Zomba Plateau Map

Claudia and I will be spending Christmas on the Zomba Plateau, at the high commission cottage. We really like it there, but have always struggled finding a decent map for hiking around the plateau. Here is one - it's not the greatest, but it will help. Enjoy!

Zomba <br/>Mountain Hiking Map (click for a full large version)

Ant hill phone booth

A couple of months ago there was a great article in the local paper that Soyapi saved for me. It was about an anthill in Chiduli - which is a village somewhere in Malawi. Chiduli lies in a flat wide valley, which unfortunately places it out of reach for cell phone signals. Out of reach except for one particular place - an anthill!


I wish that I would've saved the full article because it was full of interesting bits of information, but I think you can tell how the story goes from here. Basically, if you needed to make a call, you just go up on the anthill. But what do you do when you are expecting a call?


Apparently you just find a branch that fits your phone and leave it there. I love that someone put an entire purse up there - I guess that makes it easier to hang.

Cellphone coverage in Malawi is actually quite good even in rural areas. There is so much potential waiting to happen. The other day as I was going to work, I heard a Nokia startup tone coming from the garage. Sure enough, George our gardener has his own phone. I got his number, and asked him if he could show Alice our somewhat grandmotherly housekeeper how to use the new phone we just purchased for the house. He laughed and informed me that Alice already has her own phone - no training sessions required!

I am really excited to see the potential of mobile phones take hold in Malawi. Surrounding countries are already beginning to move towards a cashless society thanks to cellphone banking...let the leapfrogging begin!

Windmill William's TED presentation on online

William's presentation from the TED conference has just been published:

William Kamkwamba's TED talk

William has also started working with my team at Baobab this week. Everyone is excited to see where William's future leads him.

Witchcraft planes

Imagine a witch. A good old fashioned Halloween night witch. Go on - I am serious. Okay, you probably thought of an old woman in black and a broom to fly around on - right? Well, I find it fascinating that Malawi has its own brand of witch - and that she is totally Malawian but totally pure witch at the same time.

The stereotypical witch in Malawi is also a woman. I am not sure what color clothes she wears or how old she is - can one of my Malawian readers chime in? She also flies around, not on a broom, but rather on a witchcraft plane which is really just a nsima basket - a butt-sized basket that is used to sift maize flour. It is the basket that I find most interesting. In my witch tradition as well as Malawi's, the physical item that characterizes her as a witch is also an item of household work. Women's work to be specific and sexist. It is almost like the culture needs to add mystique or fear to the female. I am not sure exactly what to make of it, but there must be some fascinating stuff in the anthropological comparisons of witches and witching around the world. (Evil eye is another good one)

There are definitely a few witches in the states - one in particular who used to come for Cheesecake at Deuz Gros Nez (ironic, oui?) in Reno. But American witches, at least in my experience seem to keep to themselves. Not so in Malawi. The newspapers regularly report of withcraft planes, especially withcraft plane crashes. Thanks to my colleague Oliver I can explain how a witchcraft plane works:

Witches have meetings that they go to. They are almost always in other countries, often Mozambique, but sometimes in London too. To get there, the witch takes her nsima basket to the local graveyard at night, where she takes off and flies to her destination. The problem is people build firewalls, sometimes just by accident. (Oliver - please remind me what they are made of again.) If a witch flies over a firewall, she crashes instantly - and the next morning she will be found naked and asleep at the crash site.

(my mostly ignorant guess is that this is probably how villagers exlain a widow who has had everything stolen from her and been beaten by her inlaws - a very very common and largely accepted practice in Malawi)

Just in case you think I am making all of this up, here is an article from last month in the Daily Times of Malawi (quoted in full since it will probably disappear soon).


Three convicted for practising witchcraft
09:09:46 - 15 June 2007

A COURT in Karonga on Wednesday convicted three elderly people for teaching two children, aged eleven and ten, the art of witchcraft.

