At the onset of the wet season (this year in early December), the Malawians plant maize in whatever spare plot of land they can find. Most fields are planted at almost exactly the same time, as though the families had been patiently waiting for a cosmic signal. Almost overnight, women suddenly appear to prepare their fields, carefully working down the rows with their traditional hoes. Maize seeds are embedded in carefully cultivated furrows alongside roads and ditches, in narrow ravines, in family gardens plots, in large cultivated fields, neatly terraced and tilled.
Here is a small plot high on Mount Soche, located in a narrow gully, just below the government land.
Someone carved out this narrow patch alongside the road for a nice little maize field.
Even rocky slopes, barely suitable for cultivation, are planted with maize.
No parcel goes to waste, at least this close to town, perhaps it is different in the villages and countryside where space is not at a premium. This past Sunday, Carole and I had the opportunity to drive to Liwonde for church, a two hour car trip from Blantyre. Almost the entire way we found maize fields, much larger than the small family plots of Blantyre, but still fields cultivated by hand.
Here in Blantyre, the topsoil is exceptionally deep, except on the steepest rocky slopes, so that the furrows are dug up to a height of 8 to 12 inches. One site in the “Three Ways” community (so named because three ways there intersect) had topsoil close to 2 feet in depth. My father, a farmer’s son, would have celebrated seeing such deep soil; when travelling throughout the world as a family, my father invariably commented on the depth of topsoil. Even though I am several generations removed from the farm, I have instinctively picked up his habit, something Carole has found to be a peculiar trait in a city boy.
The soil is warm, fertile and welcoming, easy to think here in terms of mother earth, which is full of life; the fields look capable of generating abundant yields, as long as they are not exhausted through overuse and as long as they are fertilized.
Here is a photo of some fields just on the outskirts of Soche, located on the way to Limbe.
Malawians use a traditional hoe, called a “khasu,” to cultivate their fields. Virtually every family has a khasu, and a family without one is considered to be poor. While we have seen both men and women working the fields, women are the ones most frequently found taking on the back breaking labor. Knees slightly bent, they patiently edge their way along, back and forth, curving up the land into neatly designed patterns of parallel rows. The work is tiring and sweaty, especially now that the days are muggy. Strike, strike, pause, strike, strike, pause, and so the pattern repeats itself over and over again, as they slowly prepare the field. Progress is almost imperceptible, but after a couple of hours, the furrows emerge. My father occasionally spoke of hoeing sugar beet fields in Garland, Utah, where he lived as a young lad. He remembered the rows being endless and the work back-breaking and thankless. It was in those fields, at the age of 15, he vowed never to be a farmer. He found the work too hard. Malawians in town do not have this experience, because their plots are so small. Rarely does one find a field so large that it cannot be prepared for planting after a morning or afternoon’s hoeing. These are garden-size plots, not the commercial scale farms of the western United States. The fields in and between the villages are much larger, but even there the villagers and small farmers do not use mechanized farm equipment.
I am so intrigued with a “khasu” that, the other day, I purchased one at the local central market for 1,500 kwacha or $3. The khasu has a narrow wooden handle, roughly 3 feet in length, with a large flat metal blade, 6 inches in width, inserted at the weighted end.
Here is a picture of my khasu, propped up against a wall in our apartment.
Due to its length, hoeing is always done with slightly bent knees. In the northern districts of Malawi, the farmers, we are told, use a similar hoe except that its handle is closer to 5 to 6 feet in length. [Apparently, this hoe also has a different name in Chichewa, which I don’t recall.] The use of this longer tool allows the farmer to stand upright when hoeing. Brother Tsegula, when asked to explain the reasons for the difference, supplied this explanation. Those living in the north are descendants of warrior-dominated tribes. Never wanting to work with their heads down, leaving them potentially defenseless, they insisted on longer handles. This makes for a wonderful story, but I wonder if it is true. I have seen western-style hoes in several stores, but never one used by Malawians, either because of their expense or because the traditional hoes are preferred.
