Sunday, October 27, 2013

A selection of newspaper headlines and stories

We buy a newspaper occasionally to see what's happening (despite my twinges of guilt over the growing pile of newsprint we can't recycle).  Here are some of the headlines we've read in the last couple of months.  I realize it gives a very gloomy, negative view of things here...but US newspapers mostly focus on the negative too, don't they?

Looting at Capital Hill.  "Principal Accountant to Government caught with K3 million cash at the Capital Hill gate, US$25,400 cash found in his house."  Photo caption: "Capital Hill - the seat of government which has reportedly evolved into a free-for-all plunder centre."

Judiciary to computerise case management system.  They are still using a system of paper files; apparently some people's cases "fall by the wayside" because their files can't be found.

Farm Input Subsidy Program abuses.  FISP is a Malawi government program to get things like fertilizer to poverty-stricken subsistence farmers at heavily subsidized rates, but apparently rampant corruption means that beneficiaries pay too much to receive the inputs, receive underweight bags of inputs, or receive nothing at all.

Liberia students all fail varsity admission exam.  "Liberia's education minister says she finds it hard to believe that not a single candidate passed this year's university admission exam...'It's like mass murder.'"

A critical look at EU's proposed tobacco laws.  "The European Union Parliament plans to vote on regulations governing tobacco and cigarette ingredients...The directive will harm the farmer, without delivering any health benefits...Those most affected in Africa are Malawi and Mozambique...Tobacco makes up 53 percent of Malawi's exports..."  Alarming, unless you notice the byline of this feature article.  It was provided by the International Tobacco Growers Association.

Residents attack Malomo Police Unit.  "There was commotion at Malomo Trading Centre in Ntchisi on Friday after police arrested two suspects on allegation that they were involved in various cases of murder at the trading centre...The angry residents attacked the police unit to force police to release the suspects so that they could exact mob justice on the two."  When the police wouldn't hand the two over, the mob burned the suspects' house and vehicle.  It's not uncommon to read about "mob justice" scenes like this.

Water crisis hits Ntchisi hospital.  "Water shortage at Ntchisi District Hospital has reached crisis levels with the hospital not being mopped for some days and utensils being taken to Kasungu (over 100 km away) for sterilisation...Hospital spokesperson Bwanaloli Mwamulima has said the problem has been hitting the hospital over the past five years but reached critical levels in the past three years...With the situation, the hospital has not been doing well in the area infection prevention."  (The area has been experiencing water shortage with the Kaombe River flow smaller than normal, and then the hospital's well stopped working.  I guess it's a good thing that Eric didn't actually step on that python at Ntchisi Forest Reserve, because the hospital might not have been able to fix him up very well!)

The real cost of Cash-Gate: What 20 billion kwacha could fund  "The plundering of the staggering K20 billion from the public coffers has deprived the nation of a string of essential services which in some cases could last for decades..."  This is the best estimate of how much has been filched by government employees and politicians recently.  It's been front page news for several weeks.

And don't forget the classified ads.  My favorites here fall under the "Medicine" section, where the herbalists or "traditional doctors" advertise.  In addition to the category of things Viagra et al. is intended for, these also promise things like "Get back lost love (2 hours) pompo pompo" -- "Remove bad luck and bring good luck" -- "To attract any lover of your choice" -- "Same day quick job promotion" -- about this last one, Eric wonders who has to take the herbs for this to work, you or your boss?  They must work, because the ads say "Pay after the job is done!" 
On a sadder note, "Chinese herbal medicine - treats and cures HIV/AIDS 100% effective."

And in the category of inexplicable but kind of cool: One of the papers has a column called "Career of the Week" in which Eric's collaborator Dr. Patson Nalivata was interviewed.  (Patson is one of the people who sponsored Eric's Fulbright application, and he's the one who took us around Lilongwe on the giant shopping spree to get our house set up.)  For some reason they accompanied the article about what a soil scientist does with photos taken during Eric's 2010 visit to Malawi to see some maize field experiments.  This paper was sitting in the Maliro's house waiting to be shown to Eric, but Chrissy Andrea got to it first...she dearly loves shredding newspapers.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Miscellaneous News from Bunda

A partial list of Things the Ants Have Gotten Into Lately: the peanut butter, the water filter, an unopened bag of sugar, the water filter, a pot of leftover rice stored inside the stove for safekeeping, the water filter, the trash, the water filter, the dishes in the drain rack (which resulted in a bleary-eyed Joel getting a bowlful of anty oatmeal this morning), the laundry on the line, our bed (when I rashly brought in the aforementioned laundry without shaking it off first, and dropped it on the bed)...and, last but not least...the water filter, again.

