Friday, November 29, 2013

Never Ending Food tour

Monday, Nov 23 we toured a permaculture farm run by Kristof and Stacia Nordin near Lilongwe.  They're Americans who have lived in Malawi for 17 years.  She is a nutritionist for an international organization; he oversees their three acres of very diverse food plantings, and does tours and trainings.  (Their website: )
Kristof started out tour by talking about the history of Malawian food.  Maize is so deeply ingrained in the culture that most Malawians won't feel they've really eaten unless they've had nsima, but it's only since the 1950s and 1960s that it has been this way.  Maize was introduced to Africa from the New World in the 1600s. However, it wasn't until the Green Revolution, the end of colonialism, and the adoption of Westernized ideas of progress by the newly independent African nations, that maize production and consumption became so widespread.  The importation of Western-style maize cultivation has led to almost complete dependence on a single crop, which here is harvested only in April.  Most of the land is empty most of the year; and the rainy season, while maize is developing, is the hungriest time despite the lushness of the landscape.  

Nsima was formerly made of many different types of millet and sorghum, which matured at different times, but now there is a strong stigma that millet is "poverty food"  so it's hardly cultivated any more.  It's used occasionally in some traditional drinks, but presumably a lot of genetic diversity has been lost.  (Historical records show about 600 kinds of plants once eaten in Malawi; after searching for years, they have managed to collect seeds of about 200).  Now only maize will do - and not just any maize, but maize from commercial hybrid seeds.   Unfortunately, hybrid maize has higher moisture content and thus more trouble with weevils and spoilage losses in storage than do more traditional varieties.  30% of Malawian maize is lost in storage, Kristof said, but using hybrid seeds is a status thing, "progress."

We knew that maize is important to Malawians but hadn't realized just how important.  Kristof went so far as using the term "cultural addiction."  He told us about the terrible famine of 2002, when people were literally dropping dead beside the road.  He said he took a group of Peace Corp volunteers to the market as part of their orientation.  He told them, "I've never seen things this bad.  I don't know what, if anything, we'll find in the market."  He was shocked to see people selling vegetables of every description - all begging him "Buy from me, so I will have money to buy food."  He saw people selling goats to afford a few plates of nsima.  A terribly emaciated woman came to his door one day pleading for food.  His passionfruit vines were producing at the time so that's what he had.  He tried to give this starving woman a bag of passionfruits...and she refused them.  She only wanted maize flour.  He saw the body of a woman who had fallen dead beside the road; everyone said it was starvation - but she had died in a patch of edible plants.   

This total dependence on maize has nutritional consequences even in the best of times, as by itself it does not make for a balanced diet and can result in protein and nutrient deficiencies.  (They mill off the bran, so what's left makes a pure white porridge.)  Even in a good year, the land sits bare for eight months despite adequate temperatures for plant growth, and food is plentiful only once a year at harvest.  And the way maize is traditionally raised here degrades the soil:  there are hand-hoed ridges with paths between each ridge, and every year the ridges are turned over onto last year's paths.  So eventually, everything takes its turn being a path, and eventually everything gets compacted.  Some soils have been so compacted in this way that water cannot penetrate any deeper than about a meter, so there is ponding and flooding on the surface while wells dry up as the water table isn't being replenished.  And the fields are burned every year, so very little organic matter returns to the soil. 

In the worst of times, of course, this complete dependence on maize is a disaster.  Kristof said the 2002 famine was caused not by complete failure of the rains, but only a 2-week dry spell.  Just two weeks, but maize is very sensitive to drought during the pollination process, so a very small dry spell  just at the wrong time doomed the harvest.  And since maize is the one thing that everyone relies on, if there is no maize harvest people starve.

