Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Easter Weekend on Chizumulu and Likoma Islands

I just got back from a lovely Easter long weekend.

Here in Malawi both Good Friday and Easter Monday are national holidays, so I wanted to make the best of my extra long weekend. I decided to go to a couple of Lake Malawi’s islands: Likoma Island and Chizumulu Island. I managed to convince my friend Heather to join me on the trip.

Likoma is a small island, 8km long by 3 km wide. It is located in Mozambican waters, but is territorially part of Malawi. It is of historical note in Malawi because of the Scottish missionaries that set up shop there. Aside from that, the main draw for travelers is the island’s isolation and mellow vibes. Chizumulu is smaller than Likoma and even more remote. It has some lovely beaches lined with ancient baobab trees, and great snorkeling along the shores.

For budget minded travelers, it is a bit of a trek to get to the islands. The only “budget” option to reach the islands is by taking the lake ferry, the MV Ilala. The MV Ilala has run up and down the lake once a week since 1957. It is notoriously slow and often late. However, I’ve heard wonderful things about the trip itself, and been told it is something not to be missed, so it is something I had to make sure I got around to doing before leaving!

On Friday morning, Heather and I headed off to catch the ferry! A couple hours by minibus brought us to the town of Salima, from which we grabbed a matola (an unofficial shared taxi, in this case, a small lorry) to the town of Chipoka. We weren't sure how long we were going to have to wait (we arrived pretty early because not only is the ferry often late, it is also sometimes early!). Soon enough, the ferry came into view.
Photo 1: The Ilala

The ferry pulled out of the dock at around 4pm. Our first evening on the boat was quite pleasant – we made some new friends and sipped beer on the deck, and enjoyed a lovely sunset. After a quite delicious dinner in the “saloon” we tucked ourselves into bed for an early night.
Photo 2: Me hanging on the deck

Photo 3: Heather and a fellow traveller Jesse, enjoying a beer
Photo 4: The sunset

The level of comfort with which one travels on the Ilala varies greatly depending on the type of ticket you spring for. Second class is on the lowest level of the ship, and is cramped and chaotic. People and cargo are piled on top of one another, and theft is apparently a significant issue. Not so pleasant . . . weighing cost vs. comfort, we opted for first class deck tickets.

The first class deck wasn’t very busy; we were two of 6 people camping out that night. Heather and I managed to rent the last available mattress. It was a little cozy! Sleeping out on the deck was less unpleasant than I thought – I managed to sleep despite the constant grumble of the engine and the mighty breeze that blew across the lake. Poor Heather opted not to bring her sleeping bag, so she woke up every so often to add layer upon layer, as it was quite chilly that night.
Photo 5: nighttime on the ferry deck

The next morning, the ferry slowly (it is not the swiftest of boats) tugged along the Mozambican coast. It is beautiful, and much less developed than the Malawian side. We stopped at a couple of ports along the way.
Photo 6: Baobab on the shore

Photo 7: Despite how patriotic this photo looks with the Malawian flag blowing in the wind, the land behind me is actually Mozambique

Photo 8: Metangula, Mozambique

Many of the ports the ferry stops at are too shallow to dock at. In these cases, the ship’s lifeboats are used to ferry people back and forth between the ship and the shore. It is a slow process . . .
Photo 9: Lifeboat
Photo 10: Filling the boat with people and goods
Photo 11: Picking up and dropping people off at the shore

It was a long day of ferrying. It takes a lot out of you!
Photo 12 : Napping

It wasn’t until we were already most of the way to Likoma that Heather and I decided to make a slight change in plans, and head to Chizumulu Island (we were originally just going to Likoma). It is a stop further along on the ferry route; we didn’t arrive until around 9:30pm on Saturday evening.

As we boarded a lifeboat to be brought to shore, the thought suddenly occurred to me: how exactly are we going to get out of this thing without getting completely soaked? Just as I pondered this, the dude driving our boat informed Heather and me that we were going to have to jump. As we neared the shore he started shouting “jump in! you must jump in now!” The crowd which had gathered on the shore to board the boat soon swarmed around and people frantically began loading in. I hopped off and found myself waist deep in water. Heather and I, both sopping wet, glanced at each other and started laughing hysterically about our soggy conclusion to 30 hours of ferry travel.

