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.