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.

A view from lunch yesterday

Took a picture with my phone yesterday of the scenery while I was having my lunch. One of the lovely things about being in Zomba is the hilly terrain and the fact that you can always see the mountain behind you. Hoping to go up there again next weekend to ride a horse!

Monkey business

There I was, enjoying my breakfast in the baking hot sun at 8:00 and who should come along and visit but a monkey! Thankfully I'd eaten my banana by then so all he was interested in was going and grabbing another two from the bowl and jumping back up on to the roof to have his own breakfast!

Heading off to village 1 of 2 in this district this morning to meet the village head for an interview and hopefully one of the villages if we can get the list we are using to select farmers. Otherwise we will leave the first farmer interview until Thursday, after we've been able to meet some of the area's Ministry of Agriculture staff tomorrow.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

In Zomba

Arrived safe and sound in Zomba this afternoon to prepare for the second half of my interviews. The journey actually only took a few hours as its just under 300km. Some beautiful sights on the way down, especially the villages of mud huts and grass thatched roofs set in the mountains.

Life here in Zomba is a bit colder and today a bit cloudier. However, the mountains surrounding the city make it a very special place to be.

Checked into a cheap and cheerful lodge for the night for less than £15. Tomorrow I'll hopefully check into another lodge where I can stay for the remaining duration of my time here.

Tried to meet with someone from the Ministry of Agriculture on arrival but they wont be available until Monday so looks like I might have a few days of a bit of work and relaxation. Would be nice to go check out the big mountain "Ku Chawe" again as there's a lot to see and do up there.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Tionana Lilongwe (for now)

Quick post to say off to Zomba this morning. Is a few hundred km south and will take 5 or 6 hours but am hoping to then be able to get started with my first interview, with next ones to start Monday (Tionana means "see you").

Tuesday, 9 July 2013


Can't believe it was Saturday that I last posted. It just goes to show what a relaxing weekend I've had. I stuck around the lodge most of the time getting on with some work in a nice relaxing environment.

Met with one of my PhD supervisors yesterday who came over to present to various people in government here on his findings from the latest data gathered on the subsidy programme that I am doing my research on. It was great to catch up - we had a good chat over lunch about all sorts, including what I've found out so far through my interviews. There's a growing interest in the programme with quite a few new papers coming out trying to assess its impact. It's certainly a very interesting topic to be engaged with.

Other than that, I paid a visit to immigration today to extend my visa for the duration of my stay. It was quite an experience to say the least. The queues were quite unbelievable but thankfully I managed to get through fairly easily and pass by most queues. There's lots more I could say on that but I think I'll leave it there for now :)

Also just been moved to another room while they do some plumbing in the other building I was in, so I'm now in a particularly nice suite for tonight at least and maybe tomorrow, though I think we might be heading south tomorrow afternoon.

Saturday, 6 July 2013


On a totally non-research related note, just went out for a lovely Chinese at Noble China restaurant. Really good food and company. To eat I had a lovely hot and sweet soup which had tofu and coriander in it among other things). Then had a lovely vegetarian noodle dish called something like ant hill (a plate of dry noodles, a plate of delicious vegetables and a plate of lettuce). All washed down with a kuche kuche beer.

I was invited out by a guy who'd been staying at the lodge and his colleague who have just finished up their contract working on an IT project with the Ministry of Finance. A number of other expats turned up who the guy knew, including one guy who now lives in a narrowboat in Jericho, Oxford (where I spent a lot of time during my secondary school years and worked during my gap year). Turns out his ex-girlfriend is also doing her PhD (at Oxford) on the topic of Malawi and negotiations around the subsidy programme. A small world.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Last day in the field for a few days

The white flag signifies that a traditional
mid-wife lives here.
Final day in village 2 of 4 today and interviewed three farmers. All of the information I am getting is pointing to some fairly clear conclusions about the challenges that need to be addressed in order for the programme to work more effectively. It also highlights how the challenges are slightly different depending on where the village in question is based.