Uliwa First Grade Magistrate Chikanje Harawa sitting in Chilumba, Karonga, ordered the three, Thaizan Mhango (75), Gerald Kumwenda (79), and Gatry Mkandawire (70), to pay K30, 000 (blogger note: about $200 USD) each, or in default serve five months’ imprisonment with hard labour.

According to Karonga police spokesperson Enock Livason, the three had not paid the fine by close of business on the day of their conviction and were shipped off to prison.

“Harawa convicted the three on the count of practicing witchcraft, contrary to Section 6 of the Witchcraft Act. He then ordered the three to pay K30,000 each or serve 5 months in jail. They all failed to pay the fine and are in prison,” said Livason.

Mhango is from Muzang’unya Village, Chief Wasambo in Karonga, while Kumwenda and Mkandawire are from Mugowera Village, Chief Wasambo, in the same district.

The court was told that the two children (names withheld) all grandchildren of Mhango, complained to their mother that the three were forcing them to source human fresh to eat at night.

“The children alleged in their testimony that the three used to take them each night from the house they were sleeping in to practice witchcraft. They testified that they used to get out through the corner of the house and used to fly with the elders in witchcraft plane but sometimes they used what they termed a magic Mercedez Benz,” Livason said.

The witchcraft trainers are later said to have started forcing the children to kill their relatives and refund the human flesh they had been eating.

Police Prosecutor, Constable Pleasant Sichali submitted in court that the evidence of seven witnesses he had paraded had clearly proved that the three were indeed teaching the children witchcraft.

He also submitted that though the three had pleaded not guilty, the evidence tendered was beyond reasonable doubt and had proved they were guilty of the offence.

Change scrollbar sizes in firefox

I needed to change the size of all of the scrollbars in firefox to make touchscreen scrolling work nicely. I wanted nice big, fat, finger-sized scrollbars. I eventually figured it out, but the directions were sparse, so i thought I would paste my approach here.

Find the firefox profile. Mine was here:


Go into the chrome directory and create userContent.css:

scrollbar[orient="vertical"] scrollbarbutton,
scrollbar[orient="vertical"] slider,
scrollbar[orient="horizontal"] scrollbarbutton,
scrollbar[orient="horizontal"] slider{
height: 40px !important;
width: 40px !important;

Phat scrollbars!

Manage cron from rails

I needed to setup some caching and database updating that will run once a day on our ruby on rails application.

I found this link, which gave three different approaches - all of which I didn't like.

A quick and dirty yet tried and true method is to use cron to call wget on a controller script/runner (thanks David) that does everything we need. All I needed to do was write the crontab entries - but that means later deployments will require someone to do that. My approach was to use environment.rb to programmatically edit the crontab. I just added the following to the end of environment.rb:

current_cron = `crontab -l`
rails_cron_jobs =< # m h dom mon dow command
0 18 * * mon-fri /var/www/bart/script/runner -e production 'Report.cache'
0 22 * * mon-fri /var/www/bart/script/runner -e production 'Patient.update_defaulters'
unless current_cron.match(/Report\.cache/)
puts "Adding #{rails_cron_jobs} to current cron: #{current_cron}"
puts `echo "#{current_cron}\n#{rails_cron_jobs}" | crontab -`

It is a total hack, but I like it. We read in the current crontab - see if we have already edited it - if not we edit it. Plain and simple stuff. Now, as we say in Malawi - somebody school me as to why this is evil bad and wrong.

TED gives Africans free laptops

I just found this article from TED. It seems like they are really committed to bringing technology to Africa:

TED and the sponsors behind the conference made an amazing commitment to including innovative young African leaders, thinkers and entrepreneurs into the TED Global conference. Of the 450 attendees at the conference, 100 are “fellows”, here through the generosity of GE, Google and AMD. That generosity took an unexpected extra step this morning, when TED staffer Tom Reilly announced to the assembled fellows that Google and AMD would be donating a new Mac or PC laptop to all fellows, and that Noah Samara from Worldspace would be giving each fellow a satellite radio and an annual subscription.

