Wednesday, 14 October 2015

It’s a love and hate relationship – Malawi

I love Malawi for the opportunity of mixing with natural sustainably minded people, rather than a choice it is a way of life.

I love Malawi as I can collect energy off other people. All people were cycling with me on the busy roundabout. There were no cars on this roundabout, but many bikes just a distance from town. It was the end of the month so there was less money floating around.

I hate Malawi for the short notice I get before having 3 days without water from the mains. With the taps dry I conserved most water for tea, cooking and used small amounts to wash after exercise or decided to stop the morning jog altogether!

I love Malawi for its spontaneity, one person cancelled one big trip, I immediately make a plan for another weekend away as I had the feeling and had prepared myself from being away from the big city / small village they call Lilongwe. 

I hate Lilongwe for the regular night out events. They often become routine as there are very few places to go. This does mean that if anyone organised anything everyone joined as the community would talk.

I love Lilongwe how I can hibernate, and do nothing for the whole week if I want to. I often get my head down and work, concentrate on life, the future, read, play guitar and try and grow things in the garden. 

I love Malawi as I feel my work can make a real impact on people's lives

I hate Lilongwe to not be able to walk or cycle in the evenings as there is an official rule not to be on the streets after 9pm.  The quiet nights on the streets all backed onto tall fences go hand in hand with danger.

I love Malawi to have my own place and be able to create my own space experimenting with local materials. 

I love Lilongwe for my very pregnant friend still wanting to jog around the block for a chat, despite her being very aware everyone was staring at her which made her feel embarrassed. 

I hate Malawi for the staple diet of food: vegetables, protein soya and rice or nsima. This is a variation that has minimal change. Spices make the food more exciting!

I love Malawi for the strong bright light of the sun that gives shadows the most amazing spaces for everyone to collect.

I hate the village to be the centre of attention and the talk of the town whatever activity I did.

I love the village for the peace and quiet and deep thoughts that surround me, as the place where I first started.

As I iron my t-shirt with the steam of my kettle, I think how simple and how beautiful life is. I am blessed. Thanks Malawi.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

2 weeks triumph, mums arrival and departure

Me and mum sitting on top of Zomba Plateau at Queens View
 Mums dutch directness, comments and general thoughts on anything will always blow me away. I instantly took her to my friend’s slightly better more upmarket house for dinner as I knew she would be a bit shocked to see my room and outdoor facilities.

My room has mum in the doorway
The long list of questions shot and flew around the room considering she had been on a tiresome long haul flight from England. It was all very humorous, she threw comments like:
‘Wow, you have electricity in your home’ which confirmed her inner thoughts about Malawi.
I understood she was on holiday but similarly knew it would be a good change for her to see the communities, hard work, happiness and achievements. We went to the 2 building sites within the Landirani Trust and she observed the work while I made her shake hands with every single person on site. This was the general Malawian greeting and living in Malawi I soon learnt how important it was to say hello to each individual and ask them:
Mulli bwanji? How are you?
Ndilli bwino kuyinu? I am fine how are you?
Ndilli bwino. Zikomo. I am fine, thank you.    It seem’s very repetitive when you start but as time goes on you realise the significant importance. After greetings you then start the day’s work, checking the activities of people, making sure experienced people were teaching younger people and moving some people around to make certain priority jobs faster.
Our first stop was building a rammed earth office in Njewa.

Adobe bag guard house

 Nothing was ever going to be normal that day, many spontaneous things happen all the time in Malawi but these actions were definitely exceptional. The spiritual tribal characters of the gulu wankulus were running up the road. Fully clothed with different rags I thought it best to take a picture as a memory for my mum.
Gulu wankulu's

They saw us taking the photo and immediately surrounded our car and banged on the windows for money. I had never once been in this situation in my whole 2 years living in the chichewa central region where there were large numbers of gulu wankulus. Some say they are: spiritual ancestors that rise from the dead. Others have described them as a tribe that forms in the woods for boys to assemble and celebrate the turning from youth to teenage years.
The literal translation of gulu wankulu means a big dance. Any ceremony in the village will collect these gulu wankulus’ to perform at the wedding, funeral or child to adulthood celebration. People will dance with a mask to hide their identity.
The different jobs on site and mums interest to help pump water into the ladies buckets at the borehole ended in chaos as a typhoon swarmed across the village behind the site.

Everyone collects at the water borehole

Typhoon sweeping the village
 It built up in strength and the thatch from people’s rooves was seen in the air. The ladies at the borehole were shrieking in one tone raising their arms in an act to try and calm the storm. The wind had destroyed 5 houses in this 1 village where all of our workers lived.
After reiterating some main pointers about the adobe earth building we left for the next Landirani project 8km from the Lilongwe Kamuzu International airport. More greetings and new faces came into contact. Mum struggled with the greeting phrase after greeting more than 36 people that day. I faced facts Chichewa was not such an easy language for beginners!
Workshop filled with frames ready for current our current builds
 The holiday then began. We hired a car to allow us to go and investigate Malawi. I had never seen far south so this was my opportunity to take mum to places I had never been. Our first stop was Zomba. I was very impressed with the trails of light coming through the tree plantations on the mountains.

