Sunday, December 30, 2012

Happy New Year and more News from the Beach!

So we’ve been busy down here are Kande with the holiday season.  There hasn’t been much time for blogging.  But a lot of exciting things are happening down here.

-The Last Fishing Boat, the second movie produced in Malawi by Malawian Shemu Joya, which I blogged about previously, was very impressive.  I will write a longer review in a later post, as it deserves one all to its own.

-Ella, a water quality specialist from the UK, is coming to volunteer with us to help us with our water quality monitoring program this weekend.  She is bringing along with her some water testing equipment that will be very helpful in determining the level of certain chemicals coming into the lake from the many rivers that flow into the Lake.  She is coming at the right time with the rainy season now being in full swing and the river levels getting to their peak.

-We are getting a weather station!  Up to now we have been recording by hand various weather indicators every day three times a day.  This has been laborious.  So the Maru, thanks to generosity of friend,  has purchased the La Crosse WS-2815U-IT Weather Station. This thing looks fun!

- With the New Year coming the Maru is going to continue to grow.  Plans include the possibility of adding a Malawian researcher to the Team, expanding our surveys sites even further, looking into aquaculture a bit, and perhaps even to start talking with the Malawian Parks department. 

Stay tuned!


Monday, December 3, 2012

Legson Kayira dies.

Legson was one of Malawi's first novelists.  I haven't read his book "I will try" but I'm certainly going to try to now.  Hat tip to Africa is a Country.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Last Fishing Boat

The "Last Fishing Boat," directed and produced by local Malawian Shemu Joyah premiered in Blantrye the other day and will be showing for the first time in Mzuzu on December 8th.  I'm definitely going to be there.  According to the Nyasatimes, the movie is about "a once successful fisherman [who] is now struggling while his cultural values are being threatened by the expanding tourist industry."  That sounds right up our alley!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

News from the Beach

-Our new head of research and dive instructor, Hermes, has arrived and is well keen to get to know the fish! Welcome aboard!

-The rains are coming!  After a very hot month the rains are starting to dribble down.  There is nothing like diving in the rain, you look up and watch as millions of droplets collide into the lake.  Its stunning!

-For all of you in Africa using DSTV or show on the TravelChannel will be airing this Saturday, the 24th. Check us out!

-With the one year anniversary or our first two population and biodiversity survey sites completed we are full steam ahead on establishing two more sites, one at “John’s Reef”  23 meters down and one at Makuzi Island at just 8 meters down.  John’s Reef has been quite a challenge because of the depth and because the bathymetry of the reef is quite challenging to navigate particularly when you are also dropping down on the site at a slightly different position as the only way to find the place is with a GPS. 


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fly this 27,460 kilometers over Africa

I wrote earlier about how agricultural machinery to start up Mzuzu’s Tung oil plantation was brought over to Nkhata Bay by flying boat.  Well it turns out that this was not the first time that a flying boat came to Lake Malawi.  The story of that first boat is amazingly captured by Colin Baker in this article, unfortunately gated.  In short two Frenchmen in 1928 flew from France in  Loire and Olivier H-18 flying boat down and across Africa to Madagascar, passing through Lake Malawi and back again.  That must have been an incredible journey to put it mildly.  Here is a picture of the plane they did it in.  It only had the one engine as you see in the picture that was positioned directly above the cockpit.  Holy crap! It looks like a toy.  (the wheels shown in the picture are only there because it is not in the water)