Eric got up in the night to use the toilet and couldn't find his crocs to slip on, so he went barefoot...and stepped on a cockroach.

The college carpenters have now installed screens on almost all the windows.  They're still missing the east one in the living room (which would catch a great breeze if we could open it in the evening), the kitchen one, and the toilet and shower rooms.  The screens they have installed are very crudely constructed, and Eric spent an hour today stop up gaps with crumpled plastic bags and duct tape.  He is NOT a happy camper when this topic comes up in conversation.  He strongly suspects the carpenters are actually leaving their workshop to avoid him when they see him coming.  So today he went in to Lilongwe to get supplies to build them himself, using tools Moses will lend him.

Eric was on the way to town to pick up the kids from school.   As he was driving through campus a couple people flagged him down to hitch a ride, so he stopped.  Then more people dashed over and hopped in, so he had five passengers in our four-passenger Polo when he arrived at the first police road block.  This is where he discovered that having five passengers in a four-passenger car is illegal.  He somehow talked his way out of trouble and narrowly escaped a 10,000 kwacha fine.  Then he told the passengers someone would have to get out, because he wasn't going to keep on that way and get stopped at the next road block too.  He said he had to wait for some long moments until the last two girls who'd gotten in reluctantly got out and went to wait for a minibus.

No water since early this morning.  We think they're cleaning the tank in preparation for the students' return Nov 4.  Last time the water was off, this is what it looked like when it came back on:


We ate lunch with Maliros this past Sunday, and got Moses talking about his barefoot boyhood in a small village.  He decided early on to go as far in his education as he could.  He is the last of six siblings, and only one other brother even finished secondary.  School fees were a problem for his family; they sold what they could, including a bicycle, and were helped by an uncle who had some income from being a carpenter.   In return, his uncle asked Moses to give his treasure, his beloved Viewmaster toy, to his own children.  He still recalls what a wrench it was to give up that wonderful toy, even for an education, and joked that maybe he should see if they still sell them.  Moses commented that he thinks growing up in a village engenders a certain fortitude or endurance - or does sometimes anyway, as he doesn't see that in everyone.  I asked him what part of a village childhood he most regrets that his children don't have, and he mentioned things like spending time in the bush, going hunting...time in nature, is how I might summarize it.   

The Maliros' baby Chrissy Andrea is often a pretty serious little girl with a thoughtful expression - but she always has a big smile for Emma.  She's named Andrea for one of their Australian friends, and Chrissy because she was born close to Christmastime.  She's 10 months old now - it's fun to have her recognize us and be happy to see us.

October 15 was Mother's Day here.  Eric and Moses Maliro conspired to have our families and Julie together for dinner, and told us women not to cook anything because the men would do it in honor of Mother's Day.  This actually meant that Moses picked up pizza in Lilongwe on his way back from an errand.  It was a fun evening.  We usually eat with the Maliros at least once each weekend; we really enjoy each other's company and always end up laughing a lot.  (Julie, who is living in a room at the college guest house, eats there most nights.  Did we ever introduce Julie Lourenz?  She and her husband Clyde became friends with the Maliros while Moses was getting his doctorate in Australia.  Clyde was here for a month and had to go back to work, but Julie is staying on for a while longer.  We have really enjoyed getting to know them too.)


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

To Market

Emma and I went to the Saturday market at Mitundu, the nearest trading center, with Julie and Chimwemwe the weekend before last.  I wanted to take a hundred pictures...but I'd probably think it was weird if stranger charged into my place of work and started snapping pictures, so I figured that's likely what the vendors would think as well.  And I didn't want to embarrass Chimwemwe.  So I will content myself with copying some pictures from the internet to re-post here, choosing those that look most like what we saw.