Then he showed us around their 3 acres.  I'm not going to go into all the details of permaculture here; suffice it to say that it all seemed to make very good sense.  (Being unfamiliar with permaculture, I hadn't been sure what we were in for and had been bracing myself for possible fruitloopery.  None of that here.)  They are trying to consider the function of every plant (Nitrogen fixer? Climber? Soil loosener? Provider of good mulch? Insect repelling?) and put them together in ways that make sense: "building agroecosystems."  That lets one piece of land be much more productive that it would be in a monoculture.  Instead of just planting gardens, they are trying design a system to ensure that there aren't any gaps - either underutilized space, or temporal gaps where there's nothing to harvest.  So their planting beds have several layers: root crops, ground crops, small trees, taller trees, climbing vines - they prune as needed to let light through and get firewood into the bargain.  Nothing is wasted - even the hand-washing station by the outhouse door has plants below to use the water.  Washing water is used for irrigation (the plants seem to like the phosphates in the detergent!)  Things that need watering are placed near the well, other things like their fruit trees and other perennials are farther out.   There is a pen for chickens and ducks.  Water features are beautiful but also provide fish for the table.  The fish and other critters keep mosquitoes down.  (They use chemical treatments in their water storage tanks that collect rainwater, to kill mosquitoes in there.)  They do raise some maize, but in permanent beds interplanted with other crops like legumes or squash, to increase production and reduce compaction.

He said the first few years they had some problems with pests like aphids, but as their system has matured the populations of natural predators have grown and they don't have many pest problems any more.  Their soil is healthy enough, and their plantings diverse enough, that they don't have a lot of disease problems either.  And all the diversity means that even if one crop has a bad year, there is always something else to harvest.

Kristoff contrasts a photo of the land in 2003 when they purchased the property, and now.

The results of all this?  They could be totally self-sufficient in food if they wanted (he said they enjoy pasta and pizza too much to stop buying groceries entirely!).  They have food not only for themselves but for their interns as well, and enough firewood for several families.  Their neighbor's well has stopped drying up since their perennial plantings have matured.  They rarely get malaria, since their soil is healthy enough to quickly absorb even a drenching rain leaving no puddles to breed mosquitoes.

Neighbor's house with compacted yard and puddle of water.  
The contrast between the Nordins' land and that of some of their neighbors is stark.  (Some of their neighbors have started adopting some of these ideas, but some haven't.)  The neighbors across the lane sweep every living thing off their lot except in the maize field, leaving the bare soil of their yard to compact and bake as hard as concrete.  When it rains water has nowhere to go, and forms puddles that breed mosquitoes.  Their completely empty fields, whose harvest is months away, are bordered by the Nordin's lush green plantings which yield something every day. 
Contrast between Nordins' land and neighbors.  Field is empty except for a few weeds.

 So why doesn't everyone here farm like this?  Kristof discussed a few reasons with us.  First, of course, is the "maize is the only real food" mentality.  This seems closely tied to ideas of what is "progress" and what is "poverty food."  He says in his quest to gather seeds of more food plants, he quickly learned not to ask people "Do you eat this?"  If they said yes they would be admitting they ate "bush food," which nobody wants to do.  (He says he now asks, "If I eat this will I die?")
Another reason, he says, involves ideas about witchcraft.  He says you find beliefs about witchcraft at all levels of Malawian society, from the villages to the presidential palace.  If you have too many different kinds of plants around your house, you will likely be accused of practicing witchcraft.  Apparently the use of medicinal plants has been closely associated with practitioners of witchcraft.  Many medicinal plants can be harmful used in the wrong way, so that can make things look even worse.   Many visitors to his farm (including government ministers!) are very interested in what he can tell them about healing various ailments with plants, but would not grow those plants themselves for fear of what people would say.  And what people would say can be serious here; if you're accused of witchcraft, all your neighbors are likely to gang up and burn your house down, or even kill you.  (In the villages at least.  I don't know if a government minister would be attacked, but I imagine it could damage a career.)

