Category Archives: Malawi

The Intricacies of Finger Ball

In northern Malawi the Mpamba Fruit Juice Producers Cooperative brings together 22 fruit growers, collects their fruit, and presses it into orange, pineapple, mango, and baobab juices.  The last, I am told, is healthful for pregnant women.  But for the time being pregnant women do not have access to Mpamba’s baobab juice.  Nor any other of its juices.  The Malawian Bureau of Standards has shut down their small production facility due to sanitation concerns.

A heavy rain rushed through cracks and plentiful holes in the roof and brought down part of the interior ceiling exposing the cracks and plentiful holes.  In addition, the window screens are torn and inviting to tropical insects.  And the lower portion of the interior walls is painted black which the Bureau of Standards says will make the insects that enter, mostly unnoticeable.

This is all very unfortunate because the fruit growers had created a small but semi-thriving business selling their refreshing juices to shops, hotels, and local open air markets.  It is also unfortunate because I am in Mpamba (village of the same name as the co-op) to give the co-op members lessons in marketing.  But since I am here and have a curriculum, I have proceeded with the lessons.  I only hope that they still remember the key points in several months’ time when they secure funding to make repairs to their facility and restart production.

Also unfortunate because I didn’t get to observe the juice making process which is a manual affair.  They explained to me that they load fruit into a cylindrical bin and then manually turn a crank which lowers a press to crush the fruit and extract the juice.  Quite slow going which explains a production capacity of just a few hundred bottles a day.

On the weekend we had no classes so I asked to be shown several of the orchards where the co-op members grow their fruit.  During the orchard tour I had the bonus experience of receiving a lesson in grafting a tangerine branch onto a lemon tree trunk.  Apparently the resulting tangerine fruit does not change its character, but instead benefits from the lemon tree’s greater resistance to pests.  Arborists among you please weigh in here.

One morning prior to marketing lessons I watch two young boys play finger ball outside the production facility.  For my dear readers who don’t know finger ball (probably 100% of you) I will explain.  And by the way, until a few days ago I too was among the 100% oblivious to finger ball. A football pitch (soccer field to you 100%-ers) is drawn in the dirt, roughly 3 feet by 2 feet.  The boys each field a team of eleven bottle caps, smooth side down so that they will slide across the dirt.  The eleven bottle caps represent the number of players on their respective soccer teams. They introduce a relatively round stone to serve as the ball.  Then, with their fingers they take turns “thunking” the bottle caps towards the round stone.  They are remarkably facile at sending the caps skittering toward the stone and thereby dribbling the stone toward their opponent’s goal…and eventually scoring a goal, lots of goals.  In fact there was more scoring in the few minutes of finger ball I viewed than in an entire World Cup championship match.  Finger ballers do not go in for these uninspiring 1-0 results.

I was not invited to play and I didn’t insinuate myself into the match.  I was satisfied enough to learn a new sport by observation.  Consequently I suspect I can beat most of my readers now.

Frequent readers of this space will recall that I have related on past assignments unusual requests for personal funding.  This trip was different only in that the number of requests was off the charts.  I was hit up for:

  • Fancy shoes to wear to hospitality school commencement
  • Three bottles of beer and taxi money
  • Funding to start a tourist campsite
  • A tankful of gasoline for a vehicle I would never ride in
  • An expensive gift to give to a relative at graduation
  • Capital in support of a clothing import business
  • A dress to wear to the tribal chief’s induction ceremony
  • Cash to buy a new smart phone – – accompanied by a photo of a dropped and broken Samsung hoping to be replaced. (The photo was likely prepared months ago and has been used multiple times for such requests.)
  • Twenty eight cents to make a phone call

I tactfully declined all request except for the last.  It was within my budget.

Don’t Forget What Has Happened

In Malawi shops and businesses often name themselves rather creatively, either in English or in Chichewa.  I am working with two agro inputs dealers – – sellers of seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, and tools to farmers.  One of them is named “Tisaiwale”, meaning Don’t Forget.  Perhaps as in, don’t forget about the fine service we provide.  The other dealer, Pagwanji, means What Has Happened?  Possibly, what has happened to my profits?  But more about this later.