This market had both a large open area packed with vendors, and a maze of tiny stalls on a couple of sides.  Emma and I loved the chitenje sellers, with their eye-catching displays of fabrics in orange, yellow, green, red, and blue patterns.  (A chitenje is the piece of fabric about 2 yards long that every Malawian woman has many uses for: wraparound skirt, apron, baby carrier, bundle wrapper, head wrap, drape over the head to keep off the sun...)  Emma fell in love with one that we ended up buying.  I plan to buy a couple more but have no idea how to choose among so many beautiful fabrics!  We also saw mounds of sprouted maize for making the drink thobwe; lots and lots and LOTS of tomatoes, red onions, and greens; piles of tiny silvery dried fish; traditional medicine stands with all kinds of strange roots, dried bark, things I couldn't identify, and a very creepy-looking doll; a bag of something Chimwemwe smilingly pointed out, which I first thought was some kind of unusual green-speckled small dry bean, but which turned out to be green and white bugs; maize and beans, which are sold by the scoop, amid much haggling about how full the scoop is piled; white-fleshed sweet potatoes; the early mangoes; and anything else you might need: soap, pots, plastic bags for your purchases, clothes, brooms, bike parts...  It reminded me of Central American markets in many ways, with the big difference that there I could understand the language and here I couldn't!   

Chimwemwe kept a sharp eye out as Julie and I bought vegetables to make sure we didn't get ripped off.  We could at least understand prices; counting in Chichewa is so convoluted that everyone just uses English numbers, although with a Chichewa flair.  (1=wani; 5=faifi; 7=seveni; 8 = eyiti; 9=naini; 12=twelofu; 100=wani handedi) I laughed that Chimwemwe must feel like a mother hen, working her way through the market with her line of azungu (white people) chicks in tow. 
I'm hoping to get back to the market this week.  While tomatoes are abundant now, we've been warned that once the rainy season starts they will become more scarce and expensive, because the rain makes the plants more susceptible to fungal diseases.  So I'd like to buy a lot now, to have some cooked tomatoes in the freezer for cooking later on. 

The careful little piles of tomatoes in the upper right corner here are how we always see them sold.  Often there is be another tomato balanced on top of what you see here, to make a total of 5.  You can buy white onions in some supermarkets in Lilongwe, but all the small vendors sell the purple ones.!/items/a7m30m9lvvb9r-w9jYoZhdEyo

Monday, October 21, 2013

Oct. 17-19: Ntchisi Forest Reserve

The kids had a week off school for mid-term break so we decided to see another part of Malawi.  We booked a two-night stay at the lodge in Ntchisi Forest Reserve, which contains one of the last two remaining patches of evergreen montane forest in Malawi.  It's a three-hour drive from Bunda, and we left Thursday morning.  We'd been warned that the roads were even worse than those to Dzalanyama, so we stopped in Lilongwe to pick up a rented a 4x4 double-cab Toyota Hi-lux to save our Polo a beating.  We were glad of it by the time we got there!  After we left the pavement, the road wound through rolling hills stripped of forest and covered with a patchwork of little cornfields...reminded us of parts of Honduras, except for the thatched roofs of the little houses in the villages. 
 All these cornfields are ridged by hand.  People are working on that now to be ready to plant when the rainy season starts.  In this picture you see mango trees scattered among the fields, and a stand of Australian eucalyptus trees planted on the ridge.  (Professorial aside:  Eucalyptus is tough, grows quickly and straighter than many of the native tree species, and resprouts from the stump when you cut it down.  These traits have made it attractive as a plantation tree for firewood and timber, and it has been widely planted in many parts of Africa.  However, there is now some backlash with the recent awareness of invasive species, and worse it is now believed to suck up a disproportionate amount of water.  It's hard to get rid of once established, though, because of that habit of resprouting.)

 It was easy to tell where the reserve was as we approached: it was the only hill in sight that wasn't completely deforested for agriculture.

The lodge is one of the oldest buildings in Malawi; it was built in 1914 as a summer residence for the British district governor.  It's now under private management (by concession leased from the government) and has been refinished very nicely, and is set in beautiful grounds with watered green grass and all kinds of flowers.  There are gardens too, where they raise food for the lodge kitchen.  It's a step or two up from the Dzlanyama lodge, where you bring your own groceries; at Ntchisi they serve a three-course meal every evening!  (By candlelight, of course; there is no electricity, and their solar generating system isn't working at present.)

Another difference from Dzalanyama: we had no entourage of curious village children on the lodge grounds here.  It was refreshing to spend a couple of days not feeling conspicuous!

