it’s more like a short story than a blog post… Nsumbi Village Project Nov09-Jan10

Ladies and gents who participated in the realization of this project.

I traveled from Botswana to Malawi to attend the 9th International Permaculture Convergence & Conference during November 2009.  Malawi is a tiny country encompassing the southernmost portion of the Great Rift Valley in Africa.  A large portion of its territory is a fresh water lake, which many people depend on for fish and their livelihoods.  After the convergence, I went to visit the lake and spent 2 months creating a project in a lakeside village near Monkey Bay.  With the financial support of Burners Without Borders and inspiring community collaboration of Nsumbi Village and Mufasa Backpackers Monkey Bay, we built a block of 6 washbasins with a banana and papaya circle to recycle the greywater for fruit trees.

The goals of the project are to: make clothes washing easier for women whose work it is, provide a place to wash clothes aside from the lake to reduce water pollution, and demonstrate a useful and replicable example of permaculture.  A mini network turned up for the creation of this project, including: Nsumbi villagers, myself as BWB, the Malawian Permaculture Network, the local community radio station, and Mufasa Monkey Bay.  Six weeks of organizing was followed by eight days of building and a final day of ceremony with Faniza and Joseph, Malawian permaculturalists, explaining the importance of the banana papaya circle and caring for the fruit trees.

The Plan Takes Form

I arrived in Monkey Bay to stay a couple of days at a rustic campsite being built into a backpackers lodge called Mufasa Monkey Bay.  Having just been immersed in permaculture I was amped to get going on a project.  “Why don’t you do one of your projects in Malawi instead of Botswana, they need it a lot more here,” Tinus, co-owner of Mufasa said to me one day.  Locals formerly used the land they lease for their lodge as a public area for swimming, bathing, and washing laundry.  While there are other places for swimming and bathing, washing laundry has become more difficult for the women.  They don’t want to wash in the harbor because of the oil in the water, and otherwise they have to climb up and over rocks to inconvenient places where the water is cleaner.  Additionally, most of the lakeside dwellers pollute the water with washing powders while also depending on the fish for their income and diet.  Tinus suggested I build washbasins, which would make it easier for the women to do the washing, decrease water pollution, and improve human and ecological health.  It sounded like a fun and useful endeavor so I contacted Carmen Mauk with Burners Without Borders to see if we could secure funding.  She gave me the go ahead, our first good omen.

Making it Happen

  • Site Selection

I walk over to the harbor and offices of Malawi Lake Services to ask the officials if we can use the neglected piece of land adjacent from the harbor gate to build the basins.  Flamboyant trees drop red flowers onto the pavement and a gang of baboons scampers away from trash piles.  I cross onto the paved road to greet the man at the gate with a large HALT sign as he waves me through.  It’s nearly 100 degrees and he’s dressed in a cap, long pants, and serious black boots.  Ahead, a few grey metal boats sit in the water looking as if they haven’t left the dock in years.  I find a man named Arthur who kindly walks me to his office and informs me of bad news.

Arthur’s office is bare, with a fan blowing a welcome breeze through the cement building.  On his desk are stacks of paper in wooden IN and OUT boxes.  On his wall hangs the calendar seen in every business in Malawi with all the months laid out under a fuzzy graphic of purple snowy mountains and pastures of orange marigolds.  In cursive writing it says “Vision is the art of seeing the invisible.”  He says the harbor is being sold to a Portugese company who will soon take over.  Therefore, any requests about the land must be held until mid-March.  This is not good news, being that I have to return to Botswana by the end of January.  Arthur and I talk some more and he begins to write down names and addresses of people in the local government to contact, including the chief of the area.  He kindly hands me the paper and suggests I speak to the chief who may be able to shore up support when speaking to the higher-ups.  He wishes me “all the best” and smiles.

After discussing with Tinus the dilemma of the harbor privatization, I decide to look for the chief and see if he might be able to offer help.  I return to the harbor.  I speak to the guards at the gate and a gregarious man who says, “you call me George” with a big ol grin.  He tells me he can take me to the chief after he knocks off work in the afternoon.  We make a plan to meet at 2pm.