On the highway to Don’t Forget I passed two companies with memorable English names: Money Comes, Money Goes Investments and Big Brains Investments.  Now which one would you choose to invest with?  I would not likely associate Money Comes, Money Goes with a good home for my hard earned savings.  The funny thing is, neither has anything to do with investments.  Both are also agro-dealers and Investments is a popular category name for such businesses.

Later we saw Who’s Next Barbershop which is quite aptly titled. My driver’s name is Masauko: “here comes trouble.”Sort of a Malawian version of Dennis the Menace.Lots of fun names here in Malawi.

Mentioned above, I am assisting two suppliers to the farmers.  Both are private, profit seeking companies.  Now you might ask, why would an NGO send a volunteer to southeastern Africa to help a business owner increase his profits? Because, dear reader, in seeking improved profits, the business owner will assist farmers, many of them at subsistence level, to improve the productivity of their fields.  And thus food security in this poor country will be ever so slightly improved.  So we can create a virtuous circle: increased profits – -> improved yields – -> enhanced food security for those at subsistence level.

Both agro inputs dealers asked me to assist them with their financial tracking.  In both cases, they kept manual ledgers of daily sales, expenses, and inventories. And they did this rather diligently.  But they had no system to tally all this raw data into an income statement at the end of each month.  Consequently neither knew whether they were making money…or losing it.

I built a simple Excel spreadsheet for the one dealer who owned a computer and created an even simpler manual format for the other, the computer-less business.  It turned out that this latter business was actually running a loss in most months.  So, armed with this revelation, the owner will take corrective action. Nothing a little attention to expense control won’t solve.

On Saturday I attended my first Malawian wedding.  I wasn’t really invited and I didn’t actually attend.  And not the wedding itself, just the reception. The event took place in the hotel’s grassy courtyard just beneath my second floor window.  I spied intently.

The bride and groom walked a center red carpet toward the Master of Ceremonies.  So far, not unlike an American wedding reception.  Then things veered quite differently: The happy couple began to dance down the carpet as did the wedding party following closely behind. The MC started a commentary that was beyond my comprehension – – it was in Chichewa.

A DJ keyed up a deafening and cacophonous techno beat that would have been better suited to the Saturday night disco.  The wedding party and other close friends surrounded the bride and groom,then ululated and bounced down the carpet.  The newlyweds reached the end of the carpet and turned to face the guests. When the music stopped the dancers threw money into the air and retreated to their seats.   The Malawian Kwacha fluttered to the lawn.

An army of young bill pickers scoured the lawn for the landed bills and took them to the money counters. A team of money counters separated the bills before tallying.  The small 20 kwacha bill is worth 4 US cents.  The largest bill, 1000 kwacha, has a value of $2.

The MC talked non-stop, inviting different groups to approach the happy couple – – bride’s friends, groom’s friends, work mates, church colleagues, and so on – – and toss money into the air. Occasionally the Chichewa talking MC would speak a phrase in English.  Several times I heard him say, “1000 kwacha,” Clearly an exhortation for big bills.

Once all the affiliated groups had been invited to throw money into the air, the MC encouraged other attendees, independent of group affiliation, to bounce forward and toss their bills skyward. Apparently, if you invite enough groups with enough people enough times, even the 4 cent bills will add up.

The wedding guests were dressed to the nines in this poor country.  They all have a super fancy outfit for such occasions; at least those who get invited to a wedding at a nice hotel have a super fancy outfit.  The ones who especially liked to show off their fine clothes and throw money made multiple visits to the appreciative newlyweds where they contributed several times to the bride and groom’s future.

This went on for two hours and then the reception suddenly ended.  Sort of a single activity celebration with an abrupt finish…but lucrative.  Now if only my agro inputs dealers could make money this easily…

Uncle Charley’s Booze Den

Last post I reported that the farmers of Mbiza Farmers’ Association (MFA) had achieved success by landing three new customers for their vegetable business. The preparation to raise their business capability, basic to most readers of this blog, was a new experience for them. We developed a telephone script for them to use when scheduling a visit to a prospective customer. The association members made mock cell phone calls to each other, taking on the roles of an MFA salesman and a target prospect.

