Thursday, October 11, 2018

News from the Beach from Antoine!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Reporting Back to the Community!

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


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Take a read at what our intern, Kees, has been up to!

           Currently I am doing an internship at the research center. This is part of my university course ‘Applied Biology’. I came here as a dive virgin who only dived in cold pools in the Netherlands. On my first day my virginity got taken away and we made an amazing dive on the island. In the following 3 months I Made around 30 dives and am now a proud owner of my open water certificate. The goal of diving changed a lot lately, from going diving to practice my buoyancy and basically just surviving under water to doing serious research on the cichlids present around the island. 

For my study I survey 8 different transects on biodiversity around the island and upcoming to our new location Nkhata Bay. These transects are laid out at different depths and posses different stratas and different communities of fish. This makes for 4 dives a week for a Total of 2 months. Which Will make a Total of 32 amazing dives with hopefully usefull data as well. The data will be analysed to compare the different biodiversity of the locations based upon strata and depths (5m and 10m).

There is more I do at the research center because there is a fishing village and three rivers to monitor. It is important to monitor these since they give a lot of information. 3 times a week we make a welcoming hike to these rivers and every weekday we visit the fishing village every week. It is nice to participate in other researches as well so you can learn from them and it makes for some nice distraction of your own research. 

Altogether my time here has been wonderful and it is great to experience this culture, the weather, the nature and the beautiful lake at a young age. It makes you more adult and conscious about your life when you have had 5 months in Malawi to compare it to.


Saturday, June 2, 2018

Starting a Community Engagement Project, from Federico our newest Intern!

The Maru has been monitoring the Mazukuhunju Fishing Village for over 7 years, weighing the fish that they caught everyday in order to get an idea of how many fish had been taken from the lake. In spite of this monitoring when I  arrived to The Maru I realized that everything we knew from the fishing village was based on rumours or casual conversations with the people around Kande, so i decided that we needed to do a characterization of the village and ask villagers their challenges while they are fishing and living in this village in order to be able to create a project together with the community that can both increase the amount of fish in  the lake and improve their quality of life.
So far we have done over 22 interviews and the results have been better than expected, the people from the village, have been very receptive to us asking them questions about their way of life, and we have been able to get to know more about their life style, their organization as a community,  their main challenges in their fishing activities, their opinions about other stakeholders in the lake, their feelings about overfishing, among other things.

Once the interviews are over, we will be able to characterize the  demographics of the village, and also I will be designing a project with the information gathered with the aims of decreasing the overfishing in the lake while also helping the villagers to have a better way of life.

As a divemaster and an environmental lawyer it has been an amazing learning experience to come to The Maru and learn more about different scientific disciplines, like aquatic biology, learning more about the cichilids, how to to do underwater surveys, monitor water quality in the rivers, and also complementing my social science knowledge by getting to know the people from the fiishing village and their way of living, and learning how to create a community engagement project by just doing it. Also just the fact of being living in Malawi , right next to the Lake in a beautiful place like Kande has been wonderful.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

News from the Beach!

Whao have we been busy! We are already well into 2018 and it has gone fast!  In next couple months we are excited to welcome back our research partner Operation Wallacea to Nkhata Bay.  Last year was a blast and the beginning of some new research projects including when to create 3D maps of the Lake floor using GIS geo-located images.  Down at Kande we have two new projects ongoing both spearheaded by two great interns.  Kees from Holland is doing a study comparing the biodiversity and population of cichlids species in Nkhata Bay and Kande based on a lake floor characteristics.  It will be awesome to see what he comes up with.  Federico from Chile is developing a fisheries household survey that we will be rolling out in the next couple weeks.  We’ve been working with the Masakahunju fishing village for years now collecting information on their fish catches and with Federico’s help we will now starting sitting down with the fisherman to learn more about their daily lives and the challenges that come with being a fishing community on Lake Malawi so that we can collectively find some ways to help them continue fishing on the Lake in a way that will ensure that their children can benefit from Lake’s resources as much as, if not more than, they do now.  We are really looking forward to the conversations that will come out of our survey with the fishers and their families!  If any of this sounds interesting to you the Maru is always interested in collaborating with partners whether in Malawi or outside.  Whether it be as a volunteer, intern, or something else, send us an email at and for more info click on the link to the right of this post to go to our full webpage.