Friday, January 28, 2011
One of the overarching goals of all Peace Corps Zambia projects is on developing Income Generating Activities - ways for people in our villages to earn extra income over and above their cash crop farming. Obviously fish farming has this potential, as does the organic farming and gardening I've taken up as a side project. But what Peace Corps also want to promote are other small skills like tailoring, bicycle repair, and craftmaking, for example. And in my case, I've been playing enabler to a neighbor (Ba Elias, also my fish farming counterpart), who's starting to craft a successful baking business.
I started experimenting with baking at my site almost as soon as I got posted. Peace Corps Zambia lore is riddled with bread and cake recipes bakeable in the village, so I figured I'd give it a try. I started off baking dutch-oven style: baking in a large pot with hot coals above and below. Using this crude and barely replicable method I managed to make a few good batches of banana and pumpkin bread. Once dry season rolled around and firewood became more available, I decided to upgrade to a wood-fired earthen oven, using actual loaf pans for my bread. Since it's made entirely of mud and thus very cheap for my villagers to replicate, I figured an earthen oven would be a good way to promote baking around my village.
One day Ba Elias walks up to my house and says "Mike, next time you make bread can you tell me so that I can come watch you bake it". Of course I agree, and we make banana bread together soon thereafter. To my delight he brought along a pen and paper so he could write down the recipe, each of the ingredients, and how much each of them cost. He tried the end product, agreed that it was fantastically delicious, and paid it the ultimate Zambian compliment "If you eat this for lunch, I don't even think you'll need to each ubwali!" So I gave him one of the loaves of banana bread to take back to his family.
Much to my surprise, however, he does NOT take the banana bread loaf back to his family. Instead he cuts it up into dozens of tiny pieces and proceeds to run all over the village, handing out the pieces to any adult he sees and asking them how it tastes. Just like the sample stands in grocery stores, I thought! I asked him about it that evening and he says, prophetically, "Once they try it, surely they will want to buy some later." (Fortunately he did also save some for his family)
And a few weeks later, as I'm getting ready to head into town, he comes to my house with fifty thousand kwacha (about 10 dollars) he's saved up, and asks me to bring back the banana bread ingredients that he couldn't get in the village. He tells me, "I was thinking, and I believe I can sell this bread for one thousand kwatcha per slice." I've seen villagers haggling to the death over a fifty kwacha note, so I seriously doubt they'd be willing to pay one thousand for a slice of bread, but I agree to bring back the ingredients anyways. At worst, I figure, I'll just end up buying his banana bread off of him for 1000k a pop, at least until he makes his money back.
I bring the ingredients back in a few days, and Ba Elias comes to my house to collect them. I make a point to offer him free and unrestricted use of my earthen oven, even when I'm not around. "No worries," he says, "I have my own oven." While I was gone he'd managed to find a little charcoal-powered metal box oven, as well a matching baking sheet, that he bartered for completely on his own!
I helped him make the first batch using his oven, and was astonished to find a queue of customers already forming down his driveway, before the bread had even finished baking. People were indeed willing to pay 1000k for a slice; in fact they were scrambling to be first in line! That meant that every loaf he sold netted him about $5 USD. And he was hardly having to try - everywhere he went, he was converting loaves into five-dollar bills in about 30 seconds!
That was back in October; unfortunately after a couple of weeks, the imminent rains forced baking to take a backseat to farming. Ba Elias probably won't bake again until May, after the maize harvest is finished. But to this day I still get people telling me "Michael, you must make Ba Elias make more banana bread...we are suffering here!" And we've already got plans for entrenching the business come dry season- taking a trip to the Tanzanian border to source cheaper ingredients; figuring out which ingredients (e.g. eggs, oil) can be substituted out without sacrificing too much quality.
This story never ceases to astound me. With only a seventh-grade education in a failing school system, Ba Elias has shown the brilliance and initiative to recognize a business opportunity, save money to pursue that opportunity, do cost calculations, advertise his product in advance, correctly set a market price, and source his own equipment, all nearly entirely on his own. I've just been there to try and keep the ball rolling. I can only hope he picks up where he left off once the rains go away!
Farming in Northern Zambia is traditionally done by hand. The farmers' tool of choice - a large hoe - is perhaps the most badass earth-moving hand tool I've ever encountered (Why they haven't yet been marketed in America is beyond me). The blade is the size of a large shovel blade and weighs 4 - 5 pounds by itself (mine is allegedly hewn from a hunk of 3/16" municipal storm drain). And then it's attached to a four-foot long baseball bat of a handle. It takes a bit of effort to get the thing moving, but the benefit is that it easily cuts through inch-thick saplings, six-foot tall clumps of grass, and whatever else you might encounter while digging. For most farmers here, a hoe and a small axe are the only farming tools they need to own.
