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.