Learn How to Fall

I originally wrote this post on Thanksgiving Day and I included lots of congenial things about thankfulness and jokes about the Detroit Lions taking another afternoon to loose in front of a national audience, but by now its December, which is a whole new month; the stuffing is now staler than it started. So a Merry Christmas in advance. I hope that you have the best Christmas yet and go on a cruise or something! I have been making an effort to write more letters, but my address book is lacking. Please feel free to somehow send me your address or write a letter and let me know the latest and greatest in your life. There are times where I feel out of the loop, like my sister has recently become a licensed driver, I thought they lowered the driving age, but I guess she really is 16.

I had a quiet Thanksgiving here in Chinthankwa village. Thanks mom for the paper turkey decoration. At this point I’m still cooking to eat, but not yet having any feasts. My neighbors are not familiar with the Thanksgiving tradition, but hopefully by next year I’ll have a greater capacity for cooking and I could be a better pilgrim/ American. My most recent days have been full of digging, I’m cultivating a quarter acre field behind my house.
Technically, I am an organic farmer, not because I’m a bleeding heart liberal, but mostly out of sheer practicality. I’ve been cued in by my neighbors, who are out each morning in the pre-dawn hours digging. This morning we woke up to thunder from a storm that had blown over, and all without a single drop of rain. Although, it was dumping rain and lightning and furry down towards the lake at my site mates village, I heard part of her roof blew off. It’s only a matter of days before we receive our
season-starting rains. But in the meantime new leaves have shot out of
most trees, which is a little startling considering we haven’t had a single rain shower in 9 months.

This has been a tough hot-dry season for newcomers. The other day on a bike ride I heard a Paul Simon song that seemed to speak perfectly to the past 3 months of my life. The words go, “you’ve got to learn how to fall, before you learn to fly. you’ve got to drift in the breeze, before you set your
sails”. I said that’s it! And that’s the title.

I won’t say much about my garden because despite all my best efforts, everything withered and died. Hot season is the time of year where chocolate stays in a continuous liquid state and where in one afternoon all the stamps in your wallet become self adhesive and then disintegrate. And that’s all I can complain about, my brain didn’t melt so all things considered I’m very thankful.

Paul’s dog, Tiger-Princess, died yesterday and my dog died at the end of October. Paul wrote Achimadyo a eulogy and I think later today I’ll return the sentiment. I almost had a tear fall out of my eye when my neighbor came over and suggested that the clay-dirt I was digging a grave in was too hard and that I should just turn the dead dog over in my compost pit. I think I told her to go away. Bless her heart, it’s really not her fault, but the word ‘pet’ literally does not exist in the Chichewa language. I think that’s ok too, in retrospect it is a little silly to get overly attached to animals, but it happens. Achimadyo was the first dog I’ve ever had. I was really blessed to have such an awesome and loyal companion. Enough about pets already.

And so the passing of Achimadyo was an opportune time to start in on a huge time and labor intensive project at my house. I’ve named the project the Tin Roof Lake Watershed (50% jokingly). The principal idea is to harvest rain water from a 32² meter section of my tin roof. I took the plans from a Swedish NGO and if my sisters advanced algebra holds up, the underground tank should have a holding capacity of 6,500 liters.

The prodigious amount of work was a good outlet for grief, but please know that this was a pre-existing and very logical plan; this isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Lots of people have come over and mistakenly called it a swimming pool, and while that’s not a terrible idea, that’s not why I joined the Peace Corps. In total, the project will cost roughly the price of a bag of unsubsidized fertilizer (44 USD), and I’ve calculated that I’ll earn back the cost of the project in 2 years just by extending the time of which I can grow my own food. (But also if you count time as money, I’ll save in the daily chore of drawing water from the borehole, although that has been a nice way to meet local women).

Additionally, I’ll enhance my rainy season crops by supplying more water (instead of fertilizer) in-between rains. It’s an irrigation scheme! I would be cocky and say that I may even have such a supply of water in place that I’ll be able to flood a section of my field to grow rice, but probably right now as you’re reading this blog, there’s a hair-line fracture forming somewhere in the water-proof plastering. God is keeping me humble and honest with an abundance of cracks. As of today the project is 85% finished and could in theory hold water. The gutters are in place, but in all honesty I feel like I’m on the cusp of one of my most elaborate failures. It may hold water, but to retain water for up to 3 months into the dry season is doubtful. My landlord is my biggest supporter. He comes over regularly to check on the progress. He laughs in such a way that is supportive and inspiring for me to carry on, never mind that I’ve dug a sizeable hole a meter and a half away from the foundation of his property. We don’t communicate very effectively in Chichewa, but he assumes that I’m an expert, and I assume that he has some form of home insurance (both are very false assumptions). In the 3 weeks that I’ve been regularly working on this project, I’ve been completely consumed. I have had to stop several times to get a grip and eat food; really truly I want life to be normal again. I may need to reintegrate back into my community. To many of my neighbors I’ve just become a grumpy, mud-crusted shell of a man (overly dramatic). But I guess the tie-in to my Peace Corps work is for this concept of rainwater harvesting to be a feasible and realistic contribution to our areas greatest need; water. I think that we will be able to apply a smaller scale prototype in some of the more remote areas, and to their benefit, we’ll have more of the kinks worked out.

My counterpart Paul and I have, since September, been working in four project areas “hand-in-hand like ants”. I know that ants don’t have hands, but we have been busy and that’s the point. Most immediately, we are working in tree nursery management with a few area villages. We are working with a women’s group that are interested in starting a VSL (Village Savings and Loan). Just think of a small scale, group run bank with a primary focus of saving money through a period of several months. That’s it.