I've been inspired by the stories I've heard because they make me realise just how crucial getting a coupon actually is. For many it can literally be a matter of whether or not they go hungry the following year. This personal experience of the importance of "getting it right" will certainly now drive me on as I go forward and think about how things need to be changed in order to ensure the programme achieves it stated aims.

For now I am going to be typing up some of the information I collected by hand onto the computer for later analysis. Once I've done that I can spend the next few days at the lodge doing some other work before we head south mid-week. So, a quiet few days in case you don't see much of an update!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

You are most welcome

Today, I went to the second village in Lilongwe District and met with the village head and one of the four farmers I will be interviewing there.

The village head seemed like a lovely, kind and very welcoming man. It seemed he'd even dressed up in one of his best golden yellow shirts and put a suit on to greet us! We had a very good interview and got lots of helpful information, which supports some of my theories about the key challenges facing the Farm Input Subsidy Programme in Malawi. He was very inviting and even offered for us to share Nsima with his family afterwards, though unfortunately we had to get on but may take up the offer tomorrow if there's time. He even brought a bag of groundnuts out to the driver who was waiting in the car.

After the interview I saw some boys playing with a tyre and a stick (something that's quite common here). They hit the tyre with the stick to roll it along the road. I asked if I could take a picture because this is one of the common sights you can see in the villages and on the roads. They were all so amazed and excited to see this alien contraption which, they saw when I showed them, had captured them on a piece of glass.

After some fruit and bread and butter for lunch we headed off to interview the first farmer. She was a very elderly lady (she was married at the time that Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda was in power, which was from independence in 1964). She actually seemed very tired during the interview and, as she had never been to school, didn't understand much of what was being said, even in Chichewa. We had to adapt some questions by using sticks on the floor to explain. Although it might be thought that this wasn't a helpful interview, it actually was very useful as I got to see the experience of an elderly lady who is also very frail and requires support. It made me wonder whether actually she should be receiving other kinds of social support rather than the fertiliser subsidy as she was not even able to tend to some of her land due to a disability the previous season. In any case, the support she did receive through the subsidy programme had saved her from hunger as she was at least able to grow maize.
You can fit more on a Malawian bicycle than you
 can in a family car

Donkey transport

The one time she did perk up was when we heard some screams from the children and people started to run, to their homes, partly smiling but a little frightened. Three nyao were running through the villages (basically young boys in masks, but they are feared here). Thankfully the lady we were with was also trained in the tradition and so could speak to them in their language and they knew to pass through and not stop at her house. It sounds quite scary and for many people it is, but really they are young children playing around who get offerings from people in the village such as locally brewed beer. It was quite an experience nonetheless. Apparently they are very scared of donkeys and cows so do not dare go near them.

After the interview we went back to thank the village head and headed back home, having had a successful day in the field. Tomorrow we will try and finish the last three interviews in the village.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Last day in village 1

Little boy (malnourished) taking a walk
Today we went for the last two interviews in village one. This time we tried to find people who hadn't got a coupon, which was hard as almost everyone received a share of at least one coupon. We had two good interviews though with a young lady and older lady. Lots of interesting insights into what determines who gets coupons and how they and subsidised inputs are used (or not).

As it was the last day I took a few snaps to give a feel for the places I am visiting.

Lady pounding groundnuts
Pounded maize being dried out in the sun

A lady standing in front of her home

Monday, 1 July 2013

He is crying because he is hungry

Went back to the village today, this time to interview two farmers. Spoke with two ladies and interviews went very well. Both were very happy to stop their cooking for me while we did it, even though we explained we could come back. Everyone was very happy to help and very kind and respectful. It must seem strange having visitors come in from the city and another country.

The one lasting memory of today though is, as we were leaving, we went to thank a lady who helped us find the farmers we were looking for. While we were waiting, outside her house there was a younger lady with a baby in her lap and a few children on the floor in front. One of them was crying very loudly. All of the children looked like they were suffering from a poor diet/not enough food. My colleague explained to me "she was explaining that he is crying because he is hungry".