They also developed and practiced their “One Minute Speech.” Back home we call this an “Elevator Speech.” No elevators here – – but the concept is the same: clearly and concisely tell your audience about your business in a span of time so short that they cannot get bored. And finally we jointly developed a form of questionnaire called “The Customer Needs Assessment.” The thought here is to determine what your customer needs, then address those needs. No sense in trying to sell him a tomato if he needs an onion. As it turned out the farmers readily mastered these new business tools and now have new skills and new customers.

After their successful sales visits, I was so happy for them, that once back at my hotel, I went for a celebratory jog. Mid afternoon in the African sun is not a good time to jog. A barefoot ten year old girl overtook me. That was embarrassing. In my defense, I was running uphill at the time. But I should add (with humility) that later, going downhill I did pass an elderly man carrying 100 pounds of firewood on his head.

Once finished with my assignment I began one week of travel in southern Malawi: Blantyre, the country’s commercial capital, Mulanje Mountain, third highest peak in Africa, and the piece de résistance, three days on Cape Maclear at the southern end of 365 mile long Lake Malawi. Cape Maclear is a national park and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has earned this distinction by virtue of its unsurpassed population of cichlids. Cichlids? Not tiny chickens, nor those small square pieces of chewing gum. Cichlids are the very colorful freshwater fish found in home aquariums. There are over five hundred species in the waters surrounding Cape Maclear. A local guide and I rowed a dugout mahogany canoe twenty five minutes to a rocky offshore island. Rocks, sandy beaches, depths all provide differentiated habitats for the many species of cichlid. Some have compared the differentiation of species here to Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos.

With a piece of bread in my hand I began my snorkeling transit of the waters. Each time I shed a small bit of bread a feeding frenzy materialized. Literally hundreds of fish would compete for the offering. I would release this tease just six inches in front of my mask, resulting in a neon rainbow of color. From shiny black to bright white, from solid silver to zebra, from vibrant orange to yellow to blue to purple. And of course, a multitude of patterns, stripes, and spots. The fish ranged in length from ½ inch up to six inches. As I changed local habitats (rocks to sand to depths) the collection of fish changed. The density of fish was remarkable, denser even than the time I fell into my wealthy neighbor’s aquarium. During the bread feasts I often could not see beyond the diners, they were that thick. And for some, the bread was not enough. Many nibbled at my arms and legs. No danger here, their mouths are tiny and they were just after a flake or two of dead skin. It was amusingly ticklish though. But the six incher who swam up from behind and took a bite of my armpit was a bit more aggressive than the others.

The day after my cichlid swim I took a long walk through Chembe village, my temporary home on Cape Maclear. I just love the slow pace of life in a traditional village: locals grinding corn, bringing tilapia in from the lake, mending fishing nets, and resting in the shade. I heard a bit of music playing in the distance so I followed my ears. Uncle Charley’s Booze Den, despite its upmarket moniker, turned out to be a hangout for degenerates. Around noon there were a handful of midday beer drinkers and several ladies of questionable repute hanging around. Also three pool tables where I got shellacked three times in four games. But the victors were gracious and the pace of the village on my penultimate day of travels was perfect.

Back for More Malawi

I knew I was back in Africa when I encountered the beggars, the honking cars, the sidewalk peddlers offering me handmade mops and used clothing; when I saw the roads choked with pedestrians and barely functioning bicycles. And I knew I was back in Malawi when the people greeted me warmly, asked if I had slept well, went out of their way to help me – – like the stranger who carried my suitcase from a provincial bus depot to the taxi ranks five blocks away. After all Malawi calls itself, “The Warm Heart of Africa”.

On this, my third visit, I am working in the south of the country, staying in Zomba, the original capital of British Nyasaland, modern day Malawi. It is said to be Britain’s most beautiful colonial capital: at the base of the nearly 7,000 feet high Zomba plateau, green hills, mahogany trees.

