Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Waiting for the Rains

One of the nice things about being at school in the fall term was seeing the first snowfall through the classroom window. Of course the novelty and wonder usually wore off quickly (I remember one November a Prof. barely took the time to say ‘How nice’ before continuing to berate the class for doing so badly on the midterm), but waiting to see the first flakes fall was always exciting.

I’ve been feeling similarly these past few weeks as I wait for the rains to arrive in Malawi. I arrived in Malawi in March this year at the end of the rainy season. On my first bicycle-taxi trip into Dedza town I got caught in a sudden downpour and turned up to my first day at the office sopping wet. Since then there’s been no rain and Malawi’s undergone such a gradual transformation that I can’t remember what it looked like during the wet season. The trees and buses are still green, but the fields and roads have turned dry and dusty.

I’m not the only one impatient for the rains to come. Mrs. Boniface, my landlady, is up at 4 each morning to hoe her fields for a few hours before the sun gets really hot. She’s racing to prepare her fields for when the rains get here and can’t wait for them to arrive. The rains represent food for the coming year. Most of the fields in Malawi aren’t irrigated and so farmers rely on the rains - poor rainfall and a poor harvest means hunger in the coming year. Even with good rains and a bumper crop of maize last year the radio is reporting pockets of hunger in areas of Dedza district. While we were out walking this weekend Mrs. Boniface pointed out women coming down a path from Dedza mountain with impossibly large piles of wood balanced on their heads, telling me that selling firewood is what many women resort to raise money to buy maize when they’ve run out of their harvest.
Mrs. Boniface hoeing one of her fields (the ridges in the foreground are left over from last year, the ones in the background are newly hoed)

Mrs. Boniface's sister Aurelia hoeing, with Dedza mountain in the background

So good rains are a vital element of farmer self-sufficiency, but they can also be destructive. In part of my project’s working area the soils are very sandy and the rains cause latrines to collapse. When people go ‘free range’ instead of using a latrine the rains wash the ‘damages’ into streams and unprotected water sources, and cholera, diarrhea and other water borne diseases hit the villagers who rely on those sources for drinking water. Diarrhea kills 18% of the children under five who die each year in Malawi. Malaria (which accounts for another 14% of under-five child deaths) also hits hardest in the wet season as mosquitoes breed. It’s harder (and sometimes impossible) for extension workers to reach many villages as the dirt roads turn to mud.

So I’m waiting for the rains with trepidation as well as excitement. When lightening flashes across the hills at night I can’t wait to find out what the wet season in Malawi will bring.

And as a bonus....here's a picture of my little house (actually quite a big house for just me) in Kankudza village, Dedza, that I took this morning!