Here, in May people usually harvest their staple crop - maize. This was about two months ago. Now, in villages across the country, partly because of the poor rains last year, children this like boy are suffering because they are not getting enough food. As a result, most of those in their early years will be stunted forever and so if they are lucky enough to survive and have their own children, they will probably suffer a similar fate.

This fact of life for so many people is hidden from us in the UK and other high income countries because the news programmes and newspapers only report on it when there's a famine and we decide whether or not to send a text to donate £5 or £10. The thing is, the suffering isn't just happening when we see it on our TV screens. It's happening all the time, right now, and it shouldn't. It's not right that even one child should cry because they don't have enough food to eat and be irreversibly damaged for the rest of their life just because they happened to be born in a particular village in a particular part of the world. Also, we DO HAVE the resources in the world to work faster to stop this happening. It's just a case of whether we decide we want to put them to use.

Back tomorrow to the village for the final two interviews.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

The first village and my first encounter with a Nyau

Another pretty long day today (or at least it felt like it). After an early start, doing final touches to today's interview questions and then getting them printed, my colleagues ran some errands at the bank. Word of advice for anyone considering visiting a bank at the end of the month on a Saturday in Lilongwe - just don't. The queues in all the banks were absolutely crazy. Some people would literally be waiting there for hours. Anyway, eventually we got to where we needed to be but the person had left so we had to go back some miles and meet them.

Along the way we saw a person on the road who was dressed up in a mask with a stick - it was a Nyau. The Nyau are part of a secret society who are thought by villagers to come from among the dead. They can often be found attending funerals and take part in dances. They often scare many women and children and tend to make a living by going around certain rural areas asking for money from people. Our driver thought it would be funny and entertaining to wave and slow down to let the Nyau chase the jeep, so he did, and he let the Nyau run after the jeep and catch up. The driver wound the window down, greeted him and the Nyau, growling in the way they do, asked for money (this sounds worse than it was and we weren't ever in any danger - we didn't need to stop but it was quite entertaining). Smiling all along the driver gave the Nyau 500 kwacha (about £1) and we drove off. It was a very strange experience indeed! I think we probably wouldn't have stopped if the Nyau was one of the ones carrying a panga (a huge machette used for cutting crops). (

We got the information we wanted and set off to find the first village. It took a great deal of time and lots of asking as there just aren't signposts or anything like in the UK - it's all dirt tracks and village after village.

About 2km off the main road and you start to see life changing; mud huts with straw roofs; everyone looking as the car goes past, people wearing very simple and often ragged clothes, and many small children with swollen bellies and/or ribs showing. People on the whole appear fairly happy, but obviously life is very tough and many of the children will grow up stunted and with irreversible mental damage from lack of an adequate diet.

We eventually reached the village and as my colleague went to check for the village head some small head appeared down below outside the car; a group of little children wondering who this strange white person was coming to their home. I go in and meet with the village head who is also head of a number of neighbouring villages (a group village head) and, also, a woman. This is not uncommon in the region among certain ethnic groups. She has a very nice house by comparison with an iron sheet roof, sofa chairs, tables and a bicycle.

The interview lasted over an hour but she seemed very happy to answer and seemed to enjoy the discussion (so too did her chicken that was in her living room that kept clucking and seemed to enjoy nestling in behind her on the sofa chair). Lots of good information came out and, as with yesterday, an opportunity for revising the format of the questions for the next interviews (e.g. removing some questions which are clearly not necessary in order to reduce the length).

Unfortunately after the long day we don't have time to do the first farmer interview but it does mean that when we go back on Monday we won't need to try and squeeze three farmer interviews in and can do two then and two on Tuesday. Wednesday we should start with the second and final village for Lilongwe District. After all interviews for there are done it will be down to the South of the country - to Zomba District.

Friday, 28 June 2013

First full day of interviews

Well today we finally got properly stuck into the interviews and had one with a coordinator of an Extension Planning Area (about 26,000 households) and one with the Extension Officer responsible for one section of the EPA (about 79 villages). It was a full day which started with some printing, getting bread and snacks, water and a newspaper from the bakery and a petrol station, then off to find the first interviewee.