Hotel Masongola bills itself as Malawi’s most historic hotel, an 1886 colonial mansion. In its day, I suspect it was stunning. However it appears that it was last looked after late that same century. When I checked in: no toilet paper, no soap, no light bulbs, no curtains on my ground floor windows. A visit to the front desk brought these shortcomings under control, but yielded only one light bulb – – and of course a very warm smile.

Malawi faces some challenges. An estimated 42% of population live on less than $1 per day. Secondary school enrollment stands at less than 30% of those of secondary school age. 93% of population remains dependent on wood fuel.

The Mbiza Farmers’ Association (MFA) faces some challenges too. But theirs deal with the marketing of their crops. MFA grows seven vegetables – – tomatoes, onions, mustard greens, and more – – which they sell to middlemen at very low prices. The farmers knew how to grow crops, but they did not know how to market them, expand their business, fetch higher prices. I was asked by my NGO, CNFA, to provide marketing training, teach the farmers to write a marketing plan, and assist in efforts to find more customers. For example we considered calling on the district prison in Zomba, they have many mouths to feed. But the prison roof had blown off the day before I arrived, so management was preoccupied.

From Zomba, reaching the village of Mbiza and its farmers’ association required a very rough 1.5 hour drive over rutted, rocky, and muddy roads. All along the way the barefoot children walking to school in threadbare uniforms waved at the stranger driving through their countryside. I returned these waves so often my rotator cuff became inflamed. Fortunately I could use my other arm to point at the flip chart in my classroom.

I worked with the farmers in a mud brick meeting room with grass roof; the walls stopped two feet short of the roof to allow in some light and a bit of a cooling breeze. There was no electricity nor running water. But there was a dirt floor and benches for the association members to sit on. As usual, my lessons required an interpreter. Emmanuel spoke excellent English and Chichewa, allowing me to communicate with the farmers.

The day we arrived the farmers greeted us with two beautiful songs. The eight women were uninhibited, the sixteen men, more reserved in their singing. However when answering my questions about their farming business, the roles reversed. I did learn that every fortnight they deliver 220 pounds of mustard greens to a secondary school in Zomba via bicycle – – a 4.5 hour bike ride each way. Challenging logistics.

I introduced a market research tool to the association: the Yellow Pages. None of the members were familiar with the phone book. There are no landlines in the village. (I suspect many Americans under 30 who use only Google for research aren’t familiar with yellow pages either.) Incidentally, the Yellow Pages for all Malawi is only ¼ inch thick.

Rural African farmers are not perfectly punctual marketing students. When a man would arrive late, he would bow to me and shake my hand – – while I was in mid lesson. Then he would proceed around the room to shake hands with all of the punctual students. When a woman arrived late she would stand in front of me and courtsy. Quite precious, but pedagogically disruptive.

Ultimately the training paid off. My interpreter and I had secured several sales meeting for the farmers. At these meetings MFA was able to land a hotel, a wholesale buyer, and the district hospital as new customers. Prior to these meeting they had never made a visit to a prospective customer. This just goes to prove Woody Allen’s adage: “80% of success is just showing up.”

At the end of training the thank you speeches were never ending. All got into the act: village headsman, agricultural extension officer, MFA chairman, MFA secretary, a local government official, my NGO handler, my interpreter. And after all the speeches the farmers association gave me three very practical thank you gifts: a sack of beans, a live chicken in a bag, and a live dove in a box. If I can get them through US customs, I’ll have some of you over for dinner. Sorry, not all of you, I have only one chicken and one dove.

Monire fuma Mzuzu

I think Monire fuma Mzuzu means “Hello from Mzuzu” – – the town in northern Malawi where I am spending nearly three weeks. About one year ago I conducted a previous assignment in the central region of this warm and friendly country. So when CNFA (the Washington DC-based NGO I often work with) told me of this new assignment in the north of the country, I quickly accepted. The language I greeted you in is Chitumbuka, one of Malawi’s 14 indigenous languages. Last time around I memorized a few phrases of the country’s main language, Chichewa. Now I am able to mangle basic greetings in two languages, often mixing the pair without realizing it. The Malawians think I am a pretty funny guy.

