“These people don’t eat basil”

Mr. Geoffry, Oct. 28th
I am J. Bandali, retired agricultural extension officer based in Lilongwe up until 2007. We met one another last week at the Mphonda Maize Production Demonstration. I came to your residence assuming to meet you and hold some discussions on your agricultural programme. I think you are making several progresses on your side over in Nyenje. I have left this letter with your neighbor, Mr. Frank Kamutu. Maybe that it would be possible to meet this Friday at the house of Mr. Kwanjana in Mwansambo. I am keeping several seeds for an exotic HERB nursery. There are such seeds as: BASIL, THYME, CALIFLOWER, ALOVERA. I am needing to establish them in the nursery as an income generating activity (IGA). Please call this number to confirm 0998734525. The battery inside my phone is very weak and could possibly not be working.

Kind Regards,
J. Bandali
NB- for corrigenda, we can ask Buumbwe Research Centre to provide a seed.
J.B.

Mr. Bandali OCT. 30th

Yes sir, I am sorry to have missed you on Sunday, but thanks very much for your letter. It sounds like you have a very interesting idea, and I would like to hear more from you on such matters… Of course, I’ve tried calling your phone, but to no avail. I would say that your phone is not weak, sir, but is a DEAD DOG. And I have also heard that Kwanjana is off the campus until next Monday. Could I propose that we meet there at the forestry office in Mwansambo town? Maybe around 8:00 am on Friday, November 1st ?

Best regards,

Jeffrey

Mr. Geoffry, Nov. 1st

I came at Mwansambo Forestry Office, but I only saw a grouping of men playing the Bau[local board game] and they were not affiliated with your office either. Where were you? I do not know what we can do, as I do not have a bicycle and I live very far from Mwansambo. I shall come to the post office on Monday, we will meet there and I can find out how you have made your program.
Thanks-so-much,
J. Bandali
NB- My son will return very shortly with a phone battery in which I will be using my phone again. Sorry for this issue.

Mr. Bandali, Nov. 2rd
Yes, we have received our first rains of the season here in Nyenje and I thought that you were also experiencing heavy rains on your side yesterday morning. I was thinking that they were WIDE SPREAD SHOWERS! I’m sorry, but because of that reason I have failed. Although, I have heard from the internet that we should be expecting a nice rain season for 2013-14. I greatly doubt if this letter will reach you in time, but I’m expecting to be in Mwansambo tomorrow morning to put my phone on the charge[charge my phone]. I hope that it will be possible to meet with you then. In the meantime, I’ll continue calling your phone: ceaselessly.
“Perseverance renders the greatness of humanity.”
-anonymous

Thanks-a-lot,
Jeffrey

Mr. Geoffry Nov. 3
I should have to first explain myself so that you can know my ideas. I have held the position of agriculture officer in the area of Lilongwe since the first President Dr. Kamuzu Banda starting in 1973. That was a good history here in Malawi. What we had to do then, was introducing maize and farming practices to people in the villages. I worked in most all of the outposts of the central region. Many of my colleague and I were made into retirement [forced to retire] at the end of the rains in 2007. They wrote that we were too old and replaced us with those people from the Natural Resource College in Bunda. I received a letter that came from the ministry to appreciate my work, but those people were crooks back then. They ate [stole] all the money in the budget and in truth they could no longer afford our salaries. Even now, there are so many crooks in our government and that is our problem. I want to do a partnership with your organization to try and grow these medicinal crops and make this YOUR business. This is my idea. I want just to ask you to hire me as a part of your program so that maybe I should have something like a living allowance or a small salary. Maybe it is somehow true that in your country there is no corruption, white people are not stealing government monies. That is a problem for the blacks.
If we should be able to meet at Mwansambo this coming market day (Wednesday) I could understand you more fully.
Kind regards,
J. Bandali

[Letter not delivered]

One month later…

Mr. Kwanjana; agriculture ext. officer
[via text message]: “ FRIENDS FROM CBCDI COMING TOMORROW. LETS BE TOGETHER.”
Me: “tomorrow is Sunday?”
[No response]

