Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Our last few days in the Warm Heart of Africa

This was our last week in Malawi, so we had just two days left to get work done. We planned out our first remaining day for community surveying and the last for a wrap-up meeting with the committee.

The van pictured is how we've been getting around the community throughout the trip. The guy in the pink dress shirt is Paul, our main translator throughout the trip.
We piled into our van for our final opportunity to get our questions answered by community surveying. This community was further away to the center of Kumponda compared to the other communities we've visited before. In our discussions with the villagers there, we found out that the villagers will pay around 600 kwacha to have their maize transported to Kumponda and back for milling, before the milling cost itself. This is pretty exciting news because it improves the business case for our maize mill project.
The committee
We surveyed one family while sitting on a bamboo mat, which is apparently called a 'bango' in Chichewa. We got all of our last questions answered for our projects, and thanked the family who helped us.

And then Conner threw up.

On Tuesday, we met with the committee, Fanta in hand, and wrapped things up with the local leadership. It turns out that there was a crop infestation problem in the community and a majority of the committe had to deal with the issue during the meeting, so there weren't quite as many participants as there were in the first meeting. The meeting went quite well: since the initial disappointment at the first meeting, it seems that they understand EWB's mission and limitations and will have realistic expectations in the future. They emphasized a number of times that they wanted us to remember them and their concerns. We reassured them that we will me maintaining contact with AFES, who will communicate our progress to the community.

By that evening, Conner was feeling much better, so we decided to have one last dinner out downtown. There was only one problem: Daniel was sick now! We resolved to get a taxi ride to Bombay Palace. Taxis here are harder to get ahold of than in the US though: there's no central number you call to get them. They're just guys with cars and some time. Thankfully, we were able to contact Paul and have him get a taxi for us. He came along for dinner, which was really nice. Throughout our trip, we've been working with Paul in the community and have had less time to get to know him outside of work than we'd like. He's a really nice guy, too.

It is now Wednesday, the day of our flight. We're all packed and ready to return to the states. Daniel is picking us up soon and Mike is quite sure that he won't arrive until I finish writing this blog post, so I'll call it a day on this one now.

Thanks to everyone who supported us on this trip: Daniel and the AFES staff, the Kumponda committee and villagers, EWB Cal Poly, and of course our friends, family, and donors back home! We'll be back in the Warm Heart of Africa before you know it!

Sunday, December 28, 2014


It's been raining cats and dogs for a few days:

So we decided to pick up and drive to Mount Mulanje this morning.  The Mulanje area is known for having some of the best weather in Malawi.  We drove about 45 minutes out of Blantyre through tea and macadamia farms.  Some kids were selling roasted macadamia nuts on the side of the road for about 20 cents a bag.  Awesome.  As we got closer we could see the mountain in the distance.

We hiked up to a waterfall and went swimming.  They say the pool below the waterfall is 60 meters deep!

We met a few snails.  This guy was around six inches long.

And the sunset from the mountain was spectacular.

We'll be in Kumponda tomorrow to do some community surveying in a few new areas.  Stay tuned!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Daniel's Cooking Bugs Me

Twas the day after Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, except for the pan full of ngumbi bugs that Daniel was cooking up for Matt to eat. It turns out that if you lock Matt in a house for long enough he'll come to think that it's a good idea to start eating bugs. Who knew? Maybe by the end of this week we can convince him to fry up one of the lizards that are always running up our walls.

Ngumbi look similar to mayflies with longer wings and make a habit of flying into lights and then falling to the ground in a pile that is easy to collect in a glass of water. From there Daniel showed us how you simply take them from the glass of water and place them on a hot pan and let them cook for about 15 minutes. After that they are ready to be eaten, and if the one small one I tried was a good example, they have a slight barbecue flavor and are very crunchy.