Dripping, we dragged our weary selves 100m from where we were dropped off to Wakenda retreat, a backpacker resort which, save for a couple local rest houses, is the only available accommodation on the island. We were greeted by the lodge’s proprietor – an Englishman named Simon. He was surprised to see us; it is uncommon for the lodge to receive guests coming from Northbound ferries (more commonly they receive guests on the southbound journey, as the island is only a few hours away from some larger Malawian towns in the north).

We were the only guests at Wakenda. It is an isolated place, depending almost exclusively on the Ilala for the transportation of guests. Some also come on a local transport boat that runs between Likoma and Chizumulu almost daily. Wakenda also relies on the Ilala to bring in all supplies – food, building material, etc. The manager hops on the ferry on Saturday evening on its trip north, and returns late on Monday on the southbound journey. Since we arrived at the end of the last food run, we were warned that supplies were running low.

Our time on Chizumulu was wonderfully relaxing. We swam and snorkeled in the crystal blue waters surrounding the resort, went for some nice walks around the island, watched local football games, sampled some local wine (brewed from water, tea leaves, sugar, and yeast), and read magazines (a rare treat for us!) while basking in the sun or lounging in hammocks.
Photo 13: Some fish I saw while snorkeling in the waters just in front of the lodge (making use of my waterproof camera!)
Photo 14: More fish
Photo 15: Our grass hut (with Dopey, one of the very cute resident dogs of Wakenda)
Photo 16: There was no cell reception right at the lodge, so we had to walk a little distance away to a hill for signal. We were followed by this group of kids, who started to sing and dance (with dance moves simulating a cell phone conversation!) for us – quite cute!

Photo 17: A view of one side of the island from a hike
Photo 18: The Wakenda retreat shoreline at dusk

As nice as our time was there, we intended to spend just one day on Chizumulu before heading to Likoma. We were told that the local transport boat between the two islands would not leave before 10am, but may not leave until as late as 1pm. However, when we arrived at the beach at 9:20am on Monday, we saw the boat sailing off into the horizon. So much for never leaving before 10am…
Photo 19: Our boat, sailing away without us

Oh well, there are worse places to get stranded . . .
Photo 20: Got some good hammock time in!
Photo 21: Yet another lovely Malawian sunset

We had to make it back to Likoma for Tuesday morning, to make it back in time for our flight – we had managed to score stand-by tickets for a chartered flight to Lilongwe (the ferry was great and all, but we didn't need to repeat the experience only a couple days later!). We were unable to take our resort’s boat because it was out of petrol (and wouldn’t be getting more until the return of the ferry!), so, the only other option was to hop on the ferry as it made the return trip to the south. The ferry wasn’t due back to Chizumulu until 12am. Once the power cut for the night at around 10pm (the island is powered by a big generator, and only has power available for 14 hours of the day) Heather and I headed for a couple of lounge chairs on the beach. We napped until woken up by the sound of the boat’s horn, as it pulled up into the bay.

Back on the ferry, we staked out suitable sleeping spots and hunkered down for a couple of hours. The ferry sat in the bay until 3am, and arrived in Likoma at around 4:30. Needless to say, we didn’t have the most restful night’s sleep.
Photo 22: Being ferried to the shore as the sun rose

It was nearly 5:30 by the time we got off on shore. So, we had some time available to run around the island before catching our flight. Our first stop was the lovely St. Peter’s Cathedral, built by missionaries and completed in 1905. It is huge, similar in size to Westminster Cathedral, and quite lovely!
Photo 23: St. Peter's Cathedral

The rest of our time on Likoma was spent exploring the market, wandering around aimlessly, and hanging out by the beach. We met some lovely people, and had a nice time.

All in all, quite a well spent long weekend I'd say!

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Trip to Tanzania!

