It’s the final countdown. We’ve reduced our lives to the essentials, and then squeezed them into backpacks. The dissonant assembly of chlorine tablets, anti-malaria medicine, Chichewa language books, mosquito spray, GPS units, flagging tape, first aid kits, densiometers, para-cord and camera lenses that has been accumulating in corners of my apartment has been neatly funneled into compression bags and field packs, along with a small bundle of clothes and a pair of shoes. A few protein bars, electrolyte packets and my passport linger expectantly in the lid pocket. My flight leaves in 40 hours; two days (and three flights) later, I’ll finally join our research team’s earliest arrivals in Zomba, Malawi.
A joint venture between the University of British Columbia’s Africa Forests Research Initiative on Conservation and Development (AFRICAD) led by Joleen Timko, and the Landscapes and Livelihoods Lab (L³) headed by Jeanine Rhemtulla, our field expedition this summer is just the beginning of a long term investigation of community-based forest restoration in the “Warm Heart of Africa.” Over the next 90 days, three teams will work across the southern region of the country to conduct household surveys on forest resource use; assess the ecological and social success of historical forest landscape restoration projects; and involve villagers in focus groups to map current landscape use across the poverty gradient, and analyze spatial and ecological preferences in order to inform multi-benefit restoration planning. It’s an ambitious plan for the summer, entrusted to a plucky and capable field team of 6 women, which I am honored to be a part of.
The path to this day was a testing one. When I received the news that I had been funded to join the L³ team this summer, I had barely one month until I needed to report to the UBC campus to join in preparing for the expedition. Finishing a job, planning an international move, boxing up a closing chapter of my life in Santa Barbara, collecting the paperwork needed to cross the border…in the blur, I seemed to hear my own voice saying “accepted to a PhD program in Canada” and “moving at the end of the month” without fully absorbing the words. It wasn’t until the 1260-mile road trip began that my consciousness started to catch up to reality, and by the time the box truck with all of my worldly possessions in it bunny-hopped across the hidden speed bump in front of the Canadian Border Services Agency checkpoint and landed with a disheartening crash at 12:25am on Monday, May 2, 2016, I knew that I was about to embark on the biggest adventure of my life.