July has run by like sand from an hourglass; moment flowing into moment, day into day, week into week. Countless times I sat down to try to write about our experiences and found myself at a loss on where to begin. The team has collectively completed 146 household surveys to understand livelihood portfolios and dependence on forest resources across all nine villages in our study area. The first 35 were households that had received seedlings as part of a UBC research project several years ago, and the next 111 were randomly selected using a novel geospatial method that has been applied recently in rural Tanzania. Though some 30 surveys remain, one sub-team is already working on the next stage of the project: following volunteers from the survey pool to where they collect their fuelwood resources and assessing the biodiversity and composition of those sites, as well as a portfolio of undisturbed reference sites.
I have also been buried in mastering new methods in preparation for launching a series of focus groups to better understand the challenges that restoration projects face in Malawi, and to identify the conditions that set them up for success. The series includes groups of citizens in different age and gender classes, local experts, government agency representatives and academic researchers, convened around the central question: “What factors have kept reforestation from being ecologically or socially beneficial in Malawi?” In the latter half of the session, participants are asked to pull out just one important thing from the discussion that future restoration efforts will have to “get right” in order to have beneficial outcomes. The inaugural group met yesterday, and was pronounced a success, but as with anything in Africa it seems, the sweet and bitter come mixed.
Two weeks ago, one of our local field assistants passed very unexpectedly. Though we later learned that this was after a long and predictable decline into ill health, it shook several members of our team badly, and threatened to eclipse the strides we were making in the field. The following day, one of our research assistants contracted a serious blood-borne bacterial infection that necessitated a visit to a critical care facility. The weight of carrying on with the tasks at hand falls heavier on the fit, but fortunately project PI Jeanine Rhemtulla had chosen that particular week for her mid-season field visit. Emotionally and physically wearied, we were all too glad to follow her advice to escape for the weekend to Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi.
The third largest lake in Africa, this immense body of water forms part of the border between Malawi and Mozambique, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the astounding array of colorful endemic cichlid species that haunt its shoals and granitic island shelves. The biodiversity value has even been compared to the finches of the Galapagos Islands, with up to 1000 distinct freshwater fish species estimated to inhabit the lake. What makes it even more attractive is the wonderfully hospitable people who call the shores their home. Music is everywhere, from traditional drummers sitting on the slatted roofs of passing boats to the wholly charming Chembe Boys Band—a host of shirtless youngsters turned velvety cocoa by the sun and sand, playing instruments made of recycled oil jugs, cymbals, wood and strings; singing; and dancing to the infectious beat. It was refreshing to be alive there; to feel the balmy evening breeze, to watch sunrises and sunsets, to bask on island rocks while fish grilled over an open fire, or to stand on the bow of a wooden boat lumbering through the waves with our local guide.
There is no denying that field work isn’t for the faint of heart. It can be brutal at times, but more often, it is just a subtle, implacable erosion of the normal and the familiar. It slowly molds you to circumstance, changing the entire scale of your perceptions of the world around you and yourself in it. It is no longer an outrage when the power goes out for 9 hours on the day before a research-intensive new method is supposed to be implemented; we work off our saved references until the computers die, then gather up our things, hike to the Forestry Research Institute, and settle into a comfortably musty corner of the library for one-bar-internet and an outlet gratefully. You’ll scarcely hear a grumble anymore on cold nights when one of us is pouring lukewarm water from a bucket down our back in an effort to “feel clean” and the wet laundry strung up on cords overhead is depositing big chilled drops onto our spine. On one of the many powerless nights at the field station, you’ll still likely find half the team gathered around the dining table, wearing headlamps to enter survey responses into the database.
Looking back on life in Vancouver seems surreal. Knowing with certainty that lights will turn on when you flip a switch. Putting dishes into a dishwasher. Having ten shirts hanging in a closet. Or even expecting that an ambulance will come when you call. It wouldn’t be too far off to say that we’ve been humbled by our experiences. We are learning to celebrate the small victories with greater gusto, and to weather the set-backs and sorrows with greater grace and empathy for those around us.
In memory of Kennedy — a gifted botanist, and probably the tallest man in Malawi