Friday, September 11, 2020

News from the Beach! We're Open!


Well here in Malawi, and the rest of the world even, we believe we can see the light at the end of the COVID 19 tunnel!  Malawi’s international airport and borders have reopened and are issuing visas!  And while we are cognizant of the fact that the coronavirus is still very much with us and that responsible precautions must still be made, here at the Maru we are also allowing ourselves to celebrate this change just a little bit. Happily, we can also announce that our operations will resume ASAP and that we are now finally able to say, yes you CAN come and join us down here at Kande Beach and help us restart our conservation and monitoring activities! To those of you who have already applied this year we will be getting in touch with you shortly and to all of you out there who have been waiting to apply due to the COVID situation, we now encourage you to send in your applications.  Just click here to download the form.  There is a lot of work to do to restart all our programs so we need all the help we can get!  Get in touch and as we say here in Malawi, “Lets make a plan!”


Saturday, June 27, 2020

News from the Beach! We're still here!

Well its been awhile since you’ve heard from us but we are happy to report that we are still here on the beautiful shores of Lake Malawi.  Although the corona pandemic has curtailed a lot of our activities just like the rest of the world, here on the Lake we are used to adversity and are determined to continue on.  The needs of the Lake, its fish, and the people that depend on them don’t go away just because most of the world is focused other events. 

With that in mind we would like to emphasize that, YES, are still accepting volunteer and intern applications at this time.  If you’ve been stuck in your house for the last few months and are ready, or almost ready, to get out back into the world, why not start that journey with a trip to Lake Malawi!  We need all the help we can get to restart our conservation and monitoring activities and more generally the pandemic has crippled Malawi’s economy, leaving many lakeshore people who used to work in the tourism industry without jobs.  Every new visitor helps them return to work. 

WITH THAT SAID.  There are still no flights into Malawi and the borders are still closed to non-residents.  So you can’t come just yet.  The good news is that we are expecting that to change in the next month or two.  We can’t guarantee anything but the signals we are receiving are good so particularly if you are looking to plan a trip anytime towards the later half of this year, we believe Malawi is a pretty safe bet.

So what do you have to lose?  The lake water level this year is at an all-time, the sun is shining, and really, this could be your view every evening so get in touch! We’d love to hear from you.


Tuesday, November 5, 2019

News from the Beach! Word from Alexandra!

Here is a word from our newest intern Alexandra from Germany.  She is doing a fantastic job studying our brushpark installations. 

What leads a person who is about 30 years older than the typical student to the shores of Lake Malawi, doing an internship? Well, it is my late discovered passion for the underwater world and its fauna which caused me to get down to Marine Science studies two years ago and to realise a personal dream.
My name is Alexandra and I live in Munich in landlocked Germany. In order to collect more practical field work experience in the course of my studies, I searched for opportunities in an interesting part of the world and applied for a three months internship with The Maru Research Center located in Kande Beach.  So here I am, landed in a true paradise, trying to put the impressions and experiences of my first three weeks in words.
One of the first surprises was – and still is every time I go in the water – that I’m living at a lake and not an ocean. The endless water surface, the waves, the wind and the sandy beach feel so much like living at the sea, and even after these three weeks I still expect to taste salt water when I go swimming or diving.
There are so many things that I learned to love here and already start to miss today. Let me name the top three: Going out to my daily walks to carry out survey tasks in the fisher village and at the two rivers we are monitoring means getting a taste of the local life and chatting with amazingly friendly Malawians in my unfortunately very limited Chitonga knowledge or in English. The second highlight is diving and doing surveys near Kande Island, which is situated around 1 km from the beach and is the habitat for these incredibly diverse, colourful cichlids, the main reason why I came here. This is my first fresh water diving experience and it is decisively my first experience to go diving using a canoe! Last but not least, my participation in the establishment and monitoring of an artificial reef, a brushpark, which aims to create a new habitat for breeding, shelter or harvesting purposes.
Of course, no paradise is perfect in every respect and some of the downsides are the strong winds that turn the interior of my lovely hut into a beach, or the lake flies that are regularly blown in large clouds across the lake that enter every little gap and leave a black carpet behind. But all these little inconveniences can’t spoil the pleasure to be here – it’s Africa!


Friday, September 20, 2019

News from the Beach: The “GIVE A FISH A HOME!” Virundu Edition

Summer is coming again here on Lake Malawi and we are excited for the warm weather and calm lake conditions it brings.  Our winter season with Operation Wallacea was amazing with great students and great research accomplished!  Back at Kande we have some exciting plans for the next few months that we need your help on!  Info on the first plan is below! (more to come)

Let’s Build Artificial Reefs a.k.a. “Virundu” in Lake Malawi!