This is related to the fact that while you have a clear line of sight across a dormant cornfield and a barren yard, there are no clear lines of sight at the Nordin place.  Too many plants and trees, for one thing; for another, in their design they deliberately avoid straight paths and anything else that might encourage water to scour quickly through an area rather than slow and sink into the ground.  But if people can't see what you're up to in your house, they might assume the worst.  (Especially if you've got medicinal plants in your yard!)  Malawians also tend to worry that the lack of visibility would encourage burglars.  (This is a real threat in a country where if you're going to put a sign by the road, you'd better punch it full of holes first so nobody steals it to use the metal for something else!)  Kristof says they've found it's just the opposite: all their neighbors get broken into sooner or later, but burglars avoid their house.  Too hard to know if someone's home, if there's a dog, whatever; a burglar isn't likely to head into a situation he can't assess first.

Ideas about tidiness, cleanliness, and "hygiene" also play into the reluctance to fill your yard with plants even if they are food plants.  We saw this in Honduras, where a "clean" yard was one with nothing green in it.  Here it seems an absolute mania; people sweep every sweepable inch of their property, pretty much every day it seems.  If you ask them why they answer "Hygiene!" - although they can't really explain how it's hygienic.  Some of it just seems to be cultural values.  Some of it too, Kristof says, comes from fear of snakes.  People believe that keeping your yard swept bare discourages snakes.  He thinks it is just the opposite: in such a barren landscape, the only place the snakes can hide out when the rains start is in your house.  He says last year in two weeks of heavy rains his neighbors had 23 snakes in their house!  They, of course, didn't have any.  He doesn't worry about snakes; he says all their trees have attracted quite a lot of birds to live on the property.  The birds act as a snake alarm system, because they always set up a big fuss whenever they see one, so the people are alerted and can check it out.

There are other forces as well that discourage people from doing this kind of thing.  A man who was their intern and then farm manager went back to his village and tried to start doing permaculture.  His neighbors said he was getting uppity, he was full of "white people" ideas, he was trying to show off and be above everyone else.  Every time he left home they'd chop his trees down and vandalize his work.  They tried really hard to break him, Kristof says, but he didn't break - and in the end they began to realize the value of what he was doing, and some of them started to try some of the ideas themselves.  This kind of mentality is hard for me to understand but it seems to be pervasive.  Our friend Moses invested some money in a nephew's attempt to start a bee-keeping business - and someone destroyed all the beehives.  Another friend, Emily, planted a big vegetable garden a year or two ago that was growing beautifully - and someone turned their livestock loose in it to destroy it.  She just shrugs and says, "What can I do? God will punish them."  I would find it hard to be that fatalistic about it I think.  These outbreaks of - of what? Vindictiveness?  Jealousy?  are a part of Malawian culture that we've not experienced first-hand, only heard about, but find very hard to understand.

So we came away from our tour with plenty of food for thought.  We are inspired to see what we can do with our newly-purchased piece of land in Greenville.  Obviously it won't turn into a tropical paradise like the Nordins', because it's not in the tropics, but what might be possible there?
We have also been thinking about this idea of "cultural addictions".   The Nordins have lived in Malawi long enough to understand the culture pretty well.  Still, being outsiders gives them a different perspective which allows them to step back and think critically about things which their neighbors take as given.  This makes us wonder:  What "addictions" does our culture have?  One of the benefits of living outside your country for a while is that it can give you a bit of an outsider's critical perspective on things.  

Things like our culture's "addiction" to monoculture chemically-dependent lawns, maybe, or cars.  We've seen that people here generally walk where they need to go, maybe ride a bicycle if they have one.  (Except for more well-to-do people in the city who have cars.)  So what if you've got a big load to take with you?  Carry it.  As a result of that (and probably diet as well) you almost never see obese people here.  It shocks us to hear about people dying of starvation, refusing fruit because it's not maize - but maybe we should be just as shocked to hear of people dying of diseases caused by lack of exercise, car keys clutched in their cold dead hands!   (And don't even get me started on the environmental consequences of fossil fuel addiction...)