Zomba plateau forest
There was a beautiful landscape. I enjoyed being very active in the mornings and planning things me and mum could do while she was asleep then going out with her and doing them. This worked well as my energy levels would balance when mum rose. We were very lucky to step into the 50th year anniversary of Haile Salaisie having visited Emporers view on the top of Zomba plateau.
Ethiopian visitors at Emporers view
 There was drumming and many rastafarians gathered from all over Malawi for the important day. This was also a great time to visit as we didn’t have to walk so far. We managed to find space in a car both up and down the plateau although we then realised we had missed the Queen of England’s arrival, Queen Elizabeth had arrived at Zomba Plateau in 1957 so they specifically named the spot Queen's view.

Mulunguzi Dam

Our next stop was Liwonde National Park. I had never been in such a peaceful place.

Liwonde National Park
We had to catch a boat to the middle of the island and we were instantly engrossed watching all the wildlife, hippos, crocodiles, impala, baboons, warthogs and hundreds of different exotic birds.  Everything sat in harmony: the wild animals grazing on the bottom level, some raised timber platforms above where we would sit lavishing on delicious food and tea.

Liwonde wildlife

Liwonde wildlife

The timber lodge huts glistened with the reflection of varnish and the elephants joined us one morning. It was unique and what seems now like pure serenity.
Elephant on our veranda, morning alarm clock

Every good time must end and from then on I explained to mum that was a treat and she musn’t compare anything to that up market place! After taking our time to see HELP school in Liwonde we crept into Cape Maclear after dark. I managed to drive into the wrong turning and the people in the village again enclosed around the car. Unlike the gulu wankulus’ it was due to lack of space on the sandy roads. We had to wait for a car to move which took about 10 minutes and I could sense mum was anxious. During these times I must reiterate there was never any problems or reasons for discomfort. It was just the chaos going on in a compacted unknown environment that seemed so dissimilar and diverse from the normal scene on a UK street. This energy among the people gives me a buzz that I want to try and hold on forever. I could tell my mum was somewhat confused with my choices in life.
Apart from the power cut on arrival everything turned smooth sailing. We rested on the famous Lake Malawi for 5 days. We were both hooked on our books and met some lovely people at Gecko lounge. After a trip to Thumbi Island, catching fish, feeding fish eagles, snorkeling and all other activities I could tell mum was more relaxed. 

Fish eagle sweeping the Cape waters



Slowly we crept out of tourism and into the village behind where I often stayed with my boyfriend, Winston. He got to meet the first family member who had come out to Malawi. I could tell this was a very big event for him as he treated my mum like a queen!  It was great for reality to set and for 2 such important characters of my life to meet.  This was another type of paradise for me as happiness spread through all activities.

 Our last stop was Ntchitse Forest Lodge. It was slightly out of the way but this biodiversity girl Jess had explained this was one of the most incredible places because of the section of rainforest, the last one here in Malawi. She was right, the vague directions and unsure decisions we had to make while racing the time of sundown was worth it. As we arrived, this time just before dark, the layers of orange and misty mountains prepared me for the thick forests and views the next morning.
Ntchitse Forest
 Again I chased the orange rising of the sun at the crack of dawn and found joy climbing and dropping down the steep screes of the forests. There was a great sensation when I stepped over many unmoved tree trunks that had collapsed and stayed in their natural setting, still, where they had once fallen. Untouched.
The last rainforest in Malawi, Ntchitse
I had lived in the city full of dust but with communities of lively friendly people, but now I realised the potential and just how beautiful Malawi (what we would call) countryside really was.
Walking Ntchitse Forest
Natural Beauty
Forest colours
My highlights have got to be:
Mum’s views having spent 2 weeks in Malawi : saying Malawi people were relaxed, friendly, peaceful, laid back, resourceful and content.
Taking a photo of some guys selling African sausage on sticks, on the side of the main road coming into Lilongwe. I didn’t have any change so I knowingly gave them a larger note, their excitement and smiles made my day. And yes, they are mice.
Mum’s spontaneity going to Ntchitse Forest Lodge last minute as she did not want to stay in my boys quarters room!
Mum bringing over PG tips triangular English tea bags
And ofcourse mum managed to find a classroom with headteacher training. I could tell she was in her comfort zone once again.