The people of Malawi get most of the little meat-protein that they consume from the Lake’s amazing fish species.  For centuries one of the ways that fishermen here have worked with the Lake to provide them with more fish is by building underwater “reef” structures, locally known as Virundu, which create more fish habitats particularly for breeding.  Traditionally these Virundu were built by cutting down hardwood trees, once plentiful, and sinking them.  Such structures were durable and provided an inviting lattice work of branches upon which algae could grow and in which fish could make temporary homes.  After the breeding season, the fishermen would return and harvest a portion of the fish around the Virundu to feed their families.  Unfortunately, these days hardwood trees are difficult to come by and fishermen are finding that inshore waters no longer have the fish they used to.  This forces them to go deeper and deeper into the lake to catch the fish they need to feed their families.  
We first learned about Virundu by speaking with fishermen at Masakhahunju fishing village where we do our Fisheries Monitoring Surveys and started brainstorming with them how we might re-create them in the Lake in a way that was as equally as durable as hardwood, could be made from locally available materials, was scalable, and perhaps even more attractive to the lake’s fish.  What we came up with last year were structures inspired by the baskets that Malawians use to transport their fish to market.  After getting a local weaver to make some of these structures from readily available bamboo we sunk 10 of them near Kande Island as a trial and began waiting to see if fish might find them attractive.


To our astonishment within two months fish had made our Virundu their homes!  Look at the video below! (ignore the wrong timestamp) This was taken earlier this year.

 So by February of this year we knew that our structures were locally feasible, scalable, and attractive to the fish!  So far so good!  What we didn’t know was how durable they were.  For this we would have to wait and see if they could last through the annual winter windy season when strong winds create strong underwater currents that could potentially uproot our Virundu from the lake floor. Unfortunately, with this year’s windy season now at a close we now know our answer.  Our beautiful trial Virundu that we anchored to lake floor last year have all been blown away!


While very sad this is the nature of research.  There is trial and there is error.  But there is also progress and learning!  So this new summer season we need YOUR HELP! 

We KNOW that our reef structures WORK at attracting fish.

We KNOW that we can make them with LOCAL materials.

We also KNOW that we can SCALE them up to create potentially VAST underwater fish habitats.

All that we need to do is make them STRONGER to last through the annual winter windy season.
To do that we are going use IRON! The bamboo lattice work baskets were an ideal material on which algae could go and an attractive structure to the fish, they just weren’t strong enough to withstand the currents.  BUT if we reinforce our bamboo virundu baskets with IRON rebar we believe that they stand a good chance of making it through the Lake’s next winter windy season. 


While easily available, iron rebar, unlike wild growing bamboo, is not free.  How much is it you ask?  Well we have calculated that the rebar needed to reinforce one 2-meter-long by 1-meter-round virundu basket and provide strong anchors to attach it to the lake floor will cost JUST $25 USD!


Click the link above to donate any amount you can to help buy rebar to GIVE A FISH A HOME and we will send you a picture of the virundu basket that your donation helped to build and send you regular updates on the fish that have made it their home! 




Thursday, September 5, 2019

A word from our new volunteer Steven!

Hi there! My name is Steven Duong, I’m from San Diego, California, and I’m a volunteer here at the Maru Research Center. I’m a recent graduate of Grinnell College (English and American Studies) and I’ve been in Kande for about a month so far, helping with the Maru’s monitoring projects on the lake and the nearby fishing village, as well conducting part of my own year-long project as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow. This writing project, titled “Freshwater Fish and the Poetry of Containment,” will take me to four different countries, Malawi included, that happen to be the countries of origin of four freshwater aquarium fish I kept in my fish tank growing up. I am working on both fiction and poetry manuscripts that explore the idea of containment and movement across borders, in every sense of those words, using the fish tank and its four glass walls as a sort of working metaphor. Maybe a bit head-in-the-clouds in a pretentious literary way, sure, but the project and its framework have given me a unique way to understand the people and places I’ve met so far in context with my own life.

The funny thing is, though I have no background in the sciences, I’ve found that so many other aspects of my learning and my experiences and identities have helped me here. As Justin likes to say, 50% of the Maru’s mission is about the science—conservation, research, understanding the living things swimming around in the water—and half is about the place—Kande, its people, its food, its values, its languages, its cultural imaginations. You can apply the scientific methodologies learned here anywhere, but it’s being here that makes the experience unique. And that’s what I’ve found.

