Christmas Abwino

I woke up this morning just after 6 to a loud crack and looked out the
window and saw a security guard high up in a tree across the street
snapping off branches for firewood. This is definitely going to be a
unique Christmas.

With no extended family, with the heat, with a minimal amount of
presents, with a lot of things I can blame on Malawi - the Christmas
spirit is very elusive. I know Christmas is about Jesus and I look
forward to church, and to reading Luke with Claudia, and particularly
talking about the cultural context of Jesus' birth (I just finished
Thomas Cahill's wonderful Desire of the Everlasting Hills and Claudia is
reading the Philip Yancey's The Jesus I Never Knew so we have lots of
material) - but I am doubtful that we can create that special Christmas
feeling here. That said we are going to try! We have a printout of
Christmas songs, a turkey brining in the fridge, and most of all we have
each other.

In case you missed it, below is a copy of our annual Christmas Letter. Merry Christmas!

Christmas Letter Small.pdf

Christmas Tensions

One of my best friends, Adam McHugh has recently started a blog and I think it is well worth reading. He is a pastor ministering at the Claremont Colleges (where Claudia and I as well as Adam all went) and is doing some really profound writing. My only question is whether or not he can keep up this high quality high - quantity output. His Christmas as counter culture post is a great place to start.

The mountain man and the surgeon

Great article in the economist comparing a poor American with a Congolese doctor.

When Americans hear the words “poor” and “white”, they think of someone like Mr Banks. He has half a dozen cars in varying states of disrepair parked outside his trailer, car-parts everywhere and a pile of crushed Pepsi cans below his porch.

...thousands of miles away in central Africa, there lives a prominent surgeon whose monthly income is roughly the same as his. Mbwebwe Kabamba is the head of the emergency department at the main public hospital in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Paint by number

So yesterday I spent some more time working on my Mondrian website. I love writing code that generates code - which is how I made the example I posted yesterday. Yesterday, as I moved closer to getting something I would actually deliver to a client I began to realize something about beauty that Mondrian's art illustrates powerfully.

Before I get to that point though, I have to confess that I have never taken an art appreciation class. My ability to understand, critique and enjoy fine art is mostly the result of one book: Mona Winks by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw.

Mona Winks is a book that made the museums of Europe knock me over with their profundity. Like the Rick Steves travel books, Mona Winks helps you narrow your focus. It selects and helps you find the greatest hits of the greatest museums like the Louvre, the Prado, and the Vatican Museum. Once you have narrowed to the best of the best, the book explains what makes them so great. But perhaps most importantly the book links the pieces together, explaining the progression of technique, history and context that have resulted in something that often changed the world. With a bit of practice and preparation I have found that I can now do the same in museums that Mona doesn't cover, like the Getty in LA.

Mona carries you pretty well from Egypt to the renaissance and into the impressionists. It has a section on modern art as well, but it didn't do much for me. Pianos on the ceiling, a couch on top of a TV playing videos of people moaning, a box in the middle of the room - all of these still baffle. I understand modern art as a response to modern technology and short attention spans, but it is very hard to categorize or appreciate.

Which brings me back to Mondrian. Mondrian is abstract - most of his work is straight black lines with primary colors filling in the rectangles created by these lines. You can't call it beautiful like a Boticelli face, or powerful like a Michaelangelo sculpture, or emotional like a Van Gogh impression. Mondrian explains:

I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness.

After spending all day with lines and color combinations I have discovered a definite almost unexplainable beauty that can emerge from them. My Mondrian generator creates random lines and fills in random rectangles with random primary colors. But many are boring, some are ugly and a few are beautiful. With the realization of this spectrum of generated images that are all Mondrian-esque I can finally enjoy what Mondrian was up to. He probably anticipated a day when machines would create random imitations of his work - but he figured out how to build a very human inspired beauty from the seemingly random.

Random Mondrian

And now for something completely different. A client recently asked for a Piet Mondrian look and feel for some work I was doing for him. I don't think I will use this, but I created a randomly generated Piet Mondrian lookalike. Every reload gives you a new one!

Narnia and Malawi

Apparently Narnia is experiencing a bit of a revival thanks to Hollywood. I love CS Lewis's books and my wife and I have recently reread most of the Narnia series. In Oxford we visited his house and even considered living in it for a while. But it was a bit out of the way, so instead I just drank ale at the pub where he, JRR Tolkien and some other buddies used to meet to share their stories with each other.

Last week we gave The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to Delato our night guard to read. He loves to read, but books are shockingly expensive here (like 30USD for a paperback), so he doesn't have much to read. Since it is a children's book we figured the book wouldn't be too difficult for him.

He seems to be enjoying it, but he is kind of upset about all of the magic in the book. He is Christian, and in Malawi this means rejecting ideas of magic, witches, spells and the like. Of course the irony is that Narnia is a thinly veiled Christian allegory, and Lewis is one of the greatest Christian theologians ever (check out Mere Christianity). Aslan represents Jesus, and Aslan sacrifices himself to atone for Edward's wrongdoing. But I am afraid that Delato doesn't see this - he just sees a story about a magic talking Lion battling evil witches. He probably heard similar stories growing up in his village, but with warnings about so and so village being where the witch lives or "that is why you must never kill a Lion". In fact, Temwa (Claudia's colleague) recently had to cancel her holiday because her niece has been accused of being a witch. Temwa has to go to the village to support her niece, and prove that her niece isn't a witch. Temwa (Aslan?) says that often it is the accusers of witchcraft that are the witches themselves, and she aims to confront them.

In other words you can't mix Christian concepts of redemption with talking animals and good magic without really confusing Malawians. It will be interesting to talk to Delato after he finishes it and determine if he noticed any of the Christian themes.

Logistics of famine relief

Truckloads of emergency relief supplies are maybe two weeks away, Mr Patel tells this village — bags of vitamin-enhanced maize, dried beans and cooking oil. And the bad news? There is not enough for everyone who needs it.

Mr Patel asks these uniformly impoverished people, who live in mud huts, to choose who among them will be fed — to nominate the neediest of the needy. Of about 5000 households in this community, little more than 1000 will get food.

Link to full article

Manna from heaven or bird flu?

Last week some villagers discovered a hill full of thousands of dead
birds. It is the hungry season, so people rejoiced at the manna from
heaven. Samples have been sent to South Africa for testing, but this
could be very bad news indeed.

Dozens of villagers used pails to collect the fork-tailed drongos,
which range through much of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, in
preparation for "feasting on mysterious manna from heaven," Wilfred
Lipita, the country's director of animal health, was quoted as saying in
news reports. A Malawi newspaper, The Nation, reported that one resident
was found with 700 of the birds and that one dead bird appeared to have
been banded in Israel. Officials warned residents not to eat the birds
because of the risk that the flu virus might be present. In most of the
human cases reported in Asia, the disease was contracted while preparing
fowl for slaughter or by handling infected birds. The flock of birds
died in Ntichisi Province, about 125 miles east of Malawi's
administrative capital, Lilongwe.

From an an
article NY Times
. A more in depth article.

And in case that news wasn't bad enough for you, 11 people were killed
at a church when lightning struck the building this weekend. link


My biologist friend Amanda (who runs Children in the Wilderness and whose husband works directly with wildlife saving groups in Malawi), says this was almost certainly a poisoning by hungry villagers. Perhaps you are thinking that poisoning the food you are going to eat is a bad idea. And you would be right.

HIV/AIDS education in Malawi

Billions of dollars are being spent to change behavior in Africa and stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. A lot of work still needs to be done. For instance, a small survey of middle class Malawians revealed that about 20% think that you can catch HIV/AIDS by sitting next to someone. So when I saw this picture from Geeta's visit to World AIDS Day celebrations:

I couldn't help but think that there is still a long long ways to go.

Gates Foundation gives grant to Opportunity International

This is great news:

Opportunity International, one of the world's largest microfinance organizations, today announced that it received a $2.2 million grant over three years from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that will go toward a project to develop a trans-African network of new commercial banks for the poor. In addition, the project will reach underserved rural residents, offer credit for working out of poverty, provide savings and insurance for protecting assets, train in business and HIV/AIDS prevention, and encourage women's empowerment.