Unfortunately Zambian farming techniques aren't quite as advanced as their weaponry. Northern Zambians traditionally employ a shifting slash-and-burn system (called "chitemene") that involves clearing and burning a plot of land, planting an indigenous crop like millet or sorghum for 4-5 years (until the soil is thoroughly depleted), and then moving to a new plot while letting the old one lie fallow. Because the native foliage gives little back to the soil, most of these fields must lie fallow for 40-50 years to regain their former fertility, So for the chitemene system to be sustainable each farmer must own a huge chunk of land (since he's only farming 10% of it at any given time), but the population of Northern Zambia has already far exceeded the level that this system can realistically support. If that weren't bad enough, farmers have now ditched their native millet and sorghum in favor of crops like maize, which have an even bigger nutrient requirement. As a result, Zambia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, faces huge problems with soil erosion, and has average crop yields well below what should be achievable.
Luckily a few small tweaks from the pages of Western organic farming can dramatically improve the situation:
- Intentionally rotating crops (e.g. planting maize on last year's legume field) can create soil with more balanced nutrient levels.
- Planting an improved fallow crop on unused fields can leave them good as new in as little as 3-4 years.
- Adding in natural fertilizers like animal manure, wood ash, and charcoal dust can improve soil structure and fertility over time.
- Using trees, hedges, and last year's leftover crop residues to help combat soil erosion
These are the techniques I'm trying out on my own little 25m x 25m plot next to my house (Though my aching arms and back might argue that "little" is a relative term!) My neighbors helped me collect sackfuls of ash and cow manure, which we've carefully buried in the middle of each planting ridge. We've portioned out a section for Maize, a section for peanuts, and a third portion TBD, with nice tephrosia hedges separating and surrounding each. Just planted the maize earlier this week after the first few heavy rains of the season.
Hopefully this little experiment will go well, stay tuned for more results!
As a Rural Aquaculture Promotion volunteer fish farming is the bread and butter of my work routine. In a typical week I'll have perhaps 3 or 4 meetings with different farmers or groups of farmers in my catchment area (all the villages within approximately a 25km radius). In a typical meeting I bike out to the farmer's village and spend the day helping that group/farmer with whatever fish farming task they are currently working on.
Some farmers are interested in digging new ponds or renovating existing ones, so I help them survey their land, measure out an appropriate area, and dig the pond to meet our R.A.P. specifications. We promote hand-dug ponds measuring around 10m x 15m x 1m deep (a nice balanced size that is relatively easy to dig and still has adequate fish-holding capacity). We also try to promote ponds with thick, sloped walls for added strength, and with screened outlet pipes to keep the pond from overflowing in a rainstorm. Such a pond might take an individual farmer a few weeks to a month to dig - it's much easier when working as a group. I try to help these groups think about how to efficiently divide and manage labor so they can finish the digging quickly (my record was a group that met at 6am to dig a small 10mx10m pond, and had the whole thing finished by 10am!).
Other farmers want to learn or review feeding practices for fish in their existing ponds. In this case I'll go out with the farmer on foraging expeditions to collect termites, quality plant leaves, animal manure (to fertilize plankton in the water), and other choice food sources. My goal is to help that farmer establish a routine for feeding and maintaining his ponds.
Still others have had fish for several months already and are interested in harvesting and selling them. This is a good opportunity to stress business and management skills like advance advertising, good recordkeeping, and creating and following work plans. Then of course I'll help out with the actual pond harvest, since I can never avoid an opportunity to get muddy and fishy :-) Finally, I've ended up helping a lot of farmers measure out and dig long furrows to carry water to their ponds and gardens.
The many ways of harvesting fish from a pond: using a modern seine net; making a traditional Bemba reed fish trap; baling out water to catch the fish by hand; and....telekinesis?...No, the people on the bottom right are customers waiting to buy harvested fish
Because my site is so far away from any town or large marketplace, there's not a big enough market to promote fish farming as a legitimate, full-time business. My farmers can make a bit of extra side income selling amongst themselves in the village, but my main focus is on using fish farming as a means of improving family nutrition. Judging by the abundance of children in my area running around with thin hair and rounded bellies it's clear that getting sufficient protein is a challenge for many people. Thus a set of fish ponds is an easy and attractive option (whenever you want fish for dinner, just go to the fish pond and fish out a couple!) for families looking to spruce up their diet.