It was nice getting outside of the city to the more rural areas. Even though we didn't venture into the truly remote areas today, even just going some miles out of town you start to notice how very different life is (and this is life for the majority of the Malawian population). This is the Malawi I remember from last time here (I didn't spend long in Lilongwe before). So many sights on the way - carpenters making cabinets, sofas and coffins by the side of the road; men stripping old tires for their rubber; people on bicycles carrying sacks full of various things a metre high; goats on the side of the road; women carrying buckets on their head; children playing around the schools at break time.

Coming back to town
Both interviews were very successful - there was a good rapport and openness to the answers. Something I definitely think would have been compromised if I had recorded them with a dictaphone. Thankfully using my laptop rather than writing down I can take notes much more quickly, which also saves hours afterwards in writing up. Came home at the end with lots of great material and also a much refined set of questions for the next time I interview the same type of people. Tomorrow it's back on the road and into the first village, this time to interview the village head and one of four farmers.

SOS Children's Villages

Today, when going to meet someone for an interview in rural Malawi I happened across a truly amazing place. It was a village with many houses, classrooms and health facilities set up by what I now realise is a truly amazing organisation called SOS Children's Villages (
The village provides a safe, clean nurturing environment for orphan children to grow up in. It provides for all their needs - a surrogate mother, food, health care, education, vocational training....It almost brought a tear to my eye to hear how, as a result of this place, a number of children have gone on to study at university, some even getting a Masters and travelling to the UK to do so.
If there was ever a good cause to give money to, this most definitely one of them. Really blown away by just what a different this place is making to so many young orphans lives. Then, on the way back to the city we stop in traffic and a poor disheveled looking boy of no more than 5 or 6 years old approached the car in ragged clothes, holding out his hands seeking anything he could get in order to survive. That just hammered home what a difference a place like SOS Children's Village can mean. I just wish there was more support for this organisation so there could be more places like that.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Productive morning

Productive morning so far. Visited the Agricultural Development Division again and managed to get contacts for the local MoA staff covering the two villages I'll be visiting in Lilongwe District. Have called them already and arranged a meeting/interview for tomorrow morning. Once that is done I can then seek to contact the village head to arrange interviews with him and some of the farmers.

So, for the rest of the morning early afternoon I can now get on with some other work and hopefully meet my colleague later for a chat before we head off tomorrow morning. It's great when things go to plan!

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Wednesday number 2

Wednesday is here and again the hot African sun is beating down. Everything is quiet and peaceful all around the lodge except for the sound of tropical birds and sweeping of the leaves from the grass.

Yesterday I had a great meeting with someone working at IFPRI, finding out about some of the great work they are doing here analysing agricultural policy and providing technical support and advice to government. Aside from that it was a quiet day with some productive work on what I was doing before I came out (so glad I bought my own copy of Stata!). Met with my colleagues in the evening where we went over the final issues for village selection (which I will hopefully finalise today by acquiring a map from the statistics office) and went through some issues with translation of interview questions into chichewa. It was interesting to see how difficult it can be to express exactly the same meaning (e.g. with some nuances not existing in chichewa or vice versa). Thankfully I have an excellent colleague doing the translating.

Today I'm hoping to finalise village selection, as I said, after getting a detailed map of the district. So glad selection is being done here as I really needed the first few interviews and discussion with my colleagues to decide on the procedure. Hopefully after that I will be able to contact the next set of Ministry of Agriculture staff for interview. These should take place today or tomorrow, after which it will finally be off to the first village to complete interviews of the village head and a sample of farmers.

Also managed to have a great discussion yesterday with my colleagues about the local significance of different housing characteristics (material used for the walls, roof and floor) as I am using data on this from previous surveys to create an index of socio-economic status. This local understanding of what materials mean (e.g. having fired mud brick walls) will be crucial for accurately capturing differences between households.