Part of the reason for this exploitative eating was that the day after Christmas, the 26th,  was declared to be a national holiday... on the afternoon of the 25th. After waking up to the surprise that most all business were closed that day we found that we had another day of to spend reading. All of these lazy days meas that I finished the book A Dance With Dragons in just four days which I feel pretty proud about. Despite all the reading we found ourselves getting bored as the day wore on and decided to try and walk to Al Pacino's for lunch. After making the 15 minute walk up to the restaurant we found it was closed however. We would not give up hope for a lunch that was not top ramen however and stumbled upon the hole in the wall restaurant "The Zebra Pond" on the way back. When I say hole in the wall restaurant, I mean literally it was a hole in a wall. There was a wall, and the wall had a hole in it, and you would order food through the hole and the cooks would hand it out. By this time we were all so hungry

that we quickly ordered everything on the menu. Of course everything on the menu consisted of chicken samosas, fries, and Fanta. After the four of us ate our fill we handed the money for the meal through the hole. The total was about 5 dollars.

Later that evening, after eating the bugs, we decided to go out for dinner so we went to Casa Mia, a local restaurant. The prices were a little higher here, but it was worth it for the plate of chicken alfredo I  ordered and everyone else's dishes looked equally as appetizing.

As I'm writing this today we are hoping to go out and do some shopping downtown this afternoon and we might go to a game park tomorrow. That however will be a story for another day.

Muli bwanji,


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

It's Christmas!

Today is Christmas, although it really doesn't feel like it.  It's summer here and we haven't had a chance to decorate.  We did make a tree out of a box and some paper we were hoping to put lights and/or a star on, but getting to the store has been difficult.  Daniel has been busy trying to find a new office for AFES and we don't have the number of the minibus driver who's been taking us to the community.

This week has been pretty interesting and we've gotten a lot done.  Since getting back from the lake on Sunday (which was amazing), we got right back to work.  Monday was busily spent land surveying at the reservoir we found last week to map elevation changes and distances.  We hope to set up an irrigation system in the fields below the dam side of the reservoir.  Dan suggested using a siphon system to get water over the dam without having to cut into, and possibly destabilize it. This is a much better option that doesn't have the risk of flooding the land the community wishes to irrigate and a couple houses in that area.  Surveying took us a few hours and we had to hurry to map as much as we could before it started to rain.  The rains came right as we were finishing up and we had to cover the equipment and book it back to the van.  Of course, as soon as we pack everything up and all pile in it stops raining.

Tuesday we went to do some community surveying for the maize mill project in Zwanya.  Zwanya is a very beautiful village, it seems more fertile and green than other parts of Kumponda.  To get there we had to cross a small stream that the locals tell us gets very large in the rainy season; so large that they can't cross for days at a time. Building a bridge there may be a future project, but it is far to big an undertaking for us at the moment.  In Zwanya we first met with the chief who spoke very good English.  He had worked at the airport when he was younger and learned the language there.  He also seems to really understand the EWB mindset and wants to help as much as he can.  For instance, when we asked about a building to put the maize mill in he, our AFES contacts, and a couple other villagers spent ten minutes pricing out exactly how much it would cost.  After meeting with the chief we went to survey some of the locals.  We stumbled upon a few at a well and started asking them about their corn consumption and farming habits.  Dan had brought a bag of candy from Bakersfield and started handing them out to the kids there.  Word of this seamed to spread quickly because within a few minutes kids started coming from everywhere.  The candy ran out pretty fast that day.
We wanted to do something special that night because it was Dan's last day in Malawi, so we went out to dinner.  Malawi has some really good Indian restaurants because there are a lot of Indian immigrants, so we looked online for the best.  We settled on Bombay Palace and set off in Daniel's car.  None of us really knew where the restaurant was, just a general location, so after some exploring and driving the wrong way down a one way road (to which Daniel says "it's ok, it's night") we found it. We ordered family style so we could try a little of everything.  The food was Delicious, some of the best Indian food I've ever had and a nice change from our usual (poorly) home-made meals.  We had garlic naan and rice with chicken tikka masala, curry, mutton, lentils and more. All in all, a good night.

Christmas eve was less fun, we couldn't do much because the community was all busy preparing for Christmas and Daniel was taking Dan to the airport. We tried to go see a movie at the theater, which happened to be one sketchy door in an underground parking lot at the mall.  Sadly it had been closed for what look like a long time, so we did a quick shopping run and went back to our apartment.  We were supposed to go out to a local restaurant, Doogles (McDoogles as Connor calls it) that night because apparently Christmas eve is a night everyone goes out here.  Sadly Daniel got tied up and we weren't able to get a ride there.