On safari at our house

It has been a while since I wrote anything about what has been happening
in our garden so I thought would provide an update. The big news is the
rains have arrived, and within 48 hours the entire country has turned
from hazy brown to a clear green. It is quite amazing actually. Perhaps
the most amazing thing are the flying ants. They are dormant for like 9
months, then about an hour before the first rain started they began
emerging from holes in the ground at a staggering rate. Somehow they
know exactly when the rains will start, and all fly out at once. As soon
as they emerged we had about 30 birds swooping and catching them in mid
air. All of this was happening right outside my office and I was
fascinated. I went outside and took some videos, but they are too big to

"A plague on both your houses!" A few hours later when it was dark, the
air was full of a different flying insect, more like a small brown
grasshopper with 4 wings. There were about 50 crawling on each window,
and quite a few made it into the house as well.

I think it is pretty wasteful to water grass in a country when people
are complaining of draught, hence some of our grass died this winter/dry
season. Our gardeners are now replanting it piece by piece. In America
you buy a truck full of sod - grass and dirt that you just unroll and
instantly you have thick healthy grass. Here, they transplant it, blade
by blade.

We have been eating very well from our garden. Tomatoes, onions, green
peppers, chili peppers, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, maize,
carrots and tons of herbs too. Also, our four huge mango trees are full
of mangoes that are just ripening. If anybody has some good recipes for
what to do with bucketfulls of mangoes please share!

Boy George (our lizard like creature that is definitely not a chameleon)
now has some new friends (children? lovers?) and he scurries all over
our lawn.

I also found a real chameleon crossing the street while I was cycling,
so I brought him home and named him Karma. They are incredible
creatures. I placed him into some plants next to where we have breakfast
and he instantly blended in and disappeared. We also have Amp, our
tailless yellow lizard who likes to watch us while we eat lunch.

I can't remember if I blogged about the tarantula that we found in the
kitchen. Claudia's eyes moved to just behind and above me and got really
really big. It was straight out of a horror movie. Lazaro our gardener
found him near the beer the next morning and squashed him.

There are also number of bats in our attic that squeak us to sleep, and
large cockroaches which seem to feast on guano, swim in our hot water
tank and then die in the midst of their gluttony. It certainly adds a
unique set of minerals to our baths.

Stories from the Malawi blogger meetup

I just got back from the first Malawi blogger lunch. It was great! Five of us showed up: Geeta, Jesse, Soyapi, Tess, and me. We shared a number of what I will call meta-blog stories - stories resulting from from our blogs and how people have responded to them. Tess was fairly freaked out to know that people besides her family and friends read her and Jim's blog (Geeta had brought her along). While most of the blogs started out as ways to communicate to people back home, Soyapi's is different and more directed at Malawians in the IT sector. Regardless, we all had experienced a moment (I think Tess was experiencing it during the lunch) when we realized that complete strangers were reading our blogs. It is a terrifying and exciting thing and for better or for worse it changes how and what you blog. The challenge is to continue being yourself and sharing whatever is on your mind, even if that means freaking out family, being controversial or revealing just how boring your life really is. This led to an interesting discussion about free speech, and criticizing the government and whether or not we feel free to do it. Geeta shared a fascinating story about a guy whose email was intercepted in Zambia. In the emails he had criticized the government to some friends back home and told his Mom his username and password for his Yahoo account. Since he was talking about passwords the government accused him of being a spy and deported him!

It was also great to just hang out with some geek minded people. At one point Soyapi was telling us about some Malawi specific Firefox extensions he had written, and he said, "you know Firefox?" - and everybody enthusiastically said "YES!"

We are hoping to make it a regular event, perhaps once a month or so. There are a lot more bloggers in Malawi that need to meet!

Solar powered mobile phone towers

It looks like a solar powered mobile phone tower has been developed and deployed in Malawi.

The solar-powered base station does not rely on either mains power or a diesel generator for back-up, so each site will be significantly cheaper to operate and maintain.

The design is also environmentally friendly.

Above all, the solar powered sites give operators the freedom to place sites wherever they want, rather than where the local infrastructure is available, says Moolman.

If I only knew where Chiringa was I could go and take some pictures!

This must be some sort of mesh network though right? Otherwise they would have to place the tower where there is some sort of wired network coverage. Are mobile phone towers usually configured as a mesh network?


Stories from a maternity hospital in Malawi

I have two good friends who work at the maternity hospital here in
Lilongwe: Deb Lewis and Joanne Jorissen. Both of them are selfless,
dedicated people with some amazing stories. They work at Bottom
Hospital, which is a great name for a maternity hospital. That is, until
you learn that it was named in relation to top hospital, which was the
hospital for white people. Bottom hospital was where the black people
went. Top hospital no longer exists (white people mostly go to South
Africa when they need serious care), but Bottom hospital continues to
churn out 12,000 babies a year with just four doctors. Malawi's maternal
mortality rate is rising, according to the latest WHO report Malawi
is the third highest in the world, and could be number one if it continues to increase.

From Deb:

i've been working in the labor and delivery suite, which consists of 15
or so beds, separated by flimsy plastic curtains, and a slew of nursing
and clinical officer students supervised by too few midwives, a couple
of clinical officers and NO doctors. one may pop in and out occasionally but is usually tied up with the real emergencies. the women bring their
own black plastic garbage bag to deliver on, as well as their own bucket
if they're rich enough and rags to clean up with and wrap themselves and
their baby. the first day i was there i was helping clean up a woman and
threw out the garbage bag filled with poop, blood, membranes, amniotic
fluid and one of her rags. big no-no, since she'll wash the bags and
rags out and use them again...for a tablecloth, the next delivery, but
likely not her trash.
today was crazy. i delivered a little baby boy this morning and was
feeling quite excited about it. then i went to check on an 18yo
[first time mother] who seemed to be in quite distress. of course i
can't understand anything she's saying or communicate back, but she
hugged my neck and i tried my best to give some moral support while i
found a translator. it's weird because it's not like there aren't people
around, it's just that it seems hard to find someone when you need them.
there are a number of students and nurses hanging about, but there just
seems to be no real system for monitoring patients. it seems you pick
up a chart (we only recently got actual charts), maybe check for a
couple contractions, and then move on. so anyways, i found out my lady
needed to pee, and since she was quite far dilated someone told me to
put in a foley catheter, which is a very scary thing here since the
environment is just NOT sterile so who knows how many bugs are given a
free ride to the bladder. so while i was bemoaning the sterility
factor and helping marijn (the dutch student) insert the catheter, a baby pops out on the bed across from us. yes, number two baby in less than a week that i've seen delivered with NO HELP! poor shelia with her full bladder had to wait, while we ran over to see about the baby, cut the cord and deliver the placenta. marijn took the baby to the resuscitation station which consists of a bag and mask ventilator with a bad seal, suction (but no proper tubes to suction with), and oxygen, with again no good tubes. there are no nasal cannulas and basically you have to stand there and hold the end of the tube in the baby's nostril. the little guy was okay, and just as i was inspecting the mom for any tears, a girl starts pushing, which wouldn't be such a strange thing in a labor ward, except that she's by herself and she's ON THE FLOOR! that's right, no beds. she delivered about 30 minutes later, still on the floor, a healthy little boy.

shelia eventually got her bladder emptied and she later delivered by
vacuum, which i didn't do. i called the clinical officers over about
another patient, who they took for c-section due to fetal distress.
again, this is by listening with not much more than a plastic cup and a
sporadic doppler.

later i washed all the suction and oxygen tubes with soap and water, no
chlorine or disinfectant to be found, so you can imagine how clean they
actually got...

From Joanne:

Last week I spent one afternoon with Sakina, a very sweet and absolutely
terrified 19-year-old who was pregnant with her first baby. She was
having a difficult labor but refused all vaginal exams. After much time
spent trying to calm her, she allowed me to check her cervix... Before I
left around 6, I told the nurses and clinical officers ... to be gentle
with her.

