My last attempt at trying to be an African farmer was thwarted by nasty looking ulcers on my ankles due to a local staphyloccus infection, making me fairly bedridden for two weeks. So arriving back in Malawi, I was determined to make up for lost time!! However, the monsoon is in full swing and any work has to fit between the unbelievably strong torrential downpours that arrive many days. One of the most amazing things is that however much rain falls, within hours of the sun coming out, it nearly all disappears, absorbed into the ground like a parched desert whose thirst knows no limits. Even though this is not desert here, sand is everywhere, as it seems to be in most parts of Africa and the capacity of the land to absorb all the water thrown at it from the heavens seems a metaphor about Africa itself - an old land where however much effort, energy and money one puts into it, it all gets absorbed into the dry, thirsty soil.
Last year, we built a well on the land to that crops could be irrigated outside monsoon times. It doesn’t rain here much between monsoons so for 8 months or so, the land sees no fresh water. Although the 3rd largest lake in Africa lies only 3km away, it is not irrigated much so all the farmers rely on monsoon rains to grow their crops and in this region they plant mostly cassava as it is one of the only crops that grows with little rain and also on poor soils and without fertilizer. Cassava, also known as manioc orginates from South America but it now one of the most commonly ground subsistence crops in much of sub Saharan Africa. It is a root vegetable and an excellent form of carbohydrate, a very efficient crop. But it has hardly any protein and so people dependent on it suffer protein deficiency. Luckily the lake is a good source of fish so the diet of fish, cassava and local green leaves serves as a sufficient staple diet. It just becomes really boring for those of us used to a more varied diet!! Also, many people can’t afford the fish and so simply rely on cassava and even cassava leaf for survival.
The well came from the idea of creating access to water for irrigation and bathing. In an impulsive moment I decided to dig for water near a dry creek on the land, and soon Racheal’s brothers joined me, I think feeling sorry for this crazed guy who thought he could simply dig 20 feet down into the ground. One month later though, we had the well finished, having hired a builder to finish the digging and line the well with bricks, creating a proper well. An envious neighbor put grass in the well to spoil the water, so we had to get it all out and then put a lid on the well, with a lock!
One year later, the well is still there, although like many things in Africa it is already a bit worse for wear. The wooden lid has buckled in the heat, leaving gaps for insects to enter. The builder didn’t use enough cement on the outside of the wall and so during the monsoon, the water flooded the ground eroding the cement and leaving some gaping holes in the side. This allowed dirty water to enter, polluting the well water and now there are these ferocious looking insects in there, with huge long feelers. Tomorrow, another builder is coming to fix it. He was married to Racheal’s sister, who died suddenly of asthma three years ago. I spent a good five hours lugging broken bricks to the well, using the builder’s wheelbarrow. Racheal’s brother had built a kiln and burnt thousands of bricks, all from mud, to make money, but many broken bricks are left lying around to be used. I also went to a place near the local school where some good quality sand is found and brought back five wheelbarrow loads. I bought a big bag of cement in the local town and had it brought back by a bicycle haulage man, called a Dumpa man. I didn’t fancy carrying 120lbs of cement 3km from the town, even on my head!! So tomorrow is the big day to fix the well and put a new lid on it. Hopefully we can get the old one off!! People don’t have many tools here and so make do with what we have.
Three days later and the well is nearly finished. The builder lined the outside with bricks and cement and the carpenter fixed the new lid. Unfortunately, another bag of cement was needed and so we bought it yesterday and had it shipped to the house. The carpenter also eventually came and fixed the new lid, dropping a piece of his screwdriver into the well for good measure. We still have a few things to do before it is totally finished, but slowly but surely it is happening.
We haven’t been able to dig the land so much as the well has taken priority but I have learnt to build larger ridges so that cassava, maize and sweet potatoes can be sown. Maize is the other main staple crop here, another import from South America but in many areas it needs fertilizer to grow as the land is depleted from overuse and they haven’t used any natural fertilizer, crop rotation or nitrogen fixing crops to aid the soil. The government has had a fertilizer subsidy for a number of years but it is costing huge amounts of money to do this and is only delaying the inevitable need to change agricultural policy and use crops that don’t need fertilizer to grow. Sorghum was the indigenous crop grown before and is a much better source of protein, but apparently the Brits, when they colonized Malawi insisted on maize being grown!!!