Nsumbi Village, Malawi

  • Meeting the Chief of Nsumbi

Around 3pm we start walking towards Nsumbi village to meet the chief, not sure if he is there or not.  It is hot as blue blazes, as my mother would say, and we walk across the dusty airstrip without any shade from the blazing sun. There are no apparent pathways so I stick close to George as we trudge across the sandy terrain. Sounds of car horns, truck engines, and the current chart toppers from Zambia drift over from the main drag of Monkey Bay.  The small buildings made of corrugated tin and scrap wood, sometimes nailed, sometimes tied together with thin strips of used tires are visible to us.  I hold my notebook above to shield my face from the sun.  I grew up in Georgia so am used to the heat, but it’s as if the sun shines through a magnifying glass in southern Africa, roasting me like a pork loin with a crisp cracklin.

I’m a bit amazed that it is so easy to meet the chief of the village.  I feel light with curiosity and the opportunity to have this experience.  I figure there are a lot of things I don’t understand about the chief’s role in the community and the norms of interacting with him, so I think the best I can do is to know the proper greeting so I don’t embarrass myself or offend him.  But let’s face it; I’m bound to embarrass myself many times during this venture, I think.  Here I am, an outsider, a white foreigner, trying to bring something to a small village in Malawi, a place I know very little about and have only been for a couple of weeks.  I’m bound to be clumsy and overly self-conscious of my whiteness and privilege as a foreign traveler.  George instructs me on the greeting, that I should call the chief “Amfumu.”  Simple word, hey?  Well, I repeat it to him about twenty times over the course of our 40 minute walk to make sure I don’t mess it up.

Walking through Nsumbi, we pass by brick houses clearly made of the earth on which they sit.  Brownish roofs are thatched from vetiver grass.  Women sit on the front stoop and weave together pale green grasses into mats.  Wearing colorful cloths from the region wrapped around their waists and second hand t-shirts from the US, they smile and wave sweetly as we pass.  There is little vegetation besides occasional trees and palm fronds covering the hot, dark grey sand. Glimpses of the tropical blue lake peek out at us every so often.  Children come out of all hidden corners and form a troupe behind us.  Watching me with curious eyes, they shy away when I return their gaze.  Goats bleat and chickens cluck, free for the day from the cleverly built wooden pens raised off the ground where they are put at night.

We arrive at the chief’s house, not far from a small graveyard under a group of breezy tamarind trees.  A little girl runs up and hugs me around my knees shouting “azungu!azungu!” meaning “white  person! white person!”  Or as some people like to joke, “crazy white person.”  Eventually the chief arrives, casually walking across the sand towards us from the lake.  He is dressed in a maroon shirt with gold threaded designs and plain slacks with sandals and appears to be mid-40s.  The men greet each other then I shake his hand and say, “Muli bwangi, amfumu,” with a smile.  He responds just like anyone else, “ndiri bwino, kayayino?”  “Ndiri bwino, zikomo kwombiri. “  “Zikomo kwombiri,” he finishes.

He welcomes us into his home.  His house is nicer than most in the village.  It has a covered stoop and is made of high quality bricks.  We sit on the sofas with lace doily covers.  He sits across from George and I, all of our knees scrunched against the wooden table between and the sofas.  There are no kitchen appliances, TV, or electricity.  The plates and bowls are stacked visibly in the cupboard without doors.  George and the chief speak in Chichewa as he tells him why I have come.  I am hoping the chief will give us good news about the washbasin project.  George translates to me the details of what he has told the chief about why I am here.  Then I speak, asking the chief permission to do the project in Monkey Bay.  In English, he says,  “You are very welcome in my village and I am very happy to hear about your project.  I think it is a very good project and I would like it if you would start with my village.  You see, the people here are very poor, they have nothing, and so it would be best to start here.”  I tell him I was very happy to hear it, and honored to start the project in his village.  I am surprised by how easy-going and enthusiastic the chief is in his decision to accept the project.  After the men chat again, George informs me we will go visit the chief’s elder for further permission.

