Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Hunger season

The planting season is over, the maize is growing in people’s gardens, and we are now waiting anxiously for harvesting time. It’s still a couple of months away, and maize is running short. This is the hunger season.

People walk the 15 km to Ntchisi town where they queue in front of Admarc, the government agency, to buy maize flour at triple prices; then, when they finally reach the front of the queue, there’s often nothing left. It’s the same every year.

We’re going into town tomorrow in the truck to see if we can persuade Admarc to sell us half a tonne of maize for our staff. They reckon a white face might make that vital difference.

A long absence

I’ve been terrible with my blog for months now. Trips to Lilongwe have been hectic, shopping for building materials and supplies and with no time left for typing up blog entries in internet cafes. But now the big development has come: we are connected to the internet, here in the middle of the bush. So I’m posting a couple of entries to make up for my long absence.

There’s too much to catch up on to cover here. Renovations were a fast and furious two months of plastering, plumbing, painting, planting and panicking, interspersed with putting together new dishes for the restaurant.

We got there, just in time, and, assisted by a brilliant local carpenter, even managed to furnish the place with entirely home-made furniture (my blue gum tables came out stunning, by the way).

Since then we’ve had a surprising number of guests for rainy January, and everybody seems to have been very happy with their stay here. It gives quite a nice rhythm to the working week. A couple of very long, hectic days of cooking and entertaining guests, followed by a few quiet days of enjoying the view from the terrace, walking our new puppy in the forest, and catching up on further renovation work with the staff.

Harold is a new addition to the lodge. Obviously he’s part Great Dane and also has a bit of African ridge-back thrown in. He certainly has lots of personality – he’s the most stubborn creature I’ve ever encountered – and loves chewing my slippers.

So I’m settling in quite well here in the bush. I can sit for hours on the terrace, enjoying the clear views after a shower, listening to the cacophony of birds in the late afternoon or the strange sounds of the forest at night.

Last night we had a hyena quite close by, howling and growling, which rather unsettled Harold, who’s still small enough to make an appetising hyena snack.

In the mornings, after a night of rain, I go down on the path below the garden, where red duikers and serval cats often leave the clearest footprints in the soft, silty ground. The serval has had a pup with her lately, which is nice to see, even if people in the village worry about their chickens.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Taking over the lodge

The first week we had no forks, but I suppose that was very Malawian, in a way. It was great waking up the first morning and walking through the empty building, finally its master!

The staff have been absolutely fantastic, and I hope they don’t think we’re too weird. We’re also getting used to their ways, and changing a few habits, I’m afraid. The first evening, Kenneth had the duty as night watchman, and we were trying to figure out what to do with the keys when locking up at night as we had cut down James’ ridiculous working hours so he wouldn’t be at work in the morning before Kenneth left.

James had just gone home, and Kenneth felt he needed his advice, so he shouted at him down the mountain, where James could hear him a few kilometres away.
- ‘JUST LEAVE THEM ABOVE THE DOOR, THEN I KNOW WHERE TO FIND THEM WHEN I ARRIVE,’ James shouted back across the valley. Security certainly isn’t a big issue on the mountain; nevertheless, we found it best to change the system slightly...

These first few weeks, we’ve been working hard on the renovations, sanding windows, repairing door frames, holes in the walls and god knows what else. I’ve also started teaching James a few new recipes, and my mum is in full swing with the kitchen garden.

Lots to do and little time, but hopefully we’ll get there in the end. The official opening day is supposed to be 15th December, and I think we’ll make it, just. Next step is making furniture, which I hope we have enough time for, so we’ve started cutting up a couple of giant blue gums that the previous owner cut down in the garden. I reckon some disks from these trees will make nice table tops, but we’ll have to see if they crack.

Thursday, 18 October 2007


We’ve just come back from the shopping trip of our lives. Two weeks in Johannesburg, zooming up and down the highways between one soulless shopping mall after another. The South Africans love shopping malls, where you can buy anything from zebra biltong to spray-on mud (for those who like to look cool after a weekend pretending to be in the bush). We focused on slightly different things, though, as we have lots of mud and dust of our own.

The coolest purchase was a wind turbine which will supply us with enough power to run fridges, freezers, laptops, etc, and is more environmentally friendly and certainly cheaper than getting hooked up to mains electricity – Escom gave us a quote of an astonishing US $84,000, at which we smiled politely and walked out. And it’s nice to think that we now won’t have any bills to worry about: the wind and the spring on the mountain will supply us with everything we need.

We also managed to get all our white goods, and a load of beautiful fabric for curtains, cushions, bed covers and the like, while the African Crafts Market supplied us with some great camel-hair Algerian rugs and Congolese wall hangings. Now we just need the local pottery lady to makes us some pots, and a few Malawian carvings. It’s nice to begin to be able to picture how the lodge will look.

