, selfishly or alone….Community are the bonds that give our individuality a use and a worth; it is only to the people that know us, love us, and depend upon us that we are indispensable to as the person we uniquely are."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Rambling on Social Change

My good friend Sarah Stance is doing her Master's degree at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, and recently asked me to give her my perspective on Social Change as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi. As it turned out I ended up talking mostly about my friend Benidicto Gondwe who I have pegged as a "posative social deviant". So I thought I'd share what I wrote to her, because it shows the cream of the crop of the people I work with in Mwazisi. People like Benidicto are the ones that make me feel so lucky to be doing what I'm doing.

In my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi social change needs positive social deviants to initiate the shift in thought. Somebody who is willing to break away from the crowd and try something different. I would summarize most change that I have seen as follows: it starts with an original positive social deviant or even a group of social deviants who first question the way everybody around them is doing things or sees the world. After realizing that something needs to change, the social deviant starts putting a better way into practice for themselves. Sometimes doing things different can cause a person to be isolated from their peers, but if they stick to their idea they start setting an example for the people who have ridiculed them. The change really starts to happen when people see the success of the original deviants and start adopting the new idea. The more examples start to crop up the more people see the benefit of the change and adopt it and the idea snowballs from there. Eventually the change becomes the norm and anybody who does things the old way is the social deviant.

As Peace Corps volunteers our job is essentially to become just another member of the community and try to be that positive social deviant. Unfortunately that isn’t as realistic as I hoped because no matter how long I am here, and how hard I try, I will never be just another member of the community in this rural Malawian village. To think that eventually I will blend in and be seen as something different then the Azungu would be just deluding myself. I will always be different and I can deal with that. The problem is that I can’t be a positive social deviant when I am coming in as a very strange outsider. Anything that I do that is out of the ordinary is simply dismissed as the madness of the crazy Azungu by most people.

It takes the communities own innovators who are willing to give new ideas I try to initiate a try to initiate the real change, often times adding their own ingenuity to improve on it. My friend Benidicto Gondwe is a great example of one of those necessary social deviants. With out Benidicto I don’t think I could have been effective in initiating any new ideas here

I can’t say that in my two years I have seen any significant change in the communities behavior or way of thinking towards environmental issues, which is what I am here to work on. But I have seen small shifts in a variety of aspects of life in the village, from the way people garden to where they try to earn their money from. I hope that these small shifts in daily life add up to be an overall change in mentality towards the local environment down the road.

One specific example of a small shift is beekeeping. From the very beginning of my service I have been trying to encourage as many people as possible to take up beekeeping. It’s a very profitable business for the community and it’s a fantastic way to protect the existing trees that the hives are hung from. I encourage Kenyan Top bar hives made from timber planks instead of the local hives which are made from a hollowed out tree trunk. The plank hives are far less destructive to produce, and they are a far more efficient way to manage the bees.

Most people say they would prefer to have the plank hives but they are too expensive. So I tried to present ways to make the same hive less expensive. I used a design from the Nkhata Bay Small Beekeepers Research and Development Association to build a top bar hive that had split bamboo on the sides instead of planks, then I plastered over the spaces with mud. This design used less than a quarter of the amount of planks needed for regular plank hives, but the hive was far too heavy to carry up the mountains to hang. Benidicto still saw the merit in the design of the hive, and used the same design to make a hive that was plastered with paper-mache made from soaked waste papers mixed with cassava flour as a glue. His hive was much lighter, and once dry less susceptible to cracking. The community really took to his design and lots of people helped in constructing many more that have all since been sold or hung. But it first took Benidicto’s openness to try a different idea that everybody was closed to for him to bridge the gap and make my idea useful for a larger group of people.