All in all I've got about a dozen formal groups - complete with chairman, treasurer, etc - and another couple dozen individual farmers who I meet with on a regular basis. In total they have about 200 - 250 fish ponds, and harvest about 10 kilograms of fish from each pond. Much of this was done already before I even arrived, so I can't take credit for all of it :-) There's certainly much room for improvement - work still to do for the two volunteers who follow me - but I'm happy to say that my fish farmers are off to a good start!
Thursday, January 27, 2011
I've gotten several questions recently along the lines of "Mike, so you've been in Zambia for over a year now, and we still don't know very well...what is it you actually DO for work in your village?" I'll focus on this in the next few posts, but my job at the present moment can basically be summarized as 1) teaching fish farming techniques to interested farmers, 2) promoting organic/conservation farming and gardening, and 3) inciting the creation and sale of delicious baked goods.
I've also been feeding my travel bug bit. Over 4th of July weekend I went hiking in the fabulously beautiful Mutinondo Wilderness Area, a local Northern Zambia treasure so under-the-radar that even most Northern PCVs are only barely aware of its existence. In September I finally boarded the TAZARA train that passes through my village, coming back from a trip out to Zanzibar Island. And most recently I headed down to Livingstone to see Victoria Falls and Chobe National Park. Pictures coming soon!
Sorry again for the delay, and enjoy the deluge soon to come!
Sunday, November 21, 2010
Mike invited his family to add a guest entry chronicling our Zambia experience when we visited him.
It all started about a month after Mike got to his village, in September 2009, when Matt started agitating to come visit. It took ‘til about December for the idea to take root, to work up the nerve, and for us to agree that most of us probably would survive. We set a date of May, read a few books, updated passports, bought plane tickets, got vaccinations & anti-malaria meds, and figured out “carrion” (malapropism for “traveling light”).
We flew from Chicago to DC but missed our connecting flight due to really high winds (Jen’s favorite new hobby is white-knuckle landings). After a night in DC, we went standby and got lucky—off to Jo’burg. The IPOP (interesting person on plane) was a Purdue college student of Indian descent who had been born/raised in Zambia. Among the most important recommendations he had was that we find and enjoy some Amarula, which is Africa’s answer to Bailey’s Irish Cream. He also helped us find our way through the Johannesburg airport. After a 2nd flight, we arrived safe in Lusaka, Zambia, where Mike and his favorite cab driver met us at the airport. It was 9 PM, after dark, and yet there really weren’t many city lights. Lots of people were walking along the streets; dark skin, dark clothing, hard to see.
We slept the first 2 nights at the Bluecrest, a family-owned set of western-style guesthouses in a walled compound complete with armed guards, swimming pool, bar, running water, flush toilets, and electricity most of the time. Next day, we ate lunch at the Kilimanjaro, favorite scene for expats. At the car rental agency, we noted that the parking lot had more demolished cars than working ones; it made us glad we had a driver to pick us up next day for our trip to Kasama, the northern city “near” his village. We had dinner at an excellent Indian restaurant.
The drive to Kasama took all day, driving 80-90 MPH on a 2-lane road that had catastrophically large potholes (2-3 feet deep, 20-100 meters long) in places. We saw 2 cases where large lorries from Dar had crashed after their drivers either didn’t see or didn’t understand the potholes. Our driver, Roland, was much better at seeing the potholes than I was. It made me glad we had a driver. Along the road, which really didn’t have a shoulder, there were people all along the road, waiting, walking, selling, or watching-- even in the middle of nowhere. Then there were the police checkpoints, which our Bemba-speaking driver got us through without incident. It made me glad we had a driver. We arrived late to learn that our reservation at the hotel had been cancelled because the hotel decided to host an international conference instead. So we stayed across the road at the Thorntree Lodge, first-rate accommodations run by British expats. Dinner was leftovers, of course, but was delicious.
Next day, we packed up and headed out of town. After about 20 km, we turned off the tarmac onto a side road. So far, so good. Well, a FEW stretches were OK. Much of it was deeply rutted, so bad that we had to go around. One place, we actually had to get out of the truck and direct the driver’s placement of the wheels . Luckily it was dry. We stopped at Jocelyn’s (fellow PC volunteer) place for a nice lunch. One of her villagers was an elderly woman who’d gone senile, but all were gentle with her.