The way to ask “how are you?” is a rhythmic little ditty, “Muli wuli” This is not to be confused with Wooly Bully (Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, 1965, Pen Records.) But I digress.

My assignment is to assist Green Shop, a relatively upmarket fruit and vegetable dealer, expand its business. This small company (six employees) does a fairly good business selling fresh organic produce out of its modest shop in the center of Mzuzu, third largest city in the country. The company also delivers to resort hotels along the shore of Lake Malawi – – this landlocked country’s inland sea, 365 miles long. Green Shop’s owner must rely on notoriously unreliable public mini-buses to transport produce to resort clients, some over 100 miles away. The hot, crowded mini-buses are packed with passengers well beyond the vehicles’ capacity. Extra passengers and excess baggage end up on top of Green Shop’s produce. These public busses stop frequently, sometimes due to mechanical or fuel problems. So, Green Shop delivery personnel often reach their resort customers late and with wilted and damaged produce. Generally, customers are not too keen on receiving produce in such state.

My task has been to help Green Shop acquire a loan in order to purchase a delivery truck. If only it were so easy. Green Shop owner, Bobby Joe Mlongoti, and I visited the two large local banks to learn that the interest rate on a small business loan ranges from 25% to 36% per year. With cost of capital so high, few businesses can afford to borrow. Compounding the challenge is that for the past several months, Malawi has suffered from a lack of foreign exchange (hard currency like the dollar and Euro) with which to import gasoline. Consequently, fuel is often unavailable – – the gas stations completely run out. Queues of vehicles form, some as long as a quarter mile in length, when rumor is spread of the expected arrival of a fuel tanker.

Due to the exorbitant interest rates asked by the banks – – I know a loan shark in downtown Boston who charges less – – we have given up on pursuing a loan. Instead we are now hot on the trail of a grant via a US government program to assist African countries. This grant entails completing a business plan and submitting a 10 page application. We are nearly finished, but will have to wait until the US government’s new fiscal year, October, to find out if Green Shop will get its grant. Meanwhile, it’s back to the mini-bus.

My work space while in Mzuzu has been in a corner of the Green Shop store, near the open double doors. There I can interact with nearly every retail customer who enters. The store is more like a large alcove with wooden boxes propped along the walls. The boxes are filled with fresh produce from the company’s farm. The store lacks refrigeration, so the green peppers, pineapples, leafy greens, carrots, tomatoes, and squash all sit in their boxes until purchased…or until they get tossed out once they are well past their peak attractiveness. Our grant application will also include a request for cold storage equipment.

Malawians are a particularly friendly people. Most who enter the store make a special effort to great the stranger sitting in the corner. Many ask my name, and surprising to me, have difficulty grasping “Bill.” I have been called Bir, Bull, and Bell. Some skip the challenge of learning my name and call me bwana or its English equivalent, boss. To me, both smack of colonial overload connotation, so I am not fond of either moniker. Muzungu (white man) is fine and is not pejorative, merely descriptive. One guy called me captain which many years ago I once was; so that too is fine. And as an American, I have been addressed as Obama, Bill Clinton, and most disturbingly, George Bush.

The Malawian names often follow a pattern I have observed in other African countries that are predominantly Christian. The pattern is to use names that connote a special attribute hoped for by the parents when the baby is born: Mercy, Gracious, Precious, Memory, Gift. The first reader who can select the single male name from the preceding five will receive a free annual subscription to this blog. Give it a try. One guy I met was named Finish, as in, “I am finished having children now.” On average, women have 5.43 children in Malawi. The most striking name I have heard is female, Why Do You Hate Me. Probably chosen by the mother in anticipation of her newborn daughter’s teenage years.

Today I took a very enjoyable Sunday walk on the dirt roads winding through Mzuzu’s rural fringe. The monkey and mongoose sightings were unlike my usual animal sightings at home. And the sounds of a choir pulsing from an open air church were inspiring. Let me just say, you haven’t heard singing until you have heard a Malawian hymn sung in Chitumbuka. And finally, the sole male name above is Gracious – – just like the people.