When I returned two days later I found out that she had refused a
section early in the night, a vacuum had been performed at 3am, and then
finally she consented to a section the following morning. Her baby boy
was born around 6am but his journey into the world was too difficult for
him to bear and he died just a few hours later. I was so upset. Yes, it
is possible that she stubbornly refused the section after the best of
counseling, and yes, the clinical officer who attempted the vacuum is a
kind person. But, it was incredibly difficult for me to imagine that she
allowed someone to do a vacuum (which in this setting involves inserting
a metal cap that is 4-5cm in diameter into her vagina), considering it
took several minutes just for her to allow me to touch her with two
fingers. It was also difficult to imagine that she would refuse a
section if she truly understood what was at stake, and believed that it
was a necessity not a threat. Possible, yes, but difficult to imagine. I
have seen women held down and threatened, and the vivid horrible
memories flooded my mind. After visiting her in postnatal, seeing her
silent tears, empty arms, and recent cut, I had a tearful conversation
with Tarek about the situation. He listened, tried to help me see this
one woman in the greater context of the Hospital and health care here,
reminding me that things are improving but also saying that at present,
the whole of Bottom Hospital is a human rights' violation.
A couple weeks ago the charge nurse (the only clinically practicing
registered nurse in the entire hospital) told me, "Joanne, I hope that
when you go back to your country you will tell them how hard we work.
People are always coming here and then saying horrible things about
Malawi and our work here." I'm sure she would count my blog among those
horrible things. So let me say now, that the nurses and midwives here
work HARD. That is the truth. There is no one who sits and chats the day
away. These women do work.

Bloggers in Malawi Meetup

This Saturday will be the first official meetup for bloggers in Malawi.
If you have a blog and live in Malawi (or are just passing through)
please come! Pass on the word. We will be having lunch at Mama Mia's in
Old Town Mall at 12:30pm. A map is available here:

Map to Mama Mia's in Lilongwe

Here are the mostly active bloggers in Malawi that I know of:

See you there!

(thanks to Soyapi for tracking these)

Reversing an ssh connection

Update: I have now created a script to automate setting up a persistent reverse ssh tunnel.

One of the nice features of VNC is that you can reverse a connection. If you are behind a firewall (or a router doing NAT) that doesn't allow incoming connections, VNC allows you to connect to a "listening server". As soon as a connection is established to the listening server, the "listener" gets a regular VNC connection back to the originating box.

Last Friday, I figured out how to do the same thing and reverse a connection with ssh.

I'll lay out the process first, and then talk about the applications and implications afterwards.

The simple approach:

Assume we have two machines. A firewalled server at work and your laptop. You can't connect to the server at work because all incoming connections are blocked by the firewall. So you ask Pete (who is at work and behind the firewall) to login to the server and then ssh to your laptop with the following command:

ssh -f -N -R 10000:localhost:22 username@ip_address_of_laptop

This creates an ssh connection from the work machine to the laptop. the -f and -N are basically cosmetic options. The -R 10000:localhost:22 option causes the laptop to listen on port 10000 and forward any requests on that port to the work machine (this is basically ssh tunneling).

So now, you can ssh to port 10000 on your laptop and you will actually be sshing to port 22 on the firewalled server:

ssh username@localhost -p 10000

(you will have to use your username and password for the server - despite it looking like you are logging onto localhost)

An ugly but effective hack to get rid of Pete:

To get rid of Pete you could setup a cron job on the server that attempts to connect to your laptop every hour. You would have to setup passwordless logins (using public_key authentication), but then you would know that if you needed to get on the server you could just make sure your laptop was on and willing to receive an ssh connection at the right time. Using would help you handle changing IP addresses on your laptop.

A better approach:

If you have access to a machine that is always on and outside of the firewall then you can use it as a middleman. The idea is to log onto middleman from behind the firewall, setup forwarded ports as above and just leave it connected all the time. Anytime you need to get behind the firewall you just go through the middleman. Here are the steps:

Setup your middleman to do gateways and stay connected without timing out. Edit /etc/sshd_config and make sure the following options are set:

TCPKeepAlive yes
ClientAliveInterval 30
ClientAliveCountMax 99999
GatewayPorts yes

You have to restart sshd to make these changes.

ps -aux | grep sshd

locate the ssh daemon

kill -hup

This will force sshd to rehash the config. (thanks Phil Vell!)

Then from the firewalled machine run:

nohup ssh -f -N -R 10000:localhost:22 username@middleman

The only difference from before is that this is now connecting the middleman and not the laptop to the firewalled machine, and we are using nohup to make sure the process doesn't die when the user logs out.

Then with your laptop you log onto port 10000 on the middleman which will forward your requests to the firewalled machine:

ssh usernameAtFirewalledMachine@middleman -p 10000

If you were unable to edit the sshd_config then you can still do this, you just have to jump through two hoops instead of one. First you log into middleman, then you log into the firewalled machine:

ssh usernameAtMiddleman@middleman
ssh usernameAtFirewalledMachine@localhost -p 10000

Applications and Implications

You can do a lot with this. It eliminates the need for a VPN. Ssh allows you to forward any port so you can connect to the intranet, the email server, anything that was hiding behind the firewall. This post is already too long, so I will leave it to the comments section for some examples of this sort of thing.

It also makes it pretty easy for social engineers to get behind your firewall. ("Could you run the Necessary Operation Help User Protocol for me, just type nohup...")

But I am a Windows luser!

Windows users can do this as well. Just install ssh using Cygwin. All of the ssh goodies including a client, server and scripts to set it up are there.

A tiring Lilongwe weekend

A weekend in the life of a Lilongwe-er:

Friday night we met some friends to go out for Ethiopian food. The Queen of Sheba restaurant is just an extension of the owner's house. There are no signs, and like all of the nicer homes in Lilongwe, the house is behind an 8 foot barbed wire wall. I called a friend who gave me directions, but basically we had to drive around aimlessly peering through cracks in gates. We eventually found it and had a very authentic Ethiopian meal with loads of injera (fermented grain pancake like bread). Two years ago, Claudia and I traveled through Ethiopia for 3 weeks and by the end were totally sick of injera since you eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This was our first injera since then - and I enjoyed, but 2 years wasn't long enough for Claudia.

Saturday morning I woke up just after five and headed to the local international school to compete in a Triathlon. Despite the short distances (250m swim, 10k cycle, 2k run) it was very tiring, but a lot of fun. There were about 15-20 men in my division, many of which I knew. There were all sorts of other divisions as well, including a triathlon for kids under 8. It was fun watching these tiny kids swim a lap, then zoom around on their little bmx bikes.

In the afternoon I went to Kamuzu Dam, which is about 30 minutes outside of town. I have been learning how to sail and a race was scheduled for 2:30. I figured that sailing a boat wouldn't require too much of my already spent strength. Boy was I wrong. The wind was very strong and I was having some great runs (can't remember the proper term) where I was completely hanging over the side of the dinghy. What I didn't realize was that my boat was taking on water, so when a wave came over the bow my boat plowed under it and capsized. We had practiced righting a capsized boat, but mine was full of water. Whenever I righted the boat (which requires a lot of energy), it either fell back over, or only the bow remained above water. As I continued to drift downwind from the sailing club someone saw me, went to get help, then promptly capsized his boat. Eventually an experienced sailor was dropped off and we decided to swim the boat to the shore, which included navigating a maze of sharp dead, sunken trees. On shore some Malawians helped us pull the boat on shore to drain it. We then tried to paddle out, only to be blown by the wind into the previously mentioned logs. The rescue motorboat arrived just as we slammed into a log and ripped part of our sail. I jumped into the motorboat and we eventually navigated out of the sunken forest, which was beginning to remind me of a setting from The Lord of the Rings. Then the motorboat ran out of fuel. So we had to row for about an hour into the wind while pulling the sailboat which was again taking on water. We eventually returned, but I was exhausted.

Sunday morning was church, but it was really hot and stuffy. We went home and collapsed outside in the shade for a couple of hours. At four, I played ultimate frisbee with about 15 others at Africa Bible College. I picked up a pizza on the way home and Claudia and I started the first episode of 24, season 4, which was loaned to us by some friends.

Switching a nation's eating habits

Have you ever seen Super Size Me? It is a hilarious and effective attempt to examine and change the eating habits of a nation. In Malawi, the government is not encouraging a switch from Big Macs to brussel sprouts (there is not a single McDonald's in Malawi - rejoice!), but nsima to rice and potatoes. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal ran an interesting article about how it is going:

In a recent episode of the radio soap opera "Zima Chitika," which translates as "So it Happens," a character asks his wife to cook dinner. Although their village home is stocked with sweet potatoes and vegetable gravy, she issues a testy rebuke. "We won't eat tonight. We have no nsima."