Monday, November 12, 2012

Thoughts on Englund’s Prisoners of Freedom

So I finally got a copy of Harri Englund’s book “Prisoners of Freedom.”  Englund, an academic,  spent considerable time in Malawi between 1999 and the mid 2000s studying the work of human rights NGOs and the impact, or lack thereof, of that work on the socio-economic conditions of Malawians.  His main argument is that human rights NGOs in Malawi have refused to promote and work towards the better realization of Malawians’ socio-economic and collective rights.  Instead, by focusing exclusively on the promotion of political and individual rights, they have actually disempowered the ability of Malawian’s to change the vast political and socio-economic disparities currently present in the country. 
The reviews of Englund’s book by fellow academics, Western and Malawian, were overwhelmingly positive.  For an academic Englund spent a considerable amount of time in Malawi, became fluent in ChiChewa, and consequently collected a large amount of information upon which he bases his arguments.  His commitment to first understanding how donor-funded human rights and civic education programs were in practice implemented rather than to quickly engage in an ideological or theoretical critique of such programs is refreshingly industrious.  As someone who has spent a reasonable amount of time in Africa himself observing various types of development projects, most of what Englund reports is familiar and rings true.  It is unfortunate that more such accounts are not published as they would give ammunition to those of us who are arguing for a more complex understanding of what exactly donor-funded development programs accomplish.  The fact that those who have been most critical of it come from development backgrounds themselves is sad but not surprising.  According to this crowd anything that seems to question the success of development efforts is labeled as Afro-pessimism.
On the other hand I’m not sure that Englund and I are entirely on the same page.  Clearly he is concerned that human rights development projects have not in his estimation improved the socio-economic welfare of the majority of Malawians.  I think he is mostly right about this, but I am not sure that, given the political, economic, and cultural space within which these projects live, we could have reasonably hoped for a different result.  And before you label me an Afro-pessimist myself, let me quickly state that this need not be a depressing conclusion.  In fact it is only depressing if you, as Englund seems to, rigidly hold onto the belief that an effective human rights campaign is the only way, or at least an essential element, to improving the socio-economic welfare of the majority of Malawians.  For all of his sophistication in exposing the hypocrisy of Western-led human rights discourses, Englund seems to be more frustrated that projects promoting it in Malawi were improperly and incompletely implemented and therefore had perverse results than he is interested in critically examining whether or not such discourses, even in theory, are appropriately applicable to Malawi.  Instead he takes the more traditional critical approach of simply exposing and lamenting the difference between an ideal and reality without really examining the ideal itself.  I think this is ultimately naïve, philosophically blinkered, and most importantly leads to unnecessary pessimism about the future prospects of African development notwithstanding Englund’s denials.
Let me explain with an example.  In chapter two of his book Englund talks about how Malawian civic educators failed to do their jobs in an egalitarian manner by creating status barriers between themselves and villagers. They wore fancy clothes, carried cellphones, and associated mostly with the upper classes in the villages they visited. As a matter of fact, this observation is likely true.  But should it be surprising?  Why should we expect Malawians to act in anyway but a shallow one to a set of Western created human rights norms?  Particularly when the amount of time spent explaining those norms to them is so minimal.  Englund describes well the social and economic reasons that Malawians entertain such norms to the extent that they do but he seems to think it is a problem that they don’t more fully and authentically embrace them.  Beyond being naive, such a position, more problematically disregards the possibility that such norms are inappropriate to Malawi, i.e. that there may be good reasons for such shallow engagement, and that other local norms may be more effective at promoting the overall socio-economic welfare of the majority of Malawians.  Afterall Malawians have their own social, cultural, and philosophical resources to define for themselves what is, and what is not, a just Malawian society.  Although Englund himself must certainly be aware of these resources he doesn’t engage with them much.   And unfortunately too often the international community’s irrational fear, ignorance, and paternal pessimism of what they condescendingly label as “traditional” culture, and sadly the self-loathing of that culture by many Africans themselves (which Englund also documents well), has so far stifled the ability of such African conceptions of justice and governance to provide a foundational basis upon which Malawians might build their own political, economic, and social structures.  The argument is not that Western concepts of human rights or governance have no place in Malawi but rather that the political and cultural space in which Malawians choose to adopt, or not adopt, such concepts should be one in which they are not privileged over African concepts through a combination of international economic and political pressure.  I am actually agnostic as to whether or not such African concepts could actually deliver more socio-economic development but I do argue that it would be a more moral approach to development and that the current approach, as Englund so skillfully shows, isn’t living up to its ideals.           


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Show times for the The Maru on the Ethical Hedonist

Here on the air times for the Ethical Hedonist's program on Malawi which features our research center!

 UK 8 November 2012 20h00
Germany 24 November 2012 20h15
Europe (except Germany) 24 November 2012 19h00
Asia 24 November 2012 19h00
New Zealand 24 November 2012 19h30


Cool pics from the BCA's POTM competition

Here are a couple of pics from the British Cichlid Association's picture of the month competition.


Friday, October 26, 2012

The Maru on the TravelChannel!

Our friends from the Ethical Hedonist who came out and filmed us a few months ago will be premiering their Malawi episode on the TravelChannel first in the UK on November 8th and then worldwide on November 20th.  Go to their facebook page to keep up to date and to see some seek previews as soon as they come out!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

We’re Hiring! And other News from the Beach

-Aquanuts Divers and the Maru Research Center are accepting applications for an Open Water Scuba Instructor(OWSI)/Researcher position.  Duties will include normal dive center OWSI tasks as well as assisting the Maru to conduct underwater biodiversity and population surveys and land-based fisheries research on Lake Malawi, the most biologically diverse lake on the planet.  A masters degree in a related field and OWSI certification is required.  The position starts ASAP.  For more information about Aquanuts Divers and the Maru go to or  CVs should be sent to  The position requires a 9 month commitment.

-Well things are really starting to heat up here on the lakeshore.  Summer has arrived!  The lake is calm, the sun is out and we are excited to start searching for new dive and research sites. 

-We have reached our one year anniversary on our “Outer Reef” population and biodiversity survey transect.  Now things are really going to get interesting as we can start looking for annual trends in population and biodiversity levels.  Next month we will reach the same anniversary for our “Island” transect.

-As the lake calms down we are exploring the possibility of offering swimming courses to local Malawians.  It seems to us at the Maru that we cannot reasonably expect most Malawians to care about Lake Malawi and its incredible biodiversity when they are incapable of even entering the lake for fear of drowning.  If you are a swimming instructor, lifeguard, or just have a passion for swimming and teaching children contact us at to discuss the possibility of coming out here as a volunteer.


Monday, September 17, 2012

News from the Beach

-In case you didn’t see the previous blog post, check out the Maru’s new video here on youtube .

-Herehere, and here are a few really interesting articles on the history of Mzuzu, the capital of the northern region here in Malawi. Unfortunately they are all gated. They all come from the Society of Malawi Journal. This organization and its journal have been around since early in Malawi’s colonial era and have been producing interesting reads all along the way. You can get access to the journal for a nominal membership fee here.

-It turns out one of these planes was instrumental in the founding of Mzuzu. Machinery and supplies for a Tung Oil Plantation at Mzuzu were flown to Nkhata Bay from Tanzania using one. Besides being relatively close to Mzuzu (about 40 kms) Nhkata Bay is also one of the few ports along the lake that is sufficiently sheltered to allow an G-AHER to “land” in its waters.

-We are only one month away from having a complete year’s worth of data from our “Outer Reef” underwater transect near Kande Island. Every two weeks, weather permitting, we have been going down to do Population and Biodiversity surveys at the Outer Reef. We’ve learned a lot so far about the population dynamics of the cichlid fish there and are really interested to see whether that patterns we’ve indentified so far repeat themselves as we break the one year threshold.

