Tuesday, November 5, 2019

News from the Beach! Word from Alexandra!

Here is a word from our newest intern Alexandra from Germany.  She is doing a fantastic job studying our brushpark installations. 

What leads a person who is about 30 years older than the typical student to the shores of Lake Malawi, doing an internship? Well, it is my late discovered passion for the underwater world and its fauna which caused me to get down to Marine Science studies two years ago and to realise a personal dream.
My name is Alexandra and I live in Munich in landlocked Germany. In order to collect more practical field work experience in the course of my studies, I searched for opportunities in an interesting part of the world and applied for a three months internship with The Maru Research Center located in Kande Beach.  So here I am, landed in a true paradise, trying to put the impressions and experiences of my first three weeks in words.
One of the first surprises was – and still is every time I go in the water – that I’m living at a lake and not an ocean. The endless water surface, the waves, the wind and the sandy beach feel so much like living at the sea, and even after these three weeks I still expect to taste salt water when I go swimming or diving.
There are so many things that I learned to love here and already start to miss today. Let me name the top three: Going out to my daily walks to carry out survey tasks in the fisher village and at the two rivers we are monitoring means getting a taste of the local life and chatting with amazingly friendly Malawians in my unfortunately very limited Chitonga knowledge or in English. The second highlight is diving and doing surveys near Kande Island, which is situated around 1 km from the beach and is the habitat for these incredibly diverse, colourful cichlids, the main reason why I came here. This is my first fresh water diving experience and it is decisively my first experience to go diving using a canoe! Last but not least, my participation in the establishment and monitoring of an artificial reef, a brushpark, which aims to create a new habitat for breeding, shelter or harvesting purposes.
Of course, no paradise is perfect in every respect and some of the downsides are the strong winds that turn the interior of my lovely hut into a beach, or the lake flies that are regularly blown in large clouds across the lake that enter every little gap and leave a black carpet behind. But all these little inconveniences can’t spoil the pleasure to be here – it’s Africa!


Friday, September 20, 2019

News from the Beach: The “GIVE A FISH A HOME!” Virundu Edition

Summer is coming again here on Lake Malawi and we are excited for the warm weather and calm lake conditions it brings.  Our winter season with Operation Wallacea was amazing with great students and great research accomplished!  Back at Kande we have some exciting plans for the next few months that we need your help on!  Info on the first plan is below! (more to come)

Let’s Build Artificial Reefs a.k.a. “Virundu” in Lake Malawi!

The people of Malawi get most of the little meat-protein that they consume from the Lake’s amazing fish species.  For centuries one of the ways that fishermen here have worked with the Lake to provide them with more fish is by building underwater “reef” structures, locally known as Virundu, which create more fish habitats particularly for breeding.  Traditionally these Virundu were built by cutting down hardwood trees, once plentiful, and sinking them.  Such structures were durable and provided an inviting lattice work of branches upon which algae could grow and in which fish could make temporary homes.  After the breeding season, the fishermen would return and harvest a portion of the fish around the Virundu to feed their families.  Unfortunately, these days hardwood trees are difficult to come by and fishermen are finding that inshore waters no longer have the fish they used to.  This forces them to go deeper and deeper into the lake to catch the fish they need to feed their families.  
We first learned about Virundu by speaking with fishermen at Masakhahunju fishing village where we do our Fisheries Monitoring Surveys and started brainstorming with them how we might re-create them in the Lake in a way that was as equally as durable as hardwood, could be made from locally available materials, was scalable, and perhaps even more attractive to the lake’s fish.  What we came up with last year were structures inspired by the baskets that Malawians use to transport their fish to market.  After getting a local weaver to make some of these structures from readily available bamboo we sunk 10 of them near Kande Island as a trial and began waiting to see if fish might find them attractive.


To our astonishment within two months fish had made our Virundu their homes!  Look at the video below! (ignore the wrong timestamp) This was taken earlier this year.

 So by February of this year we knew that our structures were locally feasible, scalable, and attractive to the fish!  So far so good!  What we didn’t know was how durable they were.  For this we would have to wait and see if they could last through the annual winter windy season when strong winds create strong underwater currents that could potentially uproot our Virundu from the lake floor. Unfortunately, with this year’s windy season now at a close we now know our answer.  Our beautiful trial Virundu that we anchored to lake floor last year have all been blown away!


While very sad this is the nature of research.  There is trial and there is error.  But there is also progress and learning!  So this new summer season we need YOUR HELP! 

We KNOW that our reef structures WORK at attracting fish.

We KNOW that we can make them with LOCAL materials.

We also KNOW that we can SCALE them up to create potentially VAST underwater fish habitats.

All that we need to do is make them STRONGER to last through the annual winter windy season.
To do that we are going use IRON! The bamboo lattice work baskets were an ideal material on which algae could go and an attractive structure to the fish, they just weren’t strong enough to withstand the currents.  BUT if we reinforce our bamboo virundu baskets with IRON rebar we believe that they stand a good chance of making it through the Lake’s next winter windy season. 


While easily available, iron rebar, unlike wild growing bamboo, is not free.  How much is it you ask?  Well we have calculated that the rebar needed to reinforce one 2-meter-long by 1-meter-round virundu basket and provide strong anchors to attach it to the lake floor will cost JUST $25 USD!


Click the link above to donate any amount you can to help buy rebar to GIVE A FISH A HOME and we will send you a picture of the virundu basket that your donation helped to build and send you regular updates on the fish that have made it their home! 




Thursday, September 5, 2019

A word from our new volunteer Steven!