Monday, 24 June 2013

good start to the week

Had a great start to the week today with an interview at the Lilongwe District MoA offices. Very good responses from the interviewee with lots of useful info and new leads which have helped confirm my plans for identification of villages. A quiet afternoon now while I catch up on other work and hopefully tomorrow or the day after can interview the next person from the MoA.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Back to the lodge!

Well, my colleagues finally made it from the South and they arrived this morning. It's so lovely to see them - even though we only knew each other for under two weeks, it was just like reuniting with old friends.

After catching up we sat down over some tea and drinks to discuss the fieldwork ahead. We had some very fruitful discussions (and quite a few laughs) and resolved all remaining issues regarding selection of villages, farmers and logistics. We decided we would need to be in Lilongwe for up to two weeks and so I would try and find somewhere in Lilongwe centre that was affordable for that time. After coming up with a list and getting ready to go, it turned out my colleague knew the owner of the lodge (who also happened to be there up from the South). It was agreed that there could be some arrangement if I would stay for a week or more, but I needed to consult and update my budget. By the time we had driven to the first nearby lodge to check it out I had worked out I could afford to stay in the original place and so I am absolutely over the moon right now. I am here, in this fantastic lodge, with such lovely staff (I said it was sad to be leaving) and now I've been reunited with friends. Definitely one of the highlights of my stay so far.

So, now I am back in the lodge (in the adjacent room) enjoying a lazy Sunday with just a few tasks to do before I try to meet with a Ministry of Agriculture worker tomorrow. Life is good! :)

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Final night

Well, it dawned on me earlier just before dinner that its the final night here in the lodge. I will be incredibly sad to leave, mainly because of the lovely people I've met who work here. The cook, the receptionists, the waiters, the housekeepers. Life for them will go on, new people will arrive with new things to get on with and new stories to tell. I too will have new things to get on with, new places to go, people to see. But the memories of these workers will stay with me forever, as do my memories of the staff at the lodge in Tanzania who were so kind, gentle and showed such warmth to someone they did not know before I arrived. So yes, it's sad to leave and to think I might never see them again. At the same time we have enjoyed moments together, watching funny Nigerian movies, talking about how things are in our own countries, exchanging stories. It has made my time here such a memorable one.

A mini adventure through Lilongwe

Just back from quite a voyage into Lilongwe centre! Went with a housekeeper called Maxwell who had an afternoon off. Jumping on the minibus to get there, you could tell it was a Saturday. All young men off to watch the football. A much more fun experience than a taxi which would cost you £5 or £6 - this trip was just 150 Kwacha (less than 50p). If you aren't carrying much with you it's perfect and much more sociable (although if you like it seems you can bring baggage as I found out on the way back when I lady brought on three bags of sweet potatoes she'd just been selling at the market).

One of the things I've noticed they do a lot here in taxis and minibuses is to cut the engine when you are about to go down a hill - it saves petrol - people are very quick here to think about ways of saving when you are on a tight budget.

After getting what I needed from the big supermarket and a jumper from an Malawi/Indian-owned shop, we went through one of the biggest open-air markets in Lilongwe, which ended up going along the river. The sights and sounds and smells were just an assault on the senses (not in a bad way). Even though you know you have most people's eyes on you as you are walking (being the only white person in the whole place) everyone everywhere is so friendly and respectful and pleased to share a greeting with you. We walked down the river past where people were cleaning shoes for sale. Other people were watering small crops on the riverbank, others burning rubbish. There is so much happening. Across the bridge and into another Malawi/Indian-owned shop which sold all sorts of household goods but they didn't have the cotton batik table mats I wanted. Most shops like that are owned by Malawian Indian families. They are an elite business class here who also own a lot of fast food restaurants like the chicken grills you see near the big supermarket and often drive around in big cars.