-I’ll be helping out at a U.S. Embassy sponsored College Fair to be held at the Sunbird Hotel in Mzuzu on the 22nd, a Saturday, of this month. Any Malawians, or anyone really, interested in learning about what it’s like to study at an American university is welcome to come on by.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Maru on Youtube

So we've been a little quiet lately on the blog.  But we've been busy on the beach.  Check out our new video.  The idea is to explain a little bit about what we do here at the Maru.

I'll be posting more shortly.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fisheries monitoring in practice

So with the help of Shanti, our volunteer researcher, we've been
collecting some data from the fishing village of Maskahunju which is
just a short walk south of Kande. On the whole the fishermen have
been very accommodating for which we are grateful. Mr. Nyasulu, the
head of the fishing village has been equally so. For the past month
we have been doing two things. First we have been interviewing
fishers and the general population in and around Kande to gauge their
thoughts on the two major actions being recommended by Ripple Africa's
newly initiated Fisheries Conservation Program. The first
recommendation is to extend and broaden a pre-existing (but rarely
enforced) two month closed season to four months starting in November
and ending in February. The second recommendation is that the maximum
length of a gillnet should be 1000 meters and have a minimum mesh size
of 1 ¾ inches. So far villager's and fishermen's responses have been
mixed to these proposals. Our sample size is still quite small, we
have interviewed just over 50 individuals. Roughly half of the
respondents think the actions are a "good idea" while the other half
think them a "bad idea." Asked whether they think the
recommendations, if implemented, would actually be followed, a slight
majority thought they would not be, while the rest were more
optimistic. Somewhat surprisingly the fishers interviewed were
slightly more in favor of the closed season than they were of the net
size limitations while the villagers were the opposite. Until we have
a bigger data set, however, these results are very preliminary and it
would be premature to draw too many conclusions from them.

The second thing we are doing is piloting a monitoring program that we
hope to extend over the entire area in which the Fisheries
Conservation Program is being implemented. For the past month we have
been working out what is feasible keeping in mind that those who will
eventually be doing the monitoring are non-professionals with limited
time. The primary goal of the monitoring program is to collect the
necessary data to calculate CPUEs (catch per unit of effort) for the
various types of fishing occurring in the program area. This will
give us a rough indication of whether or not each type of fishing is
sustainable. We are also collecting information on the market price
of various fish species at the landing sites and the rough species
composition of the catches. So far it has been an interesting
adventure of trial and error.

One of the problems we have run into is timing. The fishermen don't
all come back from their nightly forays at the same time. If the
monitor comes too early to the landing site he/she may not get an
accurate count of the total number of fishers who went out the night
before, while if he/she goes too late some of the fishers may have
already arrived and emptied they boats by the time the monitor gets
there. And yet we don't want to make our monitors wait around all
day. The goal is that the monitoring is a part-time job, a couple
hours per day maximum. Fortunately we think that we have found a
sweet spot that balances all of these considerations reasonably. At
least for Masakahunju, the right time for the monitor to be at the
landing site seems to be between 1 and 3pm.

Another problem we have run into is getting accurate measurements of
the total catch weight of individual fishers' canoes. Most fishers
are amendable in principle when we ask to weigh their catch however
the process by which the fish are pulled from their nets and sold
sometimes frustrate our efforts. The fisher rarely extracts the fish
he has caught from his nets by himself. He is tired after having
spent the whole night fishing and usually hires two people to do it
for him. In payment for this service the "fish-pickers" are allowed
to keep a small portion of the catch which they lay aside separately
from the main pile of extracted fish as they work. So instead of one
pile to weigh the monitor actually has two or three, the main pile and
the "fish-pickers'" piles. The main pile is usually easily weighed
but attempts to weigh the "fish-pickers'" piles often meet with some
resistance as the "fish-pickers" are understandably not eager to make
obvious the exact amount of fish they have set aside for themselves as
a percentage of the total catch for fear of having it reduced by the
fisher. Furthermore the process of extracting caught fish from a net
takes considerable time, often two to three hours. Fish buyers do not
always patiently wait until all the fish have been extracted from a
net before making a purchase and so the catch can be sold piece-meal
before the monitor has a chance to weigh it all. Luckily we do not
need to weigh the total catch of every canoe. At the moment our goal
is to weigh the total catch of a fairly random sample of 20% of the
total canoes landing each day that the monitor is collecting data. At
Masakahunju the number of fishers going out on any given day varies
greatly from none when the weather is bad to 45 when it is good.

These problems notwithstanding we are cautiously optimistic that with
a bit more fine tuning over the next month or so that the monitoring
program will be ready for expansion once the Conservation program gets
into full swing in November. It's been a fun and interesting
experience getting to know the fishers at Masakahunju and we are
looking forward to meeting with other fishing communities in the
Program area.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

