Thursday, December 5, 2013

News from the Beach!

Well its been a little while since our last post that doesn't mean we've been lazing on the sands all day (though we do a little bit, have you seen out beach?)  Its summer again here at Kande and that means warm water, sun and every once and a while a nice brisk rain in the mornings just to green things up a bit.

-This month marks the official two year anniversary or our underwater population and biodiversity surveying and monitoring project.  At least once a month for two years now we have been counting and identifying the amazing biodiversity of Lake Malawi and with all that data we've decided to put together a report which we will post online soon so stay tuned!

-Last night we had a once-in-twenty-years lake fly visitation.  I say once in twenty years because our friend who has lived in Kande for twenty year had never seen anything like it.  Literally millions and million of lake flies were blown onto Kande Beach covering everyone and everything.  Don't worry they are completely harmless, and even tasty if you ask the local Tongan Malawians.  This morning we were greeted to piles of them several inches thick both in and outside of our house and research center.  It was certainly something to see, feel, and even taste!

-Our resident Research Assistant and Dive Instructor David Grazi from Italy has settled in well and is having a great time learning about the lake and teaching others to enjoy it.  And he just had his birthday here at Kande amidst live music, a barbeque, and discount drinks.  Can't beat that.  Congrats Dude!

-Finally my wife, Joy is opening up a lodge and restaurant in Mzuzu, the capital of the northern region of Malawi.  Her cooking is already famous in Mzuzu and even the entire northern region so stay tuned for the opening date.  We are busy renovating that the moment but plan on opening around the beginning of 2014.  The lodge will have accommodation for all prices ranges from camping, to dorms, to private rooms.  As a bonus having a place in the city will aid the Maru's efforts to engage more with students at Mzuzu University's Fisheries Department.

Check out these lake flies.  No its not smoke, its flies!


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Colonialism: Leviathan or Muddler?

“The evidence reveals that in Nyasaland, as in other colonies (emphasis mine), the state was a clumsy, feeble institution whose regulatory efforts produced contradictory effects.”

- Wiseman Chijere Chirwa from his doctoral dissertation “Theba is Power…”

Why don’t we hear this more often, particularly from the harshest critics of colonialism?  It would seem a rather obvious line of attack i.e. “not only were they (are they) racist pricks, they were (are) also bumbling, “feeble,” racist pricks.”

Yet if you read the literature, scholarly and popular, colonialism’s power, while usually reviled, is also usually unquestioned.  That’s a shame.  Narratives of African history that acknowledged colonial feebleness, not just racism, could open the stage for more interesting, complex, and true accounts of Africa’s past that actually featured Africans as who are neither merely “oppressed” nor “heroic.”


Friday, July 26, 2013

Some preliminary results from our underwater population and biodiversity surveys

            Since October 2011, the Maru has been conducting population and biodiversity surveys recording the presence and abundance of certain cichlid species around Kande Island in the northern region of Lake Malawi. While some species are abundant year round, others come and go. By analyzing the data patterns of species abundance and scarcity can be determined. We've also been able to put together graphs to display the change in total numbers of all the species that we monitor.

            Transect line surveys are conducted in two separate locations at Kande Island and the Outer Reef. Initially population and biodiversity surveys were completed twice a month: on the 1st and 15th. Having established that population and biodiversity trends could still be reliably tracked at a less frequent survey interval it was decided to conduct surveys once a month and to expand the number of survey sites. To perform the surveys, two fifty meter swims are done along a fixed transect line. While swimming, the surveyor identifies which species and how many are present in a one meter radius around the line and records the data on an underwater slate. The data is entered into an excel spreadsheet and a graph for each species is updated monthly. The graphs are then analyzed.


The first two graphs show that at both sites there has been a decline in the total numbers of fish.  Year on data at the Outer Reef shows a 27% decrease however at Kande Island the decrease is more marginal.

To determine the factors relating to the decline in species numbers, it is important to find patterns of when fish species are more or less abundant. Graphs 3 and 4 show the relationships between eight different species on the outer reef while Graphs 5 and 6 show the abundances of eight species on the island that seem to track each other.. At the Outer Reef we were able to find selected species that appear to share ecological niches and thus vary in abundance at roughly opposite times.  However at Kande Island we couldn't find similar relationships between any two groups of species.  