On Tuesday the lodge is ours [ed: this was written a week ago]. I can’t wait to get started on the work. Though we’re starting out with borrowed pillows and a camping stove, I’m sure we’ll get it kicked into shape before too long; we’re hoping to open up in mid-December. Bookings taken now for Christmas!

Sunday, 9 September 2007

A Malawian Week

Monday: We drove up to Ntchisi town, where we had a few appointments before going the rest of the way to the lodge. We were supposed to meet the local director of the electricity company, and to look at a truck for sale. Neither of them showed up. We went to the lodge and spent the afternoon taking measurements for new windows. Had a nice evening in front of the fireplace with a glass of wine.

Tuesday: We tested the cob oven with its first lot of home-baked buns, and they came out really well. We enjoyed the hot buns with jam and peanut butter with the staff. Also went to test our home-made solar heater for hot water. It was leaking last time we were there, so we covered it in silicone and left it to dry. But when we tried to move it back into the sun, the silicone broke off, and we were back at square one. However, the water that leaked out of the other side of the solar heater was significantly warmer than that which went into it, so at least that means it’s partially working. We were waiting for Jean to show up in the evening to talk to her about payment for the lodge, but she didn’t come.

Wednesday: Packed up and went to Ntchisi town to meet the electricity director again. He wasn’t there. Outside the office, there was a guy selling small, sparrow-sized birds (shaft-tailed wydahs – we looked them up) for eating. He said they were delicious. I’d like to try them – they eat sparrows in France as well after all. Got to Lilongwe at lunch-time, where we met Obey, our mechanic friend from Ntchisi. He took us to the army barracks to look at a truck for sale, a strange and slightly scary place. We met the Brigadier General, a very friendly semi-retired old guy who had been in the army for the last forty years His truck looked good and the price was reasonable so we told him we’d be back the next morning.

Thursday: Went back to the barracks to close the deal with the Brigadier General. Then went to the National Road Traffic offices to get the paperwork done – change of ownership, renewal of licence, roadworthiness certificate, etc. Spent the whole rest of the day sat there in the heat waiting. In the evening went to a bar in town where we’d been told the owners were big fans of Ntchisi and had wanted to buy it but only found out too late it was for sale. Spoke to the wife, Scottish, who was really nice; sounds like they’ll be regular customers.

Friday: Back at Road Traffic offices. Spent the whole day there waiting in the heat. At lunch-time went to speak to a builder who’s given us a ridiculously high quote and told him so. He brought it down to half; we told him to think about it a bit more and ring us next week. Back to waiting at Road Traffic. Went briefly to the Ministry of Tourism at the end of the day to follow up on our application for a duty waiver for goods when we go shopping in South Africa in a few weeks’ time. Were told that we had to produce the exact prices and number of items we’d buy and that they had to fit with the receipts when we produced them at the border; otherwise we couldn’t get a duty waiver. How can you possibly know exactly what you will buy in South Africa and how much it costs before you actually go there and look in the shops? Were also told we needed a licence for tourism to go with the application (last time we went to check up, they told us we needed something entirely different), so we filled in the form. But unfortunately the guy who writes the receipts was out, so we couldn’t get a receipt. I refused to pay and left, will have to go back Monday. Had a take-away pizza and a few drinks in the bar and went to bed exhausted.

Saturday: Decided we needed a day off and I spent most of it reading some book about philosophy. Went out for dinner with a Danish couple we’ve met and had all in all a really nice, relaxing day.

Sunday: Wrote this, then looked through our accounts and various other spreadsheets. Started a new list for next week, which involves taking builders to the lodge, going to timber plantations to see if we can get wood for the new roof, chasing the duty application again, speaking to the tax authorities, etc, etc…

Building a cob oven

Day 1
The day started out sunny and on my walk around the garden just after sunrise I spotted a beautiful little Southern Collared Sunbird skipping from branch to branch in one of the wild plum trees. The weather was boding well for our first ever cob experiment, a bread-baking oven.

Kenneth told me it would be far too far for us to walk to the home of the local pottery lady. On quizzing him further, however, it turned out to be about two kilometres, and, despite the fact that a white lady obviously shouldn’t walk such an appalling distance on foot, we set off with the haggardy old wheelbarrow to fetch clay.

Only the pottery lady’s stoned old husband was at home, and it took a fair few ‘hello’s and ‘excuse me’s of increasing volume before he woke out of his drug-infused mid-morning slumber. Once awake and more or less functioning, and despite numerous interruptions of the giggles, he finally managed to show us around his compound.