Today promises to be much more exciting since we have plans with another Cal Poly student group here.  The Peanut Butter Project is a nutrition organization that uses peanut butter to help malnourished children.  The group in Malawi is almost entirely composed of Cal Poly grad students and we are meeting up with them later today for Frisbee, football, and Christmas decorating.

Merry Christmas!


Monday, December 22, 2014

Mbuzi Problems

On Friday morning we woke up, ate breakfast and met Daniel.  The gang piled into his car and drove into Limbe, an industrial city adjacent to Blantyre.  At a large Home Depot equivalent we recorded the costs of tools and materials that might be useful in a future implementation.  In a nearby cluster of machine shops, hardware stores, and agricultural suppliers, we found several stores selling maize shelling and milling equipment.

Some friendly shopkeepers opened a few mills for us to take photos.  They described the shelling and grinding mechanisms and patiently recounted pricing for equipment, service, and parts.  After wrapping up our mission in Limbe we decided the weekend would be a good time to get out of Blantyre and explore.

We dropped by the grocery store to pick up some drinks for the road.  We were excited to find a South African cream soda.  However, our enthusiasm quickly faded when we realized it was bright green and contained 9.2 g of protein.  Where does the protein come from?!  We had a few Fantas to assist our forgetting this unsettling experience and jumped into Daniel's car, bound for Lake Malawi.

Daniel drove us up Highway M6 to Balaka, where we continued onto Highway M17.  Although the roads were new and well maintained, our progress was slowed by constant encounters with free roaming animals.  Dogs, cows, and chickens typically fled the road as we approached but the goats were clueless.  Unaware or unconcerned with our rapidly approaching vehicle, the goats would continue grazing (asphalt? garbage?) in the middle of the road as we decelerated to a crawl, navigated around them, and continued on our way.  The Malawians call them "mbuzi".  We call them jerks.

Eventually we turned east and drove into Lake Malawi National Park.  The road wound through impressive mountains covered in thick vegetation and inhabited by brown monkeys who frequently visited the road but were not eager to say hello.  After about 10 kilometers we emerged into a very dense settlement on the lake shore called Cape Maclear.  Although we couldn't yet see the lake, the crowded, narrow streets were packed with fishmongers.  We fumbled around the busy town for 20 minutes before coming upon a hotel called "Chembe Eagles' Nest".  A gatekeeper let us in and we caught our first view of water.  In spite of the darkness, we could tell that the lake was spectacular.

The hotel was in a small bay, bordered by rocky hills to the north and a hectic boat launch to the south.  We settled into our rooms and had a catfish (compango) dinner on the beach.  Across the lake we could see the lights of fisherman in canoes.  The hotel rooms had air conditioning and bug nets.  Awesome.

We took our time getting up on Saturday and stumbled into the dining hut for breakfast.  We had french toast with bacon and cheese on it.  Some continued to the beach with books while others began to explore the lake shore.  We discovered a submerged boat graveyard on the rocky shoreline to the north of the hotel.  The canoes are hollowed out of baobob trees and, although the lake is calm, are very difficult to balance.  Conner took out a kayak which sunk almost immediately.  A few more of us made attempts before we all agreed that the kayak was the problem and not us.  Impressed by our nautical prowess, a local sailor asked if we'd like to go out on his catamaran the next day.  We agreed and returned to the beach to relax.  In addition to humans (mostly from South Africa), the beach was home to a number of goats, dogs, birds, monkeys, and a wide variety of lizards.  One of them looked like a small komodo dragon.  We avoided it.  After dinner (a fish called chombe) we hung out in a hut on the beach.  Later, I returned to my room to find that one of the lizards had made a home of my toilet.  I struggled to leave him undisturbed.  After waking up and hurrying to the lobby bathroom, I met the others for breakfast.  We ate some pancakes and fruit and then got underway on the "Mama Afrika".

We motor-sailed a few miles out to an island called Thumbe to go snorkeling.  The water was extremely clear there.  We tossed in bread crumbs and bright red, yellow, blue, silver and brown fish swarmed around us.  It looked like an aquarium.  After an hour of snorkeling we set sail for the far side of the island where brown and white eagles were perched high in the trees.  Our captain whistled to get their attention and then tossed some whole fish into the water.  It was amazing watching the eagles emerge from the trees, soar toward the water, snatch up the fish, and return to eat their lunch.