Then a wise village grandmother intercedes. "We can eat whatever is available, there is no need to have just maize!"


As part of this message, Malawi's democratic government is invoking a bit of food nationalism during its tours and on the radio. Specifically, it's reminding its citizenry about maize's alien -- that is, American -- roots. Originally a New World plant, maize was first introduced to Africa from the Americas by Portuguese colonizers in the 16th century as a reliable staple for slaving outposts. It took centuries for maize to penetrate the African heartland. The European explorer David Livingstone "discovered" Malawi only in the late 1850s. But having arrived, maize quickly displaced native crops.

Read the whole thing here.

One Laptop Per Child

A lot of interesting stuff is happening in Tunisia (which is a great place to visit BTW) during the World Summit on the Information Society there. I expect that a lot of interesting announcements will be made - I will share the best here on Hacktivate.

One thing that is supposed to be unveiled though, is the $100 Laptop. Here is the latest picture:

Worldchanging sums up the latest information about it here.

One of biggest selling points put forward by Negroponte is that it can cost effectively replace textbooks. I think this is a great idea. Even simple paperbacks cost $30 here in Malawi - so a $100 machine that can display thousands of different books will be a great leap forward.

I have been reading books on my old Palm for years. Project Gutenberg has most of the world's classics as text files which can easily be converted and loaded onto a Palm and read with the excellent Weasel Reader software. A Palm will run for hours and hours even with the backlight on - which makes it ideal for nighttime reading.

Viva la ebook revolucion!

Man should not live on nsima alone

After reading The Nation's article about how people are coping with the famine a friend of mine, Stacia replied with a letter to the editor. I thought her response was fascinating:

Thank you for your story in the 12 November 2005 edition of The Malawi Nation by George Ntonya "Hunger takes toll in Salima".

I empathize with these communities and hope that the government, non-government organizations, and local community groups can come to the aid of those affected by food shortages. I also hope that these organizations and communities continue to investigate all their local food resources such as the bamboo seeds, mangoes and termites which they are now diversifying into. When eaten in the right quantities, these 3 foods alone can provide many of the nutrients that we need to have a healthy life, and in fact, are more diverse in nutrients than ufa woyera (processed maize flour)!

* Bamboo (Nsungwi in Chichewa) seeds are an "important food source" according to Useful Plants of Malawi, 1955-75 editions, by Jesse Williamson. She describes them as similar to rice in flavour. Edible bamboo shoots are high in protein and vitamin C and are eaten worldwide.
* Mangoes are an important source of carbohydrate and vitamins A and C. Mango leaves are also edible and are full of vitamins and minerals, as well as medicinal properties.
* Termites are particularly nutrient dense food. High in protein, fat, B vitamins and minerals. A handful of Termites supplies an adult with almost all the iron they need in a day!

As a nutritionist, I always want people to have access to a wide variety of foods from all the 6 food groups every day. The current diet and food supply that we are seeing in Malawi does not meet the nutrient needs of the population, nor does it supply food every day of the year. The reason for this is that it is too focused on maize. According to the Malawi Food Guide, an average adult should have about 200 gm of cereal grain on average per day (this would include millets, sorghums, rice, wheat, oats, maize, etc.). Even if a person chose to eat all 200 gm from maize alone, this would mean a person should have no more than about 73 kg of maize per year!

The rest of the diet should be from the other food groups: Fruits (such as mangoes); Vegetables (such as mango leaves); Animal foods (such as termites); Legumes/Nuts (such as kabaifa, kamumpanda, or mbula nuts); Staples (such as tubers from water lilies or buye); and Fats/oils (such as avocadoes or coconuts).

We should be applauding these communities for diversifying their diets and for reviving traditional knowledge, using it and sharing it. We should encourage the use of these foods as part of a diverse diet and help communities to access the other food groups to complement their current diet. We should investigate and promote other local sources of foods that are being under-utilized and forgotten. We should reduce our dependency on maize.

Instead, the article treats these foods (bamboo seed, mangoes and termites) as inferior, stigmatized, and something to be ashamed of.

As an example, the article describes the 2-hour task of preparing Bamboo seed to eat, but this should be compared to the laborious, expensive task of raising maize and processing it. Just to focus on the processing part here, Malawians regularly spend 3-days processing maize into white flour which includes pounding, winnowing to remove bran and germ, soaking, rinsing, drying in the sun, cleaning to remove dirt and bran from drying, measuring it in a tin, taking it to the mill for grounding, drying in the sun, cleaning again to remove dirt, and finally cooking. The end product has all the protein, minerals, fats and vitamins removed, leaving only a white starch.

This is where we need to change our mindset about what is food and what we are doing in Malawi with the resources that we have.

I applaud Action Aid for submitting a sample of the bamboo seed to MBS for analysis, I hope that this action is used for Malawi's other under-utilized resources and that these important foods become a regular part of our diets. Many people may be surprised to know that there are over 500 foods that we could all be choosing to grow and eat rather than the one or two that have promoted this current crisis. This would be true diversification and go very far towards ending Malawi's chronic "hungry season".

If you have any questions or would like more information concerning the wide variety of food plants that Malawi is blessed with, please feel free to contact us or visit our demonstration plot in Chitiedze.

Stacia Nordin, RD
Kristof Nordin, Permaculturalist

Hunger Takes Toll in Salima

Hacktivate has been following the famine situation here in Malawi for months now. Check out my famine tag for a list of all of the stories. One of the things I have been trying to stress is that it is a very complicated situation. Well the next two posts aim to make things even more complicated. First off, consider the following article from the Malawi Nation from a few weeks ago (I am posting it in full, because they don't seem to have it on their website):

For the past five months people from Mvululu and Njati villages in T/A Kalonga’s area in Salima have been living on bamboo seeds, mangoes and termites and some of them have developed malnutrition signs.
“We are eating bamboo seeds and termites out of desperation,� said group village headman Mvululu when officials from Action Aid, one of the international non-governmental organisations working in the country, visited the area on Wednesday. “Some people will die if we do not receive assistance from the government or well-wishers,� he added.
A majority of the villagers in the area harvested barely enough maize to last them three months because of the dry spell that hit most parts of the country at the end of the last rainy season.
Currently groups of women, some of them with babies strapped on their backs, leave their homes every morning for Thuma Forest, where they scramble for the bamboo seeds. The seeds drop off from the bamboos every day and the women broom them and pack them in pails or reed baskets.
“We don’t use bags because we get pricked because the bamboo seeds have sharp ends,� said Felia Chiunda, showing the wounds in her palms from the exercise.
It takes the women about two hours to prepare a meal from the seeds. The seeds are first separated from stones and other unnecessary objects, the same way rice is separated from husks, then pound in a mortar. The grain is then poured in hot water and then pound again.
“We dry it in the sun to remove the final bran before cooking it for about one hour,� explained Lazalo Motibeki, a widow in her mid 60s and looking after four children.
Many people prefer eating it in porridge form, without sugar.
“Sometimes we grind the granules into flour to prepare nsima. But it’s not easy to make the flour because you need a lot of bamboo seeds,� said Nasitoya Nomele who could not remember when she last had a nsima or porridge from maize.
Termites caught from the many ant-hills available in the villages have become a delicacy for those who prepare nsima from the bamboo seed flour, people said.
Most villagers said they are too poor to buy maize for daily meals. Since the beginning of this year Nomele’s family only bought a portion of sugar once, for K15, to add to the bamboo seed porridge.
Mvululu and Njati villages lie a few kilometres from Thuma Forest, probably the main source of bamboos in the Central Region. Surprisingly, the bamboos have produced more seeds this seasons than ever before. This is the first time that people in the area have turned to bamboo seeds for their living.
“I don’t know what would have happened to us if we did not have the bamboo seeds in abundance,� said Chiunda, who is married with four children and only managed to harvest about 90 kilogrammes of maize this year.
“We didn’t know that bamboo seeds are edible until early this year when a woman from Chikumba in Linthipe told us people in her area lived on them during the 2001 hunger period,� reported Chiunda.
The villagers saw the writing on the wall when their crops failed. They knew they were in for trouble but there was very little they could do to avert the suffering. They could not go into winter cropping because the stream nearest to them dried up when the rains stopped.
They could not grow drought tolerant crops such as cassava, either. “Every time we grow cassava it is destroyed by elephants and wild pigs from the forest,� said 31 year-old Bandras Moses who is married with two children. He is among the few men who sell charcoal to residents at the district headquarters.
Although some households sell charcoal, bamboos and wood, their income is so low they cannot afford maize whose price has been rising over the months. The commodity is scarce at Admarc depot, a situation that has created a fertile ground for private traders to raise prices at will.
There about 250 school-going children in Mvululu Village but only an average of 10 attend classes on a daily basis. Some older ones accompany their mothers to look for bamboo seeds while others simply loiter around. Parents said it would not make sense for them to force the children to go to school when they had nothing to eat.
“They can’t concentrate in class when they are hungry,� said Jambuleni Chimpweteka.
Action Aid acting programme coordinator in Salima Harry Chikandira said the organisation plans to distribute free seeds for maize and legumes and fertilizer to households that are unable to buy the commodities on their own. Each household is expected to receive 10kg of seeds and a total of 50kg of fertilizer.
Village headman Njati said very few people in Mvululu and Njati villages have benefited from the Public Works Programme the government has been implementing to help people in rural areas raise money for fertilizer and seeds.
“If the government does not give us free seed we are not going to grow maize this year because we cannot afford seed when we don’t have food,� he said.
Meanwhile, Action Aid has submitted the bamboo seeds to Malawi Bureau of Standards for nutrient and toxin analysis.
“The key to overcoming this famine is appropriate and effective policies,� says a statement from Action Aid’s head of emergencies Roger Yates.
According to the statement, Action Aid has already initiated an emergency response by implementing a school feeding programme in Nsanje and Machinga, districts that have also been hard hit by the food shortage.
Chikandira said a feeding programme for school-going children in Mvululu and Njati villages is expected to start in January, when schools open for the second term.
But people in the two villages cannot wait any longer for relief food. Unless the government and other humanitarian aid agencies bring in free food now, some villagers may not live for the next two months.

