6:20 am. The electric kettle is churning to a labored boil. Eighteen bags of chombe tea, grown on the sprawling estates that skirt the feet of Mount Mulanje as it towers above the southern Malawian plains, wait in the pocked aluminum sauce pan on the stove. I’m preparing for another long day of back to back focus groups. The morning session will be elderly women from the surrounding villages, and in the afternoon, a group of men with previous forestry experience. We have carefully sorted the participants along lines of age to determine whether there are generational differences in views about the challenges that keep forest restoration from being ecologically or socially beneficial in Malawi. Since Nyasaland only ceased to be a British Protectorate half a century ago, the elderly have watched an arc of history— and change— unfold on the landscape. The gender split helps to ensure that women, who are customarily expected to be retiring in public in these mostly Muslim communities, can feel free to share their thoughts openly with us. I was up late packing gift bags for our participants, drawing chart templates for the Bayesian Belief Network activity, and assembling check-in packets with ballots and research consent forms. The dry cornbread doused in peanut butter and honey, and a small banana, do little to enliven the grey morning. Click. The kettle has come to a frothy boil.
7:50 am. The translator calls to say that she changed her mind about where to meet us. I relay the news to our local research assistant (and de facto driver) by text, and haul the boxes and backpack, laden heavily with refreshments, equipment and gifts, out to the driveway.
8:15 am. The local assistant is now fifteen minutes late, and there’s no response to my text. The translator calls to ask if she should keep waiting. Another text, though I expect to see the car round the corner of the drive at any minute. Time is a slippery constant here; being early is considered grossly inefficient, apparently. One of our undergraduate research assistants graciously helps me lug the boxes out to the road to save a few minutes by not having the car turn around. Still no word from the researcher. I call. No answer, and there is no voicemail box. Give it a few minutes and repeat. Fume about the irrational lack of punctuality. Check the time again. Yup, we’re scheduled to start a focus group in barely an hour, and the meeting facility is several towns away.
8:35 am. The situation is now dire. It’s too late to walk the boxes to the bus stop fifteen minutes away, and urgent that we depart pronto. I call the translator and ask her to hail a cab on the main road where she is waiting and have it swing by the house to pick me up with the gear. I make one last call to the researcher. A few minutes pass, and the phone vibrates. A text: “OK. The shops are opening now.” In Malawi, it’s code for “I’m just now leaving.” When I asked him to restock on flip charts I never intended for it to be used to justify a later meeting time. I fire back a hasty later message to abort the mission and make for the meeting place, and dial the nearest cab driver we know. This is bad. Really bad.
8:40 am. I’m calling in the updated plan to the translator when our cell phone runs out of airtime. My dedicated undergraduate assistant hightails it back to the field station for a top-up card, and the taxi crests the hill behind me. I hastily load the boxes while exchanging the traditional Malawian pleasantries with the taxi driver, though I’m feeling anything but pleasant. My undergraduate assistant returns with the last airtime card, and with the taxi’s engine already running, I hop in the passenger seat to go retrieve my translator and try to salvage the focus group.
8:48 am. The taxi driver is putting the car in gear when I see a familiar sight come whipping around the bend in the road. Our local research assistant and translator are chatting and laughing blithely as the car pulls up beside us. My taxi driver exchanges a few words with the research assistant, and assures me that he will just follow the other car to the site. I’m not paying for a chauffeured ride after all this, for crying out loud. I am already out the door, and yanking the box full of gift bags from the back seat of the taxi. I pay the taxi driver more than he deserves for his trouble and jam into the backseat of the research assistant’s sedan with the gear piled up under my arm and some stern instructions on the virtues of punctuality and communication.
9:10 am. When I can get a word in edgewise as the local research assistant is hitting it off with my translator, I stress the urgency and order of our set up tasks, but I seem to be the only person in the universe who cares. I hand the focus group script forward to the translator, suggesting that she spend a few minutes reviewing it. The lively conversation continues in Chichewa. As the car lurches up to the building over the rutted dirt schoolyard that doubles as a football field (Americans, read: soccer), I leap out. While hurriedly serving up the refreshments, I have to keep looking over my shoulder to interject further instructions for my talkative companions, who are threatening to waste a large quantity of flipchart paper while wrongly setting up the discussion board.
10:55 am. We somehow managed to complete the set up and open the doors at 9:29 am exactly. It was with considerable relief that I sunk into a chair at the back of the room, only to be informed by my research assistant that he was leaving to take an ill family member to the medical clinic back in Zomba. He would be back in time to pick me up at the end of the day, he assured me. I was admittedly past caring; that was seven long hours and unknown challenges away. We’re well into the focus group— an enthusiastic group that gratefully munches on diced fruit, white buns and sweet tea while holding a spirited discussion in Chichewa that involves dramatic hand waving and frequent laughter— when the translator announces to me that we are missing a ballot. I assure her that we assembled and checked all of the packets the night before, but she insists it is not there. I enter the search, just in time to hear her announce that she found it and turn to pass a paper from one participant to another. I lunge after it like an infant, asking whether she has checked the participant ID on the ballot to make sure it’s going to the right owner. She glances at it, insisting that it’s right, but a quick comparison of the ballot and the sign-in sheet confirms my suspicions that it is coded for the person who had it first. The search resumes, and after several more near-errors, the correct ballot is finally retrieved. I groan inside at the averted catastrophe, and disappear into the back again.
12:10 pm. I was relieved when my flippant translator helped herself to the leftover refreshments and went home for the day. The silence is soothing, and I find the process of carefully packing away the morning’s data and setting up for the afternoon cathartic. Yet another group has clearly agreed that the most important factor in the success of forest restoration has nothing to do with trees: poverty alleviation through alternative livelihood provision has repeatedly been identified by government representatives and citizens alike as the most critical challenge to overcome to ensure that future restoration efforts have ecological and social benefits. We’re seeing differences in how groups envision solutions, but a public-private consensus is emerging— something we didn’t expect to see to this degree.
1:15 pm. I anticipate that my afternoon translator will arrive at any time, given that the next session will begin in less than an hour. The phone vibrates: her bus has been caught up in a student demonstration three towns away, where the police have stormed a roadblock and are forcing all public transit to disembark passengers and turn around. The students are protesting the dramatic increase in tuition that government and college officials just agreed to— an increase that threatens the ability of many students to even complete their degrees. Law enforcement has responded with swift crackdowns and teargas grenades. With my local research assistant and his car now on the other side of the roadblock, I am functionally stranded. I urge the translator to try to escape the melee on foot, where she may be able to find a bus or bike taxi trapped on our side.
4:45 pm. The translator succeeded in finding another bus and arrived half an hour late, but composed herself and launched straight into the focus group discussion. We miraculously are wrapping up on time when I hear the engine outside; my research assistant has returned, and the roadblock is now cleared. It will soon be time to pack another day’s work away and trundle back to the field station, hoping against hope that the power will be on and a hot bucket bath will be in store for me. At home in Canada, we’d assume that nothing else could possibly go wrong at this point, but here, you learn not to set yourself up for disappointment like that. It’s just another day on the job in this infinitely beautiful— and challenging— country.