And it seems like William has now been elevated to celebrity status:

William Kamkwamba, the amazing young Malawian engineer who built his first windmill at age 14, has captured the imagination of many of the people in the crowd. A number of TED attendees have banded together to support him fiscally to complete his high school education and go onto university. A TED staffer is travelling to Malawi next week to start working on finding tutors for William to help prepare him to attend a top high school in Malawi.

Some members of my blogging community, including Ndesanjo Macha, have committed to coaching William… and critically, in coaching TED on how to provide William with help and support without overwhelming him or uprooting him from his family or community. Friends like Ndesanjo have had the experience of growing up in rural communities and moving to huge cities to pursue their education - I hope that he can help TED support William in a way that’s as constructive as possible.

Malawian windmill maker gets standing ovation at TED

Remember William Kamkwamba and his homemade Windmill made from bicycle parts?

After I made that post, Emeka Okafor invited William to attend the TED conference in Tanzania. Soyapi (who is also there) just irc'd me to say that William gave a presentation and received a standing ovation. People like Bono, Larry Page, and lots of other movers and shakers are there.

Congratulations to William!

Finding where ubuntu installs programs

Whenever you install something in Ubuntu it unpacks a .deb file and saves it in the right location. The problem is that I never know the contents of a given package and where each file will end up on my machine.

The answer is dpkg -L .

So for instance, I just did:

apt-get install ktouch

and then used

dpkg -L ktouch

to figure out where the tutorial file got saved to.

(Ktouch is a typing program - we just had a little competition in the office to determine who gets what swag from the OpenMRS conference I just attended.)

How to record and convert real audio streams to mp3

I came up with this one a long time ago - its a nice little hack. It requires mplayer (and the right codecs) and lame. It might work on windows if you have cygwin installed. It should work with any type of stream that mplayer can play, not just real audio streams.

This approach uses a fifo virtual file to make sure that you don’t waste disk space storing raw audio data. It just pushes the audio data into the fifo, and lame pulls it out all asynchronously.

mkfifo soundpipe
lame -b 64 soundpipe filename.mp3 & mplayer -quiet -ao pcm -aofile soundpipe URL_OF_STREAM

Lighttpd on ubuntu

Lighttpd is a great web server. It manages resources frugally, and still manages to be fast. If you have a dedicated super duper server, lighttpd is probably not for you. But perhaps you need your machine to do more than just be a web server, or perhaps you are using a virtual dedicated server (vds, vps, whatever they are called - I use slicehost which is great and inexpensive) which means you have a limited amount of ram and cpu. In that case, lighttpd is a great choice for your web server. The main downside, is that it isn't quite as plug and play as apache is. Apache pretty much runs php out of the box, and installing phpmyadmin just works. There are plenty of guides for getting rails to work with lighttpd, but I couldn't find anything very useful for lighttpd and php (especially with fast-cgi). At any rate, I figured out how to set it in Ubuntu (dapper) and figured I would pass share the experience:

Install php with fast-cgi and lighttpd

sudo apt-get install php4-cgi lighttpd
sudo lighty-enable-mod (then select fast_cgi)

sudo gedit /etc/lighttpd/conf-enabled/10-fastcgi.conf

And change the port line to be this instead: (this seems to be a bug in the default ubuntu configuration)

socket => "/tmp/php.socket"

Now restart lighttpd

sudo /etc/init.d/lighttpd reload

Final step: Take over world

Get phpmyadmin to work with lighttpd
(The following steps assume that you have done part 1 properly)

sudo apt-get install phpmyadmin php4-mysql
sudo gedit /etc/lighttpd/lighttpd.conf

And add an alias for phpmyadmin

alias.url = ("___invalid .... other stuff here
"/phpmyadmin/" => "/usr/share/phpmyadmin" # this is the line to add