Hi there! My name is Steven Duong, I’m from San Diego, California, and I’m a volunteer here at the Maru Research Center. I’m a recent graduate of Grinnell College (English and American Studies) and I’ve been in Kande for about a month so far, helping with the Maru’s monitoring projects on the lake and the nearby fishing village, as well conducting part of my own year-long project as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow. This writing project, titled “Freshwater Fish and the Poetry of Containment,” will take me to four different countries, Malawi included, that happen to be the countries of origin of four freshwater aquarium fish I kept in my fish tank growing up. I am working on both fiction and poetry manuscripts that explore the idea of containment and movement across borders, in every sense of those words, using the fish tank and its four glass walls as a sort of working metaphor. Maybe a bit head-in-the-clouds in a pretentious literary way, sure, but the project and its framework have given me a unique way to understand the people and places I’ve met so far in context with my own life.

The funny thing is, though I have no background in the sciences, I’ve found that so many other aspects of my learning and my experiences and identities have helped me here. As Justin likes to say, 50% of the Maru’s mission is about the science—conservation, research, understanding the living things swimming around in the water—and half is about the place—Kande, its people, its food, its values, its languages, its cultural imaginations. You can apply the scientific methodologies learned here anywhere, but it’s being here that makes the experience unique. And that’s what I’ve found.

Most of my interactions begins with me greeting people enthusiastically in their own language, and then going on to explain the actual details of my work here, both with the Maru and with my writing. I’ve made genuine connections with such curious and interesting and wonderful people. I went to Chintheche with Alfred, a young man I met at the fishing village who is attending college at Livingstonia University—we bonded over our very different but also surprisingly similar college experiences, and he invited me to a service at his church, where I was introduced to the whole community there. I met Chudi, a beach vendor and aspiring mechanic, and helped him load firewood onto his friend’s massive truck to bring it back home to cook dinner for his family. Just yesterday, I ran into Ruben and some older men from the village at the local bar, and had a fascinating conversation about family values and religion and English literature in Malawi.

Perhaps most significantly, im Mzuzu, I had some of my preconceived notions tested in an interaction with some men on the street. While I was walking toward a shop, three auto-parts shop owners drinking on the side of the road yelled “ni hao” and “China” at me, having decided I was Chinese. I stopped and greeted them, clarifying that I was actually learning Chitonga. Then, I gave them a smiley “mwatandala uli.” They were enthusiastic to hear I was taking the effort to pick up one of the local languages, though they were Tombuka, and we ended up sitting together there and talking for more than an hour about language and culture in Malawi. I told them that I was actually an American, and my parents were Vietnamese, and that while I know they meant no harm, it gets a little jarring to hear people yell at you randomly in Chinese when you don’t speak it. I told them that if they had come to America and I saw them and greeted them in Swahili just because they looked African to me, they might not have taken it well. The guys totally understood where I was coming from, offered me some of their brandy as a peace offering, and we hung out all afternoon. I ended up learning so much about the lives of these guys, Sam and Joseph and Duncan. They told me I had to include them in my book and send it to them if I ever got it published. We’ll see if that happens.

Ultimately, I’ve come to learn, over the past few weeks, that the identities and experiences that define me—my race, my ethnicity, my social status, my upbringing in the states, my college education—both contain me and free me. The way I appear and the fact that I studied English and not biology, for example, have limited me in some ways. My appearance restricts the way many Malawians view me to an initial stereotype, and my lack of a science background makes it harder to pick up certain concepts and methodologies necessary to do work at the Maru. However, if I had a different set of identities, if I wasn’t a special kind of umusungu, if I didn’t get ni-hao’d randomly on the street, I wouldn’t be challenged to the point where I put myself into situations where I was able to come to a greater understanding of the people around me. If I was already well-versed in scientific fieldwork, I wouldn’t have put the extra effort into the learning I’m doing here, and I wouldn’t have stepped out of my comfort zone enough to grow as a student and a writer.

Walls can keep us trapped, but they also encourage us to improvise, to make do, to bend the rules as far as we can. This is what the stanza structure of a sonnet does, or the walls of a fish tank, or the shores of a lake, or the borders of a nation, or the barriers of a language. If you have a handful of Chitonga phrases and your friend has a limited English vocabulary, you work around it, using hand signals, comparisons, and other workarounds. If the mbuna rockfish of Lake Malawi weren’t isolated to their underwater rock patches, which they seldom stray from, the lake would not be nearly as biodiverse, and Kande Island wouldn’t have its own endemic species, the Pseudotropheus elongatus variety I love and look out for every time I dive. If Shakespeare said “screw the sonnet” and decided to write thousand line poems without any rhyme or meter or structure, they probably would have been interesting, but they also probably would have sucked.

To cut a long-winded blog post slightly shorter, let me say this. Though the cichlids of Lake Malawi are endlessly fascinating to me, as an aquarist and a writer and a lover of wildlife, it is the people I meet that I am learning the most from. The relationships I am building with people demonstrate and model and reinvent the ideas I want to write about more so than anything else. Maybe this is a little anthropocentric but the stories of these fish matter to me because they are tied to the stories of people. This is what metaphor is—taking two very different things and bringing them together, forcing them to have conversation with one another until they are one, synonymous and inseparable. I know I’m maybe an unconventional intern for a science research center like this, but I really do see both science and art as tools for building bridges and making connections, and I hope to continue that work for the next month I’m here in Kande. If you’re interested in reading my writing or following my project more closely, here’s my website: stevenduongwrites.com.