Another example of gradual changing mentalities is mulching a garden during the dry months in order to hold in the grounds moisture. The year before I started my river valley garden I noticed that absolutely nobody put mulch on their garden. The next year when the farmers in the gardens next to mine saw me mulching my vegetables, they said “you will invite termites and other insects that will attack your vegetables.” Of course the opposite was true, mulching kept the ground around my vegetables constantly moist, and therefore made for strong resistant crops. While the others had problems with pests, because their vegetables quickly dried out and were unhealthy. Again my friend Benidicto was one of the first people to take up the idea. He chopped up Sugar Cane waste grasses and put them all around the base of his tomato plants. He bragged that one heavy watering once a week was enough to keep his tomatoes watered for the whole week.

Benidicto is a great example o a positive social deviant , he is constantly looking for new and better ways of doing things. In addition to the previous examples I can say that he was the first person in Mwazisi to start using a treadle pump, to plant sunflowers in the rainy season, to start growing climbing vines on his house to make it cooler in the hot months, and many other things.

I’ve seen him laughed at and made fun of for being different pleanty of time but he always smiles, shrugs his shoulders and says “We shall see.” Often times people see that he was right, and that’s when they start making changes. It takes somebody like Benidicto to first be willing to be different and try something that might not work to pave the way for change. I may not be the great social innovator that I hoped to be when I first joined Peace Corps, but I am happy to keep feeding ideas to Benidicto and see where he can run with them, without him and people like him I can’t imagine how ideas would evolve in Mwazisi.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Project: Mwazisi Beekeepers Workshop

This past week we held our first serious Mwazisi beekeepers association training. The idea for the training came to me when a friend of mine from USAid gave me a set of instructional beekeeping videos in Chichewa. The videos were produced by an NGO called Compass 2 that were trying to provide Malawian beekeepers with technical training to build the business country wide. It’s over six hours of videos explaining how to build a top bar hive, the equipment needed, transferring from traditional hives, colony management and division, harvesting, processing, and business.
Bwana Mgogoninga left, Nya Soko middle, Bendicto Gondwe right
My dilemma was that my beekeepers come from all over the mwazisi valley an area spanning over 20km. I can barely get people to come together for an association meeting once every few months, so getting everybody together to watch several hours of video would be a challenge. I decided to turn it into an all inclusive three day workshop, where the videos would be mixed with practical sessions where we would go out and do some of the things we were learning in the videos. I also asked Mwazisi's best beekeeper Village Headman Magogoninga to add some theoretical sessions to supplement the videos information.

I had two planning meetings with a handful of association members beforehand to get everything organized. We decided to make it as low budget as possible. All of the participants would carry a plate of maize flower and 150 mk to cover lunch. We figured this would weed out the people who weren't really serious about beekeeping, but were expecting the handouts and allowances that usually come with NGO trainings (a very crippling method of development in my opinion). We set the dates for August the 3rd through the 5th, the week after a major football tournament that has a prize of MK50,0000 for the first place team. This would surely dominate the attention of the entire community, so I didn't want it to conflict with our training.

I hung posters advertising, and over fifty people had registered by the week before the training was supposed to start. Unfortunately that weekend there were two funerals near Mwazisi. A funeral brings everything to a halt. Even if people aren't close to the deceased, and don't go to the funeral they close up their business, or stop any public activities out of respect. This is why the football tournament was stopped in the quarterfinals and postponed to Monday, the first day of my training. At one of the funerals I asked some of the beekeepers if they thought I should postpone the training. They said "No, if people want to watch football, then let them go, people who are serious will come." So we left everything as planned; 8am-4pm Monday through Wensday.

Come 8:00am Monday morning I find myself sitting outside a locked classroom by myself. Fuming mad I head over to the teacher's house who promised to unlock the classroom powered with solar panels before 7am. When I get there he tells me that another teacher brought the TV screen home to watch on his car battery, and he's gone to Rumphi and locked the house so we can't get it. I rush back home to get my laptop. On the road I see one of the members and ask "mulutenge?" (are you going?) He looks at my watch and smiles "8 yakwhana yayi" (8 isn't o.k.). I hang my head and mutter some curse words.
Toking notes on mogogninga's lecture

By the time I get back a few of the participants are waiting with Mgogoninga. I let them in and try to set up the laptop to occupy them with the introduction video while we wait for others to come. I run up to Benidicto's house, who's also supposed to teach a few sessions. By the time I get back I find there are about 15 participants, and Mgogoninga has started teaching. When I ask why they stopped the video, they say there is no power…I'm baffled, I made sure nobody used the battery over the weekend, so that the batteries would have a chance to get a full charge. It takes me about twenty minutes of trying different converters, and fiddling with the invertor before I figure out that students plugging in their cell phone chargers in the next door classroom has shorted out the system. So finally I am able to start the video on hive construction.