Artificial Artificial Intelligence

Recently Amazon launched a new service they call the Mechanical Turk. It is a very interesting scheme that allows humans to get paid for work that computers cannot do. When I tried it out yesterday, I was given the name of a business, its address and 5 different photographs that were taken near the business. It was up to me to select the photograph that best represented the business specified by the name and address. If I was successful I would get paid $.03. With my slow connection I only managed to try 4 different locations, and out of those 4, I was only able to be decisive about one. Sadly, by the time I made my decision someone else had already solved the puzzle. Yet it was a fascinating glimpse into the future, a future where human thinking and ingenuity become commoditized.

For Africa and the developing world the Automatic Turk is a good way to earn some cash. Assuming the work doesn't require local knowledge just 33 selections will earn a Malawian more money than they can make in a day. If each selection requires 2 minutes to complete, then an Amazon Turk worker could earn a dollar an hour - big money in Malawi and many parts of the world.

I was going to write more, but I discovered that Ethan Zuckerman said pretty much everything I was going to say. I recommend reading it.

Anyways, try it out and let me know what you think. Shall I open an Amazon Mechanical Turk factory in Malawi?

Hippo Roller

The Hippo Roller looks like a pretty simple idea that could have a great impact on Malawians:

The innovative design allows water to be placed inside the "wheel" rather than carried above the wheel. The 90kg (200 pound) weight of water is borne on the ground resulting in an effective weight of just 10kg (22 pounds) on level ground. Children and the elderly can easily manage a full roller over most types of terrain.

Poisoning your boss and other ways to climb the career ladder

We spent a couple of hours driving with some of Claudia's Malawian colleagues this weekend. As we were driving, we passed three people dressed in grass skirts and wooden masks with machetes in their hands running towards a village. Wilson and Temwa (Temwa is a frequent contributor to the my blog's comments!) explained that these were Nyao, members of a secret society. They worship their ancestors, do a lot of graveyard rituals, and force people to give them money otherwise they will be beaten. This got us onto the topic of curses and the evil eye which exist in similar forms in most traditional cultures all over the world. They told us that many workplaces are full of fear of such things, particularly in government offices. They explained that most government positions and promotions are the result of either appointment or seniority and rarely the result of performance. Hence a common way to climb the career ladder is to try and get rid of the person above you. Some people visit traditional "doctors" and get curses placed on their superiors, while others bypass these old fashioned ways and simply murder them. They buy rat poison in the market and then bribe people to add it to the tea of their intended victim. I thought that these might just be stories, but both Temwa and Wilson knew people who had such things happen to them, or who had narrowly avoided a poisoning because the tea-maker's conscience got to them. Wilson and Temwa were proud to say that such things don't happen at OIBM. They said that people are too busy, and besides you get ahead at OIBM by working hard, not because your boss dies. At OIBM if you set your tea down on your desk and then leave the room you can drink it when you return. Not so at the electric company, ministry of agriculture, and even schools!

A Malawian Wedding

This weekend we were invited to a traditional Malawian wedding. The
wedding was for the nephew of the Chairman of OIBM, Francis Pelekamoyo
and it promised to be a unique and authentic experience as it was going
to take place in his village about 2.5 hours north of Lilongwe.

Francis is a very special Malawian. He was head of the central bank
under Hastings Banda and by all accounts did an impeccable job. He was
able to retire from his position with only praise and has since
continued to benefit Malawians with his expertise and integrity.
On the way to his village we drove through his farm and it was so
refreshing to see a small dam, pipes and pumps. He was irrigating! Sure
enough, we were later told that everyone who works on the Tithe
(Tee-Tay) farm was "prospering" even when their neighbors were facing

We arrived for the wedding reception and were instantly announced by
name to the entire throng of people. And I do mean throng. The reception
was in an open area on the farm and there were people everywhere. The
important guests (which somehow we were included in, despite never
having met the bride or groom) were seated under a thatched structure
for about a hundred people. There was a circular area about 30 meters in
diameter, which was roped off outside of which were a couple hundred
more people all jockeying for the best view of the event. There were
even people in the trees.

We were called out to do a dance offering for the bridge and groom.
While all of these people are watching Claudia, myself, Francis, and two
other OIBM employees danced out into the circle and we dramatically
(perhaps even rhythmically?) pulled money from our pockets and deposited
it into a bucket. Again and again and again. Claudia and I had prepared
perhaps 10 notes each, which was not even close to enough. Everybody
else had huge wads of notes that they just kept pulling out, raising
into the air and then letting it fly. It didn't matter that most notes
didn't make it into the bucket, as there was a crew of people dedicated
to tracking down notes. It would have been strange to do anywhere, but
being surrounded by local villagers who were obviously quite poor made
it feel absolutely bizarre. Yet after we returned to our seats the same
thing continued over and over again. Different people would be called
up, or there would be a dance to join in on, but every time there would
be the money bucket and people dancing their cash into it. We were told
that many people save up their money for a wedding so that they can be
seen flaunting it like this. There were other parts of the reception
that were pretty strange as well - in fact beside the clothing worn by
the bride and groom, little resembled anything from a western wedding.
At one point the bride brought out a plate of small pieces of wedding
cake and proceeded to get down on her knees, in the dirt, in her dress,
and offer pieces to the guests - myself included! No matter what the
bride and groom were doing they were constantly dancing a sort of
understated groovy sway to the music. They were probably just really
tired, but they never really smiled. Danced yes, smiled no. Here is a
picture of the bride and groom, dancing with the cake plate. Note the
people in the tree behind them!

Malawi in New York Times

Surprisingly there is not a single mention of the famine, but perhaps that is a good thing as people tune out when they hear about another "famine in Africa". Instead it talks about how Malawi is losing its forest, and how the loggers manage to survive with their sad profession:

"The problem is that we have nothing else to do," said Mr. Juma, a wiry 33-year-old with a neon green shirt tied around his bare waist, standing over the remains of the chopped-up masuku. "We have no money to raise our families. We have nowhere to run, nothing else to do. So we have to cut the trees to feed our families."

In few places do the dictates of modern environmentalism butt so painfully against economic reality as they do here in Malawi.