News from the Beach by Campbell

I have been at Kande Beach, as a researcher, with the Maru Research
Center for going on 4 months now. I am in the fortunate position to
study and dive with the cichlids in their natural environment daily
and find these amazing fish more interesting with every dive. The
mating behavior of the cichlids are fascinating and I thought I would
share with you some of the interesting things we have been seeing on
the reefs around Kande Island recently.
Female Chambo (Oreochromis karongae) are often seen in loose shoals in
many areas of the lake and the females are commonly seen around the
island and on the outer reef, the females are also most commonly
caught by fisherman and males are not commonly seen (see the below photos for 
map of dive sites around Kande island and pictures of mentioned
fish). According to the literature the breeding season for chambo runs from July to
March, peaking around September and again in February.  Like other
Oreochromis, they are maternal mouthbrooders. Males dig large spawning
platforms, they construct a slightly raised bowl-shaped central
spawning cone inside the larger pit, we refer to these structures as
nests. On the dive map there is an area named 'crater nests', in this
area there are a lot of the big nests created by the male Chambo, this
area was deserted when I arrived at Kande (March), but from middle May
until late June we suddenly saw many male Chambo that moved into this
area, with fish clearly favoring specific nests. They have disappeared
again over the last 2 weeks. We are planning to construct survey
transects in this area to monitor nests and fish in this area in order
to accurately pin down the Oreochromis karongae (Chambo) mating season
in this region, this data can be used to make recommendations towards
a chambo closed season in the area.
 The small nests most commonly found near the mooring buoy (see map)
are constructed by  Aulonocara "blackfin" males. I have noticed one of
these fish building a crater nest on the back seat of the jeep wreck
(see island map). I found this interesting since the fish could not
dig a spawning platform since the area it was constructing the nest on
was solid, it could only construct the bowl shaped crater by carrying
sand on to the seat. I have seen the fish carrying sand from the
surrounding areas to the jeep. We found a couple of fish mouthbrooding
at very convenient spots for us to watch them protecting their fry
during the last week. A Nimbochromis polystigmata with fry in the jeep, 
a Tyranochromis "sp" in the dug out canoe at the outer reef transect and a
Scianochromis niassae into the small wreck at the island. I will keep you 
updated as to what is happening in the lake.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Story time

So my last few substantive posts have not been exactly all sunshine and puppy dogs.  This one is a bit brighter. At the Maru we are going to start interviewing members of the Malawian fishing industry, from the officials who regulate it all the way through to those who actually do the fishing.  As we have been talking more with the fishing communities on the lakeshore we have heard some interesting life-stories and thought why not share them. Understandings of Africans outside of Africa tend to be quite limited and monochromatic.  This is our little effort to add some color and diversity to them and have some fun along the way.  Our first interview will be with Alex, our good friend and the local government fisheries officer for the Kande area.  Stay tuned.  


Friday, June 22, 2012

Necessary secrets

So this is a bit of a long one.

As I spend more time with Lake Malawi’s fishers and those who manage them I am constantly impressed by the sophistication, prudence, and practicality with which they look after their fisheries and themselves.  Whether they are sustainably exploiting the lake’s resources I do not know, nor do they, nor does anyone.  We are hopeful at the Maru that we have taken the first steps towards answering that question with the development of our community-based fisheries monitoring program, but in the meantime I think it is extremely important to recognize the existing management system that local Malawian fishers and government fishery officers have already put in place with very limited resources and technical expertise. 

Too often Western development projects do not take the time to do this.  When recognized at all, existing local management systems are usually labeled as corrupt, ineffective, or chaotic.  These judgments are usually based more on Western arrogance and ignorance than anything else. Premised on the naïve presumption is that good management principles are universal, they believe that what works in New England will work in Malawi, if only we educate Malawians (insert your favorite developing world country) enough.  Setting aside the issue of whether first-world fisheries management systems work even in the first world, such a mind-set, beyond being demonstrably wrong, also poisons the ability of Westerners and non-Westerners to work together on an equal footing.  Even worse it incentivizes locals to hide from Westerners the real mechanisms by which they manage their activities for fear of being denied the financial and educational benefits that donor programs bring.

We have constantly encountered this problem in our efforts to establish the Maru’s fisheries monitoring program.  Local Malawians tell us what they think we want to hear rather than what they really believe is real or possible.  With patience, and as our relationships with some local Malawians have deepened, we are slowly breaking down this knee-jerk lip service.  Yet ironically, and though I am very thankful for the trust that we have been able to build, we are now in the same difficult position that Malawians encounter. Namely that if I were to on this blog enunciate the mechanisms by which these fishers manage their fishery in too much detail I might expose them to charges of corruption, illegality, and “chaos.”  The fact that I forcefully disagree with these likely allegations, wouldn’t minimize the possible negative fallout.  The Maru is simply not a powerful enough voice to act as the fishers’ defender.  And so as I proceed with this post I must unfortunately do so carefully with pseudonyms, vague generalities, and finally glaring omissions.

The fishing village with which we have been most involved, let’s call it Chamboville, is a collection of wood and mud huts, most very makeshift and shabby looking.  One might think that the owners of these shacks are truly destitute, eking out a precarious living without the time or capability to think about, let alone implement, a fisheries management system.  But this is wrong and only the most obvious of many other mistakes that a cursory assessment of Chamboville might make.   The reason that most of the houses are ramshackle is because they are also temporary and a sign of Chamboville fishers’ thrift rather than their destitution.   Most of them are not permanent residents of the area but rather seasonal migrants.  They are at Chamboville to make and save good cash in order to support their families back home.  Fishing can be a lucrative industry. 

Chamboville also has a political infrastructure. There is a president, vice-president, secretary, and accountant.  The current president is also the founder of Chamboville.  He came to the area 6 or 7 years ago, made a good catch, and decided to stay.  The local chief assented to this for reasons that are unclear but which may be connected to the fact that the president’s older brother is a fairly senior government official.  Since then Chamboville has grown.  Migrants from the founder’s home region have poured in and Chamboville is now home to roughly 70 dugout canoes and enough fishers to operate them.  Anyone who wants to live and work in Chamboville must receive permission from the president. It is usually given.  From time to time when disputes arise between fishers then the president and his representatives will arbitrate and in extreme circumstances can expel a fisher from the village.  This has happen recently.

The local government fisheries officer, who has jurisdiction over Chamboville, lets call him Bob, has been posted to the area for a few years now.  He is intelligent, capable, and hugely overstretched.  Without personal motorized transportation he is supposed to monitor over 30 landing sites and fishing villages along a roughly 80 kilometer strip of lakeshore.  Luckily most of these fishing villages, like Chamboville, have informal political hierarchies, sometimes called “Beach Village Committees.”  In the case of Chamboville, Bob has a good working relationship with the president.

