We have found Malawi to be a country full of hope and potential. The locals are quick to tell us that this is a third world country, and among the ten poorest in the world at that, as if to apologize for our experience here. But where they see backwardness, we see a clean slate. The fallowed agricultural fields are chock full of species, native and cultivated, that provide a cornucopia for pollinators. Small scale agricultural mosaics are the norm; though I doubt the villagers we work with could define “polyculture” or “hedgerow,” these vegetation types saturate the landscape. Local fruits and vegetables are all you’ll find at the open market and on the roadsides; if an apple has been imported from nearby South Africa, it’s so notable that the merchant will call it out as if it were a selling point.
Watersheds are undeveloped, dams are rare, and most streams splash freely down from the mountains. Community Based Organizations (CBOs) that rally around environmental protection are strongly supported by government at nearly all levels, and are even coached on how to develop and ratify bylaws that become legally binding and enforceable in court once the District Forestry Office approves them. And most of all, the people are remarkably happy and welcoming. They live simple but peaceful lives. Malawi is among the safest countries in Africa in spite of the pervasive poverty, large Christian and Muslim populations, and increasingly notable impacts of climate change— a rare mix by any international standards. All of these things, the major economic powers of the world have to some extent foregone.
The United States, for instance, will never be able to turn back the clock on industrial agriculture, nor reverse the massive environmental degradation— at home and abroad— that has attended her rise to world leadership. Love Canal, and numerous less publicized tragedies, can never be fully erased from the landscape. Climate adaptation is hard; achieving the de-consumerism of America while tangibly addressing the staggering class disparities that plague presidential campaigns is proving to be about as tractable as a Chinese finger trap. Such has been the cost of our “development.” Malawi, and countries like her, have the chance to learn from our mistakes and to choose a resilient path towards the future. But the tremors are already being felt, even in the remote places we trek to each day. Children toddle by us, playing with empty toner cartridges. We occasionally stumble on old batteries half-buried in the dirt. Plastic wrappers make their way to irrigation ditches. Progress is inevitable in our interconnected world; our aim as researchers is to help ensure that it’s in the right direction.
It’s true that deforestation is a major challenge; the landscape has radically changed since the sunset of British colonialism here some fifty years ago, in a large part due to the burst of entrepreneurial energy (and population) that erupted in the wake of democratization. The vast majority of historical forest extent has been encroached on by people trying to sustain their families from the land: building houses, cooking food, selling forest products, and carving useful implements. Major non-native timber plantations have been planted by government and businesses, and major international timber concessions have been sold, from what we hear. Asian countries in particular appear to have an active interest in buying wood and selling low-cost products here. Besides Malawian goods, which do comprise a large portion of staple products on the shelves, Chinese exports rank a close second in our part of the country. Historical government corruption has led to a recent slackening of aid from Western countries, which has opened the door for partnership with less scrupulous trade negotiators.
Quite simply, Malawi is a country with growing pains. Among them is an aging power generation and distribution infrastructure that struggles to keep pace with the demands of an increasing population. The hydroelectric turbines on the Shire River frequently clog with weeds, or the network is simply overwhelmed with demand. We lose power for some part of nearly every day, on average for two to four hours at a time. Unfortunately, this often occurs just after we arrive home from a long day in the field, as we are preparing to cook dinner on our electric stove. There is always a general outcry in our house, and then team members scatter to recover headlamps and cell phones with flashlights before regrouping in the dining and sitting room. If it’s already late and everyone is ravenous, we all pitch together to make our no-power-no-problem special: cold leftover rice with cans of cold baked beans, fresh guacamole, and a salad of sliced bananas and canned peaches. It does get a little old though, so more and more often, we hold out for the return of the lights to cook our intended meal.
While we wait, folks sometimes read, write or practice yoga to pass the time, but the team frequently ends up sitting around the dining table, where someone will usually sacrifice their headlamp to hang from the overhead light fixture for the common good. We happen to have abundant musical talent in our household, and listening to music on the iPod hooked up to a battery powered speaker is a surefire way to get people talking, laughing or singing in spite of the frustrating circumstances. “Headlamp concerts” are becoming a cult classic in our field station, as some kind of rain dance to restore power (or simply stave off boredom). Of course, Toto’s Africa is a favorite, and during the climatic chorus of one particularly spirited encore performance this week— complete with three-part harmonies, interpretive dance and air-drums— the power actually did come back on, to simultaneous screams of approbation that would have made even Bono green with envy. We are in the early stages of planning our benefit concert now. Clear your calendar, friends.