We set off for a hike the first afternoon, first driving up the road to a parking spot near the jungle so we'd be back by dark (6 p.m.).  The kids seized the opportunity to ride in the back of the truck - Joel had a big grin on his face the whole time!  He said, "You can see so much more back here!"  Emma liked it as well but decided it was too bumpy, so she dived back into the cab through the back window.  (Eric said to reassure the grandmothers that he drove extra-carefully and didn't even go out of first gear with them back there!)

 The climate is seasonally dry here so I think the evergreen montane forest can't technically be called a rainforest, but it is certainly verdant.   Massive trees with big buttress roots, strangler figs, vines, huge ferns in the undergrowth, baboons and samango monkeys, bird calls, huge butterflies... We were in awe.  Ntchisi is famous for its orchids as well but they won't bloom until after the rains start.  My little camera didn't capture the colors and shadiness very well, so hopefully Eric will put up some of his pictures soon in another post.

The birding was a little more difficult than at Dzalanyama because of the denseness of the forest, but we still managed to see some interesting birds on our walks and around the lodge, including European Bee-eaters, Crowned Hornbills, White-Starred Robin, and Schalow's Lourie.  The Red Twinspot sn't new to us but it's one of my favorites.

Friday we hiked up along a ridge through what is called miombo woodland.  This is similar to what we saw at Dzalanyama:  shortish, widely spaced trees with flat tops and fantastically twisting branches.  Emma and Joel couldn't resist the twistiest climbing tree they've ever seen.  

Crossing over a ridge sent us back into the jungley montane evergreen forest, and right before we came back down to the road we walked through pine plantation.  A highlight of this walk:  Eric had just led the way from the miombo into the montane forest.  Emma, who was just behind him, yelled "SNAKE!"  There was a 6-foot python moving slowly across the path, completely ignoring us.  Eric must have stepped over it without even noticing!  Its coloration blends perfectly into the dead leaf litter on the forest floor.  We were enormously excited and circled cautiously around trying to get a good picture, but the snake was not interested in stopping to pose... and we weren't really interested in trying to persuade it!  We didn't realize how fortunate we'd been to see it until we were back at the lodge, talking with the Malawian guide who'd been taking a German couple on a hike that morning.  He told us that he's been going up and down that mountain for years, and has never seen a python.  The lodge manager, Innocent, showed us the skin of a 9-foot python which has been killed in the area a few years before.

That was definitely the wildlife-spotting highlight of our stay, but we also enjoyed baboons, samango monkeys, and the range of unusual insect life.  Joel, of course, kept a keen eye out for lizards and geckos.


More than once during our stay we heard the sound of axes.  Innocent said most of that is illegal cutting (you can get permits to cut in the eucalyptus and pine plantations), but the forestry officials in charge of patrolling this national forest preserve don't do much to stop it.  The people who have the lease to run the lodge have been trying to encourage them with things like providing warm jackets so they can do random night patrols.  The lodge managers are also trying to enlist community support.  Innocent told us about a soccer league they've organized.  Each of the surrounding six villages has a team, and the lodge provides uniforms and organizes tournaments.  In return each team member is required to make a promise to not engage in illegal cutting, to help with tree planting projects in the village to give people a source of firewood other than the forest, and help fight forest fires.  The lodge is also trying to get some money from the government to take out the eucalyptus within the reserve.  Innocent thinks that will be a huge project and will create a lot of local employment, if they can only get the money.

Both evenings we walked to some big rocks not far from the lodge to watch the sunset.  The first time we were left alone, but the second evening we were followed by a giggling group of village children who found watching us far more interesting than the sunset.  The oldest girl had a little bit of English and introduced herself as Sofili.  I asked if I could take a picture and she said "Yes", so I did...and then they all crowded around to see the picture on the back of the camera.

After a leisurely Saturday morning and a bit more hiking around we loaded up and headed back to Lilongwe.  I snapped a few pictures on the way back.  We were traveling on the main highway that goes north of Lilongwe - it was busy, but not the way you'd expect!  (The highway that goes from Lilongwe south to the other major city of Blantyre carries a lot more vehicle traffic.)

I was struck by the beauty of this roadside tree, the tallest for miles around.  I don't know why it was spared the fate of so many other trees here destined for firewood or timber, but I'm glad it was.