So, we ended up in a curios area on the edge of a car park selling all sorts from drums to chess sets, candle holders to paintings. It's the biggest in Lilongwe apparently. There I met King James I who I bought some bracelets from. He was a charming fellow :) Unfortunately didn't find the mats, but was thoroughly pleased with an amazing afternoon of walking through Lilongwe centre. We then walked to get a bus back and I enjoyed my first "Super Maheu" maize milk drink (Strawberry flavour). I felt like the child in front of me on the bus could have done with it as he looked pretty malnourished the poor thing. You forget that in the city, but I'm sure I'll see it a lot more often in the rural areas. Just reading some news today and hunger is expected to be huge this year in certain areas after the poor rains last season. It's a big problem - children shouldn't be growing up without food when we have the means and know-how in the world to prevent it.

Sunny saturday

The desk where I've been living for most of the past week
Well, the first weekend is here and even though I haven't ventured out much from the lodge (hopefully the vehicle we'll be using will finally be fixed today!) it's been a great first week. I've used the time mostly to keep revising and finalising my interview questions, to organise future meetings and also to get ahead with some of my other research.

One of the things that's made it so great, aside from the fantastic setting here in this quiet little oasis of calm, is the faultless service provided by the staff who are always ready and willing to help with a genuine smile. So, while I'm working here at my desk for the rest of this morning I thought I'd ask for some of that lovely Mzuzu coffee to keep me going. After lunch I'm going to venture out then to see if I can get hold of some table mats from an art centre in town and maybe a jumper for the chilly Malawian winter evenings :)

Friday, 21 June 2013

and there it is again...

Thankfully just a fleeting outage. We're back online!

bye bye electricity

First night since I arrived that the electricity has cut out. Supposed to be a generator but apparently no fuel :) Thankfully a girl from the lodge was kind enough to bring some candles over. So, dinner will be a bit later tonight! :)

Kusamala permaculture

Had a great morning and early afternoon today up near Kumbali village (apparently where Madonna is helping build a school). I visited Nature's Gift Permaculture, also known as Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology and was kindly shown around by Mollie and Marie. It's an amazing place of learning and teaching which inspires you a great deal to think about how we can grow a diverse range of crops (leading to a healthy nutritious diet) with minimal inorganic input and efficient use of, well, nature's gifts!

Pigeon peas
On arrival I met some interns who were pressing coconut to extract the oil for making soap. I then went on a tour of the land. They have a number of different plots growing different crops - a rainfed staple field which is rotated and has maize, sweet potato, groundnuts and pigeon peas. Then there's also a vegetable garden which uses manure where a wide range of fruits and vegetables are grown. There are also some chickens which provide the team with a ready supply of fresh eggs (and manure!).

It's clear that not all aspects will be easily applied to all farms in Malawi, especially where there is currently poor access to livestock (for manure) or irrigation. However, the general principles and a range of methods are difficult to argue with in terms of producing a more diverse and sustainable approach to farming that would presumably bring considerable health benefits to those who can apply it.

After my trip I was lucky to enjoy a nice meal of lovely sweet potato and some greens that had been prepared by the team outside on a special cooker which makes minimal use of firewood and is put together using termite hills and manure. I was sad to leave so soon but I hope to go back again sometime and see how they are doing.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

First interview!

A post-interview snack: a much reduced bunch of
incredibly tasty bananas fresh from the tree and some sort of citrus fruit.
Well, it's 5:33 and the evening is drawing in once again. The days are short here at the moment in Malawi. Today I had a very good interview with someone from the Ministry of Agriculture, finding out from them about how the Input Subsidy Programme operates from an insider perspective. It has given me a considerable insight into the various stages (and huge complexity) involved in going from decisions of how many coupons to produce down to how it is decided at the local level that a particular farmer should receive a coupon. I was also very grateful for their help in arranging some other meetings, one of which I plan to have early next week.

Thankfully it wasn't far, so I walked there and back, stopping off on the way back for a huge bunch of bananas and some clementine-type looking things. For now its back to some statistics using some other data before a spot of dinner later.


Well, I'm pretty buzzing and ready for work this morning. Must have been that Mzuzu coffee I had! Definitely miles better than granulated. Also had Mzuzu honey on my toast which was pretty nice too.