Do the Mamba

Malawi update – February 19, 2011

The drive to my work site in Dwangwa was 3 hours north from Lilongwe through some of the most verdant countryside I have ever seen. Even the Irish would have OD-ed on the multiple shades of green.

I am staying at the Kasasa Club. This is a country club of sorts, serving the surrounding South African-owned sugar plantation. Besides lodging, the club offers golf, tennis, squash, and a swimming pool. This is not actually as glamorous as it sounds, but it is certainly better than I expected in a poor African country. The rooms are well worn, but spacious…and due to mosquitoes, well screened to include a bed net. But the net at the tennis court is shredded beyond use and the surface is unplayable crumbling concrete. The swimming pool’s smooth milky surface is broken by floating leaves and floating bugs and also bugs that look like leaves. But all in all, it is in the upper echelon of places I have stayed in the rural 3rd world. The golf course is functional, so too bad I only play golf once a decade. I don’t consider golf a full fledged sport. What sort of sport is it where you can’t dive for the ball?

The staple food in Malawi is “nsima,” eaten at lunch and again at dinner, virtually 365 days a year. Nsima is congealed cornmeal porridge made by slowly adding corn flour, bit by bit, to boiling water. Nsima is done when the consistency is similar to that of partially congealed oat meal left unfinished in the bottom of your breakfast bowl.

Once it has reached this firmness, nsima is served, still piping hot, on a plate along with a protein dish. The proper way to eat it is with the right hand: break off a small portion, roll it into a ball, then using the natural stickiness of the of the corn porridge, pick up a bit of the side dish. My client runs a grinding mill and consequently he can always scrounge up a pot full of cornmeal to make nsima. He has taken to serving me a daily lunch of this staple dish along with chicken or freshwater fish as the accompaniment. The relative blandness of the unspiced, coagulated corn porridge goes well with a bit of poultry or fish in sauce.

But on Thursday I hit the jackpot: the combination plate. And I am not talking about the chicken/fish combo plate. Instead, he served me toasted flying ants and termites. Now, I know what you are thinking, “Sounds good except for the flying ant wings.” Well, the good news is that the wings get singed away during cooking (in a hot skillet over a charcoal fire.) Consequently, one gets a nice crunchy taste with a hint of natural saltiness. You may think I am just saying this, but the flying ant/termite dish was really good. Please email me back if you want to be invited to my next dinner party. Or not.

Back at the Kasasa Club after work that day, I skipped golf (as I have done every day for the past 10 years) and went for a long walk along the country roads. I saw my first black mamba. This is Africa’s longest – – and the world’s fastest – – venomous snake. It can move at a max speed of 12.5 mph. Had I known this beforehand I would not have been so cavalier to walk within 6 feet of it. I only learned this fact after visiting at the end of my walk. The website reports, “…without antivenin, a bite from this fearsome serpent is usually 100 percent fatal within 20 minutes.” But, this black mamba didn’t mess with me. After all, I eat flying ants.

Count Your Blessings

Malawi update – February 12, 2011

I have been on the job for one week now, working in Dwangwa, an agricultural trading center of about 20,000 people. This town is located in the central part of the country near the western shore of Lake Malawi. I am working with Tendai Poultry Feed. TPF is a very small company (five employees) that grinds corn, soy, and other grains, then mixes the grains along with vitamins into small pellets as feed for broiler chickens. They also make mash, sort of like muesli, as feed for laying hens. They sell this product in large 120 pound bags to local poultry farmers.

As in past international business gigs, my assignment is to introduce more modern business tools. In my first week I have helped TPF to track its sales and expenses in order to create a monthly income statement. Now for the first time they are able to discover at the end of each month if they have made a profit in the preceding 30 days.

And in order to increase the likelihood that they do make a profit, I have also helped TPF with a variety of marketing and sales activities. Together we have designed a small highway billboard. (While the highway is indeed small, I am referring to the billboard in this case.) We have also put together a program to distribute 2 pound sample bags of feed to prospective customers and have designed an appropriate accompanying label. In addition, we have created English and Chichewa handbills to post on telephone poles in the area.