Why niche sharing could be found at the Outer Reef but not at Kande Island could be due to any number of factors.  There is still much to learn!

Stay tuned, or join us in the discovery!  Visit to learn more about the Maru's research programs and how you can get involved.  

This blog post was written by Brianna, Tierney, an intern at the Maru Research Center.


Monday, July 8, 2013

Science is Politics, Politics is Science

In "Local Knowledge, Environmental Politics, and the Founding of
Ecology in the United States:Stephen Forbes and "The Lake as a
Microcosm (1887)" David W. Schneider argues that the founders of the
science of Ecology learned substantially from the local knowledge of
fishermen during their research activities and eventually began
adopting their political concerns.

Certainly too little attention has been paid to the role that informal
or "local" knowledge has played in the development of most scientific
disciplines. Nothing develops in a vacuum. This article will
certainly be a useful citation in my study. It may be the case that
scientists in the projects I am studying followed a similar evolution.
And if they didn't it would be interesting to find out why.

The article itself, however, while exploring how Forbes grappled with
scientific and political boundaries, curiously doesn't attempt to
critically examine the usefulness of maintaining the epistemological
boundaries that labels such as "scientific," "political," and "local"
imply. Though the material he presents provides a great opportunity
to interrogate the supposed dichotomy of "scholarly science" and
"practical politics," Schneider refrains. Instead he makes the much
less radical claim that Forbes simply used scientific objectivity as a
tool for political ends. I'd argue, with Latour, that knowledge never
has an intrinsic character, so the idea of using scientific knowledge
for political ends can't arise. Rather from its very beginning all
knowledge is created for social goals and through social processes
(this is the core message of his classic "Science in Action") and so
whatever character it may later be ascribed with is itself a product
of politics and culture ("translation?"). So the story instead is one
in which Forbes established the field of Ecology by successfully
translating knowledge that had formerly been labeled "local" into
"scientific" and then adding to it and that this entire process of
knowledge translation and creation was a cultural and social one, both
personally for Forbes as seen in the changing character of his
correspondences about local fisherman, and more broadly as seen in the
disputes between fishermen and "big business."

Friday, June 7, 2013

News from the Beach!

-Well the windy season is here properly but we are having plenty of gaps in the gales so the diving and surveying is full-steam ahead.

-In the past month we have welcomed two new interns to the Maru, Bridget and Brianna, both from the USA and both mid-way through their university degrees.  Already they have made great contributions to our research programs.

-Our Environmental Education program is off to a great start. Most Malawians living on the lakeshore cannot swim.  We believe that it is difficult to enjoy and value something that you literally cannot enter for fear of drowning.  Rather than hitting the books we prefer to hit the water!

- Oh and here are couple more awesome cichlids courtesy of the British Cichlid Association's POTM!


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The need to conserve

So I have been reading through The Lie of the Land.  It’s an edited book with the subtitle “Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment.”  The point many of the chapters make is that Western expertise and science have not always given Westerners as privileged an understanding of African environments as we would like to believe.   On the Conservation side of things, the central premise that every environment has an optimal and stable state to which it is succeeding has been abandon by all serious scientists for at least 25 years.  Without such a state, the question of what exactly ought to be conserved becomes a lot more ambiguous.  And yet in the minds of many Westerners the desire to conserve remains instinctual and strong.  On the Development front, many colonial-era agricultural development projects in particular are now universally recognized to have sprung from some really shoddy scientific understandings.  And yet still many of the same development ideas that were dominant in 1940 are still being tried over and over again in the new millennium.

In the course of our own scientific research on Lake Malawi the single most common question we are asked by Westerners is if the lake is being over-fished.  When I tell them “We don’t know” their responses are always either surprise or disbelief.  The narrative of African environmental degradation in the Western mind is so strong that even any statements that simply refrain from supporting it are met with deep skepticism.  And yet it remains a simple, sad, truth that the accumulated scientific research done on the lake since the turn of the 20th up to the present day trying to ascertain the state of Lake Malawi’s fish populations, in any other scientific field, would not allow any scientist to make firm conclusions without being laughed out of the room by his colleagues.  Why are we so willing to believe, why do we in fact seem to want to believe that African environments are in such poor shape?     

