Thursday, October 1, 2009
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.
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.