His wife fetched the clay from a riverbed down the hill and worked up pots by hand before burning them on a fire behind the compound. His personal role in the household seemed confined to chamba-smoking and mid-morning and –afternoon naps.

I bought a large pot and his wife’s full stash of clay very cheaply for 500 kwacha, which produced another giggling attack before the old man happily collapsed on the stamped earth and returned to his previous occupation.

After lunch Christian and I started breaking down an old brick wall which is due to be pulled down anyway. Despite the midday sun, we made steady progress with our hammers and chisels, and within an hour we had enough recyclable bricks for our cob oven foundations. Most of them were of shockingly inferior quality, but they would serve their new purpose well enough. Meanwhile, the guys returned from the forest with bucketfuls of good, grainy sand.

Getting the guys involved in mixing cob mixing with their feet made for an entertaining afternoon, and I’m still not sure if they thought it was quite a normal thing to do or completely mad. But they seemed to take a keen interest in my cob-building book and the drawings of the oven that would soon rise from the earth.

We managed to finish the brickwork for the foundations on day 1, using cob as mortar (a touch I haven’t read about in the book, but we didn’t have any cement – I wonder if it will work). Tomorrow morning Kenneth will visit Father Chamba and get some more clay, which will hopefully be enough for the rest of the oven.

Day 2
Lefson is a very quiet man, especially in English. In fact I thought for a long time that he didn’t speak any English at all, and I used a translator whenever I spoke with him. But it soon turned out that his English is very good. During the cob building process, which clearly had caught his imagination by now, he would break his habitual silence and start asking lots of questions about the cob mix, how the oven would work, and whether we were really going to build our own house from this stuff. He’s a thorough guy and has shown a lot of care and interest in this project, which has been a real pleasure to see.

Kenneth arrived with more clay, and we all happily started mixing another load of cob from sand and clay and formed little balls that we used to build up the oven on top of my large half-ball of sand that would be used to hold the shape until the cob was dry. But when we were about to start mixing the outer layer – the straw-rich mix – I got a few doubting, even shocked, looks, and I’d clearly lost them for a bit.

I even started getting worried myself, for the straw we used was old thatch, with stems so thick and hard that they cut the hands and feet to shreds. And the damn things wouldn’t mix with the clay. But the breakthrough came suddenly, after some tense, coordinated tarp-pulling, and we suddenly had a coherent and really strong mix. Everyone had come round, it seemed, from the looks on their faces.

We all had a coke – clearly not something they had experienced before from an employer either – and finished building up the oven with the last of the mix. Unfortunately we just fell short of cob mix, and I was most disappointed to have to leave our unfinished work for the day, but decided that a hot shower would be welcome. I had rarely been that dirty, and that’s saying something.

Perhaps it was fate, but the water was not yet hot at six o’clock, and I was impatiently circling the Rhodesian donkey to check on the fire under the hot water drum. It was starting to get cold as well, but my thorough coating of mud prevented me from putting on a jumper.

And then suddenly, as dusk was falling, Mika, our 14-year-old orphaned holiday helper, arrived with clay. Christian and I obviously jumped at it, and in our rush to get the mix finished while there was still a trace of light in the sky, we ended up smothered in clay from head to foot. The oven was soon completed by the aid of a couple of candles, and then we were so ready for the hot shower!

The big test
Before leaving Ntchisi and Christian going home to Denmark, we made a beautiful door for the cob oven from a half ‘slice’ of a tree trunk, with a home-made handle on it. But unfortunately we had to leave the cob oven to dry, until earlier this week when we came back to test it.

It had cracked a bit, both the inner and outer layers. I guess we must have put too much clay in the mix? I made a big deal out of the test with the staff and subsequently got really worried that the thing wouldn’t work. But after having the fire burning for a couple of hours, the oven seemed to stay hot nevertheless. The buns went in, and 20 minutes later we had beautiful hot rolls for everybody! All in all a successful first experiment.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Malawi Moods

On the odd day everybody becomes pessimistic. Then you see the poverty, the kids with extended bellies, the corruption and disorganisation in government, the incessant power cuts, the people who always want money from you for one thing or another, the so-called drivers on the roads who have bought their licences in a shop and endanger all the rest of us, the schools with no books, the bush fires and lack of understanding of the environment, the fact that everything takes forever to get done, the lack of blue cheese and decent red wine.

But 99 percent of days are good. Then you see the happy smiling faces that greet you everywhere you go, the people that take time to talk to each other and to greet strangers, the lack of stress, the beauty of flowers, birds, mountains and lakes, the kids jumping up and down with excitement when they wave to you as you drive past, the freedom to do anything you want in the world, the great weather, the bustling markets, the dancers in the villages who with their abilities could join any international circus, the wealth of projects and subjects to indulge in, from solar power to botany and oral literature.