Last month I was able to go visit my good friend Mary Parr in Malawi.
Having studied, lived, and hung out with Mary while at NC State, I knew I had to visit her while she was still in Malawi. She has been there since August doing her PhD research on how soil type influences soybean nodulation. Working at an International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, next door to Int'l Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), sounds glamorous to those who hope to work in agriculture development, but it's not as perfect as it seems.
Also located with a national agriculture research station, Mary used soil and microbiology labs that are so old they look like a movie set for Watson and Crick's great discovery. 60 years later, this is not a compliment, but a sad commentary on under-funded science research. Considering how many Malawians and southern Africans farm, this is appalling. As she would do in the US, Mary made her own agar, necessary to culture nodular microbes.
But she discovered that the filter in the positive pressure chamber (the area you place your substrate to keep them sterile) had not been replaced since being installed 50 years ago! Science is about controlling factors, not entertaining unknowns. Add on to this that the screen house she was growing her soybeans in became, without permission, a shared space for storage, possibly causing the transmission of a soybean killing epidemic that impaired the rest of her experiment.
Such are the challenges of working in developing countries. In spite of this, and her flat being broken into more than once, and computer being stolen, she is still able to smile. It might also help that through working there in Malawi, she fell in love! Mary's fiancé Bon (whom I didn't get a good pic of) was a really cool guy, and those who live in NC will get to why soon. He is wry and meticulous, with a touch of understated sarcasm. He is well connected in Lilongwe and has been very successful working in the city's craft market. His father's hand-made pictures, made from banana leaves, are one of a kind (below).
This research station is situated outside the capital city of Lilongwe. Coming from South Africa, Lilongwe feels more like a small town since old and new city centers are miles apart, and there is little to do. I did have the chance to walk the town a couple times over with Bon and friends Wyson and Stephen (left), seeing the markets and life of Old Town.
It felt like a typical southern African town: minibuses running in every direction in lots of traffic; large masses of people walking and biking on the sidewalks and streets; copious amounts of trash; large, crowded, rickety markets with tiny walkways; stores owned by Pakistanis and Indians selling Chinese goods; a lack of architectural cohesion; hockers and vendors selling fresh food, cool drinks, socks and cell phone minutes.
Left: The Lilongwe River which winds through the town. Used for washing and bathing, as all rivers are.
What I didn't get a picture of was the new parliament building and Capital Hotel, financed by the Chinese government. There are plans to also finance a National Stadium, a university, and roads. A Chinese chairman of Foreign Affairs has said the People's Republic of China are dedicated to helping Africa develop by strengthening their ties. This is becoming a common occurrence in southern Africa, as they paid for Lesotho's parliament building with one agreed on in Zimbabwe too. After colonialism, and after communism, now come the Chinese. But India is also financing a parliament for Ghana. Together they both offer over US$140 billion in loans for infrastructure to African countries, helping to secure fuel and metal resources for their own markets. Africa is still not her own.
I took one day to see the most popular place in the country: Lake Malawi (or Niassa to the Moçambicans who share it). Not only is it the main tourist destination, but if you ask Malawians what they love about their country, most will reply it is the lake. To say that the water is spectacular isn't enough. It is ringed by mountains, creating an allure of escaping civilization and time. It has a laid back but distinct culture of its own.
The lake is life, and fishing is how you live.
A couple of local guys took me out to a small island in the bay in a fishing boat. They had another man (above) catch fish in a traditional log boat using a hook, line, and bait, no rod, no nets--sounds like a sustainable dream we've all had. They cooked the Tiger fish and chambo on the island for lunch with rice, sima (corn meal), and relish.
I got to hike around the island on huge granite boulders looking for the monitor lizards that live there. Snorkeling was the best part. The types and colors of fish there were outstanding.
Upcoming: Malawi Part Two, Politics and Money.