One thing we’d noticed was the number of phone calls Mike was getting, inquiring when we’d be getting there. The villagers had gathered near Mike’s house around 9 AM and were wondering why we weren’t there yet. Many had gone home by the time we arrived, around 4 PM or so. We’d have never guessed. As our truck pulled within about a half kilometer of Mike’s house, we started to pick up an entourage. When we got to his house, there were about 50 adults gathered around the truck, together with at least 3 times that many children. They were “ululating” loud and long; we were quite overwhelmed. As we got out, they took each of us aside and welcomed us. “Mike is now OUR son, so you are our brother.” To which we replied, after much coaching, “Eumquai”.
We were slowly shepherded to seats of honor on Mike’s porch. The villagers organized themselves, brought out the drums, and they broke into song and dance. Women and men wrapped a citenge about their waist, then did a hip-wiggling dance, competing with each other somehow. All around, the onlookers clapped and sang to first-rate drum accompaniment. Some time later, the oldest man came forward and gave a speech about how grateful they are for Mike: he speaks Bemba, lives like one of them, is genuinely helpful and sincere, and is so open and sharing. Meantime, the kids were staring at us, trying to see what we were like, trying to get photographed, or being coy. They were well behaved. Jen sat down and talked with them, coached by Roland our driver. I’m not sure who was more taken with the other: the children or Jen. The final part of the celebration was a ritual meal, wherein a chicken is served, and the oldest member at the table starts it off by eating the gizzard. The honor fell to Matt, who was up to the task. (Unfortunately, between his broken Bemba and their broken English, Matt never learned how they’d prepared it so deliciously.) In addition to the chicken, we were served nshima, the Zambian version of Polenta.
Next day, we met the local head-man, who is the village elder. He is a farmer just like all the rest. There is no visible indication of his role, but all are deferential to him. He served raw groundnuts, and we attempted to have a conversation. I gave him my favorite wool shirt, according to custom for visitors of stature like ourselves. We also met neighbors and toured fish ponds and the gardens of Mike’s Zambian counterpart. A neighbor brought us lunch, which was simple but delicious. For dinner, we fixed a big split-pea and sweet potato curry. As an aside, we learned that our Land Cruiser had a flat tire and the spare was low.
Spending the day as villagers, we learned how challenging it is to get through the day. The nearest electricity was 50 miles away; water was a quarter mile away. In the space of that day, our 5-person household needed 3 trips at 5 gallons each, used for cooking, dishes, washing our clothes, and bathing. The chimbusu (Concrete deck with a slit opening into the pit-toilet below; “squatty potty”) took some target practice. The stove was made from the rim of a truck-tire, heated by a charcoal fire. The pot sat essentially on the charcoal. We cooked with a single aluminum pot. The challenge of day gave way to the relaxation of night by a fire. When it burned out, we saw a moonless night sky ablaze with stars—I think each star in the entire universe shone on us those nights. Under that vault, Mike talked about all he’d learned, what he hopes to achieve, how his people have such riches of community, and how easily it can be ruined by things like money and well meaning outsiders doing the wrong good things.
Our second night, after we’d gone to bed, Jen got up late to answer a call from Ma Nature. On the way to the chimbusu, a Puff Adder (About 3 feet long and 8 inches in diameter: low length-to-width ratio, and pretty slow-moving for a snake) introduced itself to her with a long, loud hiss that conjured images of far larger creatures. Scared her out of her wits, she could be heard retreating our direction as she repeated a 2-word mantra. She rather animatedly summoned her dad, who grabbed an axe, cut a pole, and prepared to introduce it to its maker. Concerned about what local perceptions might be, Dad first asked for advice from Mike; and when Mike came to address the issue, Patti came too. The debate was lively even before all the cast had gathered, and the snake found it absolutely riveting, at least for awhile. Eventually, it got bored and hungry, so off it slithered, puff-adder style (slow and sluggish). Sometime later, the discussion hit a lull, as is known to occur in most conversations about every 7 minutes. At that point, the cast realized that discussion had become somewhat dated. The pitch and decibel level died back to grumbling as we visited the chimbusu and returned to bed.
Next day, we took a pre-trip trip to the neighboring village to address the low spare tire. There, we borrowed a broken-down bicycle pump and took turns amongst ourselves pumping. It makes me think of trying to fill a washtub using a thimble. After 45 minutes, we called it full (no visible change in inflation) and headed back to Kasama. We made a slight detour to give a young mother and her sick baby a lift to the local clinic. We stayed the night at Kasembo Guest House, just north of Kasama. Sometime (I never knew when or where), our driver took the tire in for repair and re-mounting (It made me glad we had a driver.).
