Fresh off a permaculture design course in Zimbabwe, and the 9th International Permaculture Convergence & Conference in Malawi during November 2009, my mind was swimming in ideas of permaculture, and after so much discussion I was keen to get my hands dirty and do something! After the convergence, I went to visit the lake and spent two months managing a project in a lakeside village near Monkey Bay. Malawi is a tiny country encompassing the southernmost portion of the Great Rift Valley. A large portion of its territory is a fresh water lake, which many people depend on for fish for food and their livelihoods. Monkey Bay is a town located in the southern part of the lake, nestled next to the Lake Malawi National Park. With the financial support of Burners Without Borders (BWB) and inspiring community collaboration of Nsumbi Village and Mufasa Backpackers Monkey Bay, we built a block of 6 washbasins with a banana and papaya circle to recycle the greywater for fruit trees.
The goals of the project are to: make washing clothes easier for women, provide a place to wash clothes seperate from the lake to reduce water pollution, and demonstrate a useful and replicable example of permaculture. A mini network turned up for the creation of this project, including: Nsumbi villagers, myself as BWB, the Malawian Permaculture Network, the local community radio station, and Mufasa Monkey Bay. Six weeks of organizing was followed by seven days of building and a final day of ceremony with Faniza and Joseph, Malawian permaculturalists, explaining the importance of the banana papaya circle and caring for the fruit trees. I was so grateful to have the connections of permaculturalists in the community. By bringing Faniza and Joseph to the site, they were able to introduce new people to the concepts of permaculture in general and to current permaculture projects happening in their region.
As you might imagine, the project had many moments of excitement as well as frustrations and obstacles. Among the challenges we faced were: a fuel crisis due to a foreign exchange shortage, a shortage of cement, choosing a workable site, and the issue of money. The issue of money was the most sensitive for me to deal with being from a somewhat privileged background and working in a very poor community in Malawi. The model we were working off of was that I was bringing materials to the community, paid for by BWB, and in return we asked for community participation to build the basins. The community was very appreciative of the offer and wanted the project to happen there. However, they wanted the participants to be paid because they were taking their time away from fishing, which was their primary source of income. We set meeting times to build, but when I would arrive in the village, no one would show up. The message was, people were not happy with doing work without pay. The issue was resolved by deciding to pay the skilled laborers. A few other community volunteers showed up, but it was more difficult to rally their un-paid participation. Overall, a collaborative community vibe arose and there was happiness, hard work, and celebration each day of building.
During the time of organizing this project, Malawi experienced a fuel crisis. The shortage was caused by a lack of foreign exchange, used to purchase fuel. Days go by when there is no fuel available at the stations. Some days there is petrol, but rarely diesel. Buses stop running, as do matolas (combi van taxis). The story starts to come together from people talking around town and the newspapers, too. From word of mouth I hear there is no foreign exchange because tourism has decreased this year and tourists aren’t bringing their dollars, euros, and pounds. In the newspaper I read there is no foreign exchange because the government has paid for too much fertilizer to subsidize Malawi’s farmers. The president has recently bought a private jet, but the shortage isn’t due to him because the jet hasn’t been fully paid for, say the papers. Another explanation is that the shortage is due to the sales of tobacco this year and that Malawi’s imports are too high compared to its exports.
The fuel shortage affected the building because cement was not brought to Monkey Bay for weeks. As soon as a shipment came in, I received a phone call from the guy at Agora, who I’d left my number with, to tell me they had some in stock. Even if we had cement, we wouldn’t be able to pick up loads of river sand, gravel, and broken bricks without vehicles. After a few weeks, equilibrium was reached and fuel returned to the pumps.
Another interesting issue that arose was that of water pollution. Almost everyone washes their clothing in the lake with chemical washing powders. As I spoke with Westerners in the area, we all agreed that the powders cause pollution and must have an impact on the fish and plants in the lake. Interestingly, every person I spoke to who is from the area did not think that pollution is an issue. My personal vision for the project was that it would offer a way of reducing water pollution, and thereby improving health, because people depend on the fish for their livelihoods and to eat. However, this wasn’t perceived to be a problem by the people in the community.
Site selection was another challenge. We originally envisioned creating the washbasins by the harbor. When I spoke to the people at Malawi Lake Services, they informed me that the harbor has been privatized and is in the process of being bought by a Portugese company. This meant we wouldn’t be able to know about this spot for months and that the project might not be able to happen at all. Not wanting to give up so soon, I asked to be escorted to meet the chief of nearby Nsumbi village. He loved the project idea and asked if we could start in his village. He selected a tap and said it would be the best place. I look forward to revisiting Malawi and seeing how the community has been using the washbasins and if the trees have successfully been cared for and grown.
Overall, the building of this project was an experience that I will have forever. We spent 6 weeks organizing, and 7 days building. Those seven days were hectic and eventful and I must say, I enjoyed it all, the good times and the challenges. Many children came to watch the activity, and we clowned around doing headstands and cartwheels. The guys I worked with were wonderful and very easy going. Sourcing the materials and delivering them to the site usually involved the truck getting stuck in sand or mud at least once, and on one occasion, left one wheel of the truck up in the air as it slid down a sandy bank! Seeing the joy on the faces of the women who sang and danced at receiving fruit trees for the banana papaya circle to recycle greywater, was heart warming and felt like a gigantic hug of gratitude. These people appreciate so much what we were able to bring to their village, in the interest of connecting and making their lives a little bit easier. Integrating an aspect of permaculture into this project was essential to the idea of the project, and serves as a demonstration for people to do the same at their homes. By being part of its creation and maintenance, I hope those people will be inspired to create a banana circle at their own homes, and to learn more about permaculture from the people in their community who are already on the train.