Happy that we have found a solution to the privatization of the harbor, we walk to the chief’s elder.  After a few minutes of weaving between homes and children, we come to a man and woman sitting upon a grass mat chatting, a pack of Ascot cigarettes by the old man’s back hand.  As we approach them, the woman walks over to sit beneath a tree and peel cassava while the man stands to greet us.  He is barefoot in a t-shirt and slacks.  I hear the men also call him “amfumu” and so I follow suit.  If I said few words at the previous sitting, I said even fewer here.  The men speak to the elder in Chichewa and once again George translates for me after their conversation.  He tells me the elder has given us permission to build the wash basins in his village.  I thank him, “zikomo kombiri, zikomo.”  I am struck by how informal it was to meet the chief and his elder and happy to find a place to build the basins.  The show goes on and George and I walk back towards town.

Mr Banda and I exchanged cell phone numbers but over the next couple of weeks I realize it isn’t the best mode of communication.  Instead, we would meet in the village where he picked the best site for the basins, by an existing water tap.  This was advantageous so that we didn’t have to be concerned about pumping in water or installing taps with the basins.

The more we met, the more comfortable I felt taking the lead in explaining the concept of the basins and the banana & paw-paw circle and updating him on the collection of building materials.  On his end, he would meet with the committee of families that frequented the water tap and get their approval of the project.  It’s important to get all stakeholders involved, even with a project as small as this one.  In my opinion, it’s best that everyone feels informed and involved so that they have a sense of involvement and thus ownership over it.

  • Fuel Crisis & Cement Shortage

During the time of organizing this project, Malawi experienced a fuel crisis.  The shortage was caused by a lack of foreign exchange, used to purchase fuel.  Days go by when there is no fuel available at the stations.  Some days there is petrol, but rarely there is diesel.  Buses stop running, as do matolas (combi van taxis).  The story starts to come together from people talking around town and the newspapers, too.  From word of mouth I hear there is no foreign exchange because tourism has decreased this year and tourists aren’t bringing their dollars, euros, and pounds.  In the newspaper I read there is no foreign exchange because the government has paid for too much fertilizer to subsidize Malawi’s farmers. The president has recently bought a private jet, but the shortage isn’t due to him because the jet hasn’t been fully paid for, say the papers. Another explanation comes through that the shortage is due to the sales of tobacco this year and that Malawi’s imports are too high compared to its exports.

The fuel shortage affected the building because cement was not brought to Monkey Bay for weeks.  As soon as a shipment came in, I received a phone call from Agora to tell me they had some in stock.  Even if we had cement, we wouldn’t be able to pick up loads of river sand, gravel, and broken bricks without vehicles.  After a few weeks, equilibrium was reached and fuel returned to the pumps.

  • Building Happens: Days 1-8

We started building on Saturday January 2nd.  In town, I find a blue work truck and ask the group of men standing in the shade with their bicycles and trucks for hire about the owner of this one.  The owner is helping someone change a flat tire on a car, and says he can take me after he finishes.  We negotiate the price.  In Malawi, many exchanges are negotiations.  Especially in a village setting such as this, there are few set prices.  There is a range of what is acceptable for this sort of transportation, and we settle on 1300 Kwatcha ($8.50) to pick up the load of sand and drop it in Nsumbi.  Nearly every vehicle in Monkey Bay needs a new starter.  When the driver is ready, a few guys give the truck a push, and we are off.  We ride down the tarmac, turn down the bumpy dirt road for Nsumbi, and meet the Ernest, Mzuza, and William at the building site.  They hop in the back and we drive through the sand, not following any path in particular until we join the road that runs parallel to a riverbed.  Ernest has arranged with the owner of a nearby plot beforehand about coming to collect river sand.  We will pay him 1,500 Kwacha for the sand, which includes his labor of having put it in a neat pile on the raised bank of the river for us to take.  The guys shovel the pile of sand into the back, filling it level with the sides of the truck, and covering it with a tarp.  Arranging transportation to pick up sand and dump it at the building site has taken all morning, so we break for lunch to meet back at 2pm.

