Thursday, February 24, 2011

Recipe for a perfect beach braai (barbeque)

1. Soak one toilet paper roll in gasoline.
2. Build a log cabin of sticks around tp roll.
3. Build teepee of larger pieces of wood over log cabin.
4. Ignite with match. Important: drop match onto tp roll from a good height.
5. "fan" the flames with a scuba cylinder until your fire resembles hell.
6. Sit back and enjoy with cold beer.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Subsidizing agriculture in Malawi

Aid Thoughts has a series of interesting posts about Malawi's
agricultural input subsidy program (aisp) inspired by some recent
papers written by Dorward and Chirwa who credit the program with
dramatic increases in agricultural output in Malawi over the last 6-7
years. The posts acknowledge the real achievements of the aisp but are
worried about the economic theory that underpins it and the political
hazards that are inherent to it. They are all worth reading.
Here is my take. First, in a perfect world agricultural subsidies
should not exist. In the real world, however, they do exist everywhere
and I'm not optimistic that anyone has a good plan on how to
reduce/eliminate them globally. Until that plan exists and is
implementable I'm not going to give any country too much guff about
subsidizing their agricultural industries, Malawi included.
Next the Aid Thoughts posts talk about the opportunity costs of the
program and its cost/benefit balance. When we talk about opportunity
costs we are often really talking about values. In this case the
Malawian government has decided that it values domestic food security
very highly, higher perhaps than even some health and education
programs. There is certainly room for debate here but the government's
position is hardly indefensible even if we think they could spread
around the resources a bit more effeciently. As to the cost/benefit
balance of the program, even if we assume it is negative ( which is
not a given), this only reinforces our earlier judgement that in a
perfect world agricultural subsidies shouldn't exist in the first
place. Few such programs whether in Malawi or the U.S. would withstand
most cost/benefit analyses.
And so I think we should muddle through with the aisp, acknowledge
that it is far from perfect but also that it provides some real
benefits, and be hopeful that it can be tweaked to be more efficient
and protected from becoming a purely political pork project.

The Chinese in Malawi part 2

Chinese government activities and the emerging Chinese communities
popping up around them. Particularly when our first hand knowledge of
these Chinese communities is so limited an open mind demands a less
judgemental approach on our part and frankly a more welcoming attitude
to our new expat neighbors.
Second the Western track record over the past couple hundred years in
Africa is pretty dismal. We have very little room to criticize if we
want to avoid rank hypocrisy.
And finally i think we need to be open to the real possibility that if
we truly want Africa to develop economically it might be wise to ask
those people who have been doing much of the economic development in
the past half century for a few pointers China, South Korea, and other
. Asian nations have gone from Africa-like poverty to Western-like
prosperity in a very short period of time. Perhaps they have better
lessons to teach Africa than we are willing to admit?

The Chinese in Malawi

The Chinese government is very active in Malawi. They have built
Malawi's new parliament building. They are building a five star hotel
and a new technical university amongst many other smaller projects.
The Chinese people are also busy moving in. Lilongwe, Blantyre, and
even Mzuzu are full of small and some rather large Chinese-owned shops
selling Chinese-made goods. The new "scramble for Africa" is alive and
well in Malawi to the consternation of the more established European
expat community and even many local Malawians themselves. On the other
hand the Malawian government seems to be allowing this flood of
Chinese immigrants in return for continued Chinese government
assistance with various building and development plans.
Concern over the rise of China is not isolated to Africa of course but
the relative vulnerability, or percieved vulnerability, of many
African countries does seem to heighten the issue.
On the one hand I sympathize with these concerns. As an
environmentalist I am well aware of China's lack of due regard for
environmental issues in their own country and am skeptical whether
African nations will be able to, or even feel the need to, persuade
China to behave more sensitively in Africa.
Furthermore as a still developing state China is very concerned with
the economic well-being of many of its own still desperately poor
people and so is arguably more motivated to exploit Africa's
resources, at whatever cost to Africa, than well-off Western powers
might have been over the past half-century.
Finally China is an authoritarian state largely uninterested in
promoting democracy in its dealings with authoritarian African
On the other hand I am concerned with the West's concern over China's
rising power in Africa for severals reasons.
First and most generally I, as a member of the Malawian expat
community, dislike the knee-jerk tendency that I have noticed in many
African expat communities to deride..... To be cont.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Must read article

"The fate of an African chaebol: Malawi's Press Corporation after
democratisation" by Jan Kees van Donge in The Journal of Modern
African Studies.

Unfortunately i can't link to an open source copy of this article but
it gives a fantastic, if a little dated, history and analysis of
Malawi'sPress Corporation by comparing it to South Korea's (in)famous
chaebol. Clearly written and hugely informative for anyone interested
in Malawi's economic history.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Bwana part 2

Suspect that she has probably lost some of their respect. Will my
reluctance to embrace my "bwana-ness" hinder my ability to work
effectively with my employees too? And is it oddly culturally
insensitive of me to expect them to respect me if i refuse to embrace
the status to which they feel respect should be given? I don't know.
And then there is the issue of how much i will be paying my employees.
The amount is quite good by rural malawian standards but by any
western standard it is shockingly low. And yet paying them more is
simply not economically possible. Nor is firing most of them so that i
could significantly increase the salaries of those left over.
Business-wise i would be fine, but malawian law stipulates that i
employee a certain number of locals. Certainly this must be an
instance where something is better than nothing, but that doesn't
change the fact that i am paying my employees a salary which affords
them a material lifestyle that is many, many, many times lower than my
own. Does this make me an asshole? I don't know.