Except that it's not that simple, of course.  I have personally owned lawns myself, and dug edible dandelions out of them too.  If I want to buy a curtain rod or a pair of socks in Greenville I can't just bike or walk to the store.  I'm going to have to get into my car and drive twenty miles on the interstate.  What do I do with that?  Will it make me decide to just tack a curtain over the window instead?  Probably not.  We ourselves own a car, after all.  Two, in fact, if you count one in each country!  (And in the spirit of full confessions, my first shopping trip back in the US is going to involve tortilla chips and chocolate.)

So I guess we people are a pretty strange bunch, not very rational most of the time it would seem.  But Kristof says, "I wouldn't still be doing this after 17 years if I thought there wasn't any hope."   So maybe I can eat a few of those dandelions next time, if I still feel compelled to eliminate them from my grassy monoculture.  And maybe loosen my clutch on the car long as there is some chocolate within walking distance...

Sunday, November 24, 2013

How to Repair a VW Polo with a Swiss Army Knife, a Cell Phone, a Coke Bottle, and a Citroen

(by Eric)

Joe, one of the Annie's Lodge office staff, told me he would call a mechanic.  First they said the guy was on his way.  Then Joe found me and said the mechanic doesn't have a car, we have to go to him.  So we got in the car and drove south from Zomba about three miles to the next little trading center where Joe said to pull off because the mechanic would meet us there.  Sure enough, after about 15 minutes Lester the mechanic and two of his "boys" (a general term for assistants of all ages here) came walking down the road.  They poked around under the hood for a little bit while I turned the car on and off, and then Lester said he thought the problem was the transmission fluid. But we would need to go back into town to find transmission fluid.  So they took off their shirts, which were dirty from having worked on another car, and turned them inside out to sit up so they wouldn't make the upholstery dirty when they piled into the car with us.  

So then we headed back to Zomba and made a tour of at least three gas stations before we found one that had automatic transmission fluid.  We finally found one that sold us a gallon of fluid for 18,000 MK - around $50.  So then we went to the mechanic's shop, which was 3 miles out the north side of Zomba.  When we got there they pulled the car in over their grease pit, a brick-lined hole in the ground under a small shade arbor covered with cardboard and loofah vines.  While it cooled I bought cold drinks for everyone because it was really hot that day.  Then they proceeded to get to work.  There was some excitement when they dropped the transmission drain plug into the bottom of their grease pit.  So they had to dig around in all the trash down there, using their cell phones as lights until they found it among all the snack wrappers.  I think one of the helpers might have gotten a little hot transmission fluid sprayed on him in the process, but they eventually got all the transmission fluid drained out.   

While they were doing this I admired the drinking cup which was sitting on the cup beside the grease pit: it was the outer casing of a (presumably used) oil filter with a loop welded on for a handle.  I really wished I'd had a camera along.    

It turned out that the transmission fluid was pretty low and badly in need of changing.  But then the problem was how to put the new fluid in the transmission, since the filler was located on top of the transmission which sites under the engine.  They started looking around on the ground and in the back seats of all the cars parked in their little lot; they said "We need a pipe."  Eventually they popped the hood on an old Citroen and started removing hose from the engine, but one end was stuck.  One of the "boys" went off and returned with a scalpel blade, but it quickly became apparent that it wasn't going to work.  (No handle, no leverage.)  So I passed them my Swiss army knife, and the next thing you knew we had a length of black rubber hose.  They then produced a short piece of small-diameter plastic tubing which they cut in half, and they put one half in each end of the hose for a spout.  Finally, they took the used plastic Coke bottle from under our front seat, made a hole in the top, and attached one of the pieces of plastic tubing to the lid of the Coke bottle.  AFter cutting the bottom off the Coke bottle, they had the funnel they needed to fill the transmission.  With cell phone in had for a light, one of the helpers climbed down into the grease pit and navigated the bottom end of the hose into the transmission, while another hovered over the engine compartment holding the top end of the funnel, while the mechanic slowly poured the transmission fluid through the custom-made funnel until the transmission was filled.  A certain amount of transmission fluid was spilled in the process, although not as much as you might expect.  The mechanic started the car up and drove it forwards and back across his small lot a few times, and judged that the repair was complete.  For all this invention they charged me MK 10,000, about $25.  I'm a little skeptical about the diagnosis but the car has more or less behaved itself since then, and the transmission fluid may well have needed changing anyway.

