Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Greetings all,

Sorry again for the delay but the speed of which life moves here is conducive of one update per two months. I am updating this time from the capital, Lilongwe, where I have been for the past few days celebrating a premature (American) independence day. Each year the US ambassador holds an event for all American ex-patriots (aid workers, volunteers, missionaries, etc.) in Malawi. Its a pretty typical picnic complete with hamburgers, hot dogs and the whole nine yards and is a nice little taste of home. If the prospect of a fourth of July picnic in Malawi isn't ironic enough, the weather has truly made this week an anomaly. I have memories attending picnics where I sweat more than I ate and one would expect the same here. NOPE! Today is more reminiscent of Thanksgiving in America. Its cool and in the low 60's with a wind and overcast skies. This morning was downright chilly. I can't remember ever wearing a sweatshirt to an Independence day picnic. I guess this is a reminder that Malawi is indeed a highland area(except for my site) and actually has a pretty admirable climate (except for my site).

The big news in Malawi other than allegations of coup plots against the current president is the looming food crisis. As many of you know there are some pretty telling bits of evidence that suggests the majority of the world's citizens are in for a rough ride. Food prices around the world have skyrocketed (Malawi is no exception) and transportation has been made virtually impossible for many because of the price of oil (which I just heard is projected to reach nearly $200 per barrel by the end of the year). This prospect is anything but good for the worlds poor and 95% of Malawi. So while we keep dumping our food into bio fuel products (eh hem Brazil) people are starving and rioting and are generally hungry. I'm sure the developed world is anticipating the looming crisis, cooing at the prospect of dumping our surpluses on people who have nearly become dependent on this sort of "aid"; only making the outlook for the future bleaker. There are hundreds of variables to this argument, and it is apparent that a great deal of it is rooted in controversial global agricultural policies and attitudes toward global climate change. I'm not sold that the answer lies in the complete opening of agricultural markets (although subsidies to American farmers seem hypocritical at best) as mono-cropping and the treatment of food as a tradable commodity has led to a plethora of environmental and nutritional disasters. And I'm not completely sold on the argument that a more conservative "closed market" approach works. There's no real reason we should be paying farmers when their yield prices are drifting toward the basement and the price of their product is headed that way as well. However, I am comfortable saying that I believe any future policy that does not include crop diversification or attention to localized nutritional and environmental concerns will have little positive impact on the future food security and environmental complications and it could even make things worse.

So what are we doing about it? Last Week we had a long discussion about what we as volunteers can do to mitigate the effects of high input prices and irregular weather patterns which are quite apparant in this part of the world. I can't count how many times I have heard, "Never can I remember in Malawi, this (rain/drought/heat/cold) lasting this (long, short, early or late) or to this extreme." We focused a lot of our time brainstorming ideas that would give families an easier ability to meet basic nutritional requirements. This included methods of low impact farming and conservation agriculture (mulching, reduced tillage which will improve soil fertility, reducing their dependency on fertilizer) and CROP DIVERSIFICATION!!!! I really can't stress that last one enough. Malwaians eat Maize, Maize with their Maize and more Maize; they drink it too. We are trying to reduce their dependency on their staple just the teeniest bit and replace that void in their diet with something more nutritious and something that wont have such a detrimental impact on their land. Personally, I have been working with families, trying to get them to start planting small gardens right out of the back of their house. This would provide the family with those few extra vitamins and minerals that would help them get through the quickly approaching "hungry" season without serious consequences. We'll see if this works, people seem to be stuck in that maize rut. To be fair, there is a bit of diversification but there is very little emphasis on expanding it. I am a bit lucky in that people in my area have a competitive advantage with their weather (this I still find hard to comprehend). The hotter climate is great for growing cotton which has recently gone up in price and Sesame. Sesame's market is growing quickly and has provided a quality harvest for the past few years and a potential project for me!

I am trying to acquire an oil seed press which we could use to press this abundance of sesame in our area. The price for cooking oil has shot up as well (there's no surprise) and we may have the ability to make a 50% greater profit selling locally processed oil than dumping our seeds to the local buyer; hopefully making the product more attractive and raising the value. I have a number of farmers who seem interested and I hope to have some more info in the next few months. Though the sesame does not go to direct consumption, this is a wonderful example of the benefits of diversification. Sesame tends to prevail during hot and dry spells when maize wilts and it can grow in sandy soils, which would in effect help to reduce the potential of erosion in sandy areas. On top of that, too much water seems to have little harmful impact on the plant's growth.

There is a lot to think about as my role as a volunteer and by far the hardest par is translating these thoughts into action. The next few months should be good, I intend to keep waiting for the electricity project to come to a head. Perhaps by the time I leave I can do some Asian cooking on an electric cook top with locally harvested sesame oil in our community center. I suppose that's a reasonable goal and I could get a pretty mean stir fry out of it! For now, I will work my way back to the South and see where I can focus my attention in the coming weeks. Egypt plays Malawi in a World Cup qualifying match on Friday and I will be sure to tune that in on the radio. I will be back in Lilongwe at the end of July and I will try to shoot out another update then.

Until then, take care and keep the letters/packages coming!

- Kevin