Saturday, 3 August 2013

Homeward bound

Travelled back to Lilongwe yesterday and checked in last night at the lodge where I spent my first few weeks when I first arrived. All the old staff were there and it was almost like seeing family again - so lovely to see them all. Thankfully they had one last space for me to stay and put me in one of the very best rooms at a good rate. I felt so lucky and after dinner managed to soak away the fatigue from the journey with a nice hot bath followed by the most wonderful sleep.

Last full day in Malawi today (Saturday). Just went for a walk round the corner to get the weekend newspaper and bought the palm leaf fruit bowl that I asked a man to make for me before I left Lilongwe a few weeks ago. So, now everything is all sorted ready for my return. Will just spend today doing a bit of work here and there on my computer and taking it easy in these lovely now familiar surroundings.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Back to civilisation?

First full day back in "civilisation" (one of the four main cities in Malawi) and its the second power cut in two days. It's around the same time so I'm assuming they are rationing the electricity and that it will be on again in an hour or so. In spite of that, I made good progress earlier today on my ongoing research tasks. Much thanks to the change of scenery that I had recently.

After doing as much as I could for the day I decided I needed a repetitive organisational task so managed to enter all of my expenses over the past six and a half weeks onto the computer ready to claim back on my return to the UK. Was actually relatively painless and so glad I've got it done already so I can just submit the form when I get home.

Invited for dinner this evening to the home of my colleague who has been assisting me with translation and interpreting of interviews. Right now just waiting to get picked up with the sound of the generator outside pumping some limited electricity to the main hotel building. Maybe I'll head in there for a bit so I have a bit more light than from my laptop screen.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Mangochi retreat

...Here are some notes I made while I was there...

Had a three hour minibus journey to get to Mangochi from Zomba. It was K2,500 so about 5 pounds. It was such an experience. As you can imagine, all packed in like sardines. Unfortunately for most of the journey someone was actually carrying fish so that wasn’t great. All in all though, so much fun.

I arrived at the township bus depot and had arranged for the owner of the lodge where I am staying to pick me up as it was about 12km away. I arrived at the place and it was just leading up to the sunset, around 5pm. It had an amazing location, right on the lake front, with a nice sandy beach. Met some great people here working at a school for orphans. One lady from the US had retired and decided to try and set up a social business where she sells things the kids are learning how to sew. It was so lovely to meet her and the other people who are volunteering there. It’s very quiet here though, just nice and peaceful. Last night they had brai, which is basically a huge BBQ where they cook lots of meat.

I'm sleeping in an old thatched chalet which is very quaint and fairly basic, but has such charm. Lots of noises outside as there are so many birds and insects around and villages either side. All in all it’s a incredibly weird yet wonderful place. It seems that the owners are quite old and a bit bonkers and its looking for the next generation to take over soon and give the place a spruce up and bring in more visitors. That said, it’s a beautiful place and I’m grateful for the few days down time being able to enjoy the peace and scenery and have time for things to just percolate for a bit as I try to make sense of all the information I've gathered these last few weeks...

Over the next few days I spent time on and around the beach and sitting in an old chair my room in the chalet looking down at the beach, doing bits of work here and there, letting things settle in their place. There were also some more social things that happened:
  • Had a dutch pancake breakfast organised by a lady who stays here each year for two and a half months supporting a children’s village. It was a lovely breakfast with nice company. 
  • After putting some of my best evening clothes on and starting to walk to the bar for a bit of work over a drink some young local boys started talking to me. One of them was trying to sell me a small fish. We ended up having a football match – England vs. Malawi. Sadly, England lost 7-5. We had a rematch the following day and sadly England didn't redeem itself.
  • Watched the fishermen get into two lines and pull in a long long rope from a km or more out at sea to bring in their catch. The nets are taken out earlier that day and sometimes they are hauled in very early in the morning. This time it was an afternoon catch and the catch was all just full of small fish, seemingly due to the practice of using nets with holes the size of mosquito nets which is depleting the fish reserves.

Drawing to a close

Well, the final day of fieldwork came and went. I have now asked all the questions I had come to ask and have collected 31 rather extensive interviews. Now the task is to go through them and find out what can be learnt. Thankfully there is some rather nifty software available these days that lets you manage, search and code the various parts of interviews so that you can see what key patterns and findings emerge. The bulk of this will have to be done when I'm back to the UK. For now though I can at least start to think about how I will approach that.

After a relatively intense few weeks and lots of data gathering I thought it'd be good to go and spend a few days somewhere else in a nice and relaxed environment. So, I decided to go to Mangochi. This is an area that can be found near the bottom of Lake Malawi. It was originally called Fort Johnston after Sir Harry Johnston - the first colonial administrator of what was then called Nyasaland.

Nowadays its a dusty and fairly isolated area but has some beautiful scenery and nice sandy beaches by the lake. It was here that I decided to set up camp for a few days in an old resort that could have done with a bit of TLC.

Aside from the need for repair, the more frequent power outages, the dodgy phone networks and associated complete absence of internet, I had a brilliant few days...