After lunch, I ride back into the village on a bicycle taxi.  I sit on a vinyl cushion put on top of a rack and hold on to a small metal bar as a young guy named Blessmore petals strongly through the mid-day heat down the tarmac and dirt road to Nsumbi.  While I sit under a tree, waiting for Ernest, William, and Mzuza to show up, I think about the ethos of BWB.  We are a community of creative builders and we want to manifest projects to make a difference in the world outside of Black Rock City.  With us is a spirit of collaboration and creativity to build solutions within communities.  I think of the work development organizations are doing in Malawi, and see sparks of independence and resourcefulness that come from the burning man community through the vessel of BWB compared to these other organizations.  This particular project is small that will hopefully make a difference, and money is not wasted on flashy cars and admin costs usually associated with NGOs working in the developing world.  It is more of a human-to-human project on behalf of a creative community rather than an enormous organizational endeavor that would take a lot more time, money, and frustration.  This, I find refreshing.

The guys arrive and mix cement to lay the foundation during the afternoon.  Children come round to watch the action.  They are shy towards me, staring at me with wide eyes but eventually warming and we do cartwheels and headstands.  The little boys and girls help by carrying bricks from the neighbor’s house, from whom we’ve purchased the bricks, to the site for the foundation.  The boys test their strength by carrying two or even three at a time.

We need more cash so the next day I travel to Mangochi to the ATM to withdraw money.  I ride in a minibus the way there.  On the way back, I catch a ride in the back of a pick up, which is much quicker than the bus but much hotter with no shade from the sun.  The entire trip is 120 km, and it takes 6 hours.  Travel is slow in Malawi.

Day 2

I meet DJ Spider in town by coincidence and he wants to join me in Nsumbi.  We hop on bicycle taxis.  The hills are greening from the rain and frogs croak from standing puddles by the road.  A chirping chorus of “hello!”s follows us the entire way to the village as children chirp and wave to us, showing their teeth with big smiles.  I arrive a bit ahead of Spider, so I pay the guy 40 Kwatcha and have a conversation about 20 is for him and 20 for the other guy.  He says okay and few times and I think we’ve understood each other.  When Spider arrives I discover the guy did not share his money with the other.  I laugh.  I learn that some of these guys don’t speak English well and will say yes and okay agreeably until you ask if they speak English and then they say no.  Communication is difficult sometimes and since I don’t speak Chichewa I have to rely on English.  This can be very frustrating and I learn that a combination of patience, a humorous attitude, and repetition is the way to reach mutual understanding.

I arrive to find that Mzuza and William have gone fishing.  Their livelihoods are based on fishing and their participation in the project keeps them from going out on the lake to catch fish for the market.  I am upset that they haven’t showed up like we agreed.  I also understand they are poor, and they need money to feed their families and they get this by fishing.  I am caught up in one of the main challenges I faced with this project, which concerns who to pay for their labor.  This is a collaborative community project where we expect the community to give their time and energy to build the basins and banana circle in exchange for what BWB gives which are materials, time, and energy.  It is most definitely not a handout.  I talk to people around town what to do about it and I communicate with Carmen as well.  It is decided that the three guys who are giving skilled labor are paid, while other people from the community volunteer in ways that are easy and quicker, bringing a sense of community participation and ownership to the project.

Ernest says they will be back in the afternoon and we agree to meet at 2pm.  Spider and I go in search of broken bricks that we need for filling the center of the foundation.  A group of permaculturalists, headed by June Walker a 75 year-old woman from the UK who has lived in Malawi since she was 19, are designing a resource center near the airstrip.  I am hoping we can take away some of their waste building rubble to use in our project.  When we arrive, a man named Frazier says he can give us some broken bricks.  I ask him how much for it.  He says he can’t ask me for any money, since they are not usable for building, but he will accept whatever I think is right.  I appreciate his disposition of not asking for something ridiculous like 3000 Kwatcha when he very well could, and I give him 500.