(A note about how people living and working in places off the electrical grid can use cell phones.  Many businesses will charge phones for a small fee - we've seen a lot of barber shops advertising phone charging.  Sometimes you see someone on a bicycle hauling a car battery.  We understand that they're taking the battery to the nearest place it can be charged, and then they can take it back to the village and use it to charge phones.)


The kids had a day off from school last Friday (Nov. 15), so we decided to take advantage of the long weekend and see Zomba.  We loaded up and headed out at around 9, heading south along the M1.  Part of the way the road runs right along the border between Malawi and Mozambique, so we stopped to snap some photos on both sides of a boundary maker, labeled MW on one side and MZ on the other.  The border runs right through cornfields and people's front yards.  We saw a few more uniformed soldiers than usual, but that's not what you'd call a tight border.  People and goats (and tourists!) wander across it without a second glance.  While we were taking the pictures, some friendly women came by with a head load of firewood and we did our best to talk with each other, but were stymied by lack of a common language.

We stopped in the town of Liwonde for lunch, randomly choosing a restaurant along the river that looked promising.  We waited an hour for the food to come - not surprising once we realized they were cooking everything over two small charcoal burners.  At least we could look at the hippos and fishermen in the river while we waited, and do a little birdwatching.  We had a good long look at a black and white Pied Kingfisher, and saw it hover over the water looking for fish.  While we were looking it up in the book Joel looked at a brightly colored bird on the same page and said, "I'd really like to see one of those!"  Not ten minutes later one of them perched on the little pier in front of the restaurant: an unbelievably blue Malachite Kingfisher with a bill that looks ludicrously large for its body. 
(Joel:  I always knew I was a miracle worker!  I've tried summoning another bird, but it hasn't shown itself yet.  Apparently magical bird-summoning only works if there is a bird of the called-upon species in the area.)
The vegetable curry and spaghetti tasted great once it finally arrived, and Emma discovered to everyone's surprise that the friendly cat lounging under our table was very fond of nsima (stiff maize porridge). 

When  we finally got to the town of Zomba around 3 in the afternoon, after a drive that had taken longer than we expected, it became clear that sightseeing would not be the first item on the agenda.  The car began acting up, losing power as Eric tried to accelerate.  So once we found Annie's Lodge where we had reservations, Eric asked someone at the front desk about a mechanic.  I'll let him tell the story of what happened next in his own blog post.

Meanwhile, the kids and I wandered over to the national botanical garden that lay just across the road from our hotel.  It didn't quite live up to what I had envisioned   - it had the look of a place that would have been quite impressive 30 years ago.  We only saw a few signs: some so weathered they were unreadable, some which no longer had plants beside them.  Still, it was a pretty spot and fun to poke around in.  The plants and trees were interesting even without signs (though I still would have preferred some information!). 

Joel's definition of an interesting tree isn't exactly the same as mine though.

Actually the botanical highlight for the kids wasn't anything that was planted on purpose.  We found some little weeds called sensitive plant, which quickly close their leaves when you touch them.  I forgot to get a picture but they are very fun to play with.

We found a stream flowing through a rocky ravine, so that was  good for some exploring.  A good-sized crab sidling along a big boulder was a highlight there, and we saw baboons and vervet monkeys.
Can you find Joel in this picture?

Once it got dark around 5:30 we headed back to the hotel, only to learn that Eric was still out with the mechanic, so we ordered a very forgettable dinner at the hotel restaurant.  Annie's Lodge is made up of buildings that used to be the Parliament Guesthouse; Zomba was the capital of Malawi until 1975 and its parliament stayed there until 1994. The place now gives the impression of having once been rather more impressive than it is now, though we couldn't complain of the cleanliness.  This picture shows the door to our room in the morning light, with the Zomba Plateau.

