Monday, May 23, 2011

Hasty conclusions

So I've been talking with a lot people about how I am interested in starting up a lake monitoring research program. Most mzungus (Westerners) have responded to my plan with a weirdly similar narrative and the rest of the conversation follows a very predictable arc.

1. Initially most Westerners respond with cautious optimism. They advise that "out here" getting such a program started will be difficult but that if I could manage it it could be a worthy thing.

2. They then begin speaking about how unfortunate it is that the lake is overfished and offer a few ways of fixing this problem. Fish farming is often mentioned. Setting up more national lake parks under some sort of community based management scheme is often mentioned. One fellow even said I should teach the fishermen how to build fiber-glass canoes instead of their traditional dug-out ones in order to save Malawi's forests. While others suggested that I find funding to start some "community gardens" to offer the fishers an alternative livelihood.

3. I am then am asked my opinion about all of these ideas. At this point the conversation gets a little awkward for me. I usually begin by saying that their suggestions might work but that I am not an expert on any of them. Knowing a little bit about the history of development projects in Malawi, I do however usually add that fish farming, community gardens, etc., have all been tried with very degrees of success and failure.

4. I then try to steer the conversation back to my proposed lake monitoring program by stating that, if one actually reads the existing studies, very little research has been done on the lake and even less is currently on-going particularly in its northern half.

5. After about 5 or 10 minutes most people lose interest and the conversation dies, always with an amicable "good luck."

I think I can pull a couple important lessons from this. First, I am not a very talented salesman for my project. I mostly knew this already. Second, and more interesting to me, is how powerful and persuasive what I call the "conservation narrative" is amongst Western communities in African countries.

This narrative begins when Westerners collect anecdotal information from various sources about the conditions of a particular natural environment and conclude from that that it is over-exploited. Then various measures are suggested to remedy this situation which generally have a connection to the expertise of whoever is suggesting them. Healthcare specialists promote HIV awareness programs (bizarre but true, see here). Biologists promote national parks. Engineers promote alternative livelihoods. Ichthyologists call for fish-farming and entrepreneurs ask for easy loans.

In Malawi this pattern is obvious in how Westerners have approached issues of resources use on the lake. Despite there being a pitifully small amount of actual data on the health of Lake Malawi's natural systems, most Westerners here by default, and with great certainty, "know" that they are being unsustainably exploited, overfished, cut down, polluted, etc.

Why? What makes this "conservation narrative" so appealing and so persuasive to us? It is certainly not its scientific merits, however clothed in that jargon it may sometimes appear. The data simply does not exist to back it up. Perhaps we simply abhor a vacuum? Saying "I don't know" is admittedly pretty unsatisfying. Or, as many Africans think, is this narrative just a pretext for our nascent neo-colonial ambitions? Or is it something else, perhaps more noble? I certainly don't know but it seems worth reflecting on.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

News from the Beach

-So we’ve gotten ourselves a little Jack Russell terrier. His name is Tank.

-Instead of using one of our rubber ducks to go out to the island we took canoes the other day. It was awesome. Along the way Gary and I toyed with the idea of doing multi-day canoe and scuba diving trips up the coast of Lake Malawi from Kande to Nhkata Bay. We’d either just bush camp and braai every evening or for those wanting a little more comfort could probably even work it so we stopped at a lakeside lodge every night. Sound like a good time?

-We are having our new friend from just down the beach over for dinner tonight. They are the founder and operators of a great organization called Mphatso which funds and manages around ten nursery schools in the area. Along with a little education each child that comes to one of these nurseries gets a nutritious meal of vitamin fortified porridge. For some children this can literally be a life-saver.

-I’m going to start test-running a few indicators from what will eventually be a more comprehensive water quality monitoring program. Time to build a Secchi Disk!

-Our first Tonga lesson went well. Alfred, our teacher, is a nice guy and he is starting with useful phrases. I now know for instance how to say “good morning” to my employees. Mwayuka wuli!


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Kimchi in Malawi and other stuff

So we were finally able to find some chinese cabbage and radish in Lilongwe the other day. Joy and I have been waiting for it to come into season so that we could get back to our Korea-era routine of eating stupidly large amounts of kimchi and rice. Joy spent the whole day making kimchi and then we devoured it for dinner. Not to worry though, we still have another couple kilograms of the stuff.

Down at the lake we've been having fun taking out our diver propulsion vehicles (DPVs). These little "underwater motorcycles" are a great way to explore new parts of the lake.

In the news check out this pair of articles on Kamuzu Banda's rightful place in the history of Malawi. This guy is for the him, this guy is against. You decide.

Development in Lilongwe is still going strong as far as I can tell from our short trip there. A new Spar (large western-style supermarket) is scheduled to open soon and Chinese-owned shops in newly built buildings are still sprouting up all over the place. These people continue to intrigue, baffle, and impress me.

Finally we met our Tonga (the local langauge here) teacher, Alfred, and are having our first lesson today. It was difficult to decide which language to learn. Like almost every African country, Malawi has numerous languages that are widely spoken. ChiChewa is certainly the most dominant. Many Malawians call it their "national" language because Banda promoted it as such however that policy was highly controversial in many parts of the country where Chewas were not the majority tribe. So we have decided to learn the language of our closest neighbours, the Tongas. Wish us luck!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Paternalism or "maternalism" in Africa?

Aidwatch has an interesting post on feminism and international development. Dr. Easterly believes that there are far too many male guilty consciences working themselves out in the Aid world and that this tends to hurt rather than help those in need. I agree but I'm not sure its necessarily only us males who have this problem. I've often talked about how demeaning it is to Africans when foreigners claim to be "protecting" them from various nefarious forces. This "mother (or father)-bear" instinct is condescending when it is applied, as it so often is, in blank fashion to an entire continent because it implies that Africans are weak when they are not. It is true that in some ways African women and children are uniquely exploited by NGO advertisements (how many times have you seen some random picture of a half-starved mother and child and then been asked for money?) but I would guess that the people behind such ads are not exclusively men.
More generally many feminist arguments have often struck me as on the one hand very novel and powerful and on the other hand very incompletely applied by feminists themselves. Dr. Easterly's post is a very good case in point. Certainly condescending attitudes in the Aid world are damaging and should be exposed and discussed and it is to the feminist's credit that they bring up the issue but I'm not convinced that it is only males that practice such condescension.
For my own Phd studies the concept of performativity, which was originally conceived of by feminist scholar Judith Butler, has been invaluable but by the time I encountered it in the Science and Technology Studies literature it had been very fruitfully applied in a much broader array of contexts than simply gender issues.
I know that feminism has in the past decade or so been going through some small turmoil with a newer breed of feminists questioning some of the orthodoxies of the "founding mothers" of feminism but I haven't kept up on the details. It would be interesting to hear one of these new feminist's perspective on gender issues in the Aid world.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

News from the beach

So its been a busy week down here. Joy is back at full-strength from
her fight with malaria. We've had a great series of dives with Robert
from Germany. We are going to start taking Tonga language classes next
week and the rainy season has ended.