I was recently given the opportunity to join a team from my office - consisting of our Regional Director, the head accountant, and a project coordinator – heading to our TLC office in Tabora, Tanzania. There were a few goals of the trip there, including checking on project progress, providing management and technical support, and hiring a new manager. My main objectives were to deepen my understanding of our projects there, and to apply the M&E system that we have been developing in Malawi to our projects in Tanzania.

The trip to Tanzania started with a flight on the private plane of a tobacco company (we get much of our funding from the tobacco industry). We flew at a much lower altitude than I’m accustomed to on commercial flights, so we enjoyed quite the fantastic view of the country.
Photo 1: Likoma Island from above (I'm headed there this weekend)

We landed just across the border in Tanzania to go through passport control. It was a funny operation, with a group of border guards just setting up shop beside the plane to process us.

When we were up in the air again, we were in for a special treat! We would soon be flying over the Selous Game Reserve, the largest in Africa (bigger than Switzerland!). The majority of the park is inaccessible to anyone but some rich hunters during the hunting season. Since it wasn’t the hunting season, we were able to fly at a low altitude, following the path of a river which was frequented by all sorts of creatures. So, we got quite the incredible aerial view of hippos, elephants, zebras, waterbuck, impalas, water buffalos, etc. It was really amazing!
Photo 2: Water buffalo (just off to the left was a huge herd of them, which I unfortunately missed-it is hard to take photos out the window of a moving airplane!)
Photo 3: Elephants

We spent the night in a city an hour or so west of Dar Es Salaam, before continuing on to the city of Tabora, another couple hours away by air.
Photo 4: Scenery on the way to Tabora
In Tabora, much of our time was spent conducting field visits. We visited several of our field coordinators, checking on progress in the field. It was really interesting for me to see just how different things are in Tanzania compared to Malawi.

Malawi, as I’ve indicated in past posts, has suffered tremendous deforestation, and the availability of land is a major issue. In this part of Tanzania, it was a different story entirely. There are vast expanses of forest, and ample land for cultivation. However, the forests are being depleted quickly in certain parts, and the use of tonnes and tonnes of wood for tobacco production is a key cause.

In our Tanzania projects, we’re working more closely with Tobbaco companies, who approached TLC to help decrease the impacts that their tobacco farmers were having on deforestation. In Tanzania, nearly 95% of tobacco grown is “flue cured,” which means that they are cured by heat in what are called “tobacco barns,” which use vast amount of wood to create heat (in contrast to Malawi, where the majority of tobacco is of the “burley” variety, which is air cured).

Photo 5 :a "rocket barn" - an improved design for tobacco curing barns, which drastically reduces the amount of wood required for the curing process

Photo 6: Farmer showing off a tree he planted in his maize field. Tobacco farmers are required to grow 500 trees per hectare of tobacco.

Photo 7: Farmer standing in a field with naturally regenerating trees. In the past, farmers were taught to chop down all trees in a field, based on the incorrect belief that trees and crops cannot be grown together. Not only is this untrue, but growing trees along with crops can have benefits, such as increased soil fertility.

Photo 8: A farmer showing off the natural woodland he manages. Natural woodland management is a major component of our programs in Tanzania. By applying a few management techniques to existing wooded areas the long term sustainability of the wood source can be ensured.

Photo 9: That big pile of wood will be used in his traditional (not rocket!) barn to cure some of his tobacco. All that wood was gathered during maintenance of the natural woodland area he manages.

Through our work, TLC is hoping that Tanzanian farmers do not soon find themselves in the situation of Malawian farmers . . .

Photo 10: Checking out a farmer's woodland

A common sight when we were driving around were beehives hanging from the trees. A local method of honey production involves setting up beehives, in the form of short pieces of logs, and hanging them way up in the trees. The honey of the area is apparently quite good, and my coworkers bought litres and litres of the stuff to bring back to Malawi. They packed it up well in a big box, and joked about how important the honey was, how all they cared about was that the honey successfully makes it back to Malawi.