I go into town to arrange transportation.  The old man with the blue truck is not around, so I approach the only vehicle I see there.  It is a beat up blue ford low rider that looks like an el camino.  I recognize it for being the loudest truck in town.  The truck belongs to a young guy named Vasco.  He is looking stylish, dressed in a cream corduroy jacket and hat with blue corduroy pants.  Looking at him and his truck, I figure he would star in a Malawi version of Dukes of Hazzard.  I hop in to see empty cavities where there would be a radio and vents.  The vinyl seats are ripped and I can see the ground through screw holes in the metal floorboard.  A few guys give the truck a push and he revs it mightily.  I am in awe at how he makes this vehicle run when it seems so close to death.

On our way, the truck gets stuck in the mud.  It’s a wonder to see a throng of people crowded around it in no time.  A farmer puts down his hoe while school children also press against the truck in a massive heave to push it out.  Vasco presses on the gas until the engine squeals.  Success.  We weave along goat paths to the pile of bricks.  People here make bricks, dry them in the sun, stack them in piles, cover the pile with mud, and burn charcoal to make fired bricks.  We pile the bricks into the truck and give it a push to start.  As he drives, the sand road collapses under the weight of the brick-loaded truck, the nose of the truck slides into the sandy shoulder, and the right back wheel hangs three feet off the ground in mid air.  No one is hurt.  We all have a laugh, including the school children who have gathered around to watch.  We unload the bricks, in a fireman’s line, tossing one at a time down the line.  The school children carry bricks without anyone asking.  After pushing the car out and onto solid ground, we reload.  The truck gets stuck in sand twice more, each time we take out and reload some bricks to lighten the load enough to push start it.  About 100 meters from the site, smoke creeps in to the front seat and I wonder if it’s going to blow.  It doesn’t.  We get to the site, eventually.  The three builders are there as well as a couple others from the community and we pack the broken bricks into the wash basin structure, crushing them to make a solid center.  It’s already the evening and we wrap up for the day.

Ernest and William build.


We met in the morning, Ernest, Mzuza, William and I.  Mzuza jokingly practices his English with me, and I say my few words of Chichewa.  We shake hands, snapping forefingers and thumbs.  William is wearing his Stax Records tshirt and I figure he probably doesn’t know how cool he looks with it.  The guys throw a concrete slab like nothing I’ve ever seen.  They are so quick and strong it amazes me.  Mzuza tells me,  “must be quick, and attentive.”  I’m impressed.  We let it sit for the afternoon.

Day 4

Riding into the village on a bicycle taxi at 8:00am, I see women coming home from their morning work in the fields, balancing hoes and water jugs on their heads, their waists and legs covered with colorful chintenge fabrics.  At the building site, the guys lay the pipes and secure them with cement in the morning.  Wyson, the village nursery school teacher comes and helps with the building.  This is the day that I notice the guys begin to take more ownership of the project.  The make decisions among themselves instead of waiting for what I suggest they do.  They move forward with more certainty as if they realize that my role is to participate and supervise, but that they are not building for me, they are building for their community.

In the afternoon, we are in need of another load of broken bricks.  I find the old man with the blue truck, passing up Vasco in slight fear that his vehicle might explode with me in it.  We go to a different pile of bricks, this one in a green, damp field on the other side of the village from the lake.  Men, young and old, a few small girls, and I load bricks in the back of the truck.  It starts to rain.  Glittering shards of sunshine-reflecting rain spill out of the sky and the children open their mouths wide to catch them.  Mzuza’s eight year-old son and I toss a mud ball back and forth.  Bare feet get muddy.  The greens and pinks of grass and flowers sharpen in the rain.  Raindrops wash off the sweat from everyone’s faces and arms.  We rally to push start the truck.  It’s stuck, and the mud gets muddier with the rain.  We unload the bricks, but to no avail.  Men dig and heave, alternating layers of sweat and rain running down their faces.  One hour later, the truck is unstuck and bricks are reloaded.  There is lightness, an air of accomplishment and success with this endeavor.  The adults hop in the truck, and the kids cheer and run behind us.

