Sunday, February 7, 2010

Back to Work in Mwazisi

I got back from home leave a little less than a month ago. It was great being home! I saw lots of people I love, played in the snow, and fully enjoyed the variety of creature comforts, food, and beer that America has to offer. But a month of leisure in the USA left my hands soft, my skin pale, and my heart a bit restless. I was happy to come back to Malawi in the midst of the chaos of the rainy season, and jump back into a full routine here.

I’ve said it before; I love the rainy season here! Life seems to spring from every hole, the landscape changes from brown and dusty to green and lush. Everybody is busy working away in their fields. Before sunrise I find my neighbours in the moonlight sleepwalking to their fields, jembe in hand, and sleeping baby strapped across their back. They’ll stay out their building ridges, planting, and weeding until a heavy rain falls, or the sun starts glaring down on the wet soil in all its steaming humid fury. Then most people will head back out to continue their work just as soon as the rain clears, or the afternoon sun cools enough to bear. Nobody seems stressed or rushing to get everything done but as their grain storages start to empty and Nyengo ya ngana ( time of hunger) sets in you can see a new determination and sense of urgency to produce food. This is when I most realize the difference between me and everybody else. For me farming is more of a pleasure and an ongoing experiment, but if my fields fail I’ll still be okay, but for everybody else it literally is their very livelihood.

I spent my first week back catching up on the rainy season work with my trusty helper Sam (my former secondary student, who started living with me while he finished up his last year of secondary school). We cleared the grass around my house that had grown up to my chest level and tilled new garden beds that we sowed vegetable seeds in. In the field we weeded all the maize and beans that we sowed before I left, and applied a chicken manure tea that has been curing for several months as a top dressing fertilizer for them. We finished ridging the other half of my field that I hadn’t gotten to yet. I inoculated about 5 KGs of cowpea seed with rizobium bacteria, which helps legumes to fix nitrogen into the soil. It occurs naturally in the soil, but there’s very little of the right bacteria for cow peas here because so few people plant them here anymore, despite the fact that it’s a very useful native crop. I planted cow peas in the rest of my ridges because hopefully it will make a great green cover crop that will continue growing and bearing fruit late into the dry season. I’m also going to try planting inoculated Pigeon Peas, though it’s a bit late for them. I think Pigeon Peas would be a great legacy to leave in my field; they grow as a tree that will live for 3-7 years, so if my replacement chooses not to farm, at least the land will still be productive, and the soil anchored.

Once I felt a bit caught up at home, I rounded up the guys and got back to construction of the office. We have worked hard for the past week and a half, 7:00am until sunset everyday, with just a short break for lunch. The long days have paid off though because we have made great progress. We have managed to finish the roof and all of the brick laying for beam filling minus about 39 iron sheets and about 100 bricks (I’m actually on my way to Mzuzu tomorrow to try to organize the last of the materials needed with the department of agriculture). We literally used every single last one of the 8,000 stabilized soil blocks that we moulded last year, so we will have to mould another hundred on Tuesday. I’m pretty impressed with how close our original estimation of the number of bricks was...we sure aren’t wasting materials here.

These past several weeks of work have really felt good. My old calluses are back, after a few red necked sunburns my old bronze has returned, and at the end of every day I turn on The Voice of America, to listen to my favourite music show “Border Crossings” while I scrub clean with a hot bucket bath, I don’t think there’s any better sensation in the world! Sam and I are both usually too tired to talk much while we wolf down soy pieces and nsima, or rice and greens.

I usually sit out behind my house while I brush my teeth before bed. I sit and scratch my dog Lucy’s belly while I look up at the stars, or watch the distant flashes of an oncoming thunderstorm. That’s one of my favourite rituals here, and it’s usually a time when I feel most appreciative for my life here. Before I left a returned Peace Corps volunteer told me to always remember the phrase “this too shall pass.” It works for all occasions; during the bad times you realize that they are going to pass soon so no need to worry, during the good times you know they are temporary, so really try to get the most out of them. Well now I’m realizing that my whole life here is going to pass. In three months I will no longer be a Peace Corps volunteer, and who knows if I’ll ever get back to Malawi again. This place that has been my home through good times and bad for the past three years will soon just be a memory to me. I feel like that realization has elated my senses. I try to memorize the sweet taste of every mango I eat from the tree in my field. I listen closely as the rain starts tapping on my tin roof at night anticipating the build up that will turn into the roar of a temporary downpour, and will just as quickly squeeze off its final trickle, leaving only the peaceful din of the crickets. I try to make the most of the warmth of every smile from my closest friends here, because I realize that the number of times I will feel that warmth from these individuals is now limited, and every night I spend a few extra minutes outside trying to imprint the glow of a perfect Mwazisi starry night in my mind.