I arrived at the agriculture office in Mwansambo on Sunday to a sizable crowd. That morning I had slept in, made a nice breakfast, and drank two cups of coffee. I arrived in town by 9:00 A.M. already damp with perspiration. I looked for Kwanjana.
Jonathan Kwanjana is the ringleader for nearly every circus that passes through the Traditional Authority of Mwansambo. He works as an agricultural extension officer in the area. He exhibits a type of leadership that is assertive and strong in this place of underdevelopment. Kwanjana operates like a bulldozer in a grassy field, which is mostly beneficial for those who follow behind. I had arrived to the agriculture office never fully understanding what was meant by CBCDI, although it sounded familiar. I had assumed it was the acronym for one of the revivalist ministry on the circuit, coming to rock the boat of local spirituality. A charismatic group of ministers from the capital city, who had come prepared before the masses to hone in on the Holy Spirit for those were catatonic in their religious imaginations and anemic in their physical bodies. As I was riding in on my bicycle, I had formed some expectations. I was prepared to be freed from my own bondage of protestant mediocrity, and to surrender; to let go again. But that’s not what this was.
I walked over to Mr. Kwanjana to settle my inquiry.
“Community Based Crop Diversification International… That’s CBCDI.”, Mr. Kwanjana answered unconvincingly, like he had possibly mixed up the words himself. This was some research-based NGO out of Zimbabwe out on the circuit, preaching their own gospel of soil fertility and human utility. On this day, like many others, Mr. Kwanjana was orchestrating a tour. He was standing out royally in his formal purple dress shirt (he wears purple for formal occasions and funerals), ready to receive his prestigious guests from the CBCDI, and to show off the fields of our area’s most productive disciples.
He held out a limp hand and I took it in my own, and then we held hands like men- like affluent men who were prone to discussing our business publicly.
“Your friends are coming back, those ones from last year.” Kwanjana said.
“Oh, that German-Zimbabwean guy? I don’t think he’s my friend.” I responded.
“He is your brother….He is coming together with a team.”
“I don’t even remember that guy’s name. What time are they coming?” I asked trying to conceal my own sudden excitement [in this corner of Africa white people travel in teams].
“Soon-soon”, Kwanjana said assuredly.
I spun around and surveyed the crowd, feeling 300 sets of eyes strike me from across the yard like a punch to the stomach. I started off, looking through the faces for a friend or an acquaintance to sit next to, to contemplate together this non-descript passing of time called ‘soon-soon’, or ‘African Time’.
I tottered in feelings of excitement and apprehension at the thought of last year’s ‘team’ of PHD agriculturists coming in from the Lake Shore Road in a cloud of dust/ blaze of glory. I had remembered them arriving in our ox-carts driven community in their modern fleet of off-road vehicles, dressed for a work-safari and decked out in adventure garb. My dominating memory from last year’s stopover was reduced to a tactless wild-goose chase, that involved collecting data from farmers who barely had pants left on their legs.
On this morning, I knew that once this team arrived in front of my Malawian neighbors that all of my efforts in community integration would be temporarily suspended. I would be given a chair and made to sit up front with the panel of my white-blooded relation. I didn’t even know who these team members were, and it wasn’t fair at all to resent them, but I did.
I almost left.
As I hovered over the handlebars of my bike and contemplated my decision in the tread pattern of my tire, I heard a human voice hissing from the crowd. The hissing continued until I looked up and out and locked eyes with the hisser. There sat the old man, J. Bandali. Mr. Bandali sat in a row of old men; he appeared weightless, wedged in at the very end of the bench. He was bent out over one knee with a casual gaze that lay out across the pedestrian traffic of the road. I approached the bench, and from left to right, greeted the over 200 years of farming experience in men whom had lived enough to grow everything but the hair on their heads. Mr. Bandali stood at the end before I could reach him, where I could sense that the conversation amongst his peers had interested him very little. Without a word, our bond was sanctified as we were two transplants ready to discuss the ways of the world.
“Oh.. Jeffrey, you are speaking very good Chichewa now!”
“yes, pong’ono’pong’ono’.” I responded appropriately, like an exotic parrot. And here I paused for a moment, to reflect on how much of my language skills had come so effortlessly through the practice of simple mimicry.
“Do you mind if I join you?” I asked, “some visitors are very close by.”
“Yes, you need to be seated. These are visitors coming for your programs from your organization.”, Mr. Bandali said assuredly.
“I thought this was supposed to be some kind of church service.” I responded sarcastically.
I leaned against a tree, and Mr. Bandali rotated his pose outwards from the bench. Facing one another, we conversed privately covering the gaps in time between our prior correspondence, and the gaps and misinformation that had passed through the last letter; the one that never reached my house. The English we spoke was indecipherable to the perked ears of those nearby, and we reveled and taunted those outside of our tongue by speaking descriptively and in full color about the general life that surrounded us. I was amused in the consistency of Mr. Bandali’s phrasing. It was all very fluent English; crisply, confidently pronounced words that were slightly jumbled throughout his sentences, but still forming highly intelligible thoughts. And his voice seemed to match the gravelly tone and directness of his earlier letters. Bandali spoke presumptuously of our future business dealings, and he asked for a paid position and the start-up capital to assist in buying an irrigation pump for his/our herb nursery. I quietly stared at him, resolved in my response and well-practiced in its delivery. The answer would have to be a flat no. Suddenly, my concentration was broken by the discovery of ants running, no holds bar up my right arm and shoulder. They had long taken for themselves the tree trunk that I was lounging on, and the entire underworld beneath it. As I rubbed myself free of ants, even down to my legs, I was consoled with a customary Malawian courtesy, “..sorry, sorry, sorry”, which was muttered from the sympathetic onlookers, who wordlessly understood my distress. I resettled; trying to distance myself from the ants, and trying also to redirect the perceptions of my own personal wealth from the business minded J. Bandali. In the Peace Corps we have a readily accessible tract that can be used in such instances. We have the training to deflect such solicitations by explaining our agency’s’ guiding principles, which include: 1.) host-country national volunteerism and 2.) community appropriate living allowances. But I was now entirely flustered by the lingering ants scattering across my mid-section, and I released a statement that would cover both principles, and would stop this solicitation outright.
“Mr. Bandali, even if we were in the hospital delivering live babies, it would have to be on a voluntary basis. Do you know what I’m saying? I just can’t hire you. I don’t have any source of income.” I said still agitated by ants.
“Yes I see.”
Mr. Bandali explained more aspects of his business venture, and I listened and tried to contribute where I could. There was something admirable in his resolve, but there was also something curious in his gross miscalculation of the average village consumer. Afterall, these people wouldn’t eat basil, or grow it, or even buy it; all of that sort of felt like common knowledge.
The team arrived just before lunch to a dwindling crowd of the agrarian disciples. The PHD agronomist had already toured the maize sites and had come to facilitate an open forum discussion with the farmers of Mwansambo. The dialogue went like this.