Bwana Mzito teaches participants  on how to build a  top bar,
I run over to give the women we hired to cook lunch the pots, and food. I spend the next half hour running errands for them…"get more salt…cooking oil…onions…firewood." When I get back I find the video has finished and Bwana Mizito, the carpenter we assigned the task of teaching how to build the hives practically is taking everybody out to the workbench. He teaches efficiently and effectively, by lunchtime we have a completed hive, and has even let the participants try their hand at making top bars with his plain.
Magogoninga teaches theory most of the afternoon, and is absolutely the star of the show. He's a teacher by profession, and teaches from organized lesson plans. He shares his knowledge on everything from choosing selecting an apiary, to bee behavior. I was amazed, watching the whole class fully engaged, and diligently scribbling notes in their notebooks, and asking questions. I begin to regret my early morning cursing.

Each successive class  goes more smoothly as we fall into a pattern, people show up closer to 8:00am and we follow each video with a practical session to keep it from getting to cumbersome. Mzito finishes the first hive, and teaches everybody how to make top bars from palm fronds to save money on planks. Benidicto also teaches sessions on how to make beekeeping cheaper, by showing the group a beesuit made from maize sacks that my friend Greg Dorr gave him two years ago. He also shows the group a cheep model of a hive made from bamboo and sealed with mud plaster another friend Elihu Isele taught me to make last year. He then has the entire group take part in a session where we build a lighter version of the same design using waste paper and cassava flour paper-mache.

Sadly yet another funeral in Mgogoninga's home area meant he couldn't come to the last day, but we still have a jam packed day anyways. Mrs. Kataya the wildlife extension officer for Vwaza comes with two visitors a Malawian PhD student studying Environmental Studies at the University of Budapest, with his Canadian professor who is conducting surveys with communities living around game reserves about their interaction with the wildlife. They sit in on a session that I teach about business, budgeting and grant writing in Chitumbuka. Afterwards the Proffesor said "that looked mentally exhausting." Hell yeah it was! Most of these concepts are pretty new, and wouldn't have a direct translation, even if I have mastered this language, which I certainly haven't. Mentally exhausting seems like a pretty good description of every day for me.

In the afternoon we baited one of Mzito's hives, and took a little field trip to hang it on a nearby mountain. Our last lesson is a disscussion about the way forward in Mwazisi. We decide that it's best for everybody to remain in their family groups or small local clubs of 10 or so people, and work on getting up to ten occupied hives per person. The Beekeeper's association is more of an informal gathering where we can share information, and bulk all of our honey so that processors can buy it larger quantities. We manage to finish the last video around 5:00pm.

I was walking on air afterwards. It was the most successful gathering I have organized as a Peace Corps volunteer, and it didn't take any outside money. I'm sure I taught less then a quarter of the sessions. Bwana Mgogoninga, Benidicto, and Bwanna Mzito all turned out to be spectacular teachers, and never even thought of asking for anything in return for all of their time and effort. It's people like them that made my decision to extend for a third year an easy one. I think the football tournament was a blessing in disguise. Because it weeded my large pool of participants down to just the most serious and interested individuals. We had 25 to 30 people each day coming from a variety of areas. I know I can work with any of these individuals and expect the same seriousness and genuine effort, and that makes me pretty damn hopeful for my next few months here.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Back in Mwazisi

After being away for close to two months I was actually a bit nervous about going back to Mwazisi. Would people feel like I had abandoned them and left all of our projects hanging in the air while I went to go play on bikes in Mozambique? I felt a streak of my families catholic guilt, for leaving so much of my work unfinished for so long. But actually it was the perfect time to take a break. I wouldn't have gotten anything done while everybody was busy bailing and taking their tobacco to the auction floors. The Agriculture office construction is on hold while we are waiting for money from the department of agriculture so we can install the window frames.

