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...


  1. Wow, this is really interesting and disconcerting. Reminds me of something I read where the Vikings in Greenland starved rather than eat fish (the best reason scholars can guess for this is that Eric the Red did not like fish.) Sounds like someone is doing good work there. At the same time despite the UN attempt I'm not eating bugs.

  2. I'm reading this late because I somehow missed this post, but I wanted to comment how interesting this permaculture stuff is. It is very frustrating to think of cultural addictions in Malawi, the US, or anywhere, and we could all benefit from trying to get past them. I hope you can work on your own permaculture plants on your property in Illinois, and I wish I had the garden opportunity to do it where I live. I truly hope more of the Nordins' neighbors learn from their example and more interns teach others and more folks can learn how to grow more sustainably. I wish everyone around here would replace their lawns with more edible, beautiful, and/or interesting plants.

  3. Karen - One of the hopeful things Nordin's told us was that someone was doing a study of permaculture adoption in their area, and found that there were more people beginning to adopt some practices than they had been aware of.