Getting back from Tabora was a long process. Our schedule forced us to take commercial flights back to Lilongwe. We flew to Dar Es Salaam on Friday morning, arriving around midday. Spending the afternoon in Dar was pleasant enough. We explored the huge market there, and bought excessive amounts of fabric (much cheaper there than in Malawi) and other stuff. We had a fancy dinner by the ocean, enjoying the cool ocean breeze after a very hot afternoon exploring Dar.

Photo 11: Cloth for sale in the market

Photo 12: Dinner by the ocean (myself with Vicky, the head accountant, and Glynwell, a project coordinator and M&E guy)

We were originally to fly Air Malawi from Dar to Lilongwe, which should have taken a couple of hours. Unfortunately, Air Malawi was experiencing some problems, so we had to take a much longer path, stopping over in Johannsesberg. So, what should have been a 2 hour trip, turned into a 9 hour one. It wasn't all bad though - the Jo'burg airport had some excellent shopping ;)

When we finally arrived in Lilongwe, we waited by the luggage carousel. My bag was the first item to make its way out, followed by the box of honey. In the end, that was all the luggage that made it from my group of 4. My three coworkers' luggage had been lost. I blame the powers of jinx, because of all the fuss about their precious honey!

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Cattle herds and the hungry season crime wave in Lilongwe

On my way to work a couple weeks ago, I came across an interesting sight. Herds of cattle being led through the city. I’d never seen a single cow in Lilongwe, nevermind several herds! There are men from the city who earn money by heading to the far north of the country, where cattle are cheap, and then walk them to Lilongwe for sale. The journey takes 5 solid days of walking, stopping only in the evenings to rest. The cows are then fattened up for a month or so before being slaughtered.

I was told that this is a common practice at this time of year, when food reserves from last year have been exhausted, but before the next harvest. Prices are also at their peak for other key foods such as tomatoes, which along with maize also make an appearance at every meal. So, people have to use some different means to earn cash to buy food.

It should therefore come as little surprise that it is also a peak time for crime here in Lilongwe. I guess you could call it “subsistence theft” as desperate people start supplementing their income in less savory ways. Break-ins and car jackings become more regular occurrences at this time. Certain roads are best avoided, and I even heard that at one intersection police are advising motorists to run red lights at night, as multiple people have been carjacked while waiting for the light to turn green. Even I have had would-be thieves chased away by our watchman on a couple of occasions.

Thankfully, harvest time has begun. Tobacco sales have started at the auction floors, where the majority of farmers sell their tobacco, and prices are at record highs – over 400% higher than last year, which was already a very good year. Soon all the maize shall be harvested too.

Perhaps some day, as Malawi continues on its slow path to development, this phenomenon of hungry season crime waves will be a thing of the past . . .

Friday, 7 March 2008

An article on a treeless Malawi

An article I wrote recently...

At this time of year, Malawi’s landscape is dominated by cultivated fields of maize and tobacco – the maize stalks tall and a brilliant shade of green, the tobacco plants with their many layers of large broad leaves. The fields stretch as far as the eye can see, across plains and hillsides, dotted by the occasional tree. Nearly every available patch of arable land in the country has been cleared of trees for use as agricultural land.
Photo 1: Field of maize

Photo 2: Field of tobacco and maize

Yet, every so often one comes across a dense patch of indigenous tress. These patches of forest serve as a reminder of what the countryside once looked like, and survive now only because of what they contain: cemeteries. These trees are only protected by the belief that if one cuts them down, they will be haunted by spirits.
Photo 3: A cemetery as viewed from above

Malawi’s dwindling forests are heavily relied upon in both the cities and rural areas to satisfy energy and building needs. In the rural areas women emerge from every direction, some coming from great distances, carrying massive bundles of firewood on their heads. On the roadways, countless trucks and bicycle vendors transport loads of logs and firewood into the towns and cities – most often from poorly-policed forest reserves. In the towns, large depots sell firewood, and in every market, vendors sell charcoal.