I felt stupid for worrying about coming back because everybody welcomed me back with warm smiles and open arms. It feels a bit like coming home, being surrounded by familiar people and places again. Everything just feels good, the genuine glow in peoples eyes when they say “Machona Danny” (You've been missing). It doesn't feel like a guilt trip, but instead a sincere concern for when I'd be back. There were a lot of rumors that I had decided to leave and go back to America, because I was frustrated with the holdups in all of our projects. But others knew I would be back, and quelled rumors. I am happy to have proved them right, and came back energized and anxious to get back to work.

I was happy to find things pretty much as I left them. The pond is still full, and fish are healthy. The trees we out planted have grown significantly since I left. For the first week it felt like everything was a rediscovery; running up the hills that lead down to Mwazisi at sunrise; the ear to ear smile on the face of Sara (my favorite mandazi lady) as she greets me with her best American impression “HI DAN!”; all of the other women selling tomatoes and dried fish trying to keep up their stony faced aloof persona, but eventually relenting a smile to my broken Timbuka teasing; sitting on my front porch eating peanuts and chatting with my best friends Kavisepo and Benidicto; and the satisfied fatigue as I walk back from a good days work in the garden chewing on sugar cane at sunset. I didn't realize how I missed my daily routines until I rediscovered them.

I've also rediscovered all my old frustrations as well: no show meetings, the trapped aggravation every time a drunk corners me into a conversation on the street, being the only person who shows up to work on a project that is supposed to be a group project, the endless delays and lost paperwork that I deal with every time I go to town to try and work through the bureaucracy, the general disorder that makes getting anything done seem impossible.

Then whenever I get to my wits end with frustration, somebody always seems to go above and beyond to help me or do something nice for me, which makes me feel silly for being so dang pissed off. I guess you need those frustrations and low points to fully appreciate the good things. You need a drunk to call you an azungu and demand your money, in order to be astonished by the hungry kid on the matola who offers to share his greasy bag of chips with you.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Inhambane and Surfing Tofo Beach

From Masinga we rode to Maxixe where we loaded our bikes on a dhow to cross the bay to Inhambane. We had the sun setting behind us and a nearly full moon rising over Inhambane cityin front of us; a beautiful setting for the slow calm boat ride across the bay. We checked into a Pensao after sunset and found a little seafood restaurant where I had a huge Barracuda steak. We took a walk around Inhambane's empty streets afterwards. It's a really nice sleepy waterside city with a mixture of modern garden lined avenues and old colonial style architecture. I was amazed how clean and well kept the city was. It was probably the most well developed and well cared for small city I have seen in the past two years.

It's also a city full of history, as one of of Mozambique's oldest coastal towns. The next morning we checked out a little cultural and city history museum. Apparently Arabic traders started coming to the area as early as the 11th century for the textiles, and by the time the Portuguese arrived in the early 16th century it had a very well established cotton spinning industry. I think this early exposure to outsiders might explain why Southern Mozambique seems so much more developed than the North and other countries more inland. By the mid 1800's Inhambane became a primary port for exporting Ivory and then slaves. Soon 1500 slaves were passing through its ports every year; a really dark chapter in the areas past, but also the time when it was most thriving. The slave trade is what made Inhambane into one of the biggest ports in Mozambique at the time, but with abolition Inhambane began it's gradual decline which increased dramatically when Maputo passed it up as the main trade hub. Now Inhambane has become a really charming quiet little city, but Wiz made the prediction that in a few years it's going to become a huge tourist draw like Zanzibar.