Two-thirds of the nation's 12 million people earn less than a dollar a day, according to the United Nations Human Development report. Nine-tenths of those two-thirds live in rural areas where both jobs and the odds of escaping poverty are nonexistent.


Movie Night

In my last post I mentioned how Georgina enjoyed the Lion King soundtrack, and indeed so did the rest of our staff. Because of this, Claudia and I had the idea that it would be fun to get the movie and show it to our staff. We planned it out for Wednesday and told our 3 staff that we were going to have a "video show" night and that we would provide food for them and their families. Despite visiting multiple video stores, checking the stacks of DVDs for sale on the street, and calling up a friend with kids we were unable to locate the Lion King. We were recommended to try out Ice Age instead, which our friend lent us. We bought 2 chickens, a bag of maize and two large pizzas (what is a movie night without pizza?). Georgina used the maize to make a huge amount of nsima and she also deep fried the chicken and made a vegetable "relish" because one of our gardeners is a vegetarian.
Below is a picture I took of a typical plate of nsima, meat and vegetable relish. Nsima is the white blob in the bottom left - for better or for worse it is the food that powers this country.

I rearranged the living room to make sure that everyone would have a place to sit and soon everyone was grabbing a plate full of food and a seat.
And I mean everyone. There were so many people Claudia and I could hardly believe it. Georgina brought everyone who was staying at her house and I felt like they just kept on coming. Brothers, cousins, a baby, children - I had no idea we had so many people living in our backyard! We also had our gardeners, one of their brothers and our night security guard. I set the TV up on two chairs that were on top of the dining room table and we started watching it.


Most of our audience had very limited English skills, but luckily the movie has a lot of physical comedy so there was plenty of laughter - although rarely at times I would have expected it. Most of them had never had pizza before, but everybody, even George our picky vegetarian gardener claimed to enjoy it (how could anyone not enjoy the food of the gods?). The next morning I asked George what he really thought about the evening. He said that it was great, and that even Lazaro, our other gardener whose English is limited knew everything that had happened in the movie. Apparently they had a long discussion about the movie after they got home!

We are hoping to do it again - next time with The Lion King. Does anybody know where I can find a copy?

The Mexican Mariachis of Malawi

I often encourage Georgina, our housekeeper, to put on some music while she is working. At first her selections were not too surprising like the Power of One, a movie soundtrack full of beautiful African singing. Then there were weeks when it was nothing but the Lion King. Lately though, I have been surprised. First it was Evita. I would hear her singing Don't Cry for Me Argentina, and she would play it over and over again. But the most surprising was the Mariachi CD Claudia brought back from Los Angeles. The CD is great to put on when we are eating enchiladas wrapped in Indian Chapatis, and we need a bit of imagination to make it feel like real Mexican food. A lot of the classic Mariachi songs are on it and there is plenty of Mariachi whooping and crying which makes me laugh every time I hear it. Needless to say it is pretty different than Malawian music. But Georgina couldn't get enough of it! I asked her what she liked about the CD, and she said that she knew a lot of the songs. I was surprised, but then she explained that they are the same songs as the ringtones from the mobile phones. I had never realized it before, but it is true, a lot of the popular ringtones are from Mexican Mariachis. Who would have guessed that a bit of Mexican culture was spreading through Africa via ringtones?

Cost of living in Malawi

Les-Longwe Miserables

Yesterday Geeta blogged a really insightful post about the sad
circumstances of a robbery
that happened to some friends of

" guards have often been the ones to steal from
their employers. It begs the question why the very people hired to
enforce the law, so easily break it? Well, to start, I think it has
something to do with how much they are paid.

...Most of the large development agencies have contracts with one of
the two large security companies in Malawi... security companies seem
to have no problem paying abysmally low wages to their
employees...Ex-pats go through these companies because it seems to be
more reliable than just hiring a guard from off the street...

But it’s sadly ironic that, in some cases, the very agencies on the
front lines of mitigating the food crisis in Malawi have contracts with
companies that do not pay their employees enough to mange this crisis
without external support. Doesn’t it seems obvious that the security
situation in Malawi will likely deteriorate as poor Malawians become
more desperate?

I really recommend reading the full post, but I want to
focus in on the injustice she highlights. We pay $100/month to one of
these companies (Securicor) for a night guard. Our guard sees about
$20-$30 of that money. Is that enough to survive on?

A few months ago our church (Capital City Baptist) included a handout
from the Center for Social Concern in the bulletin. Based on up-to-date
prices from markets in Lilongwe it laid out the cost of living for a
family of six. I thought it was fascinating so I will reproduce an
abridged version (in US dollars) here:


Paraffin $.60


Note that these are pre-famine prices - the cost of maize has more than
doubled since then. This also doesn't include the costs to send
children to school or paying for transportation. Should we be surprised
that security guards who work 72 hours a week for $25 a month are

Blogging Lilongwe

Malawi is a small place. The blogging world of Malawi is even smaller, and it makes it all the more fun when the real world intersects the online one.

A few weeks ago a blog popped up on on my Lilongwe search written by Tyler and Anna Sparks, a couple that I had been running with as part of the Lilongwe Hash. The blog was squarely aimed for friends and family back in the US, but it is interesting for me to see how others are sharing their lives with people who might never set foot in a developing country. Last week Anna began a post about shopping in Lilongwe by explaining that there are no Benetton shops here, despite her friend's innocent question resulting from noticing that Benetton seems to be everywhere. Relating this post to other friends in Lilongwe makes people laugh out loud - we don't even have a movie theater here.

It was fun to tell Anna that I was reading her blog, but it doesn't compare to what happened Monday night. We were hanging out at a friends house after running, and the host mentioned something about her roommate, Geeta, and I immediately said, "I have to meet Geeta!" I explained to our group of about seven (most of which didn't know Geeta) that I had found Geeta's blog and related some of the stories from it. When Geeta came home half an hour later she kind of freaked out to realize we had all been talking about her blog. But what freaked me out was that she immediately knew who I was from my blog! In the course of the evening it was revealed that another person in our small group had also been blogging about her life in Malawi (more to come about her later). We stayed around for a long time, and it was really fun and it felt different than the usual Lilongwe social scene - probably because we were a bunch of young North Americans. Geeta also blogged about the evening.

The blogosphere has some great networkers, like Ethan Zuckerman, who participate in local meetings of bloggers all over the world. I think physical communities encourage virtual ones, and I believe that making sure Malawi has a voice in this strange new world of blogging is critical. Hence, I am throwing around the idea of getting all of the Malawian bloggers that I know together for lunch. It could be the start of something. If you know of any other regular Malawians blogs please add a comment below.

Visiting Opportunity International Clients

Recently Claudia and I visited some OIBM clients in a nearby village.
Every client we met greeted us with a proud smile - proud of the
business that OIBM had helped them to setup. The first person we met was
a man who made buckets and watering cans out of sheet metal.

He explained to us how his loan had enabled him to buy more material, and how he soon had so much business that he needed to hire two more
employees to keep up with demand. We also visited a very young woman
named G.H. Ephraim who had started a very impressive business after
seeing her neighbor successfully do something similar.

OIBM had loaned her money to take her business to the next level, which she certainly was doing. The sign explained explained that her shop built and sold roofing, sofa sets, armchairs and more. She had at least 3 men working for her, and she seemed to efficiently manage it all even with her baby daughter strapped to her back no matter what she was doing. She called it a furniture shop, but I noticed she also had a stand full of relatively expensive bicycle parts for sale. Clearly GH is a serious business woman who knows how to put capital to work.

We spent the afternoon walking through the village hearing all sorts of
similar stories. And they are great stories - stories that resonate with
the American values of hard work and individual success. Indeed whenever
we met someone, we asked her (they were mostly women) what she had hoped
to achieve by getting a loan from OIBM. The answers were great and
mostly similar - to grow my business, to send my children to school.
However, towards the end of the day we met a woman who imposed a radical
shift on my perspective. She ran a five foot by 3 foot mud and cardboard
shop that sold soap and other necessities. When we asked her about her
goals, she said something that we hadn't yet heard - "to improve the
nutrition of my family". Unique, but again this fit comfortably in my
cultural lens, I could almost hear the American mothers saying - "We eat
too much McDonald's, no more frozen pizzas, I am going to buy more fresh
fruits and vegetables from the farmers market." When I asked her if she
had achieved her goals she said yes and explained "we are now able to
eat every day". In an instant my lens was shattered and my perspective
tumbled down from its naive perch. A nutritious diet meant eating. Period. Here is a picture of her with her healthy child.

