We had the distinct honor of being introduced to the Director of the Forestry Research Institute of Malawi yesterday. Mr. Tembo Chanyenga is a man with a serious face, a big, solid handshake and a warm laugh. A seasoned forester, he is quick to admit that the research institute lags in technological advances, yet the impassioned and somber introduction to the environmental challenges facing his country that he gave us was rich with progressive views on climate change and poverty alleviation. The social sensibilities that hovered in the overtones of his explanations of FRIM’s otherwise rigorously scientific programs—agroforestry, seed selection and banking, tree breeding and introduction, and forest protection—were uniquely compassionate and well-informed. He couldn’t have offered us a more sincere welcome, or more strenuous encouragement that our research is vital, timely, and has the full backing of FRIM.
Still tingling from the enthusiastic reception our team received, we moved on to visit the National Herbarium & Botanic Gardens of Malawi. The tour started off with a carefully guided walk through the growing grounds and cold frames in a smallish fenced area, less than the size of the average nursery in California. Just as we were about to start wondering what all the fuss was about, our guide walked through a narrow gate, and I suddenly felt like I had woken up on the Yellow Brick Road. The Botanic Gardens must be one of the most precious natural treasures in Malawi, and for the next hour or more, we followed a sinuous path of crushed stone through pristine forest, between the buttressed roots of ancient trees, over streams that cascaded off of boulders, and past neatly clipped greens that rolled down little valleys like a green sea. I could have spent days under that sublime canopy, where even the air seemed soft and misty, investigating the termite mounds, and gazing up at old, gnarled trees that had long since had their lower trunks stripped by indigenous people for their healing properties against malarial fevers or persistent coughs. Our guide was a gifted and energetic naturalist, and that walk was unquestionably one of the most pleasurable tours I can remember…even if we did have a little difficulty finding the native species he pointed out on the internet later, thanks to this funny thing that happens to Latin when spelled with Chichewan vowel sounds!
Early this morning, we set off for the villages where we will be conducting household surveys. Our counterpart from FRIM, Willie Sagona, had kindly helped to arrange an introductory meeting with a village head and representatives of the households that had been involved in past phases of the research here. We are working on a shoestring budget this summer, so public transit is more than just an edgy way to integrate into local life; it’s all we can afford. We walk about twenty minutes from the field house to the nearest major thoroughfare in Zomba Town, and that’s where the bus-catching adventure begins.
Unlike the places that our team hails from, there are no schedules, no municipal services, and no bus stops. Those wishing to ride simply walk or linger along the roadside. A sporadic stream of mini-buses—think glorified Eurovans that have four rows of seating crammed into the gutted interior—with hand painted destination signs propped up on the dashboard lurch past, honking as they approach pedestrians. If you turn and wave receptively, or even nod, they will swerve to the shoulder, and the side door flies open as a youngish man leaps spryly out to negotiate the price and destination with you.
Once you’ve clambered inside, the bus instantly chugs forward again, as the negotiator leisurely closes the side door against the rush of wind and exhaust. Rolling starts aren’t uncommon, and there is often a moment of complete silence at departure as all of the passengers concertedly will the engine to turn over just one more time. The bus will then proceed to get up to breakneck speed on the highway, and the drivers seem to compete to see who can swerve around the most competitors while stuffed with up to four people per row of seating, all the time laying on the horn liberally like big kids who never quite got their fill of the tricycle track at preschool. Throughout the trip, anytime that pedestrians are spotted ahead, the driver toots furiously and the negotiator waves his arm out the open window, or even sticks his head and shoulders out to call back to passerby, as if someday, someone will say, “Geez, yes, I really wish you would jerk your soapbox on wheels off the road in a cloud of dust and pebbles 300 yards ahead of me so that I can eventually catch up to you and board.”
We arrived at a dusty red road bib in the middle of nowhere in one piece, but glad to be back on our own two legs again. The road led us toward the mountains, past villages and fields, and over a makeshift irrigation canal where an unperturbable duck dipped and bobbed happily in his six inches of muddy water as we splashed awkwardly across in our skirts. We eventually approached a cobbled clearing, where a large brick structure with a thatched roof and raised front stoop stood on the far side. The windows and doors were just openings, as with many buildings here, and through the beam of light cast by the door, I could barely see the silhouettes of two women sitting on the floor.
We were about thirty feet away when I saw them rise, and for a minute, their shapes disappeared into the shadows. Moments later, the most amazingly sweet music erupted from the building, and a stream of people began pouring out onto the stoop, down the stairs, and into the yard. They were singing a welcome song for us, and there wasn’t a still voice or hand in the crowd. An instrument would have sounded tinny by comparison; it was warm and vibrant like summer sun on nodding fields of grain, crisp and rhythmic like ten thousand cicadas. As they continued singing and clapping, they formed a ring, and every single one of them shook our hands and greeted us individually. When we followed them inside, and I sat down with them on the tarp spread over the ground, a cheer went up, and I knew I was in the right place this summer.