One day last week, my translator and I rode a public minibus to the district capital to meet with the local radio station. We are crafting a radio ad. Any of you who have listened to rural radio in America’s heartland will know the tone of poultry feed ads: “Poultry farmers looking for high quality feed should know about Tendai Poultry Feed. We offer starter, grower, and finisher feed for broilers…” Those of you who have access to 101.9 FM in Malawi should listen to our new ad. You will need to have a basic understanding of Chichewa to fully appreciate it, however.

My translator’s name is Blessings Banda. While most people speak a modicum of English, for me to discuss topics beyond the social niceties, Chichewa is essential. And that’s where Blessings comes in. He also negotiates purchases for me so that I pay closer to the Malawian rate rather than the foreigner’s rate. And he is highly adept with document design software so that our handbills and sample bag labels look almost professional. For me, he is truly a blessing.

One experience I like to have on each of my assignments is to get a haircut. I don’t really know why I find this experience so enjoyable, but I do. Blessings took me to a barbershop on Dwangwa’s main street and passed on my instructions: clean up the back of the neck and around the ears; take no more than one quarter inch off the top and sides. The young barber seemed thrilled with his first white man’s haircut. Up until then he had cut only Malawian hair and virtually all Malawian men wear Michael Jordan-length hair. This is not my hairstyle. The young barber began joking and showing off to the ladies’ stylist, swooping the buzzing clippers over – – but slightly above – – my head. I felt obliged to ask Blessings to remind the theatrical barber to limit his removal to just one quarter inch. (Actually, I said one half centimeter – – about the same.) Fortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, the finished haircut was a fine one…perhaps in the top quartile of haircuts I have received during my lifetime. Beginners luck? And regarding value, at roughly 40 cents, easily in the top decile

And now a riddle: How many Malawians does it take to fill the back of a pick up truck? Let me answer that riddle in a round about way. After a productive first week, including a successful haircut, I treated myself to a weekend at nearby Ngala Beach Resort. Without my own transportation I elected to ride public transport along the highway alighting not more than a quarter mile from my weekend hotel destination. Public transport comes in many forms: comfortable large busses, crowded minibuses, and the alfresco ride in the back of a pickup truck. At the time I left, only the pick up truck option was available. At 86 cents for the 12 mile ride, I was quickly on board. (Compare that to the $55 taxi ride from my house to Boston’s Logan airport – – also 12 miles.)

I was among the first passengers to board so I chose a coveted seated position along the wall of the pick up bed. There were no benches so the other passengers and I perched ourselves on the narrow metal wall. Sort of uncomfortable, but still a seat, and my seat was next to the cab so that I would be able to enjoy the view as we motored along. As experienced elsewhere in the developing world, we waited until the pick up truck was full before departing. After 20 minutes waiting, and sitting on that narrow metal wall, my butt was getting pretty sore, but at least I had a coveted seat and the truck was nearing capacity.

The late arriving passengers could find no seat so they stood in the center of the bed. Now I want you to picture the first standing rider positioned next to the cab, he held on to the top of the cab. The next stander held on to him. The next in line held the passenger to his front, and so on. Ultimately we had a conga line of five standers. At highway speed, with the driver dodging the ubiquitous pedestrians and bicyclists, the final stander would essentially play a life and death version of crack-the-whip. Eventually, the truck could take no more, it was packed – – actually beyond capacity. So the answer to the riddle is that it takes 16 Malawians to fill the bed of a pick up truck. (Technically, 15 Malawians and one American.) We also had to fit in the contents of a small grocery store. One of the passengers had purchased enough foodstuffs in Dwanga to stock his store in Ngala.

The bed was so crowded that my body was bent in an unnatural position and my legs were twisted in a most uncomfortable way. But at least I had a coveted seated position. However, it turns out that 16 is not the correct answer to my riddle. Along the way we picked up more passengers. And a second grocery store. The number of passengers climbed. Some sitting on the metal sides, some perched on the bags and boxes of food, five forming the standing conga line, one mother on the pick up bed seated between standing legs while nursing her baby. It was so crowded that I was immobile and my twisted and tortured body could find no movement for relief. The only thing that took my mind off my increasing pain was the large bug that smacked into my cheek; I played the role of windshield for that bug. After my cheek stopped stinging my body pain returned.