On the other hand the authors in the book sometimes repeat the mistakes of those they criticize by claiming to know more than their data can possibly support.  Without asserting that pre-colonial Africa was always and everywhere ecologically sustainable (another troublesome term) they do often seem to believe that at least human management of African environments under African stewardship was superior to that under colonial rule.  When there is clear evidence for this, I have no trouble believing it. But often the data upon which this claim is made is very thin indeed.  That is not to say that the opposite is true, but simply that it may be unwise to even make the comparison given the asymmetry of the data about the two periods. 
More generally I think we need to get beyond the never-ending gotcha game of pitting everything African against everything Western as if one side must always be better than the other in some way, and more importantly as if these two categories are truly distinct and worth preserving as objects of analysis.  Certainly it is human nature to want to categorize, compare, and rank, but we must do so with sophistication, caution, and much introspection.       


Monday, April 8, 2013

Protein? When did we start caring about that?

So I just finished reading “Unexploited Assests: Imperial Imagination, Practical Limitations, and Marine Fisheries Research in East Africa.”  It is Chapter 12 in the book “Science and Empire” and is a fascinating accounting of how scientific marine research struggled to get done in East Africa under British colonial rule.  One of the most intriguing claims it makes is that a perceived need for more protein in the diet of both colonial and indigenous populations was a key motivator for starting much fisheries and marine research at this time.  In Malawi this research was done as part of the Nyasaland Nutrition survey.
If this claim is true, it strikes me as begging a whole lot of other questions like:

When was protein discovered anyway?

When was it deemed desirable?

And why was there such a perceived shortage of it around that time?  Were all the cows dying?

Was this protein craze a phenomenon happening all over the world, or just in Africa?

Can we blame early nutritionists for the subsequent wholesale slaughter of world fisheries resources that followed?

Wouldn't it be fun to connect those dots?


Monday, April 1, 2013

Beach Scouts?

So I was thinking about the conversation I had with Alex in our first installment of "Voices from Lake Malawi" as I tried in vain to fall asleep last night.  Outside a drummer on the beach was pounding away. The rythmn of his beating was intended to help beach seine fishermen pull their nets shorewards in unison.  Then this morning I read this article by Zhang WeiWei on why the Chinese don't find liberal democracy particularly appealing.

Alex said a lot of interesting things all of which I will try and talk about in later blog posts.  In this one, in light of WeiWei's article, Alex's words on the limited capacity of the Malawian fisheries department led me to wonder what an effective fisheries monitoring and enforcement program suited to Malawi's particular cultural, economic and political conditions might look like.  First let me acknowledge the immediate inherent dissonance of a foreigner trying to imagine what a uniquely Malawian fisheries monitoring and enforcement system might look like.  Still, one of the many virtues of Malawian people is their willingness, indeed their eagerness, to listen to the ideas of others.

With that proviso made, another still needs acknowledgement.  Rather than wondering what a uniquely Malawian fisheries monitoring and enforcement system might look like we first must recognize that such a system already exists. Malawians are already managing their fisheries resources.  And in imagining what a more effective system might look like it would be unwise to believe that starting from scratch is possible or even preferable.  Still, as Malawians are keenly aware of, the current systems are not doing a particularly good job at either ensuring the environmental or economic sustainability of the Lake Malawi.  And yes Malawian's do care about these things.  Poverty has not ground away their abilities or desires to use current resources in ways that will not destroy their children's abilities to benefit equally from them.

So then lets imagine.

First it seems to me unrealistic to believe that there will be any near-term increases in the number of on-the-ground government fisheries extension workers.  And yet Alex states that more and better information on fishing activities is crucial.  I believe him.  So what is an alternative?  What about training monitors, known locally as "beach scouts," to assist the already existing extension workers?  Certainly these beach scouts, working on a part time basis, and recruited from already existing Beach Village Commitees would be more cost effective than deploying new cadres of fully-fledged extension workers and yet still be capable of providing some basic data.