Later we joined the women for a group meeting under a large acacia tree.
They greeted us with songs and dances. We went on to discuss the
benefits of saving money, but this time I didn't look through my lens of
retirement - we were talking about saving for next week.

Ethan Zuckerman at PopTech

Ethan Zuckerman is visiting PopTech and posting some really fascinating stuff on his blog. Ethan is a blogger, with a penchant for social networking (often via the blogosphere), and a love for Africa. Here are a few things that I thought appropriate for Hacktivate:

An interesting look into the technology and thinking behind the 100 dollar laptop.

Negroponte says at one point - “What would it mean for this project to fail? That we get a device six months late that costs $122.50?”

How about playing games for money:

He shows us some of the setups used by “gold farmers”, who kill the same monsters over and over again, making virtual gold which they can sell in the real world. They’re able to make about a dollar an hour doing this. Julian Dibble, a scholar of online gaming, did an experiment in gold farming on Ultima Online and discovered he could make about $47,000 a year, which is more than the median salary of school teachers in America.

Making a dollar an hour in Malawi would move you firmly into the middle class here. This makes me think there could be a huge market, not just for people selling virtual items they have earned in a virtual world, but merely for participating in a virtual world. The more real people, and the more diverse they are, the less virtual and more real it becomes.

Guardian blogs about Malawi famine

Interesting first hand account of a World Food Programme official searching out signs of the famine in Malawi.

My colleague also points out that the steady lines of people walking along the roadsides are an increasingly common sight in this part of Malawi. Most have walked tens of miles to get food from the market because they no longer have stocks of their own to fall back on.

link on microfinance and Opportunity International has a good article about microcredit/microfinance with a lot of quotes and stories from Opportunity International.

Advocates of microcredit, also called microfinancing, contend that it's a modern-day example of the old Chinese proverb, "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life." The concept is to provide seed capital, in most cases less than $200, to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans. The expected result for the businessperson's family is a self-sustaining

Hacktivate on the BBC

I can hardly believe it myself, but yesterday a BBC World Service reporter emailed me after reading Hacktivate and asked if he could interview me about the food crisis in Malawi. I was pretty freaked out, but assented, particularly after realizing that it was for a pilot program - what that means I still am not sure.
I was at OIBM yesterday so I told them about what was happening and they were excited but also visibly nervous for me. Multiple people warned me from saying too much about the corruption. Good thing most Malawians don't read my blog! I can't decide if their worries are the result of growing up under a dictator that banned men with long hair and the song Cecilia by Simon and Garfunkle not to mention free speech, or if it actually is dangerous to repeat what is already in all of the local newspapers.
It didn't matter anyway, because this wasn't being broadcast in Malawi, and well, lets just say that I have yet to perfect my witty silky smooth radio banter. Talking on the radio is hard!
The whole experience lasted maybe five minutes. The phone rang, I picked it up and Kevin Anderson-Washington, the reporter who had emailed briefly said hello then put me on hold for a few seconds during which I could hear the program in progress, someone else picked up asked me a question and passed me off, then I heard the slick sounding on-air reporter giving the 15 second version about what is happening in Malawi. He finished by saying, "I have Mike McKay from the weblog Hacktivate on with me now. Mike lives in Lilongwe the capital of Malawi. You have known a number of people that have already died from starvation, is that right?" At which point I pretty much choke. Well not quite, but it sure felt like it as I said, "No, I haven't known anyone personally, but my housekeeper's cousin's child died last week." And my uncle's paperboy's step-sister once shook the Pope's hand. Not my best. The host then quickly jumped to a reporter from Blantyre who was much smoother, but only repeated the first paragraph of about every article I have seen on the situation. They came back to me and I was able to talk about the scarcity of maize here in Lilongwe. The host then started talking about corruption and I became nervous. But the commentary was left to the guy from Blantyre and I was asked what I think most Malawians want the world to do for them. It felt like it was a leading question that I wasn't comfortable to answer. I certainly can't speak for many Malawians let alone the ones that are dying. I mumbled something about money and aid, the report was finished (with another mention of Mike McKay from Hacktivate, grin) and they hung up on me.
A few posts ago I highlighted the complexity of the issue and how it doesn't fit nicely into the package that our modern media produces. I think my experience supports this. They wanted to hear a story about a dying child, how the government isn't helping and how we need to send them money. In my perfect world the program would challenge the listener to think critically about a complex issue and the critical thinking would spill over into a discussion during dinner that would then lead to a personal call to action among everyone at the discussion. In fact, I wish my response to the final question could have been more consistent with what I have been writing here, namely that I think the most important thing to do about the situation in Malawi is to bring Africa and the plight of the poor to the forefront of our minds. To discuss it with friends, to examine our own lives relative to theirs, to live in the reality that our world is tiny and our neighbors are dying. Sure, Malawi needs a quick fix of cash to survive the hungry season, but it isn't until we as individuals have compassion for the collective individuals of the world that justice will reign.
It is great that the BBC is taking notice of the situation in Malawi, and tremendously exciting that they are taking notice of me. In an earlier post I mentioned how much power we have as individuals of the developed world in 2005, and I guess I am proving myself true. It is a lot of responsibility though.

Schools in Malawi

Yesterday morning I visited the school where the children of our housekeeper attend. By Malawian standards the school was quite wealthy. Indeed this school is situated in a neighborhood filled with ambassadors, wealthy tobacco families, and other expatriates. What makes it wealthy? There was a school building for starters. All of the windows may have been broken (from balls) and there is no electricity (fusebox was stolen) but these kids do have expansive grounds for playing and a classroom with chalkboards. The upper grades even had desks in their rooms. These kind of luxuries are nonexistent in most schools. Also there were books for the children, and each child had at least a pencil and a workbook to do their exercises in.

But I am getting ahead of myself. When I arrived at the school I was surrounded by at least 50 children all jumping up and down in unison singing "mzungu" which means white person. Mr. Ntolowa, who teaches and tutors our staff's children met me and introduced me to the headmistress. I signed the visitors log and was surprised to see that besides my mother-in-law and sister-in-law who had visited 6 months ago, the only visitors had been delivery people and a couple of parents.
I then went to Mr Ntolowa's first grade class and was greeted by about a hundred 6 year olds who jumped up and said, "Good morning sir, how are you?" They were very excited to have me in their classroom and it was fun to be there.

The students were much like any students at any school in America, expect much better behaved. There were some that were clever and anxious to learn, and some that were distracted, but most were somewhere in the middle. When Mr. Ntolowa asked a question there were dozens of eager hands flapping around for attention. Mr. Ntolowa taught a very creative English lesson. He had a cardboard box with a hole cut out in it to look like a TV. He told the kids he had to turn on the TV so they could watch the story of the farmer and the hare. As he read the story to them he rolled a long sheet of paper across the opening of the box with images he had drawn from the story on it. The kids loved it and comprehended quite a bit as they answered Mr. Ntolowa's questions.

I also visited a classroom for 12-13 year olds. The teacher, Jean, was a dominating force and the frayed end on the piece of bamboo she carried made me nervous about my own knuckles taking a rap. Despite her strong presence, the kids seemed to respect her and enjoy her snide comments. She was teaching about first aid and how to care for a fractured bone. The kids practiced creating splints with sticks and scarves and carried each other around. Next the students had to write answers to questions about first aid, and Jean asked me to walk around the classroom marking papers. I didn't even attempt to carry Jean's authority, and it was kind of strange to be looking over the kids' shoulders for errors, but I eventually got used to it.
With all of the famine and corruption happening in Malawi it filled me with hope to see these children learning and being just like kids anywhere. I will definitely be encouraging others to go for a visit and bring a simple lesson plan (as I want to do next time).
I actually forgot my camera yesterday, so the pictures in this post were taken by my my in laws Ursula and Andrea. I especially love this last one with Mr. Ntolowa and his class. There is so much going on it reminds me of a Where's Waldo. Click the picture for a larger version.

Google cares only about hurricane victims?