Reload the server:
sudo /etc/init.d/lighttpd force-reload

(might also need to edit /etc/php.ini and enable mysql, but it might happen automatically too)

Quick and dirty debug logging in ruby on rails

Typically I just to render :text=> "Yo the value is #{debug_me}" and return

But sometimes this doesn't work. Maybe you are in a model file, or a method that gets returned to another method. If that is the case you can always get some debug by raising an exception:

raise "Yo the value is#{debug_me}"

Since exceptions can come from anywhere this will always works. There are other options, like using logger which works pretty well too - but raising an exception is a nice debug hack for your toolkit.

Malawi birding sites

(All directions are from Lilongwe unless mentioned otherwise)

Ntchisi Forest Reserve covers Ntchisi Mountain (1,655 m), with
some of the best evergreen forest in the Liongwe area. To reach Ntchisi
Forest from Lilongwe, take the M1 north towards Kasungu and turn right
after about 25 km on to the M19 passing west of Dowa towards Ntchisi
boma. Alternatively, in the dry season, turn right at Mponela on the
D87. South of Ntchisi there are two sings to Ncchisi rest house. Follow
the second northern sign turning right on the toad to the rest house,
over high plateau grassland for a further 16 km. (According to “Day
Outings from Lilongwe by WESM).

Kutti Game Reserve – Take the Lilongwe/Salima road. About 10 km
before Salima, you will see a sign for the reserve. In addition to the
grasslands and palm savannah, there is a pond covered in lily pads

Lifuwe Rice Scheme - Take the Lilongwe/Salima road. Continue pass
Salima. At the sign with a smiling face and at the corner of the
military airfield, turn left. Continue for 15 plus kilometers. A good
place to see Collared (Red-Winged) Pratincole. On route, you cross over
a bridge. You can bird to the left in the Palm Savanah or carry on to
the right and follow a thin path to Safari Beach Club (next to the
Livingstone Hotel)

Mpatsanjoka Dambo - (outside of Salima) - A large marsh land
between Salima and Senga Bay. Accessible from road leading to Hippo Pools.

Thuma Forest Reserve – Take the Lilongwe/Salima road. Keep your
eye open for the power plant on the left. The turn off is on the right
hand-side. Black-bellied Bustard seen in this area.
Dzalanyma Forest Reserve - Premiere miombo woodlands. Contains a number
of Malawi endemics. Take the road through Likuni and pass the Lilongwe
Sailing Club. For more directions to the Dzalanyma Forest Lodge, visit
Land and Lakes Safari.

Chongoni Forest Reserve (Dedza) - Hilltop reserve behind Forestry

Bembeke Dambo- Go pass Dedza and turn left at Bembeke (sits on a
turn on the M1). Turn a sharp left at the stores. If you are confused
ask for the Bembeke Mission. Continue down the road about 1 – 2 km. On
your right hand side, you will see a low lying wetlands.

Lilongwe Sailing Club – Take the Likuni Road pass Likuni and
follow the dirt road for about 30 minutes outside of town to the turn
off on the left with a sign for Lilongwe Sailing Club.

Other highlights of Malawi

Mt Mulanje National Park - Plateau holds a unique niche for
tropical, alpine ecosystem. A number of tea estates have received
outstanding marks for neighboring birding areas.

Nykia National Park - Beautiful rolling hills that will remind
you of Ireland. Endemic species can be found along with rarities like
the Wattled Crane. Isolated woodlands house a number of local rarities.

Liwonde National Park - One of the jewels of the national park
system of Malawi and a highlight of birding.

Majete Wildlife Reserve – Contains escarpment and mixed
woodlands. Managed by African Parks.

Lengwe National Park – Prime example of deciduous tickets and forest.

Lake Chilwa – Large reservoir of resident and waterfowl birds.
WESM/Zomba conducts regular birding trips on Saturday. WESM can be 01524
700 or 01526 212.