Second, and in line with the first point it we need to have an attitudinal shift about what kind of data we expect such monitoring efforts to be credibly capable of producing.  Certainly pinpoint accuracy will not be achieved.  However instead of being disappointed with the results, or worse, being discouraged from even beginning such a scheme I think we should rather focus on the usefulness of the type of data that such monitoring could credibly provide.  First it would give us a broad official understanding of by who and where most fishing activity occurs.  Simple surveys recording how many nets and boats are present at each landing site would be a great first step towards formulating an official general assessment of fishing activities in Lake Malawi.  The Malawian Fisheries Department already possesses this information but only transiently in the heads of the many extension workers with boots on the ground.  Official surveying reports only contain official data which, as Alex admits, is based on surveys that cannot adequately capture the status quo.

Even in an ideal world where the Malawian Fisheries Department had enough resources to put more extension workers on the ground I doubt that doing so would be the best use of such resources.  Malawian fisheries are so widely dispersed along the lakeshore that stationing extension workers in such a way that all could be monitored would be extremely costly for comparatively little information gain. 

Not only would beach scouts be more cost effective, they would also enroll local community members into active and formal management activities.  Such local participatory action would help build a sense of resource-user ownership over the lake's resources that stationing foreign extension workers could never achieve.  And as Alex said in his interview, such a sense of resource-user ownership is key.  


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

News from the Beach presents Alex! (and other stuff)

Well its been a long time in coming but we have finally managed to start our series of discussions with Malawians about Lake Malawi which we have chosen to entitle “Voices from Lake Malawi.”    Periodically we will be posting here podcasts of those discussions in which we talk to a variety of different people about Lake Malawi and how they interact with it, what it means to them, and how the lake came to be a part of their lives.  For our inaugural discussion we are lucky enough to have Alex Makanjira Stand to talk with.  Alex works for the Malawian Government’s Fisheries Department as an Extension Officer in Nhkata Bay District where the Maru Research Center is located.  But before we get to that  however, we’ve got a few more news bullets to share.

-First we’d like to welcome Brandi to the center.  She will be volunteering with us for the next few weeks and has already been integral to getting our “Voices” series started. 

-Also we are happy to announce our first Malawian intern will be joining us next week.  Benjamin Banda studied Fisheries Science at Mzuzu University and has a keen interest in aquaculture.  We look forward to researching with him!

-Finally our trip the the US was successful and we came back with a few research tools.  A phosphorus meter, dissolved oxygen meter, and the long awaited weather station! 

And now to Alex!  Click on the button below to begin streaming our discussion with him.    


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Random news from America!

-Well  Joy and I are in the States for a few weeks to visit family, get some work done and even try and have a little vacation.  It’s cold and raining as I write this.  Malawi you are a beauty.  But change is good so we are happy to be driving around my old stomping grounds in Columbus Ohio.  Not much has changed here.  There are a few new restaurants and some buildings have received face-lifts.  After four years away the biggest change I see is every seems to have a new or newish car.  Perhaps I’m just used to seeing beaters in Malawi but it does seem a flash car is now mandatory in Ohio.

- I’ve begun reading from academic journals more lately mostly environmental history of Africa.  Perhaps the articles I have been reading are not representative of the field, or at least are only representative of on part of it, but I find much of the research to be driven by political ideologies.  This isn’t surprising or even necessarily a bad thing. But I would like to find historians who are seeking relevancy through skilled literary craftsmanship and a desire to tell new stories.

- Our Prez in Malawi, Joyce Banda, was recently given and honorary doctorate by Jeonju University in South Korea.  Some Malawians aren’t too impressed with this gesture given the state of the Malawian economy but according to Joy Koreans often bestow titles on people as an incentive in the hope that they will live up to them rather than as rewards for previous accomplishments. 

-Our weather station has arrived and is looking pretty good, no more manual collection of data.  I’ll put the current weather and forecast for Kande on the Maru’s website as soon as I get back in Korea.
-We have quite a few volunteers and interns coming in the next few months.  It is exciting to think of all the research we can do with the extra hands!  If you would like to apply to volunteer or intern with us go to