CBCDI: “Hello farmers! You are our friends, and we love coming to see you here in beautiful Mwansambo!”
Mwansambo farmers: “Thank you.”
CBCDI: “How can we get more community members in your community to adopt our practices? How can we encourage people to have greater maize yeilds? We know how much you Malawians love nsima!”
Mwansambo farmers: “You should give us fertilizer.”
CBCDI: “Welp, we can’t do that, and that’s also not our job.”
Mwansambo farmers: “What about herbicides?”
CBCDI: “I think you are missing the point.”
Mwansambo farmers: “What were we talking about again? Why did you plan this meeting on a Sunday?”
CBCDI: “Ok, thanks very much for this helpful discussion, keep up the good work!
The crowd dispersed as one of the NGO directors stood in the foreground wearing sandals, shorts, and a t-shirt; taking photographs of ‘local people’ on his iPad. It seemed so naive that this PHD team of experts had expected to persuade so many people to participate in conservation agriculture without a single genuine encounter of the local culture. Not a single Malawian in all TA Mwansambo was impressed by the clarity or depth by which some these Phd. guy wrote his Doctor’s Thesis. Every villager presented wanted to see if these guys were human enough to stay and eat nsima [Malawi’s staple food] for lunch. Although the time passed 2 PM and the team departed on an empty stomach, it seemed that they had come with the answer to higher yields without considering that there was a culture that existed behind the maize stalks. It seemed that their trip was mostly geared towards spending the rest of their weekend at a resort on Lake Malawi. This appeared to be an incidence of a ‘working holiday’, these guys were so productive that it was disgusting, and I became so self-righteous about everything that I became dizzy.
Equally frustrating however, was that this community of farmers did not have the imagination to ask even a single challenging questions in a discussion about their own livelihoods. This group of farmers had sat around together all morning talking, talking, talking about everything under the sun without except for relevant talking points on the topic conservation agriculture to bring before the panel. There was a team of agriculture experts from around the world and no one could think to ask how farming happens in Mexico, or Belgium, or Germany. We remained stuck in our world of mono-cultures and chemical inputs. Nobody dared to open the window to the outside, let alone acknowledge the existence of a greater world beyond it. This un-productivity was also disgusting, but from the opposite end of the spectrum.
There was nothing redemptive that would have come from this Sunday morning, until Mr. Bandali turned to me after the forum and revealed that he had brought with him a box full of basil plants.
“Wow, you are really serious about this herb business!” I said in amazement.
“Oh yes, I think you could manage to start your farm with these.” He said, staring down at a box of 20 seedlings.
“Well, I think maybe I could manage to buy a few, but you know… you just had a team of azungus[white people] here. You could have sold out, white people love basil.”
“Those people don’t have gardens, they live in town.” Said Bandali.
“They are agricultural experts, I think that they probably have amazing gardens.”
“I somehow doubt.”
“maybe you’re right. Hey! How do you expect to sell all these basil plants around here?”
I turned to one of the Malawian agriculture extension officers and broaching into his conversation, I tried to get his opinion on basil.
“Ahh..Mr. Man, how do you look at this plant? It’s called basil, can you smell it?” I asked, while shoving the black nursery tube towards his head.
“Oh, yes that is a very delicious smelly, mumati cha?” He asked.
“BASIL! Do you think that people here could manage to eat it?” I asked facetiously.
“Yes, yes no problem.” He responded blindly and then squinting his eys as if he’d just been splashed in the face by cold water. He had no idea what he was saying.
“ Malawians won’t eat basil!” I declared to myself out loud, ” You want to sell these plants for 500 Kwacha each? How will you manage?”
“These ones are for your farm, you should plant them all very soon.”
“I can only buy two.”
Five months later….