Paul and I also had the opportunity to attend a week long coach’s workshop with a program called Grass Roots Soccer, of which we have implemented back home with some of the secondary school students. It’s a really neat program that exclusively relates to HIV prevention and awareness. It’s somewhere between an organized youth gang and a middle school sex-ed class. I believe that the original founder and funder was one of the former winners from Survivor (CBS). We have brought on an additional coach, a teacher at the primary school named Chimwewe, who has been really invaluable. Chimwewe is teaching volleyball, while I am focusing on ultimate frisbee. And then lastly Paul and a few of my forestry counterparts will be applying for a SPA grant in January for a low-input beekeeping workshop. More details to come, but in the interest of keeping this blog manageably readable, I’ll quickly explain our tree nursery management program.

Tree nursery management has involved helping village tree nurseries to make comprehensive plans in tree planting from the actual seeds to seedlings to the end product of a healthy out-planted tree. Villages have traditionally waited for a local NGO to provide exotic, fast-growing agro-forestry species, but this has resulted in nurseries only producing 2-3 tree species in bulk. Paul and I are asking people, to additionally, look around their surroundings and plant the fruit pits they eat or the species they are cutting for timber, or trees harvested for medicinal bark, or that control erosion along river banks. There are a great abundance of useful indigenous trees in our area that are currently under utilized. Our goal is to empower people to find their own seeds and start and manage their own tree nurseries not because some expert NGO will give them free stuff, but because they understand the potential future gains that they could realize in years to come. “Mitengo ndi ndalama”, or ” trees are money”. That’s our message.

A large component, and maybe even a total cover-up for this project, has been all about fire prevention and awareness. As much as I’ve made a fool of myself in trying to be passionately angry with all my arsonist villagers and spreading the Smokey Bear gospel, it’s simply not a realistic issue to address directly here in rural Malawi. I do have a background in wild- land fire with the US Forest Service, but I can still say objectively that from an environmental standpoint the annual burning of forested areas is the most damaging human caused practice in Malawi. And in the same breath you can also say that solving this issue is the cheapest and easiest to achieve.
The key underlying issue is that currently no one takes ownership of uncultivated lands and so there is nothing invested or of perceived value in these areas. As a result, people are very indifferent to bush fires and the loss of biodiversity and healthy soil. I’ve found that to directly tell a Malawian farmer not to burn the bush is as realistic as asking a teenager in the States not to watch MTV because it’s bad for your eye sight and is a waste of time.

Paul and I and lots of experts that publish field manuals, think that the best way to approach such an issue is to simply add value to these uncultivated areas. If a village nursery can produce enough out-planted trees for a fruit orchard, or a timber lot, or a fodder bank for livestock, then communities would be less likely to use fire is such a lethal and destructive fashion. Paul and I have introduced a hypothetical tree nursery (Njovu Village Nursery), where we have set up a complete management structure that groups are free to adopt or modify to their specific needs.
One of the key figures in this structure is a position that we call the ‘fire manager’, who will be a trained and empowered to educate his or her community on all things fire, AKA keeping all the out-planted trees from being nuked by fire. Out of 30+ villages in my catchment area (Senior Chinthankwa), we have had 3 ½ village nurseries materialize and from those 3 ½ nurseries we’ve produced one elected fire manager; Mr. Luke Jackson. A major Peace Corps axiom is that to be an effective volunteer you have to find that one right guy. Is Luke Jackson that guy? I’m not too sure, but I’ve personally decided to celebrate Luke Jackson to the point that he become a positive agent of change, or until he becomes overly uncomfortable and quits.

I apologize if this blog post has become unreasonably too long, but I know that most of my audience is my grandparents and their peer groups. I’ll try to upload some pictures. Rereading, I think this post sounds a touch gloomy.
And I can’t sugar coat anything about the challenges of the past few months.
I would say very easily that the honey moon has come and gone, but I’ve never had a job that’s been more fulfilling and in that premise I’m a very happy guy. There has been a verse in James that has been increasingly valuable to my joy in God over the past few months. I’m tasked, like all Christians, to constantly analysis my motivations and in that light I’ve had to confront a brutally honest fact. To be very honest, the wisdom of the world doesn’t do well in a third world country, God’s take on poverty and the worlds differ vary greatly. This has been a challenge in my faith to fully realize, but at the same time a relief. James 3: 17-18 has been popping in strange places as a reminder of that.

The reality of being a Peace Corps Volunteer has been the text book parade
of glorified failures, everything my recruiter promised. On a day to day
level you need a plan followed by a plan b, c, and d and when all these things fails you make a swimming pool in your back yard. Before you learn to fly, learn how to fall.

Mourning for Achimadyo:

How to mourn for Achimadyo
with your fair and blackish hair
how could we mourn for Achimadyo
Your good behavior, how could we mourn for you You were our dog to chase silly goats jumping and running, what amiss; Achimadyo We remember you at the mountain Our cheeks are full of tears How to mourn you, My family, and Tiger-Princess have missed you How to mourn for you

– Paul Mvula


About jeff G.

I am a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Malawi. I work as a forestry advisor near Nyenje Forest Reserve in the district of Nkhotakota. I like reading, chatting with friends,biking, farming, and eating nsima, at least that's all I do anymore.

One response to “Learn How to Fall

  1. Anonymous

    Great Blog entry. Love you…. And how are the mosquitos?


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