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

An eventful and (another) insightful day

Well, you never know what's round the corner. Woke up today thinking it would be like another day in the field collecting interviews but it turned out quite different. I did do the interviews, in fact, I did more than planned and so ended up not leaving until it was dark which gave some villagers a bit of a fright when they saw what must have seemed like a ghost walking around. In fact, one lady ran inside when we walked past. This was a very remote village and for many of the smaller kids they had never seen a white person before.

Back to the morning though, we started later as my colleague had to visit the hospital (she's due to give birth at the end of August). So, I went to have a coffee and bite to eat as it was late morning by this point. It had slowly become apparent though that there was a buzz in the air in Zomba as truck loads of people were coming past singing all dressed in orange. It turned out that the President was in town and people from her party had come to see her. After sitting down waiting for food I heard some sirens (a very rare sound since I've been here). I soon realised that the President was coming past which was why they had shut the road. After several vehicles speeding past I eventually saw a big black 4x4 with two flags on and, as it came past, saw a hand waving. Yes,  today I saw the President's hand! I certainly hadn't bargained on that when I woke up this morning.

Anyway, the rest of the day was very productive even though it took a very long time to get to the village where we were doing the interviews. I interviewed the final Ministry of Agriculture member of staff and then the village head and the first of four famers. The lady farmer who I spoke to seemed to be particularly struggling, which made for a difficult situation. Although she got a subsidy coupon last year, she wasn't able to use it to buy any fertiliser. As such, her and her family didn't harvest their maize but instead ate it before it was ready (green). Life in that village seems very tough indeed. I suppose really its precisely these people that are driving me forward in my research. I want to know what can and should be done through government policy in order that they can improve their lot and not be struggling anymore just to get enough food to last them through the year. That's such a basic thing, but without that, getting an education or maintaining their basic health will always be put under pressure.

I learnt lots today about life for the average farming household, taking note of local prices in the rural trading centres and asking lots of questions about local markets to the extension officer I met. It seems that this year prices are up by around 1/3 which doesn't bode well for the coming months as maize stocks start to go down, even though the country has estimated a 300,000 metric tonne surplus this year. This is a big question that needs to be looked into - how prices can remain high in spite of some fairly decent production.

Not long in so I popped straight to the restaurant to order some dinner, had a hot shower and went down for a much-needed (and my first) Malawian rum and coke with my dinner. I start again tomorrow with what will be my final day in the field.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Nearing the end of the interviews

This week I finished interviews for the third of four villages. Have been gathering a lot of very in-depth data with some clear themes emerging. Looking forward to sitting down and going through it all to see what it is saying.

Thursday was the last day in village 3 and I discovered two things: 1. Cassava doesn't taste as bad as I thought (a bit like coconut but less sweet) 2. Pit latrines are even worse than I remember. Both great experiences though.

A view of the dam from the top
Another great experience was today - I decided to go horseriding on one of my days off. I spent two hours going up and around Zomba mountain and it was absolutely amazing. It was great getting on a horse and trying to negotiate where we were going and how fast, but also the views were just something else. Afterwards had a much-needed lunch at a lovely hotel (though the prices for food were the same as I am paying here). Was seriously good and enjoyed a lovely chat with a lady I met who is a lecturer in London about research, doing a PhD, linguisitcs and all sorts of other things. A really nice day and I feel so much better for having done something different. Feel energised for when I get my head back into the work, which will probably be tomorrow on a lazy day at the lodge.
The grounds of a hotel

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Back to the field!

View having breakfast
Today I was happy to be back doing interviews in the village. Tiring but very rewarding. Took about an hour or so to get there over some very bumpy roads to the other side of one of the mountains surrounding Zomba. We passed through some really lovely looking places - the terrain was very hilly but quite a few places were growing some good crops and some benefitted quite a bit from water coming down the mountain and also some irrigation projects that had taken place.

There are some pictures here of the really quite remarkable maize being grown now in July, even though the rainfed season goes from around November to May when it's harvested. Thanks to this irrigation project (just a fairly simple system of canals) people in this area will have food during what is known as the "hungry season" later in the year when people's maize stocks start to run out. At least with the fertiliser they have had through the subsidy programme, however, more can be grown than would otherwise.
Irrigated maize

People do still struggle a lot though, like the farmer I interviewed who wasn't selected last year to receive a subsidy coupon. This highlights the tough challenges facing the project and difficult choices that are made by village leaders when deciding who should benefit each year. The lady was elderly and clearly very poor and looked after a number of orphans who's mother had recently died. Unfortunately though, there are limited resources.
Lady tending to the maize field

While in the village we had a few "fritters" for lunch. One of the wealthier ladies in the village who had a nice fence around her house had bought some yeast from the shops and made what were basically like doughnuts - quite sweet and very light and airy. They were pretty tasty and 20 Kwacha each (4 pence each). On the way home we stopped on a hillside where a guy was growing strawberries with the help of some water trickling through his plot of land. We bought a big bag for 500 kwacha (£1) and he was very happy. It's amazing how different people's prospects are simply because they have access to a bit of water.