I was out and about on a mission, finding a chief by the name of Saweta. This was somewhat of an ironic adventure, I had roamed for over an hour outside of my territory through the foothills of Ntchisi Mountain, asking every old woman with a broom and a baby where I could find this chief they call Saweta. The irony comes from the translation of Saweta, which means, ‘untamed animal’ in the vernacular language. This chief was on the loose, true to his name, but it was necessary all the same that I find him because I was nearing my proximate death as a Peace Corps Volunteer; my remaining days were held in the tail end of a month. I had 5,000 Kwacha in my front pocket that belonged to him, he had done some brick work for a housing project in the area. My pursuit came to a close on the football (soccer) field of Chamalire Primary School. At the rise in the hill, traveling up the main road I began to sense that I was on the cusp of discovering an entire community all at once; all together in waiting. There was a political rally scheduled in the area, it was to be sometime after lunch. This meant that at any minute some parliamentarian hopeful would come bumping through the hills in a trashed out, late model Toyota pick-up, passing nearby the crumpling school blocks in his constituency. He would be bouncing around in the back seat with his people, trying to calculate how much money they could to pay traditional leaders to earn their democracy. I rode through the crowd upright in posture, with my handle bars recklessly abandoned, and my arms folded across my chest. I saw, reflected in the eyes of bystanders, myself as a tamed bear on a unicycle, I had worked myself right into the opening act of a political rally. I veered right, right onto the field and proceeded through a narrow opening in a human sea of people to the big tree in the corner of the field where a group of men sat, presumably the chiefs. As I slowly rolled through the crowd, I spotted a small figured man standing by himself in a weedy patch. Although he stared with all the others, I knew that he was not a stranger to me he, but that he was some sort of anomaly that existed in this homogenous society. I could tell from his poise and from his composure that this was a town man. That he was all at once completely alone in this place and in his thoughts. In a flash of sub-conscious thought, I had shared in his solitude, although my solitude inversely attracted small crowds and cohort of curious onlookers. This was, once more the anomaly whom I had become accustomed to spotting in crowds: J.Bandali. I raised my arm to waive and he waived back. I angled left and navigated through a flow of human viscosity until I was blended into some crowded calamity and forced off my bike. I led the crowd over towards Mr. Bandali until we arrived together as a ball of people facing a defeated old man centered in his naturally circular island of weeds.
“It looks like you came to support your parliamentarian. What’s his name again?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’m forgetting.” Bandali responded indifferently.
“Wow, it looks like they’ll have the Big Dance later, this must be a Peoples Party town.”
“You know these guys…” Bandali trailed off.
By now we were fully engulfed by the crowd. At least two hundred children had negotiated themselves into the inner circle, where they all moved in sync like a school of tropical fish, codified in bright shirts with black skin and white eyeballs.
“I’ve got to tell you Mr. Bandali that those basil plants I got from you are really doing great.” How’s your herb business?” I asked.
“You know…”,Bandali signed. “These people don’t eat basil!”

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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.

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