Most of my interactions begins with me greeting people enthusiastically in their own language, and then going on to explain the actual details of my work here, both with the Maru and with my writing. I’ve made genuine connections with such curious and interesting and wonderful people. I went to Chintheche with Alfred, a young man I met at the fishing village who is attending college at Livingstonia University—we bonded over our very different but also surprisingly similar college experiences, and he invited me to a service at his church, where I was introduced to the whole community there. I met Chudi, a beach vendor and aspiring mechanic, and helped him load firewood onto his friend’s massive truck to bring it back home to cook dinner for his family. Just yesterday, I ran into Ruben and some older men from the village at the local bar, and had a fascinating conversation about family values and religion and English literature in Malawi.

Perhaps most significantly, im Mzuzu, I had some of my preconceived notions tested in an interaction with some men on the street. While I was walking toward a shop, three auto-parts shop owners drinking on the side of the road yelled “ni hao” and “China” at me, having decided I was Chinese. I stopped and greeted them, clarifying that I was actually learning Chitonga. Then, I gave them a smiley “mwatandala uli.” They were enthusiastic to hear I was taking the effort to pick up one of the local languages, though they were Tombuka, and we ended up sitting together there and talking for more than an hour about language and culture in Malawi. I told them that I was actually an American, and my parents were Vietnamese, and that while I know they meant no harm, it gets a little jarring to hear people yell at you randomly in Chinese when you don’t speak it. I told them that if they had come to America and I saw them and greeted them in Swahili just because they looked African to me, they might not have taken it well. The guys totally understood where I was coming from, offered me some of their brandy as a peace offering, and we hung out all afternoon. I ended up learning so much about the lives of these guys, Sam and Joseph and Duncan. They told me I had to include them in my book and send it to them if I ever got it published. We’ll see if that happens.

Ultimately, I’ve come to learn, over the past few weeks, that the identities and experiences that define me—my race, my ethnicity, my social status, my upbringing in the states, my college education—both contain me and free me. The way I appear and the fact that I studied English and not biology, for example, have limited me in some ways. My appearance restricts the way many Malawians view me to an initial stereotype, and my lack of a science background makes it harder to pick up certain concepts and methodologies necessary to do work at the Maru. However, if I had a different set of identities, if I wasn’t a special kind of umusungu, if I didn’t get ni-hao’d randomly on the street, I wouldn’t be challenged to the point where I put myself into situations where I was able to come to a greater understanding of the people around me. If I was already well-versed in scientific fieldwork, I wouldn’t have put the extra effort into the learning I’m doing here, and I wouldn’t have stepped out of my comfort zone enough to grow as a student and a writer.

Walls can keep us trapped, but they also encourage us to improvise, to make do, to bend the rules as far as we can. This is what the stanza structure of a sonnet does, or the walls of a fish tank, or the shores of a lake, or the borders of a nation, or the barriers of a language. If you have a handful of Chitonga phrases and your friend has a limited English vocabulary, you work around it, using hand signals, comparisons, and other workarounds. If the mbuna rockfish of Lake Malawi weren’t isolated to their underwater rock patches, which they seldom stray from, the lake would not be nearly as biodiverse, and Kande Island wouldn’t have its own endemic species, the Pseudotropheus elongatus variety I love and look out for every time I dive. If Shakespeare said “screw the sonnet” and decided to write thousand line poems without any rhyme or meter or structure, they probably would have been interesting, but they also probably would have sucked.

To cut a long-winded blog post slightly shorter, let me say this. Though the cichlids of Lake Malawi are endlessly fascinating to me, as an aquarist and a writer and a lover of wildlife, it is the people I meet that I am learning the most from. The relationships I am building with people demonstrate and model and reinvent the ideas I want to write about more so than anything else. Maybe this is a little anthropocentric but the stories of these fish matter to me because they are tied to the stories of people. This is what metaphor is—taking two very different things and bringing them together, forcing them to have conversation with one another until they are one, synonymous and inseparable. I know I’m maybe an unconventional intern for a science research center like this, but I really do see both science and art as tools for building bridges and making connections, and I hope to continue that work for the next month I’m here in Kande. If you’re interested in reading my writing or following my project more closely, here’s my website:


Thursday, October 11, 2018

News from the Beach from Antoine!

My name is Antoine – or more recently M’bewe, as friends from the next village have decided to nickname me. These days, I can hardly make my way to the market or the fishing village without stumbling across a cheering crowd of friendly yet noisy Malawians shouting out my new name all over the place… Not to mention the soothing chance meeting with a quiet and respected elder or the occasional encounter, not so soothing, with countless hordes of exhilarated kids with marveling eyes and hearty laughters.
This is Malawi, the ‘‘warm heart of Africa’’ – and it’s been quite a ride so far.