My khasu is nicely balanced—when held at the handle’s top, it swings lightly in the hand. It is easy to see it would be ideal for hoeing and weeding. All of the khasus in Blantyre have blades of roughly the same width. If they have others with narrower blades—better suited for weeding, they have yet to make an appearance. Having a khasu in the home makes me feel more a part of Malawi; tourists don’t buy khasus, why would they. I know, however, the experience is not truly genuine—I have no field to till and tend. Sometime in the next several weeks, I hope to find an opportunity to use my “khasu,” not to prepare the furrows—because it will be too late for that—but instead to weed. Most Church members have small plots planted with maize, so they will certainly let me try my hand weeding. They will, I have no doubt, find this odd or amusing. What exactly does Elder Beal think he is doing? But with as much rain as we are now getting, keeping their fields free of weeds will be constant battle.
Here is a picture of Brother Petro working in his maize field.
As you can see, I look pretty silly holding my newly-acquired khasu..
Getting my “khasu” back to Seattle will be a challenge, but, because it is so emblematic of Malawian life, I am anxious to see if there isn’t some cheap way to ship it home when we finish up with our mission. I would love to display the “khasu” in my office at home, a constant reminder of our time in Malawi.
The “khasu” in many respects epitomizes how Malawians, at least those living in the Soche/Zingwangwa area, provide basic food for themselves and their families. At least in part, their life is still rooted in the past. Many use simple, basic tools—indeed, tools of a type used by their ancestors for at least several generations—to produce crops. Much of the agriculture in Malawi is done on a sustenance basis—through small garden plots cultivated and maintained by families for their own use. Other than a few large tea plantations, most of the farming we have seen has been done on a small scale. While there certainly must be some large-scale farm operations employing modern equipment, we have yet to see them. Instead, the farming is done by individuals and families without the benefit of tractors, trucks, combines, harrows or other types of mechanized equipment. Most fields are so small and irregularly shaped that the use of such equipment would be unnecessary and indeed not even possible. We have also been told that even the large fields of maize are usually done by hand.
The families hope to grow enough maize to supply their own needs and to generate a little excess that can then be exchanged for other crops, such as tomatoes, mangos, potatoes, and greens, chickens, and thin dried fish, all items readily available at the small stands found throughout the townships. Sometimes it seems as though every other home has erected a rickety stand to peddle something to the neighbors in hopes of earning a few extra kwacha. The stands frequently are left unattended, the wares for trade or sale simply left spread out in small heaps for display on a piece of plywood, but if anyone shows interest, with a few minutes a mom or child will appear to complete the transaction. These small businesses are located outside of the local markets, close to and among the clustered homes, and rely upon proximity to give them their primary competitive advantage.
At least here in Blantyre, maize is the crop of choice. On occasion, pumpkins, beans and other crops we cannot identify are interspersed among the maize plants, but still the primary crop is maize. Malawians expect to get one crop of maize during the rainy season. Given the mild climate, a second crop is possible but only if the land is irrigated.
Each neighborhood or community has its own maize mill, to which the women carry, throughout the year as needed, enormous bags of maize kernels for milling into flour. And it is from this maize flour (white cornmeal) the families prepare “nsima” or “nhsima,” the staple food dish of Malawi and Zambia. Nsima is usually eaten with two side dishes—one a protein side dish of meat, chicken, fish, groundnuts (peanuts) or beans, and the other a vegetable side dish of cabbage or leaves of rape, mustard, or pumpkins. Nsima is of a sticky consistency, easily rolled into balls, like sticky rice. Malawians eat nsima bare handed. Surprisingly, we have yet to sample nsima, but we expect to have it served to us sometime in the near future. [We have been careful about eating in the homes of members, knowing how easily we could get sick drinking the water and eating the foods they routinely take.]