Just sent this to google:

I have been blogging a lot about the famine in Southern Africa. Adsense seems to detect something about donating or aid or something, and it is continuously showing public service ads to help hurricane victims. It is a bit offensive when 5 million people are starving in my Malawi and I have this gigantic ad about helping the hurricane victims in America. Any chance google could broaden its sense of public service to be more international?

I think helping Hurricane victims rebuild is very important, but I think Google should also be doing public service ads for other tragedies like the earthquake in Pakistan, and the famine in Africa.

Thanks to Jeff Rafter for pointing out the ad and supplying a screen shot.

Google's response:
We currently do not run paid Google ads on web pages that are determined
to contain potentially sensitive, negative, or non-family safe content by
our automatic contextual advertising system. At this moment, we are only
running Public Service Ads related to the hurricanes in the United States.

"potentially sensitive, negative, or non-family safe content" - I guess a famine kind of fits into all of these categories. I don't mind not showing ads, but I do think Google should expand their Public Service Ads.

Foreign aid makes African leaders rich

Today's top story in Malawi:

Malawi has launched an investigation into how $11-million in donor cash landed in former president Bakili Muluzi's private bank accounts, the anti-corruption agency said on Tuesday. link

A small grain of salt should be added to the above story. Recall that parliament (largely controlled by the former president) is currently trying to impeach the president. So this is definitely part of some political wrangling, yet I don't really doubt the charges, and I have a statistic to tell you why.

Estimated amount of African wealth held in foreign accounts, expressed as a percentage of African GDP: 172 link

This statistic tells me that as soon as anybody gets any money in Africa it is quickly transported to a foreign bank account. I think a good parallel statistic would be the total number of these foreign accounts as a percentage of the population of Africa. I am certain it would be miniscule, because the account holders are people like Muluzi, and they are filling it with money meant for the people that really need it.

At any rate, it will be interesting to see where this corruption charge goes. Claudia recently told me that there has yet to be a single corruption trial let alone a conviction. If only this implied that the level of corruption is low.

Malawi roundup

I was incredible honored and humbled to see Jim Minatel resolving to do something radical to help the world after reading my blog:
I propose we all pledge to give 10% of our individual discretionary spending to people who need it more than us, at home and around the world.. Don't miss the full post.

Some thoughts from Mzismasi Makiniki via Wilson's Almanac:

Before the recent famine in Niger there was a long period when there were increasingly strong appeals for aid, but nothing happened. We have now reached that time in Malawi � and people have already begun to die....Remember all the hype around the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, where it was said that the world leaders would 'make poverty history'? Now these great powers cannot give a day�s military spending to save 12 million people on the edge of starvation in southern Africa.

Here is an interesting reason to add to my list explaining the famine in Malawi:

A deal for the country of Malawi to buy fertilizer from an unnamed Saudi Arabian company has been stopped because of a report that the company is linked to al-Qaeda

When in doubt blame the terrorists. link

Finally, the critical window is closing for Africa's 12 million facing starvation.

How to help Malawi

So a number of people have been asking me about how they can help the situation in Malawi. I think the most important thing to do is to talk about it with people that you know. As awareness increases so will the political and economic will required to help.

I wish the solution, even the short term solution, was just giving money to Malawi, but this is Africa and things are never that simple. Allow me to illustrate.

During the last famine one of Claudia's colleagues decided to help out her husband's family in the village. They drove to the village with 10 bags of maize and delivered it to the family. The next day the family was robbed and the the aunt was killed.

Sadly, this family is ineligible for food aid because they have relatives in the city. Claudia's colleague still helps, but now it is done very secretively, by hand delivering money through trusted sources with no obvious connection to the city. Perhaps the hardest part of all of this is that her husband's mother is raising 10 orphans in the village and there is little they can do to help.

On a larger scale, food aid often gets lost thanks to corrupt chiefs. The chiefs rule everything in village life, and it is not uncommon for them to sign a paper saying that they have received their villages food in return for a bit of cash or another type of favor. The chiefs get drunk, while the children in their village starve. The chiefs are an integral part of the socio-pseduo-political scene of Malawi.

In the short term getting food to these people, even if it is via corrupt chiefs is the only way to do it. World Vision and Oxfam are excellent organizations that you can trust will try their hardest to save lives.

In the long term I think microfinance initiatives like what Opportunity International is doing are going to move Africa out of this cycle of poverty. I admit heavy bias though, as my wife works at Opportunity International Bank of Malawi, and I am writing this post from their office. Yet I can tell you that at this very moment their are hundreds of clients packed into the banking hall, with just a few dollars worth of kwacha. They have come to save their money in a safe place for the ominous future or perhaps to get a loan to start a business that will enable them to triumph over the hungry season. Given proper tools (like financial services) I have genuine hope that Malawians won't have to face another famine.

Hunger crippling Malawi

Last week the child of my housekeeper's cousin died. The family is very poor and live in a village less than 30 minutes away from us. The child had been in the hospital twice already in the past couple of months, but there wasn't enough food for the child so its stomach swelled up and the child died of malnutrition on Friday. The family has nothing, so Georgina had to go and get the body from the hospital and pay for it to be transported back to the village. Georgina and her husband don't seem to be very surprised or worried by the coming hungry season. "Many children will die" - and that is just a part of life here.

People are asking me how this could be happening and there is no simple answer, just a lot of complex issues. Here is a list of some of them:

* There is a drought that caused the rain to stop 2 months early last year.
* The soil is worn out from 2 centuries of intensive and exclusive maize cultivation.
* 200 years ago colonizers introduced maize to Malawi and forced them to stop growing local crops adapted to the local environment and switch to 100% maize.
* Despite having one of the largest lakes in Africa there is virtually no irrigation. In Malawi irrigation is having a woman carry a water-filled bucket on her head from the nearest water source. This means farms just a few miles from the lake dried up this year.
* "Only nsima satisfies". Most Malawians eat nsima exclusively - a sort of maize (corn) dumpling for every meal. It is low on nutrients, but sits like a rock in your stomach. If there is no maize they don't eat.
* Developed countries subsidize their own farmers effectively locking Africans out of the world food market.
* Malawi exports more tobacco than any other country. Farmers grow tobacco instead of food. This year the tobacco prices were half of what they were last year.
* Last year the government promised subsidized fertilizer but delivered it 3 months after it needed to be applied.
* The government is almost 100% focused on political infighting. Efforts to impeach the president have been continuing for 6 months now.
* Malawi has the highest import costs of any country in the world. This is mostly the result of transportation monopolies owned by the same people that run the government. Controlling the army, the roadblocks, and the customs officials is a definite competitive advantage. It doesn't make it easy to import food.

I could go on, but I want to underline that hunger in Malawi is a complex issue. It couldn't be fully explained by a 30 second CNN blurb or a newspaper article. Perhaps this is why there is such little coverage in the mainstream news. Once there are pictures of children with bloated stomachs and flys covering their faces it will be a "good" story. It is easier to care about a tragedy than to care about avoiding one - even an imminent one.

In the past two weeks the price of a 50kg bag of maize (almost enough to feed a small family for a month) has doubled from about $6 to $12. The price will continue to increase for the next 4-5 months. Of course one can only get that price if they can find it for sale. A friend's housekeeper walked 10 miles through Lilongwe last week after hearing a rumour that maize was for sale on the other end of town. Upon arrival he was disappointed and thanked by being robbed and beaten as he was returning home. People are already desperate and it will only get worse.

More than 5 million people (half the population) are expected to face food shortages. When maize does arrive it requires hours if not days of waiting in line to receive a 5kg ration. The economy is already slowing as people leave work to find food, and the country and its slow march to development is sliding further backward.

OIBM is trying to preempt some of this, and has bought more than 50 tons of maize, which will be sold at cost to its own 100 employees. But the 30,000 clients OIBM depends on will have no such option. How OIBM is effected remains to be seen.

Perhaps you can call your local politician, or write an editorial for your newspaper. Your senator or MP or even you could become the person that gets the millions of dollars needed to carry Malawi through this disaster. Put them in contact with me. If you have a blog write about what is happening here. An average individual in the developed world has tremendous power and influence, more now than at any other time in the history of the world. Use it to save a life and give hope to Malawi.

Previous posts about the famine in Malawi:
Blood On Our Hands/
Hunger Hits George's Family
Bad News From Malawi