In the developing world, low cost transportation is in great demand. And in case you are still curious, the correct answer to the riddle is 22. And that doesn’t count the two women and one infant in the cab with the driver. I think I’ll opt for the $55 cab ride next time.

Outcoached in Malawi

Malawi Update – February 6, 2011

Flying into the capital, Lilonge, one sees a patchwork of small fields growing corn, tobacco, soybeans, and much else. The great majority of people here are farmers – – many are subsistence farmers – – in this poor southeast African nation. Malawi’s GDP/capita ranks 219 out of 229 tracked in the CIA’s World Factbook. (A really interesting factbook even if you don’t intend to overthrow dictators. And anyway, Malawi is a democracy. )

The capital has one million inhabitants, but feels much less populated due to wide open fields and sparcely spaced low rise buildings throughout the city. I haven’t seen a building yet (on my first day) that resembles a skyscraper. But I did spend time in the open air marketplace: acres of open sided huts selling all sorts of used and inexpensive items: shoes, clothing, cell phones, hardware, as well as basic foodstuffs. I didn’t need any of the preceding so I merely wandered aimlessly throughout, to the chagrin of the hard working touts trying to unload their excess inventory of well worn shoes.

I was coerced into a game of checkers on a hand drawn checker board played with bottle caps. I thought I was pretty good at the game, but was whipped mercilessly by a guy in the market who apparently has more time to practice than I have. And besides he used a few trick moves that I was not aware of – – like a non-king that can jump in any direction and a king that can move the length of the board without stopping. But out of sportsmanship let’s just say I was outcoached.

Most shops and restaurants were closed today (Sunday.) This, like several other African nations, is a devoutly Christian country. (80% of the people are Christian, 13% Muslim, and the rest a mélange of other religions.) I did find the Green Restaurant open. I was the only lunchtime diner in this cavernous Chinese eatery. I assume that the Chinese have made substantial commercial inroads in Malawi just as they have in other African countries. Otherwise, what could account for a restaurant that can serve hundreds? The staff were recent immigrants from Hangzhou, China and spoke little English. When I told them I had recently visited China (an exaggeration – I was there in 1984) they were thrilled enough to turn on the Chinese language TV station for me.

I learned through experience (today) that diced chicken, Hangzhou -style, includes diced fat and diced bones and some diced meat. Waste not want not when you have 1.2 billion to feed. But apparently some of the 1.2 billion are here in Malawi. I passed the Shanghai Market, Wejian Shop, and China Weavers…all closed on this Sunday afternoon.

But enough about China, this report is on Malawi. I will spend 2.5 weeks here assisting a poultry feed factory improve its business reporting capabilities. After a briefing Monday morning here in Lilongwe, I will drive out to my work area in Dwangwa, an agricultural trading center, 170 miles northwest of here, near the shores of 365 mile long Lake Malawi. The country itself is landlocked, blocked from the Indian Ocean by Tanzania and Mozambique to the east. So Lake Malawi serves as its ocean, providing fish, steamer transportation, and beach tourism.

English is the official language and something like 90% of Malawians speak it…but not always coherently. I saw two guys beside the main street in Lilongwe, one holding a puppy, the other a kitten. Clearly the animals were for sale although they look suspiciously like strays to me. I approached the prospective pet sellers and asked the price. They answered in English that I did not understand. Perhaps $4 for the dog, less for the cat. And while English is the official language, Chichewa is the national language. I am not too sure of the difference between an official- and a national- language. If I sort that out before I finish my assignment I’ll report on it.

Let’s close with one more educational fact about Malawi. It is roughly the same size as Ohio. But Malawi is long and thin, and as you know from childhood, Ohio is high in the middle and round on the ends. Both this country and that state have about the same population: Malawi 14 million, Ohio 12 million. So until next report, think of Malawi as a very poor Ohio.