Most recently I accompanied Bob to Chamboville to pilot our monitoring survey.  Bob also needed to speak to the president.  Unfortunately he was ill.  Nevertheless the vice-president was present and business could proceed.    To understand that business however you must know a little context.
Last year the former president instituted what he called a “zero-deficit budget.”  As a result of this permit costs for the fisheries industry rose dramatically.  Amongst Bob’s many other responsibilities, he is charged with issuing these fisheries permits and collecting the appropriate fees for them.  Given the breadth of his jurisdiction, this is an impossible task without the help of local BVCs.

And so Bob spoke to the vice-president in this regard.  And now I must be very careful and vague in how I proceed.  But imagine for yourself what might be happening between Bob and the BVCs given the circumstances:

1.      Bob and the Fisheries Department are overstretched.
2.       He is dependent on the BVCs to help manage the fisheries
3.       The BVCs are informal organizations with no legal status.
4.       The cost of fisheries permits has gone up drastically.
5.       The prices for fish have not gone up as drastically.
6.       The national currency has recently been devalued by over 40%.

And before you think that I am hinting at corruption and illegality, rather think in terms of how Bob, the fishers, the BVCs, and even the government Fisheries Department, might be engaging in creative, flexible, and practical, accommodations to each other so that they all can survive.  For that is what is really happening.  Community-based management is a reality in Malawi but it is happening along Malawian rather Western principles.

And it is such a shame that I can’t talk about it.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cool photos

These are from a photo competition at "The Lake Malawi Forum,"  a great UK-based online forum focusing on the cichlids of Lake Malawi. 


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Who is this?

I was looking through some of our photos and found this fella?  Anyone know what he is besides gorgeous?

The data is not enough

As the Maru builds an ever increasing database of information on the cichlids and environmental aspects of Lake Malawi I keep thinking back to Bruno Latour’s book “Science in Action.” In it he talks about the distinction between mere information and science and the process by which the former is translated into the later.  A couple of years ago when I first read the book I found it pretty theoretically compelling but my personal experience doing “hard” science was fairly limited.  For a “soft” social scientist like me much of what Latour argued for didn’t seem too radical.  But for “hard” scientists, the arguments of Science and Technology Studies (STS) proponents like Latour have always been a much tougher sell.  Hard scientists have been uncomfortable with how STS researchers, to their minds, have been cluttering the science-making process with too much social and historical context and contingency. A scientist’s job, they argue, is to discover universal truths, not ones tied to particular social and historical contexts and so paying attention to such things is unnecessary and even dangerous to the extent that it may render suspect the objectivity of scientific findings amongst non-experts.  Think about the controversies over climate change or evolution. 
However the more hard science we do at the Maru the more I think that those STS guys have been on to something for awhile now and that the stories of the social and historical contexts within which scientific work is being done do indeed deserve to be told.  On this blog I have with varying levels of enthusiasm been trying to do just that by talking about our journey at the Maru as a young Research Center trying to gain knowledge and credibility on the shores of Lake Malawi. 

For about the past eight months we have been engaged primarily in two research projects, Weather and Water Quality Monitoring and Underwater Population and Biodiversity Surveys.  We’ve collected a lot of data points, some of which I have shared on this blog.  It’s been a lot of interesting fun and I believe in the integrity of the methods we have used to collect the data.  However in many ways I am learning that data collection is the easiest part of the whole science-making process.  Getting our data recognized as actual science internationally and as something important locally is going to be a much longer and harder slog; one that is full of social networking, credibility-proving, shameless self-promotion, and institutional partnership building.  We will also have to be attune to the current cultural and political events occurring in various social networks both in Malawi and abroad such as cichlid ichthyologists, cichlid hobbyist forums, Malawian fisheries department civil servants, academics, fishers, and NGOs.   

And so far I fear that the Maru is having a harder time in this “Stage 2” of the science-making process.  Certainly it isn’t from a lack of trying.  We have sent out dozens of “cold-call” emails to prominent cichlid ichthyologists, Lake Malawi limnologists, and others who have worked on Lake Malawi, but have received very little response.  To those who have responded I thank.      

We have also applied for a grant to train up some students from Mzuzu University in underwater observation techniques and cichlid fish identification.  It was an interesting process but I’m not optimistic.  We will know in July.

We have also signed a formal MOU with the fisheries department at Mzuzu University and are hoping to receive a few of their students as interns to do some field research.

We are also working with another NGO called Ripple Africa on starting up a Fisheries Conservation Project.  In conjunction with the Malawian Fisheries Department and local Beach Village Committees (BVCs) we are trying to implement a more effective management system in Nkhata Bay District.  Ripple is handling the community organizing and legal aspects of the project and the Maru is setting up the monitoring and evaluation system meant to see what impact, if any, the new community-based regulatory regime is having.

And finally we are inviting international volunteers and interns to research with us.  Currently we have one student from Amsterdam University doing research on soil erosion.  Hopefully many more students come and through them the Maru will be able to build institutional relationships with their respective universities.

But frankly right now these efforts seem rather tenuous and even a little tedious.  The naïve side of me wants to cry out “Isn’t the data enough?” while the STS side of me knows that nothing lives in a vacuum, not even science.  If a tree falls in a scientific forest without anyone to hear it, it falls very silently.             


Monday, June 11, 2012

What do you call a physician?

Good article on how and why us humans might benefit from paying attention to diseases that affect both man and beast from the New York Times.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Catch shares? A new approach the fisheries management

This sounds interesting.  Instead of trying to run around policing fishermen, why not give them give them ownership of the fish and let them police themselves?  I've got to read more up on this to see how it works.