 Eric could and did complain about the bathroom a little.  There was no shower curtain at all so water went everywhere, and the floor (that for some reason had been installed several inches above the base of the toilet) sloped toward the corner where a semi- permanent puddle formed.  The handyman in Eric can hardly stand stand such goings-on.  I was just happy for an actual shower: we've been doing the bucket-bath thing at home for a couple of weeks now.  (Since the college students came back, we have had the water go off pretty much every day.  Even when it's there, the pressure is too low to get anything more than dribbles from the shower head.  It seems the water supply is one of many things that aren't quite prepared to deal with the drastic increase in student enrollment at Bunda.)

The next morning we finally headed up to the plateau, which is what attracts so many tourists to Zomba.  It looms impressively over the town, and once you wind your way up to the top you find yourself amid cooler temperatures, pine plantations, and young men trying to sell you the sweet orange Himalayan raspberries that grow wild up there.  The forest is managed for timber production and is mostly pine plantation.  We passed a sawmill and lots of people carrying firewood, but also saw where pine seedlings had been planted at the site of recent logging.  A 4x4 could have taken us to less managed parts of the plateau, but we didn't want to take our little Polo beyond the swanky hotel at the top.  So we parked at the hotel, picked up a photocopied map, and set off on foot, resolutely ignoring the men who crowded around us wanting to be hired as guides.  (We did not ignore the guy selling plums - Joel a.k.a. The Fruit Bat looked too wistful.)  We found a path that ran along a stream in a ravine that was apparently too steep to be logged.  It wound among tree ferns, Himalayan raspberry bushes, and big black and white butterflies.  

Himalayan raspberries, a tasty invasive plant

I took some great pictures of the lengths Joel went to in order to recover his pocketknife when it fell into the stream, but he says I'm not allowed to post them!

When we popped back out onto a road, we followed it through the pine plantations, past people trying to sell us plums, mangoes, and berries, up to a waterfall.   

It was easy to tell where the path to the falls turned off the road: it was marked by more guys trying to sell things.  Here it was quartz crystals collected on the plateau and little wooden carvings.  They didn't follow us to the falls though, for which we were grateful.  By this time we were pretty hot so it felt great to kick off our shoes and wade in.

Walking back along the road, we ran into a group of teachers from the kids' school, including Emma's own Mrs. Drower.  Apparently we weren't the only ones taking advantage of the long weekend!  We also met up with a very friendly group of women carrying firewood, whose smiling efforts to talk with us made me wish yet again that I could speak Chichewa.

When we finally made our way back to the hotel, we ordered lunch there since we'd used their parking lot.  There would have been a great view from the outdoor dining area, since the hotel is right at the edge of the plateau, but it was pretty smoky and hazy.  

 After lunch we walked through the hotel's beautiful grounds, where  Joel and Emma were quite pleased to come across a giant chess set.  A game immediately ensued, so  I napped in the shade and Eric whipped out some work he'd brought along.

There is a lot of the plateau that we never got to see, but it was time to head down.  Before leaving the hotel parking lot we stepped out the gate to take a closer look at the curio shops lining the road.  We came away with a sturdy bread basket woven from grasses, as we'd seen a woman making along the road earlier that day, and a salad tongs shaped like a hippopotamus opening and closing its jaws.  Joel has become the self-appointed salad chef of the family and decided he needed the proper equipment. 

On the way down, we drove through one of the fires whose smoke from up top.  I never got the chance to ask anyone, but am guessing the story is similar to what we learned at Dzalanyama, where people burn the understory to get a quick flush of new grass for their livestock to graze.  It works in the short term, but years of this can reduce organic matter in the soil, and if fires are too frequent can prevent regeneration of some kinds of plants and trees.  Where it wasn't too smoky the views were great.