Heading back toward the mainland, we came across some South Africans who had intended to swim to Thumbe but after a half mile decided it was too far and flagged us down for rescue.  We picked them up and chatted on the way back to the hotel.  They had driven up to Malawi from South Africa and it took them over a week!  This reminded us how large Africa really is.  After grabbing a quick lunch we stepped outside the hotel to a small crafts market, picked up a few souvenirs and got back on the road.  This time we took Highway M15 to Mangochi and then continued on Highway M3.  Our route hugged the coast for several hours.  Though we drove around the shore for what seemed like an eternity, we had only seen a small portion of the lake.  By surface area it's the ninth largest in the world.  We took a detour to see the Liwonde National Park, which is home to elephants, rhinos, warthogs, impalas, baboons, hyenas, lions, jackals, large snakes, crocodiles, leopards and more.  The staff welcomed us to the park and explained that, although we were encouraged to proceed, it was probable that the afternoon rains would wash out an old wooden bridge along the main road, obstructing our egress.  Rather than spend the night dodging hungry predators we elected to press on toward Blantyre.  Along the way we passed through Zomba: the colonial capital of Malawi.  The city has some unique architecture that was interesting to see.  An hour later, under some ominous looking clouds, we arrived safely back at our apartment in Blantyre, just in time for the sky to open up with an incredibly powerful thunderstorm.

All in all a great weekend.  We settled in and got back to work for the coming week.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

More Fun Times in Malawi

A lot happened both yesterday and today. Yesterday morning we got in the van we have been riding all around both Blantyre and Kumponda and traveled to a community that had already had an irrigation system installed. When we arrived we found a small river had been dammed with two HDPE pipes coming out that traveled about a quarter mile along the river through trenches dug to keep the slope of the pipe slightly downwards which in some cases were cut up to 10 feet deep. These pipes eventually led to a brick channel that was able to flood irrigate a couple acre fields.

After taking notes and asking questions about the irrigation systems we went back to the apartment and I had a wholesome lunch of Fanta, ramen, and a whole bag of Puffs; a snack similar to cheese puffs which, if the bag is to be believed: "they are magical". After I woke up from a food coma Daniel came over to ask about our day. Afterwards we had an interesting conversation about the organization of Malawi politics. It turns out that the elected government is only half the story in Malawi. There is also a whole chief structure that reaches to the regional level. Any decision made by the federal government must also be approved by the TAs, or traditional authorities of a region. These traditional authorities are the biggest chiefs in a given area. There are five TAs in Blantyre who have the final say in large projects around the city. Below the TAs are several Group Chiefs. These group chiefs control the land of large areas of the countryside that contain many villages. Thought this trip we have been working closely with the chief of Group Komponda. Below the Group Chief are several committee members and smaller village chiefs who all hold authority of individual villages. Each chief is able to sell or designate all the land he controls and also acts as the judge for the people he rules over.

After this thought provoking conversation we decided tonight would be a good night to try and eat out. We decided to pay a visit to a local restaurant just down the street that none of us knew anything about except for the name; 'Al Pachino's'. Intrigued by this we walked in to find a swanky dining room and bar with live music playing and waiters dressed with a slight resemblance to 40s mobsters, fedora included. Impressed by all this we sat down and asked for the menus. The restaurant served food that ranged from burgers to steak to grilled crocodile and had our mouths watering. An even bigger surprise occurred when we looked at the prices. The most expensive thing on the menu was about 1500 Kwatcha, or 3 dollars. Noting this we all ordered a couple things from the menu and had a feast trying all of the different dishes.

We hope to do some surveying in the next couple of days and we may be traveling to Lake Malawi this weekend to do some sight seeing.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Muli Bwanji

It's now our fourth day here and all I can say is that Malawi is amazing.  The countryside is beautiful and the locals are very friendly, even if they do like to laugh at foreigners a bit. The weekend after we arrived was mostly spent settling into our apartment and preparing for the coming weeks.

Monday was our first day in the community.  Daniel (our NGO) picked us up at 9:34 sharp and took us to the AFES office. There we met our translators and AFES contacts; Paul and Shikira (or Shikila, none of us are sure I've been corrected! Apparently Shikira reads our blog).  Daniel, sadly, couldn't come with us to the community because he was attending a local sustainability workshop.