M' Bangombe Headteacher training run by a Goverment official
 Thanks mum, it was a great 2 weeks and I hope you can encourage the next Rowsell rabble (as my dad would say) to come and visit.  This is Malawi, if the photos don't make you want to visit I don't know what will. (perhaps the strength of the english pound is a bonus for you all too!)

Sundown at Liwonde National Park

Beautiful baobab tree in view leaving Cape Maclear

Friday, 17 July 2015

Returning from my other world

My return from the UK to Malawi was warm and welcoming. Our village, named Sam’s Village (8km from the Kamuzu International Airport) greeted myself and George (work colleague) with a poster made out of connected maize bags and writing. 

This was now my home. It was an incredible journey of reflection and learning back in the UK. A well-deserved break, if I may say so myself! I collected inspiration from my slightly confused more cultured mind and direction / advice for my path ahead. My main worry was if my role as the architect for the NGO Landirani Trust would be taken seriously and seen as professional in the ‘Western world’. I called up my tutor from Oxford Brookes University who then said ‘What is professionalism? I sighed in relief knowing I had learnt so many different roles including budgeting and project management. I had written many notes that I would collaborate into work diaries from my past and present experiences.  

Yes I was happy in Malawi. I had taken the plunge and my job satisfaction levels are still rewarding despite the everyday challenges of culture and hierarchies. I have continued drawing buildings to be erected this year. Our environmental training village has expanded. I helped to finish:
Visitors Accommodation: I helped to site manage and finish this build taken over from a guy called Simon Zipata Gates, He designed the house to have the first curved rammed wall in the region.

Visitors Accommodation
 Library: George Phiri was working alongside building the first community library in the whole region. This is nearly filled with donated books from all over the world!

Community Library with bottle wall
 Compost toilet: After realising there were plastic bottles coming from the aeroplanes off the 7 flights a day I started cycling across to collect them to be used as a building material. The rainwater is collected and stored off the roof. 

Plastic bottle compost toilet
Workshop: This was our first 2 storey earth build with a welcoming inward slanted wall and viewing section above. 

Training Accommodation: Another 2 storey build with narrow tall windows (better for structural stability) to follow the sun rising and setting paths.
Our aim is to create opportunities training people in vocational skills. Many people can visit and stay for a price that will reimburse back into the running of the project. The buildings work hand in hand with the landscaping and permaculture which is grown with many different types of plants to promote nutrition in the surrounding villages. It will also be a commercial farm in the future once we have secured the irrigation system to gain money for the running costs.
I have struggled to try and build a plastic bottle wind turbine (after gaining inspiration from reading the book, the boy who harnessed the wind). This highlights the need for improvement in my electrical knowledge. I researched this wind turbine would have to spin 1000 times a minute to charge the car battery it was connected to. This is a side project still in working progress!

Thatching Training Accommodation
George and I joined the conference Clayfest which was held in Errol, Scotland where we learnt the science and explanations into rammed earth. A good ratio of different soils mixed with a small amount of water binds as strong as concrete and acts with the same properties but is more breathable and climate responsive. It was really refreshing to meet like-minded architects, anthropologists, engineers, historians and sustainable characters who understood and were passionate for a change in mind set. 

Rammed Earth with Rowland Keable

Fibre and Clay Sculpture
 In Malawi like many places worldwide people believe concrete is stronger or more suitable for building than using the local natural resources. People in Malawi look at their grandparents skewed houses that are on the breach of collapse with the thin rammed walls (200mm) and decide fired bricks are more durable.  The rammed earth structures code of practice ICS91.080 highlights walls should be a minimum of 300mm thick. Small changes can ensure this technology is more robust.

We know earth is cheaper and more environmentally friendly but the costs for the large high capacity buildings at Sams Village are still incredibly high. This year and next I continue to research and look into affordable durable sustainable homes. This will be a big challenge but after an exciting break I am determined to come up with a solution to resolve one of the many issues of poverty.

Coming back to Malawi I can once again cycle down my 2 roads to work and greet people who respond with waves and smiles. People have a different energy that I collect for my inspiration.
A few fun volunteers from Landirani made a road trip to my favourite place Nkhata Bay for my first weekend back, this was for a biogas meeting in Mzuzu. I happily jumped in the back of the car heading north trying not to get too stuck into a routine on my return. 

 Patrick and I squashed into the boot of the car

Nkhata Bay Bay

 Sunset in Nkhata Bay 

Butterfly Space Nursery

Chikale Beach rockscape
 That bank holiday was for the Malawi Independence 51 years ago. There is another bank holiday this weekend due to Ramadam. Any temptations to go to Lake Malawi have been put aside as I realise I need to find a house to live in before my mum arrives in 2 weeks time. Her only request was for a hot shower so I will also have to paint a bucket black and make some sort of pulley so she feels comfortable!!!! Fun times. 

Mum's shower!