Back in Zomba town by late afternoon, we stopped in at the market - Moses had mentioned that you can get yams there.  Yams are hard to come across in Lilongwe but Moses is very fond of them, so we tried to find some.  They were all sold out that late in the day, but Emma, Eric and I still had an interesting time working our way through the crowded little stalls of the market which sold everything from the big thick wooden spoons for stirring nsima to old car doors.  Joel said he was too tired for a crowded experience so he volunteered to stay with the car as the security guard. 

There were geckos under this gecko too.
After showers and some rest,  we walked back over to the botanical garden where we met up with another Fulbright scholar who lives in Zomba.  We spent some time hanging out with her, some of her neighbors, and their kids who had some kind of jungle-ball game going that Emma joined in.  She recommended we try an Italian restaurant, which turned out to be fantastic.  Great as the food was, served with a nice view from  on a patio overlooking the city, it turned out that the highlight of the evening was watching a very active collection of geckos hunt the insects drawn to the lights.  Who says you need to go on safari for a wildlife experience?

The next morning on the way to breakfast the kids befriended a battered but very friendly tomcat, who followed them and sat faithfully at Joel's feet to snap up the crumbs he kept tossing.  After months with no cats around, the kids were enjoying this weekend!  Every time we pass a roadside kitten salesman holding a squirming handful of cuteness out to passing cars, they ask if I'm sure we can't get a cat here and take it home with us.

Then I announced that I was under no circumstances going to start a long car trip without stretching my legs first with a stroll in the botanical garden.  Eric, true to form when faced with a car trip, just wanted to get underway but I dragged him and the kids along.  Next thing you know we were struggling to follow Eric over boulders and under branches, tracing the course of the stream up the ravine.  At one point Joel and I, dressed for a hot car trip (he in flip-flops, I in a lightweight skirt) gasped, "Whatever happened to the little stroll?"  Eric just shrugged.  "You invited a Nord along.  It turned into an expedition."

Joel caught the tiniest skink we'd ever seen.
Finally in the car and on the road, we thought the adventures were over.  Not quite.

After all that we were hungry for lunch long before we got home, so we detoured off the M1 a little to stop at Dedza Pottery Lodge.  Emma was very amused by the sign reminding people not to forget any belongings when leaving.  Shucks, there goes the plan to sneak off without the kids!

Joel saw one of his classmates there, so we met his parents and another couple they were traveling with - more teachers from BMIS.  It turned out that both men of the party sometimes work with one of Eric's long-lost Woodstock friends, who now works for a US government health program Malawi.  So Eric wrote down the phone number while we all shook our heads in amazement at what a small world it is. 

Before we left we saw yet another BMIS teacher and his family, in Dedza for the weekend to do some hiking.  It begins to feel like the expat community in Malawi might not be that big!  It does look like there would be fun hiking in the area.  Some of the rock formations, jutting up from piney slopes, look for all the world like they could be from Colorado's Front Range - until you catch a glimpse of thatched huts.

We stopped along the way when we saw someone selling pumpkins beside the road.  Pumpkins here are dark green on the outside with sweet orange flesh.  They're not that easy to find in Lilongwe either so I stopped to buy some for Moses and Chimwemwe, since there were no yams.  I was quite pleased with myself, as I managed a little bit of tentative bargaining in the process.  Not something that falls within my comfort zone!  The Maliros were delighted with the pumpkins. I was glad to have brought them something, because Moses immediately offered to go with Eric to buy a used tire the next day to replace the one destroyed during the trip.  It takes more than a little bit of tentative bargaining to shop for a big-ticket item like a tire in this part of the world!

So, all in all, a fun weekend despite some setbacks.  The kids dreaded the 4:30 a.m. alarm the next day, but consoled themselves with the thought that they only had 20 more early bus rides remaining.  It surprises me to realize how near we are the end of our time here, when I feel like we're still at the early stages of learning about so many things.