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Cichlid photo competition pictures of the Month

Click here to look at some awesome pictures of cichlids from the British Cichlid Association's web forum.  Every month they have this competition.  I'll be showcasing my favorite photos from it regularly from now on.  Here are a few from May's competition.


Friday, May 18, 2012

News from the Beach by Campbell!

Hi guys,

My name is Campbell Louw, I am the dive instructor at Aquanuts dive school and researcher at the Maru research centre alongside Justin Kraus and just want to tell you a little about life at Kande.
Malawi is not at the coast and is bordered by Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique, diving here is done in the warm, clear, fresh water of Lake Malawi. The lake has about 1650km of coastline, with a maximum depth of 800m. Inland, freshwater diving brings up images of a dull, cold dive with rocky/bushy surroundings, but guys this is not die Vaaldam! Malawi has a very chilled out Caribbean feel, with long white beaches, warm water (24 degrees in June up to a scorching 30 degrees in December) and tropical climate and vegetation. Visibility is usually around 10m.
The diving is very interesting with several dive resorts stretching from Nkhata Bay in the North to Cape Maclear in the South. I am working at Aquanuts dive school at Kande beach, located in the North of the lake. The dive centre is right on the beach looking out on Kande island 800m off shore (a nice swim there every night!). Most of the diving is done on the reef surrounding the island which consists mainly of rocky formations. The fish life found in the lake is the most diverse found in any freshwater lake in the world, with almost a 1000 species of fish living here, most of these are endemic living nowhere else. This is more than the total number of species to be found in all the lakes and rivers of Europe and North America combined. Most of these fish are different species of cichlids (belong to the family cichlidae) and the diverse array in size, coloration and mating behavior results in every dive feeling like a dive in a tropical aquarium.
The mating behavior of the cichlids is fascinating to watch, with these fish taking care of their young. Craters varying in size from the size of a soup bowl to 1m deep dongas can be seen everywhere, these are dug by the males and the females lay their eggs in these nests. If you come to close and the mother feels threatened she swims up to her brood of little fish, opening her mouth, and in two or three sweeps all the young form a tight clump and swim into their mothers beckoning mouth for protection.
The Maru research centre operates alongside Aquanuts dive school and was the reason why I decided to start my dive travels in Malawi. Through explosive speciation all the different species in the lake evolved from a common ancestor in a relatively short time and the lake is thus a thus a live evolution “experiment”. At the Maru we study the biodiversity in the north of the lake and look at the impact of environmental changes and human influences such as fishing.
Life on the lake is awesome! I live in a bungalow next to the dive centre opening right on the beach. Most of our clients come from the overland trucks staying in the campsite next door and the mix of travelers from all over the world result in quite a party on a regular basis! I paddle out to the island with a canoe most mornings for an early dive or sometimes to spear something for the pot. We do all our fun dives from canoes, launching 1 of our 2 rubber ducks to take clients on dives.
Being Africa the diet is something to get used to with nothing processed and I have not seen dairy since being here, I basically live on avo’s, bananas, tomatoes and eggs. The coffee produced nearby in Mzuzu is top notch! Not solving my caffeine addiction but it keeps me smiling.

Safe diving

Cheers Campbell


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Thank God for Science?

This article argues that we should, a least a little bit, and says "Those who magnify recent controversies about science and religion, projecting conflict back into historical time, perpetuate a historical myth to which no historian of science would subscribe."

Not entirely convinced, but certainly the history of science, scientific discovery, and fact-making, is more human and less cold logic and scientific "method" than most people suppose.  Read Bruno Latour's "Science in Action" for more on that.  


Sunday, May 6, 2012

"I am Malawi"

Hat tip to Africa is a Country for this one.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cool Graphs and other News from the Beach

-At the Maru we have been conducting underwater population and biodiversity surveys for the past 7 months.  Twice a month we have gone down and done line transect surveys at two different sites.  Below is a graph made from some of the data we have collected.  The Y-axis shows the absolute and relative abundance of target species during each survey which are arranged chronologically on the X-axis.  Next we will try and find any relationships between this survey data and the weather and water quality monitoring data that we have also been collecting.  Stay tuned.

-The Maru also just applied for a grant from the Paul V. Loiselle Conservation Fund of the American Cichlid Assoication in order to train up to Malawians from Fisheries Department of Mzuzu University in underwater observation techniques using SCUBA and cichlid fish identification.  Wish us luck!

-Male Mylochromis mollis (see the youtube video below) are just starting to get their flashy breeding colors out around Kande Island in preparation for wooing all their dull female counterparts into cozy little breeding craters.  It makes for quite a show.

- Our lazy Sunday afternoon Korean BBQ up at the Zoo in Mzuzu was a big success.  Thanks to all the people who showed up and to Bernhard from Chipungu Coffee for supplying us with two beautiful little pigs.  We roasted one on spit and buried the other one in ground cooking it Maori style. 

- We've put up a small photo gallery at the Maru's website.  Check it out at here

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Getting to know the late President Bingu

Great history and analysis of the late President Bingu wa Mutharika by Boni Dulani

News from the Beach...and Mzuzu!

-So we had a blast with Tom and Bob and all the other folks from the Ethical Hedonist film crew this past week as they showcased the Maru Research Center's work on Lake Malawi.  We are really excited to see the final product which will be airing sometime in November.  I'll be posting some photos and hopefully even a video or two (bandwith allowing) in the next week.

- At the Zoo we are planning a big, lazy, Sunday afternoon Korean Braai/BBQ for next Sunday, the 29th.  A bonfire, a whole pig roasting on spit, and a lot of Korean home-cooking with a couple of beers and good friends should make for a great time.  Come around if you're in town. The party starts at 2pm and ends when you can't stand up (either from a too-full stomach or the beer, whichever comes first).