It’s been one month since I arrived in Kande Beach to meet with Justin, the happy owner of the Maru Research Center, and start working with him as a research intern. The ‘‘Maru’’, in the local language of Chitonga, is a place where each and everyone can meet and exchange ideas. Over the years, Justin has strived to make this place just what it’s supposed to be. In collaboration with the fishing community that relies on Lake Malawi and its resources, his ongoing goal is to better understand and promote the lake’s tremendous – yet understudied – biodiversity.

But let’s give you an idea! Here is what a typical day as an intern at the Maru looks like:

  • 8 am, time for breakfast (on lucky days, there might a nice pile of pancakes in the kitchen just waiting for you). With a full belly, I can safely get on with my first mission of the day – the River Monitoring. Three times a week, we go and measure a variety of physico-chemical and biotic parameters in the nearby rivers. The objective is to assess a baseline for the quality of the water that ultimately flows into the lake, while keeping the Fisheries Department and Mzuzu University updated.
After gathering my measuring instruments and my insect net, I start heading for Mazembe river – a 40-minutes walk along the lake shore. On my way, I will likely stumble across many people on the beach: locals bathing, doing their laundry or simply having a walk, women carrying fish to the next village, children playing with rusty bikes or flying homemade kites.
I finally get to the river mouth – time to get to work! I pull out my instruments and start measuring the air and water temperature, the pH and the amount of dissolved particles in the water. Then I grab my net, plunge it into the river stream, pull it out, and start counting and identifying the different varieties of insects I’ve been able to catch. Following a methodology that is consistently used in African countries, I take a look at the ‘‘ecological score’’ derived from the data I’ve just collected: the river this week is almost in its unmodified, natural state. All good then – ‘‘Hakuna Matata’’, as they like to put it here. I start packing up my stuff, cruising past a herd of cows as I make my way back home.

  • On the way back, I reach the fishing village of Masukuhunju, which we are working with. Fishermen are just coming back from their night hunt… About 60 of their fishing canoes are scattered onshore, some of them bursting with exotic, strangely named fishes – Gongo, Utaka, Chisawasawa, Kampango, Nkholokholo… In the distance, I can already catch a glimpse of the happy faces surrounding the boats – men and children together, helping to clear the fishing nets out of the boats. Now is the time for my next mission: the Fisheries Monitoring. The point of my daily trip to the fishing village is to monitor fish catches, the yield and species composition – again, as a baseline for the lake’s fish resources and the fishermen’s livelihoods.
Armed with a bucket, a bowl and a scale, I get closer to one boat surrounded by a team of workers and start engaging conversation – quite surprisingly, ‘‘How is fishing?’’ is a hell of an ice-breaker. Quite often, small talk can give you some precious insight on the life in the village and its inhabitants. After a few chitchats I ask, innocently enough, if I can put my bucket in their boat and weight their fish. Virtually every fisherman here will be glad to let you – Justin has been around for 8 years now and the locals have learnt to know and appreciate him. Not to mention I’ve been around for one month now and have learnt to know and appreciate a bunch of them as well! I can start filling my bucket with bowls of fish, weighting them and trying to estimate the catch composition and the amount of net yet to be removed.
This daily task is as much about keeping track of fishing activities as maintening the link between the Maru and the fishing community. It can be a pretty intense work, that gets you to engage with the locals and leaves you with your hands dirty and smelly with fish. Certainly beats the office.

  • 12 pm, time for a well-deserved lunch. As usual, we get to eat the local dish, the traditional greens, beans and sima – a dough of maize bran mixed with water. Basically the local version of bread for me, which I need at every meal in my home country – can you guess which? I share my meal with Justin and three Malawians working at the Maru: Joyce, Douglas and Chimbavi. A few words on them.
Joyce is the Center Manager and also our cook – I should say chef, really, to give credit to her ability to take a bunch of basic ingredients and somehow always turn it into something tasteful. Dinner time is when she can express her full creativity – ask her for her special burrito. She takes care of every volunteer coming here, often gives wise advice and has some great stories about local witchcraft… I insist though, ask her for her special burrito.
Douglas is my diving buddy, working his way to become a Dive Master. He’s also my volley ball buddy, which we play every day or so, and might quickly become my buddy for all kinds of other stuff. Not exactly the talkative type – yet he’s a great deal of fun when you get to know him.
Chimbavi is the last, the caretaker of this place. The extent of his English being somewhat limited to a few (short) sentences, we mostly communicate by means of body langage, suggestive facial expressions (lots of winks), Malawian interjections and a fair share of bursts of laughter.
I like the three of them very much.