The trouble(s) with being a bwana

So i was buying some kampango (african catfish) this morning on the
beach and the fisherman called me "bwana" which means "boss."he had
several kampango with him but i only wanted to buy one because a. Id
never eaten the fish and wasnt sure id like it and b. Our fridge is
almost full already. In half-jest the fisherman replied "youre a bwana
now, why dont you buy the rest of my fish for your employees?" i
replied that i am not a/their bwana yet. This is technically true
since all the legalities regarding our business havent been finalized.
But the encounter made me uncomfortable. The special status that
whites are accorded in africa has always bothered me. Whether we like
it or not, take advantage of it or not, or are victimized because of
it or not, all white (and likely non-white) foreigners in most parts
africa have to figure out how to deal with being a "bwana" to some
extent or another. After living for a few years in various african
countries i still struggle with this. Now that i am (will shortly be)
a business owner with malawian employees learning how to manage them
effectively and in a way that is sensitive to their cultural and
ethical norms is going to be a challenge. In some ways many of the
african cultures that i have encountered, including malawian, are more
authoritarian and hierarchical than i am comfortable with. I just
finished reading tony wood's article entitled "capitaos and chiefs:
oral tradition and colonial society in malawi." in it he discusses how
the "capitaos," native farm managers on foreign owned estates, were
often remembered to have been more brutal than the actual foreign
owners. Yesterday i spoke with an australian who is volunteer teaching
at a malawian primary school. She remarked how she was uncomfortable
with her students calling her "madame" and how she had convinced them
to call her by her first name instead. I sympathized with this but at
the same time wonder how much her students understand why a "bwana"
would insist on being so informal with them be cont.

Malaria sucks, but im kicking its ass.

I was (and do forgive me for not capitalizing my "i"s i havent quite
figured out how to type properly on my phone) quite lucky in that
afters years in africa i never caught malaria. Well that luck ended
last week. The bastard sucker punched my liver pretty hard. But i
swung back early with some coartem 20/120 and after a few days of
duking (how do you spell that one?) it out im happy to say im well on
my way to recovery. My advice; if you are just visiting africa, take
the preventitive pills. Find the one that works for you. There are a
bunch of them. But if your going to be living here its probably not
worth the hassle. Just monitor yourself and when you get it, medicate
hard and fast.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


So one of the few downsides to living on the shores of lake malawi is
poor internet connectivity. But ive managed to get my cellphone hooked
up, sort of. So for the time being ill be posting through it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Making Babies, cichlid style

This is from Ad Konings' invaluable book "Malawi Cichlids in their natural habitat." These little fellows are kinky.
" In species where the eggs are fertilized inside the female's mouth the sequence is different. At first the male leads the female to the actual spawning site and, once arrived, positions himself in front of and at right angles to her. He then lowers his body and presses his anal fin against the substrate. Quivering of the fins (especially the anal) accompanies this posture. While the male discharges sperm (which is sometimes visible (e.g. in Copadichromis borleyi) the female mouths the crease between his anal fin and his body, thus picking up sperm before she has deposited a single egg.
Next, while the female remains in position, the male turns around and nudges her anal region (or caudal peduncle), coaxing her to start circling around. After one or two rounds the female slows down and deposits some eggs."
I'm going to try to use the phrase "caudal peduncle" at least five times today.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

At the beach and in the news

Well we have arrived at our new home Kande Beach Malawi. We've been slowly settling in over the past week and I've gotten Joy into the water for her Open Water Diving Course. It is beautiful here. The frequent but short-lived rains are cooling and invigorating and the calm clear waters of Lake Malawi just seconds from our doorstep are always warm and welcoming. We have found a real gem here in the Warm Heart of Africa and I invite all my readers to join me here, at least for a little while. There is so much to discover and experience and we ourselves are just starting that adventure. We have spoken before on this blog about our intention to start a volunteer-powered research center here on the lake and that goal is still alive. Check our the Maru Institute for more details on it. But for now we are going to concentrate on settling ourselves into the Kande community, making sure the diving end of our adventure is operating smoothly and that we have gone through all the neccesary legalities.

This morning we went for a dive at Kande Island and saw a beautiful array of cichlids. Out further we dug our hands into the golden sandy lake floor and could feel the heat of thermal springs bubbling just below.

Last night we had the chance to meet chief of this area and one of the so-called T/As, Traditional Authorities, of Malawi. He was calm, welcoming, and dignified gentleman with whom we hope to have many more conversations.

In the news Malawi has just recieved 350 million USD from the the US government to upgrade its eletricity network and power plants. The bulk of this money will go towards fixing up Malawi's only hydropower plant at the southern end of Lake Malawi. There is also real interest, and tenative plans, to start building a coal burning power plant in the country. For most of its history, colonial and otherwise, Malawi has been considered a mineral-poor country. Agriculture rather than mining has been its chief economic concern. However with the opening of a uranium plant a couple years ago and with the continued coal mining in the north of the country many Malawians are hopeful that more minerals can be found under their fertile soils.