-Finally I have just learned about the existance of a great organization called the American Cichlid Association (ACA).  These people are awesome cichlid enthusiasts and conservationists and I hope that the Maru Research Center find some good friends among them.  They also have a couple Funds that you can apply for for research grants.  How cool is that!  Needless to say, and even though the deadline for applications is just 7 days away, we at the Maru are going to work our tails off to submit a proposal just in time.  Wish us luck!


Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Maru on the Ethical Hedonist

The responsible travel documentary series, The Ethical Hedonist, on the UK's TravelChannel will showcase our research activities on Lake Malawi next week. They will go down with us on one of our survey dives. Not sure when the program will air but will keep you updated. This is very cool.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

News from the Beach

News from the Beach

So it's been a little while since I've posted so there is quite a lot
of news to relate.

-First and foremost we would like to extend a warm welcome to the
newest member of the Aquanuts Divers and Maru Research Center family.
Campbell Louw, a native of South Africa, is our new Research

-Next the Maru Research Center will be featured on the British travel
documentary series "The Ethical Hedonist" we airs on the Travel
Channel. Filming will start on the 18th of April. It should be a lot
of fun. They will be joining us on one of our underwater population
and biodiversity surveys.

- Over at the Mzoozoozoo Backpackers Lodge in Mzuzu Joy is dishing up
a great Korean food and warm hospitality. We are also excited to host
a Peace Corps orientation for incoming Peace Corps volunteers to the
northern region of Malawi in mid-April.
- The other night a friend and I went to the Key Lounge in Mzuzu to
watch Lucius Banda perform live on stage. He is an icon of the
Malawian music scene and the turn out for him was huge and

- And finally a big thanks should go out to Lucas and Ciclia for
helping Joy and I settle into the "Zoo." Check out their charity work
in the Congo and elsewhere at

Friday, March 9, 2012

A question for Christians.

I have recently been screwed by a few people who strongly identify themselves as Christians and whom I believe are not doing so for the purposes of deception but truly believe themselves to be Christian. Is it fair for me be to be especially annoyed at them (i.e. hold them to a "higher" moral standard") or should I recognize that all humans beings are flawed, no matter what creed they profess? I want to hear the opinions of Christians as I already (probably) know how non-Christians would answer this.

Cichlids and Photoshop

So I've been playing with our new underwater camera. I'm not a good photographer and I have photoshop. So I played around. Here they are. I think they look cool, sort of.


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Going to the Zoo

- So in addition to Aquanuts Divers and the Maru Joy and I are going to start managing the Mzoozoozoo Backpackers Lodge located in Mzuzu, the regional capital of northern Malawi. It should be fun. I'm building a website for the place and will have a link up shortly. Mzuzu is a nice mountain city and an essential transport hub for many of northern Malawi's attractions. The Maru is working with the fisheries department of Mzuzu University so it will be great to have the chance to spend a little more time up there. Stay tuned.

- At Aquanuts Divers we've got a new dive instructor and research assistant coming to help us out this month. Campbell Louw is a native of South Africa with a Phd in biotechnology and a passion for underwater worlds. We are excited to have him and look forward to the contributions he will make to our research programs. Welcome aboard Campbell!


Sunday, February 26, 2012

An odd mix I am (for an American)

Time for some navel gazing.

So I got caught up in a political conversation the other day and it had me thinking.

One of the most striking differences, it seems to me, between liberals and conservatives is their understanding of how individuals and their societies interact and affect each other. Liberals instinctually tend to believe that individuals, their actions and their thoughts, are heavily influenced by the societies and material circumstances they inhabit and consequently if you seek to change an individual’s behavior you need to work at the societal and economic level.

Conservatives instinctually tend to believe that societal problems are the cumulative result of poor choices by individuals. Consequently if you want to change behavior you need to lay out a clear moral code and then hold individuals accountable to it.

In practice most people, whether instinctually conservative or liberal, however believe the other side’s argument to some extent. This is a good thing. Most liberals still believe that individuals cannot entirely blame society or their poverty when they make poor choices. And most conservatives recognize that economics and societal pressures do, whether they like it or not, affect individual’s choices.

Another common difference between liberals and conservatives is the former’s tendency to have a more inclusive, malleable, and pragmatic ethical worldview and the later to have a more traditional, legalistic, and theoretical one.

I confess that I find my personal worldview mixes this all up however. While generally having a conservative tendency to focus on individual agency I also have a pretty liberal ethical worldview.

This gets me in trouble with liberals because they sense I lack their enthusiasm for fighting against socio-economic injustices and it makes me personally uncomfortable to associate with conservatives who I find to be dogmatic and intellectually lazy.

You might call me socially liberal and fiscally conservative but that doesn’t quite do me justice. I’m not just fiscally conservative ( though I am), I am also socially conservative to the extent that I tend to be believe that people have a lot more agency than liberals give them credit for and yet I also believe that ethical rules are heavily culturally and socially constructed, and in fact should be.

Luckily however the liberal and conservative paradigms as I have outlined them above are really only appropriate for the USA and possibly Europe. Here in Africa and also in Asia the picture is not the same. Liberals and even conservatives don’t really exist and the West’s inability to recognize this has got us into a lot of problems I think. But that’s the topic for a different blog post.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Gov. responds, back in Malawi, and other News from the Beach

So in regards to the little venting session that is my previous post the the Consular Section Chief at Cape Town Claudia Baker kindly responded. Thank you and here is her response in full.

