Peace Corps service allows for occasional cross-site visits with other volunteers if there is an educational or professional benefit. I recently was lucky enough to be granted such a visit which took me into the North of Malawi to the site of environmental volunteer Scott Tilton. Scott and I went through training together in Kasungu and share a few common interests. As we were talking I became interested in his environmental projects with community groups and students of a local secondary school.
Mzimba is about 4-5 hours north of the capital Lilongwe and it might as well be a foreign country because people here speak a different local language to the one I studied during training (Chichewa) called Chitimbuka. I was surprised how different the language is expecting only slight differences. However, to my relief people in the North seem to all know some Chichewa and most speak English rather fluently.
Thanks to Scott who introduced me to many people, including his counterpart, I had no problems feeling welcomed right away. An environmental volunteer’s work and schedule looks rather different to the one of an education volunteer. Projects are scheduled according to the local pace of the community and some of time is spent organizing, coordinating and conducting meetings with different entities.
During my visit I was lucky enough to meet with different community groups and 300 students of the local secondary school. I learned about permagardening, fence building, bee hive construction and placement, cook stove building, cooking demos to local food workers, and how to operate a tree nursery. I observed first-hand how local farmers organized to teach students their local skills in fence building and how materials and workers were transported from one location to the next.
Permagardening is a form of gardening that takes into consideration the large amounts of water that pour down during rainy season, traps them in the soil and makes them usable during the long dry spells in the months of hot season.
Fences in Malawi are often built out of sticks and corn stalks that have been left after harvest.
Tree nurseries have been a new-found interest by some Malawians and community groups since deforestation is a major reason for soil erosion, water shortages, and general changes in the ecosystem like loss of animal species. Malawians use mainly wood or charcoal to cook and illegal wood cutting is rampant. Planting trees is one way to mitigate the effects of deforestation and creating a renewable source of fire wood.
“Changa-changa-moto” cook stoves are build out of the local bricks and mud and are more fuel efficient than the traditional three stone fire places.
My favorite things to do here are riding a bicycle through the villages, helping to facilitate hands-on projects with the students, meeting community members, walking through my closest village late afternoon, having time to draw, hiking (and getting lost) in the nearby forest reserve, and eating Scott’s ever-so-delicious home cooked meals fresh from his fire place.