We abandoned our plan to go to Victoria Falls because it would require so much more driving and leave little time for anything else. Instead, we went to Chishimba Falls National Park, which was nearby. We missed the monkeys, which the park ranger says are excellent purse snatchers. They had departed to rob farmers’ fields of maize. As rivers go, this one was modest, but the top and bottom of 3 separate falls made quite a splash. We spent many electrons trying to capture their totality by digital camera, but eventually gave up, sat back, and enjoyed it all.
That evening, we took a tour at the Mwela Rocks National Monument and saw some petroglyphs dated between 2,000 and 10,000 years old. They are attributed to the Yao people (“bushmen” is a derogatory term). They portrayed rites of passage and hunting. Our young, well informed local tour guide had typical western attire, but whenever we got into the really rugged rocks, she would pull off her shoes and go barefoot. She pointed to a spot the size of a quarter on the face of a rock and described its purpose, as follows. The father of the bride-to-be would point out the target to the daughter’s suitor, who must prove his readiness for marriage by hitting the spot with an arrow from 25 paces. (Roland, our driver, didn’t think too much of that story. From the banter that followed for some time thereafter, it was obvious that the tour guide enjoyed baiting him about a possible deficiency in his archery skills.)
On the way back to Lusaka, we stopped at Kapishya Hot Springs, and at Shiwa Ngondu, the setting for a novel called, “Africa house”. We had lunch with a grandson of the founder, who acquainted us with the actual family history, which was not quite the same as the novel. This part of the trip was the closest we got to really wild land; we didn’t see anything, but my neck hairs could definitely tell we were seen. Still, we were well away from the large game preserves nearby that are so famous. That night, we stayed in Mpika at a motel that left us shuddering. Mike described it as “not so bad, compared to some others.” I didn’t ask him to elaborate. And we enjoyed finally meeting Mike’s girlfriend Laura, a fellow PC volunteer.
We returned to Lusaka and visitedthe Kalimba
reptile park. Here, we met a few highly poisonous snakes, some crocodiles, and a caretaker who wagged their tails for us (he suggested avoiding the front ends).
We hit the City Market and loaded up on more Citenge. Next day we visited the Lusaka National Museum, which had an exhibit sponsored by the Lechwe Trust. It sponsors modern Zambian artists. We also visited the Kamawata market, which had lots of touristy crafts and a 300-lb hippopotamus carved in Teak which definitely belongs to Matt if he can just figure out how to get it home. Alas, he limited his purchase to a 1-meter tall warrior carved in African ebony. Some family found it ludicrous to think that we’d ever get it home because it obviously would NOT fit into the suitcase. Matt responded by stopping by the only hardware store in Zambia. He pick up materials and made a custom shipping package complete with bubble wrap that had been measured very carefully at the time of sale. Of course, late that night we ate more Indian food and had some Amarula.
As Jen and Matt sat on the porch of the cabin enjoying the last late hours of their last Zambian evening, “Francesca “ materialized from nowhere and bewitched Jen in a very feline purring sort of way, reminiscent of Kipling’s “cat who walks by himself.” Some considerable time later, Jen said goodbye in a “parting is such sweet sorrow” kind of way, and went inside to bed. Francesca was a bit weak on romantic literature and didn’t really buy into the parting or the sweet-sorrow. Taking things into her own paws, she found her way inside, about 3 AM. She and Jen found the reuniting a sweet delight.
We spent several hours re-packing for the trip home; it’s hard to fit 20 citenge in one’s carry-on luggage. Misfortune overtook us when Jen came down with a nasty case of dysentery, the morning we were to leave. We were on the cusp of skipping the flight and getting her to a hospital, but serendipitously, the airport had an infirmary with a physician on duty. The physician’s examination, some essential electrolytes, and a higher dose of ciprofloxacin instantaneously cured our worry about a severe medical crisis somewhere over the South Atlantic 15 hours away from the nearest doctor; the dysentery took a few more days to respond.
By the time we got to Chicago, we were exhausted. Thankfully, Jen’s fiancé Nick met us at the airport and chauffeured us home. He’s a good man. (Matt’s 3-foot warrior made it home without getting sick or injured; the crate worked perfectly. Now it’s time to contemplate getting that 300-lb hippo…. “MATT! Do NOT think about that!”)
Looking back, it’s hard to believe we were there so long ago. The experience was intense; the post-trip letdown lasted a good week before we started to recover. Something about being outside one’s comfort zone. But it was great to see that Mike is inside his: to see his affection for his villagers, his simplicity, self-assurance, relaxed attitude, and willingness to laugh at himself. We’re proud of him.