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.