The majority of wood consumed in Malawi is used to generate energy for homes, mostly as fuel for cooking. The production of tobacco, Malawi’s largest export crop, is also a considerable culprit, consuming vast quantities of wood to cure the leaves.
Photo 4 : A pile of wood ready to be used for curing tobacco leaves

The demand for wood is largely met by the many rural Malawians who rely on the sale of firewood and charcoal to support their families; trees are regarded as a free resource for all, and the sale of firewood is one of the few non-farming related income generating activities available to Malawi’s rural poor.

The mass deforestation of Malawi’s forests has important implications for agriculture, affecting the vast majority of the national population who are farmers. Forests play an important role to improve soil fertility, maintain effective soil hydrology, moderate stream flow, and provide soil erosion control - all of which contribute to the long-term productivity of the land. And as wood supplies are depleted, women and girls must spend more time fetching firewood at the expense of more productive activities such as farming, child care, and education.

As an EWB volunteer, I am working in partnership with a Malawi based non-governmental organisation called Total Landcare (TLC). TLC implements agro-forestry and natural resources management programs in rural communities throughout the country. Our primary focus is to help groups of farmers set up nurseries to raise tree seedlings to be planted as community woodlots and on their own properties. A variety of species are targeted for different uses including firewood, building material, timber, fruit production, shade, medicines, oils, and animal fodder. On a smaller scale, we also promote bamboo planting to replace wood for certain building uses.
Photo 5: Tree seedling nursery
Photo 6: Community woodlot
However, the benefits of planting trees and bamboo--promoting a decrease in deforestation and improving lives of the farmers--are not immediately realized. In response, TLC also takes action that has more immediate and dramatic effects, such as supporting farmers in the use of improved kitchen stoves and tobacco barns and the improved management and use of natural forests and trees.

My specific role at TLC is within the Monitoring and Evaluation team. To determine if we are achieving our goals as an organisation, we need an understanding of our impact on communities. My role is to make sure that information is gathered and used to help TLC reduce poverty more effectively.

When visiting rural communities, I can tell when we’re approaching a TLC site. Unlike their barren, treeless neighbours, these villages are green and lush. Wood can be harvested in a sustainable manner from village woodlots and beautiful stands of maize are grown amongst trees that enhance soil in the fields. Interest is often sparked in neighbouring villages, and farmers are approaching TLC, wanting to be involved, having seen the positive impacts experienced by their neighbours.

It is TLC’s hope that rural communities throughout the country will develop the capacity to sustainably use and manage their forest resources, leading to reduced environmental degradation, and increased long-term agricultural productivity. Perhaps some day, it won’t just be the spirits that are able to enjoy the shade of Malawi’s trees.

Sidetrip to Victoria falls

I was in Zambia a couple weeks ago for an EWB retreat. Before the retreat, a couple of us went to check out Victoria falls - one of the 7 wonders of the natural world - which is situated about 6 hours west of Lusaka, on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Photo 1: Victoria Falls!
While neither the highest nor widest waterfall in the world, some claim that it is the largest on the basis of having the largest “curtain” of falling water in the world . . . The point is that it is pretty damn huge.

Photo 2: Luke, Trevor and myself

The local name for the falls is “the smoke that thunders.” During the flood season, the spray from the falls rises to a height of over 400 meters, and sometimes even twice that, and is visible from up to 50km away.

Photo 3: The falls from another vantage point

No matter how many times I was warned that I was going to get soaked, somehow I was still not prepared for just how ridiculous it was going to be! I was expecting something like a moderate rainfall, whereas in reality it was more like standing in a shower full force (no water saver low flow shower head version!) or having someone standing several feet away with a hose aimed at you. We got thoroughly soaked to the bone, and I was very happy to have a waterproof camera!

Photo 4: So much spray!

Photo 5: The bridge from which you viewed the falls

Photo 6: There was a point on the bridge where everywhere you looked you saw rainbows!

Photo 7: The Victoria falls bridge

Photo 8: In the gorge beneath the falls is a deep pool called the boiling pot, where at high flow the water swirls turbulently