Zomba Forest Reserve – Behind Zomba Boma.

Best birding sites near Lilongwe, Malawi

The following is a list compiled by various Malawi birding experts who
tend to flock around http://groups.yahoo.com/group/malawibirding/.
Claudia and I have been getting into the amazing birdlife here and our total birdcount is creeping higher and higher. Visiting a sewage pond anywhere (let alone in Africa) doesn't sound very pleasant, but believe me it is great. Especially the Kauma ponds which overlook a beautiful stretch of the Lilongwe River and some rare indigenous forest. maps.google.com has very good resolution for Lilongwe, and it is can be very helpful when trying to figure out directions to an unfamiliar location.

Without further ado, the best birding sites in Lilongwe:

Nature Sanctuary (Lilongwe) Across from Food Worths. Covers the
Miombo and riparian ecosystems.. Scouts will inform you that there has
been some robberies, however, in the 2 years I have birded the area, I
have had no problem. If you do wish a scout to accompany you, please ask
at the main office. You can purchase a bird list from the Wildlife and
Environment Society of Malawi (WESM) that is housed in the
interpretative center

Kauma Sewage Ponds (Lilongwe near Area 12) From the Capital
Hotel, turn right and continue to the T junction. Pass Blantyre Road and
continue on the dirt road. Turn left at the small sign that reads Zikomo
Roses. Cross over the bridge and keep right at the fork with the faint
billboard with the German flag. Continue up the road and take the right
just before the football pitch. Go down the road and through the gates.
Beyond the first 4 ponds, the road bends around a hill, which blocks the
rather harsh smells. The ponds below the hill are nearly scentless and
holds a wide variety of ducks, shorebirds and the occasional odd migrant
(i.e. American Skimmer, African Wattled Lapwing, etc.). Here is a google map link which clearly shows the roads you need to get there: http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&z=15&ll=-13.942897,33.81978&spn=0.020492,0.035577&t=h&om=1

Lumbadzi Sewage Ponds Take the M1 north pass the turn off to
the airport. Continue until you pass Lumbadzi River and just entering a
small, but busy market. After the bridge, turn right and then turn left
at a gravel road.

Airport Sewage Ponds Take the road to the airport. Before the
checkpoint to enter the airport, turn right on the paved road. Continue
on and before a small market, take a right. The guard house is almost
visible from the paved road.

Bunda Dambo (at Bunda College) Take the M1 to the checkpoint at
the defunct BP. Pass through and take the first right. Continue for 15
minutes and turn left at Bunda College. Pass through the campus and pass
the farmhouses. The road will eventually turn right. Work your self over
to the small man-made lake. Pelicans, geese, and shorebirds can be found
there. There are also a defunct sewage ponds in the woodlands.

Airport Dambo (behind the Airport) Take the M1 and turn left on
the road to the airport. Continue on for about 500 meters and pull over
on the left. The low lying areas hold some wetlands. Historically a good
birding spot. Even with the expanding agricultural lands, the birding
has its occasional surprises.

Mbabzi Dambo Take the Mchinji Road (near 7-11) west. About 16 km
from Lilongwe, turn right at the signs for an ethnic lodge. You can park
at either the lodge or on the spillway. Possible to see Lesser Jacana,
Common Moorhens, and even Purple Herons.

Katete Diary Farm At the Bishop McKenzie roundabout, take the
road out to Likuni. Continue shortly pass the Water Board and turn left
at the sign. Please contact Nicky, who is part owner, at 08550550.

Kambali Lodge Take Presidential Road pass Four Seasons. At the
Presidential Road, turn left and continue on until you arrive in a
parking lot. Please check in at the reception before birding the area.

Lingadzi Rose Farm In front of African Bible College, there is
a failed irrigation scheme. The upper pond can hold an interesting
variety of birds including African White-back Ducks, Little Bitterns and
a range of ducks. You may wish to consider going with a small group.