After we unload the bricks and pack them down into the building structure, the sky opens up and pours down rain.  We huddle under the eaves of a nearby thatched house watching scattered people run for shelter.  Mizuza practices his English, proud of his knowledge of the word “beetch.”  After an hour, it hasn’t let up, and I venture into the rain, with Ernest’s umbrella.  With one hand I clutch my bundle of belongings and in the other hand I hold an umbrella, turned inside out by the wind.  I put it away, already drenched, running through deep puddles.  When the rain lifts, I am on a bicycle taxi.  A mist of clouds lifts up over the hills.  The rain has washed away the dusty sand of the dry days, revealing bright green grasses, trees, and maize fields.  The yellows of thatched roofs match the yellow palm fronds still on the trees.  Rosy chocolate mud puddles reflect lavender shades of the sky.  People have come out of shelter into their fields and onto the tarmac.  There is an atmosphere of delight and happiness for the rain.

Days 5-8

The guys throw another slab on top of the pipes and build the basins today.  It is a quiet day, and at one point I sit under the shade of a nearby tree with a girl who usually comes around to watch our activity.  She is deaf and unable to speak properly.  She squeals and chirps when she wants to say things.  She has a standard 7 agriculture book from school.  We look at the pages together and she points to the drawings of farm equipment.  I am impressed to see natural farming techniques being taught in the book.  In the first pages of the book there are words about AIDS from the Ministry of Health and contact info for testing centers and helplines.  One page has a picture of children in school uniforms and says, “you will not get AIDS from sharing this book.”  This statement highlights the endemic proportions of this illness and the confusion surrounding its transmission and the pain of stigma children with AIDS must bear.

The next couple of days are spent finishing the basins with plaster to make them shiny.  We dig a hole for the banana papaya circle, placing a ring of cemented bricks around the top and lining the pit with gravel and banana leaves.  Having tapped into the Malawi Permaculture Network through the conference held in November, I was able to source some fruit trees as well as a couple of people to come speak about permaculture and the necessary care of the fruit trees planted around the pit bed.

On the final day, women and men from the community gathered to talk about the basins and banana and papaya circle.  The atmosphere fluctuates between festive celebration and earnest discussion of the future of this project.  I repeat the two phrases I have learned and deem useful to communicate the essence of this project:  “Chochapila zovala” (laundry washbasin) and “Kuchapa kwa phweke” (washing made easy).  Big smiles come from the women and the echo my voice.  They discuss the need to put up a fence to protect the trees from hungry roaming goats.  They make a plan to bring in compost to fill holes where the trees would be planted and complete the fruit tree circle.  Fanwise and Jospeh, Malawian permaculturalists gave thorough talks on the proper care of trees and an explanation of the pit bed used to recycle the greywater of the washbasins.

There is a vibe of celebration and gratitude to BWB for bringing the project to them and for the gift of receiving and owning something intended to improve their daily lives.  The women sing and dance around the sapling tees that lay on the sandy ground.  I was feeling happy to have had such an interesting two months coordinating the building of the washbasins and banana papaya circle as well as wondering how the future of it will go.  Will it be used?  Will it be taken care of?  Will people be able to mobilize to bring more of them to their villages to decrease water pollution and improve the wellbeing within these communities?  Alas, the project has come to completion and my role has become nearly obsolete.  We have passed it on completely to the community and it is now theirs with which to do what they wish.

Finished except for the fruit trees and fence around the pit bed.

  • Operation: Washbasins with Greywater Recycling Circle

This is how we built it:

1: dig 20 cm and lay foundation of bricks and cement, place wires to reinforce brick walls

2: lay 3 layers of bricks

3: fill with broken bricks, compact it, wet it

4: throw concrete slab

5: lay pipes, hold in place with cement where necessary

6: fill with broken bricks, compact it, wet it

7: throw 2nd concrete slab

8: build up walls for basins with bricks and concrete

9: plaster basins with concrete and make it shiny

10: dig pit for banana and papaya circle

11: use cement and bricks to improve drainage ditch

12: build fence around space for fruit trees to protect them

13: plant fruit trees

14: love it and care for it

More pictures on my flickr account at:

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