Mzuzu is the capital of the Northern region and Malawi's third largest city. It is situated in Mzimba District which is where a lot of tea, coffee and rubber is cultivated. There's also a lot of honey production, part of which comes from the bees on the coffee estates. Definitely somewhere to put on my list of places to go one day.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Lessons from the field in managing time

So, everything you hear about things taking longer when you are on fieldwork is right :)

After arriving much later than planned (due to pushing the dates back further) I've found that come the weekend I will have already eaten into one week of my two week "buffer time" that I decided to create in my work plan. Unfortunately this couldn't be helped as my colleague is taken up with other pressing work that must be finished before we can meet. Thankfully, I know I am working with a great team so things should stay on track.

In spite of trying to arrange things before I left, many things still have to be worked out here. At least face to face is often better, even if it can take longer. One of those things is arranging meetings with people quite high up in the Ministry of Agriculture. This involved a letter being sent before I arrived which I must now follow up with a meeting before the weekend if possible in order to arrange specific dates for meeting the MoA staff concerned. Again, all things that need to be done prior to work taking place and things which all take time.

No complaints at all though, just reflections. As I say, I am grateful to be working with an excellent team and in the meantime have a nice quiet room in a lodge from where I can get on with other things.

Monday, 17 June 2013

First morning

Waking up this morning has reminded me I am in Africa; the cockrels crowing, the sound of people sweeping leaves, the sound of tropical birds and the all enveloping African sun. Also, listening to people talk in their Chichewa rhythm and to their laughter reminds me of the vibrancy and passion of the people. Yesterday I thought some of the special feel of the first time in a place had worn off as I'd grown used to life here during my last visit. Today I am reminded that I am here and that nothing has changed.

This picture is of the garden in the lodge where I'm staying. It's incredibly peaceful and offers the perfect chance for a few days of productive work.

Plan for the rest of the week

An undernourished Malawian boy
from a village during my last trip
Managed to catch up with my Malawian colleague today who'll be helping me carry out the interviews. As her schedule over-ran (from some other interviews that have been going on the past few months) we'll now meet up on Saturday, so I now have a good few days to make sure I am fully prepared for the interviews that will take place over the next few weeks.

The extra time will also give me some time to push ahead with a large number of things I have to do to start bringing the various parts of my thesis together. This includes carrying out some more quantitative work on the Malawi Farm Input Subsidy Programme and tidying up some chapters ready to put together some papers for publication when I come back.

I've been feeling (and being) very productive these past few days so hopefully that will continue. I think being in a new place helps to clear the mind a lot. Also, being here in Malawi reminds me why I'm actually doing the research in the first place.


Just arrived at a nice little lodge in Lilongwe after about 18 hours of travel. It's been a good journey though with a decent rest on the night flight and it's been very productive reading and work-wise. Am now just enjoying a cup of Malawi's Chombe tea and having a wind down.
Driving to the lodge from the airport, things seem much more "normal" to me now - people walking on the side of the road carrying sticks, selling cassava, fruit (although the mice on sticks was a bit more of a surprise). It's good in a way that I will be able to focus more on the task at hand, which is carrying out the interviews, which I managed to make good headway with in updating them on the Jo'burg to Lilongwe flight. All set now and just have to type up the changes before I go through one final time to check I am asking all that I want to ask and then discuss the questions with my colleague here when we meet (hopefully later this week).

For now though, time to relax a bit and maybe go get another few sim cards for my mobile and the internet.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Off for fieldwork

Today I head off to Malawi for my PhD fieldwork. I'll be carrying out interviews with farmers, village leaders and Ministry of Agriculture staff to try and determine what factors have influenced who gets and uses subsidy vouchers.

I'll be doing my main fieldwork in four villages across districts: Lilongwe and Zomba (shown on the map below).

Hopefully, the information I gather should help to build a better picture of what happens in practice when the task of beneficiary identification is delegated to the village level in agricultural subsidy programmes.