  • 2 pm. Justin steps into the kitchen. ‘‘Ok, dude, get your gear together. Time for diving.’’ Oh boy, now we’re talking. I start heading towards the equipment storage room and, smiling with anticipation, I ‘‘get my gear together’’: BCD jacket, air tank, regulator, weighting belt, wet suit, mask and fins… This is the time for our Fish ID Survey. For eight years now, the Maru has been regularly monitoring a representative number of fish species in the northern part of the lake. As far as Justin knows, he is the only one to keep such track of the lake’s biodiversity – despite its countless endemic species and the growing threat of overfishing.
Once our gear is all set up, we hop on Justin’s motor boat, start the engine towards Kande Island – 800 m from the shore – and start diving. As we reach the bottom, we start installing a 50 m transect line, get our slates out and start swimming along, recording every fish we see that we are keeping track of. Over the weeks, I’ve started to grow familiar with them: I have learnt how to distinguish them and to make sense of their distinctive shapes, features and behaviours – and I have my own favorites. Once you are qualified to dive and Justin is confident enough in your ability, he pretty much leaves you to carry out all aspects of this research, which is quite nice.
On other days, we have been diving with kitchen knives to get rid of the nets entangled in the rocks and release the occasional fish. It might not be the proper technical term, but I like to call them ‘‘rescue dives’’.
I have learnt diving here in the first weeks after my arrival, with the help of Justin as a dedicated diver and a benevolent teacher. Like may others before me, I think I’m getting hooked to it.

  • 5 pm. Let’s call it a day… I meet up with Douglas, and we head for the beach to enjoy our customary game of volley ball. And what games they are… On a good day, few words can describe the effervescence of a volley ball game in this very specific part of the world – the cheering crowd, the electrified players, the clamors of indignation and the sincerely dishonest claims when it comes to decide if the ball was in or out this time… In the midst of all that agitation, I seem to be the only one to notice the peaceful view of the nearby lake – Kande Island in the sunset, and the fishermen sailing in the far distance.
Tonight, I might stay here and play pool at the bar from the lodge next door – or I might just get out in the village, have a game of bao with Wise Man – a well-named local vendor – before meeting up with Banjo and his family to share their dinner at home.

I’ve been in Malawi a month already and every day still feels like fresh and new somehow, bringing its own share of surprises, challenges and wonders. Justin fully encourages you to integrate and immerse yourself in the local community and culture whilst you’re interning, which is great. You get the chance to live right next to the village and its people: just get out there, and see what happens. Just learn a few local greetings – people here genuinely appreciate even the smallest effort to try, and most of the time you will be rewarded with king-sized smiles and cheerful answers. Some other times you might feel the cultural gap to be somewhat confusing or even unsettling. In any case, you will always learn a great amount in the process and get something good out of it.

Recently we have been working on a new project which I find very promising. Overfishing has become a growing concern for the fishermen, and we want to address that issue together with them. Our objective is to set up brush parks in the lake to enhance fish production. In our case, those are structures made out of bamboo that could act as an artificial reef, provide sources of food and refuge for fishes and be used as breeding, spawning and nursery areas.

I have just been through a literature review of the use of brush parks around the world – in other African countries but also in Bangladesh, in Mexico and in southern parts of the Lake Malawi. All the methods developed so far require the structures to be removed before harvesting, or to come up with new elaborate, intricated fishing techniques. To try and do better, we want the fishermen we are working with to be allowed to keep on using their traditional gear and fishing techniques. As of now, we decided to experiment with a new design – a series of rows of cylinders made out of bamboo, whose shape was inspired by the local chiteti, a large basket used to carry fish. We are just done with the construction of our first experimental structure – with the help of a villager I recruited last week on my way to the market. Time to try it out! This afternoon we went underwater with Douglas and Justin to put that thing in the lake, anchored at the bottom. Let’s wait and see if the structure holds in place. If it does, it will be time to start monitoring the growth of algae and, eventually, investigate the impact on fish population. Until we can set up, hopefully, an extensive brush park… To be continued?


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Reporting Back to the Community!

Well Federico, one of our interns at the Maru, has been busy the past month preparing a report document after conducting his Survey with the inhabitants of Masukuhunju fishing village which we will post up here once it is finished.  With the help of our translator, Joyce, Federico managed to conduct just over 50 interviews for that survey.  We believe in listening to, and working with, community members to help improve their lives and in the process promote sustainable interactions with the Lake and its fish populations.  Towards that end Federico today has gone back down to Masukuhunju to report back to them what we learned because of the survey and how we as an organization think we might be help them address the challenges that they raised during it.  Take a look at what he will be discussing with them, the presentation he will use to structure that discussion is view-able below! This is sustainable conservation in action on Lake Malawi!