From Inhambane we rode to Tofo beach. We were excited to go there for diving, but I was a little disappointed because it was such a different experience than our nice chill dive with Denis in Vilanculos. Tofo is a big destination for divers to come and see big stuff like whale sharks and Manta Rays. Unfortunately on our dive we didn't see either and I felt like it was a dive factory. They were just getting as many people down to the reef as possible and back up to get their money. Although the dive became worth it for me because of another awesome encounter with a loggerhead turtle. I saw his massive shell coming towards us from about 15 meters away in the dark. Wiz must have been right when he said turtles are attracted to him because the turtle literally swam right through the middle of us. I think it would be more accurate to say the turtle was attracted to me though, because at one point it veered off of it's course and swam up and over my shoulder. I tried to remember to breath as my heart stopped and I stayed perfectly still to try to not scare him away. That was enough to make the dive worth it, but we decided not to take any more. Scuba Diving is an awesome experience, but unfortunately I think its a bit too expensive of a sport for me to do much of.

Surfing on the other hand is much more up my alley and apparently we were in the right place for it. We were camping at turtle cove, which is a big surfer hangout. The characters we met there completely fit the image of surfing that I have in my surfer wannabee head. The most unforgetable character was a man named Bruce Gold; an old time surfer that looks like a cross between Gandolff the Wizard and one of the Beach Boys. He always keeps his long beard tied in a knot under his chin and dawns a tattered straw cowboy hat that makes him look even more gandolffish. He and his friend Shawn were in a big tent across from ours. They had clearly been staked there for an extended period of time. I later found out that Shawn was actually traveling with Bruce to film him for surf movies...apparently Bruce has quite a following of fans who live vicariously through him by watching his surf adventures on a website called "live the life". He was never around during the day obviously because he was chasing swells, but at night he could ussually be found reading by candlelight in his tent or blending bizzare mixtures of food into super meal drinks.

One night I went over to talk with him while he had dinner. He was drinking a solution of ground up legumes mixed with ginger, honey, coconut milk, and some other things that I missed in his South African accent. Wiz and I were preparing to go out to a full moon party on the beach, so I had a bottle of Tipo Tinto (cheap local rum) that he took a cap full of and mixed into his concoction. While he told me some stories about the surfers that had rolled through his hometown of Richards Bay, he sipped on his dinner and chomped on a bread roll that made his beard swing back and forth between sentences. Most of the time though Bruce just wanted to hear about our bike trip, and what I was doing in Malawi. He was really excited to hear that I am beekeeping in Malawi. He wanted to know all about what the different honeys tasted like based on what flowers they were pollinating, and generally about bee behavior. He was an interesting guy to talk to and incredibly modest. When I left I told him that I have only surfed a handful of times a couple years ago but I had a blast once I got up and am really eager to surf some more.

Sure enough the next morning Sean was outside my tent bright eyed and bushy tailed calling me to go surfing. I had a late night at the full moon party, so I was a bit less than enthusiastic, but I didn't want the to miss the opportunity to surf with these guys, so I downed as much water as I could, ate a fried egg and hopped in the back of their truck to go out to Tofino beach. I had only surfed 3 times before and that was three years ago in Ireland, so it took a while to get the hang of it again. Bruce and I stuck together making a circle taking turns paddling out and against the rip tide then paddling into a wave. He watched me and yelled out advice; "get your nose down into the wave," " when the wave grabs you get your weight back and let it pull you." When it was his turn to catch a wave, I watched with amazement how smoothly and easily he paddled into every wave. When I said that to him, he grinned and said "I paddle with intention!"

I took my fair share of complete wash-outs, but after a while I really started to get the feeling. My paddling got more efficient and I could get up and ride the waves all the way back in. The more I got the hang of it, the more addicted I was and the more stoked I was to paddle back out and catch another. The feeling of the wave grabbing you, and pulling your board is an unmatchable sensation. I can see why it's so addicting. I can also see why so many people idolize Bruce. He's found his passion, and he lives it every day. I would definitely say that he is "living the life."