Woodlands behind Area 9. - Behind Area 9 and in "front" of water
tower, there is a huge corn field with a forest running north-south
behind it.

Area 2 Kestrel Roost From approximately November to February,
one of the largest roosts in Africa of the endangered Lesser Kestrel.
Take the M1 through Area 2, pass the BP and the bend in the road. Pass
the building housing Delhi Darbar and turn right. On you left there will
be a large tree. Pass coffin and furniture makers and take the small
paved road on your left and then take a left. Park in front of Vas Cottage.

Happy birding - and if you have any others - please add them in the comments below.

Camo a no go in Zim

Just received this from my local travel agent:

In July 2006 a new law was passed in Zimbabwe - it is illegal to wear (or even have in one's possession) camouflage-style clothing in Zimbabwe. It is an offence to be in possession of a "camouflage uniform" which is defined for legal purposes as any piece of "apparel" bearing a camouflage print or pattern. Should you be found in possession with any camouflage-style clothing you could receive a fine, 6 months in jail or both. They hold the right to detain passengers for up to 48 hours in prison before charging them. This is very important - no camouflage prints on board shorts, longs, shirts, hats, bags etc.

Africa internet usage statistic

Internet usage of Africa vs world

Opportunity International in the Guardian - twice!

The Guardian has been doing a special report on Opportunity International Bank of Malawi (www.oibm.org and also where Claudia is working).

Britain backs revolutionary aid experiment

Britain is backing an experiment to change the way aid is delivered in parts of Africa that highlights a growing divide over how western nations spend hundreds of millions of dollars pledged to the continent.

The Department for International Development (Dfid) is providing 750,000 pounds to fund a scheme to provide cash payments instead of food to tens of thousands of hungry people in northern Malawi via a sophisticated system of bank cards and electronic identification.
Full article: http://politics.guardian.co.uk/development/story/0,,2014436,00.html

How six-mile trek for grain became a stroll to the cashpoint
She swiped the card, a teller checked her identity with a thumbprint scan and then the 35-year-old mother of five went to the back of a pick-up truck where a cashier from the Banki Yanga handed over Mrs Jaziel's cut of the British government's aid to Malawi. Then she headed for the local market.
(note that the reporter misinterpreted OIBM's slogan Banki Yanga which means "my bank" for the actual name of the bank, which is actually Opportunty)
Full article: http://politics.guardian.co.uk/development/story/0,,2014351,00.html

Rest in Peace Mangaliso

Mangaliso Jere, author of Mangaliso's World passed away last week. He was probably the most prolific Malawian blogger in the world, and he is being mourned and missed by many. Apparently Mangaliso died from internal bleeding after having a straightforward operation at a hospital in Mzuzu.

Mangaliso came to the blogger brai we had at my house about a year ago, and our professional paths crossed frequently. He had recently moved to Mzuzu, a town in the north, and was making good progress in bringing the benefits of IT to some of the further reaches of Malawi. I think Mangaliso's own words describe him best:

"Proud to be Malawian striving to beat the odds...

An African FLAME against the odds on the Motherland.

Descendant of the great Zulu force which changed the face of Southern Africa . Am a NGONI from Malawi. MFECANE is the process which changed the face a region.

Malawi the land of the flames, which has the largest fresh water lake running across the country. Am really proud to be called a MALAWIAN

Protected by the fierce cats the LION & LEOPARD. I know a my risks.

Our flag is BLACK, RED, GREEN.

BLACK - Its our past it was dark and seemed to have no future
RED - This signifies the blood shed, suffering and passion of the people to have a better future.
GREEN - Grass will be greener on our side and we have hope.

We will always have Sunshine as a people

So as I always say I am a MALAWIAN and AFRICAN"

- Who Am I, Mangaliso's World January 3, 2007, Two weeks before his death.