On our way into the community, Paul said we needed to pick up Fanta to present to the chief at our meeting with the counsel.  I thought I'd misheard, so I turned to Conner and he said he heard the same thing.  Sure enough, on our way to Kumponda we stopped at a small shop and picked up a case of soda.
The counsel

When we arrived at the community (half an hour late) much of the counsel was waiting for us.  In Malawi, the custom is to greet everyone individually by saying "Muli bwanji" (how are you) and they respond "Ndiri bwino" (I'm fine).  So we spent the next few minutes greeting everyone and having our pronunciation and mistakes cause bursts of laughter.  Once everyone was seated, the chief came out and we had to do the greeting again.  The meeting went fairly well; they were happy to have EWB back in the community, but they thought we were going to implement and were disappointed it was just an assessment trip. They seemed to understand, though, when we told them we need more information before we can implement any projects.

After this meeting we headed back to the apartment to wait for Daniel to return from his workshop.  When he arrived we filled him in on how the meeting went and he reassured us it was all good.  Then we told him we needed to convert our money into local Kwatcha so we could pay our driver (to the community) and buy things we need. We all piled in Daniel's car and he took us to the bank.  Unfortunately the bank had closed at 3, so Daniel says we'll have to exchange our money on the black market.  We turn the corner from the bank and stop. Two guys immediately come up to the car and ask how much we want to trade.  We try to trade small bills, but they say they only want bills over $20.  Then we pull out a $100, but it is a pre-2007 note, which apparently isn't accepted in much of Africa because they're easy to counterfeit. Finally we pull out a new hundred and the guys get excited and give us the Kwatcha. Once we had money we were able to buy simcards and minutes to make our phone usable and get on the internet with the laptop.

The next day (today) Paul picked us up at 9 to head back into the community.  We were going to see a local reservoir that we might be able to use for the irrigation project. On the way there we stopped next to the village school and we rushed by a mob of excited kids.  We took their pictures and showed them and they loved it.

We continued on to the reservoir and talked to one of the chief's representatives.  It was a long, hot hike out there and when we arrived we saw kids jumping into the water and swimming around.  I'm sure we all wished we could join them, but instead we asked the representative about the history and workings of the reservoir. We also talked to a few local families about their farms and water usage.  This gave us some good information and ideas we can put towards the irrigation project in the future

It's getting late and I'm still not completely used to the time change, so that's all for now.



Monday, December 15, 2014

We're Back!

At the airport in Ethiopia
We all just arrived here in Malawi! It was a long trip - the whole journey took close to 40 hours. From SLO to LAX, Washington DC, Ethiopia, Lilongwe, and then our destination of Blantire this afternoon (that's 4 flights, but who's counting?), we're finally done with travel for now!

Daniel picked us up at the airport and we crammed into his car with all of our luggage. We dropped it off and went to the grocery store to pick up some basics. The highlights: bread and eggs. They have pretty fresh bread in the store that they slice right there, so we picked up a loaf. Eggs are AMAZING here. They're really high quality at a pretty good price. Our apartment's kitchen was completely empty, so we also picked up a basic skillet.

Our tiny stove
We made a basic dinner on our stove, which happens to be fairly underpowered and slow. Almost everything has to be cooked on the max setting of 6.

We ended up crashing pretty soon after that because our flight was so long and some of us got almost no sleep.

The next day - Sunday - was a fairly relaxed one. Not too much happens here on Sundays, so it was a day for us mostly to recover and get ready for the coming weeks of work. We started the day by attempting to make some eggs. The stove seemed to be working even slower than normal. After trying to run it for quite a while, we discovered that the power was completely out throughout the house! In need of something to do as well as fresh water, we took a trip to the nearest store to buy bottled water. We checked the power when we returned - of course it was still out.

Without much to do or anything to cook with, we ended up collectively eating an entire block of cheese. (a small block, but still!) The cheese just disappeared. Finally around 6PM the power came back on. We watched a movie (or tried - basically all of us ended up falling asleep by the end!)

Tomorrow the real work begins: we are scheduled to meet with the Kumponda community leaders tomorrow morning at 10! It'll be our first excursion beyond the city and into our community, so it should be a really interesting day.