"I have received your email regarding our policy of not allowing pick-up of passports and citizenship documents at the Consulate. We have this policy for several reasons. First, when we did allow pick-ups several years ago an astonishingly large number of Americans never returned to pick up their passports or reports of birth abroad. Some individuals would respond to repeated requests to return to pick up their documents but we do not have the staff to track who had returned for pick up and to subsequently make repeated attempts to contact the individual. Others, in spite of our efforts, never returned and we were left with valid passports and other valuable documents, which presents a security risk.

In addition, admission to the Consulate is by appointment only for security reasons. Therefore, in order to pick up a document, an American would need to book an appointment on-line prior to coming as we cannot leave passports with front desk staff. This presents problems for several reasons. First, it is difficult to know the exact date on which a passport will be ready for pick up as there any many automated checks that need to be completed prior to terminating processing, therefore booking an appointment for pick-up would be problematic for the customer. Second, if many people were booking appointments to pick-up citizenship documents, our available slots for those with initial applications could become congested.

I hope that I have answered your inquiry regarding unavailability of a pick-up option to your satisfaction. I am sorry about the other inconveniences that you experienced while adding pages to your passport. However decisions such as the price of various services e.g. extra pages are set worldwide by the Department of State in Washington DC and we have no discretion to alter these prices based on local circumstances. Our exchange rate is set monthly by a central authority and due to systems issues can only be changed by this central authority once per month. I will follow up with our cashier to see if he can obtain adequate small bills to be able to make change for those desiring to pay with dollars.


Claudia Baker

Consular Section Chief

Cape Town, South Africa

This email is UNCLASSIFIED."

So beyond blaming careless U.S. citizens for she cites, as predicted, security concerns, systems issues, and distant centralized authorities. The great thing about citing something as a security risk is that there really is no way to argue against it besides simply saying they are wrong particularly when a government is saying it. We are having the same issue trying to get my wife a green card. For that she needs to go through series of insulting medical checks, criminal record checks, and interviews. Why? Well amongst other things for "security." As if my wife, a cute little Korean girl, is going terrorize the U.S. But when dealing with America, especially for foreigners, you are guilty until proven innocent.

How proud I am to be an American.

Rant ended.

-On a much more positive note WE ARE BACK IN MALAWI! And it feels so good. Our trip to Cape Town was productive on many levels but its nice to be back on the beach with my fishes and I am excited about this new year. We have a lot of cool things planned.

-Also we are in the job market again for another Research Assistant and Dive Instructor for Aquanuts and the Maru Research Center. Applicants will preferably have a masters degree in coastal or lake science, environmental management, ichthyology, or a related field. Applicants should also be Divemasters or willing and able to be trained as one. Those with only a bachelor degree but who have experience with population and biodiversity surveying and mapping will be considered. Remuneration will vary according to applicant’s qualifications. Send your CVs to

- Last but not least we will be saying goodbye to Monica. She has been a great help in getting our research programs at the Maru up and running but alas must move on. She's moving to Ecuador and we wish her all the best.

How proud I am to be an American.


Monday, February 6, 2012

Government created monopolies, inefficiency and venting from Cape Town

So we've been quiet for the past few weeks during our road trip down to Cape Town but we're still alive. The drive down was pretty uneventful. Zimbabwe is looking much better than I expected. With the conversion to the dollar the store shelves in Harare at least are full. The roads were good all the way down except for a brief 100 kilometre stretch in Mozambique and our car performed admirably. However by the time that I'd made it through to Zimbabwe my passport was worryingly full, I had only one half-page left. Why do so many African countries insist on using full page stickers to admit you in? Surely if a nice quarter page stamp is good enough for South Africa it's good enough for Mozambique or Zimbabwe.

Luckily Americans can get pages added to their existing passports at most US embassies. I am in the process of doing it right now. Unfortunately its been a bit of a mission. I first enquired at the Cape Town US consulate if indeed they could add such pages. They said yes but first I would have to make an appointment online and print out confirmation of having done so. With that confirmation in hand I went to the consulate this morning, filled out a form, and went to the cashier. The fee is $82 US dollars (ouch!). Having brought both South African Rand and US dollars with me I asked the cashier what exchange rate they used and was told 8.5 SA rands to 1 US dollar. This rate is woefully out of date, the current market rate is 7.5 to 1. So paying the fee is US dollars would have been better except for the tiny issue that the US consulate didn't have sufficient US dollars to give me change in US dollars when I handed him a 100 dollar bill. I asked if he couldn't simply give me the change in rands? He said no. So I had to pay in rands at the woefully outdated exchange rate so that it actually cost me the equivalent of 93 US dollars. Yeah for me. Having paid the cashier I returned to the counter and was then told that I could not receive my passport until tomorrow. I was surprised at this because when I had first enquired about adding pages to my passport I was told that it only took a couple hours to complete the process. Yeah again. Resigned, I asked when I could pick up my passport tomorrow and was told that I was not allowed to return to the consulate to pick up the passport but instead had the privilege of paying DHL, who conveniently had an office right in the lobby, an additional 90 rand (about 12 dollars) to express mail it to my hotel in Cape Town the next day. Yeah again!

Who thinks this is reasonable? And how could they arrive at that conclusion? Why does the US consulate in Cape Town not have US dollars sufficient to give me $18 dollars in change? Don't know. And why couldn't they simply have given me the equivalent in rand? Don't know. And why does the US consulate force people to use a private company, DHL, to give them a service that they don't even want? Don't know. But I'm going to make a meagre effort to find out by sending these same questions to the said US consulate. I am expecting a lot of useless platitudes about the importance of security, accounting issues, and assurances that they really are doing their best to serve me, etc. We'll see if I'm right. I'm going to post their response here if/when I receive one.