Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

July 6, 2005 Working in Malawi.

I’ve been to Malawi once before, but it was a long time ago, and I didn’t get much sense of the country. So in a way it feels as if I’d never been here before. I knew almost nothing about the country before I got on the plane to come here, so the learning curve has been steep. This afternoon I had a conversation that reminded me that I still know almost nothing. I phoned the Tea Association of Malawi to find out what kinds of data they have on the tea estates. The man I’d been advised to talk to wasn’t in, and the secretary put me through to someone else. His accent was thick, and I had trouble understanding him. Most Malawians seem to be fluent in English, but they speak it very differently from us, or even from the English from whom they learned it, and speaking on the phone can be hard. We chatted for a few minutes, and I began to think that the Tea Association doesn’t keep the kinds of data I want. And I was beginning to think that this man, whose name I hadn’t gotten, was beginning to think me a totally ignorant newbie. Which isn’t so

far from wrong. I asked his name, and couldn’t understand what he said in reply. First name appeared to be Todd – maybe I got that right? Last name Nindi, but I thought perhaps he said Lindi or Nimdi. People here have a way of pronouncing “l”s like “r”s and vice versa, so Thyolo (pronounced Cholo by anglos) becomes Choro, and hot sauce is alternately piripiri or pilipili. And “Phalombe” is pronounced “Palombi,” and I can’t remember whether Likhabula is “Likooobula” or “Likuboola.” The latter, I think. Though someone else on the project did even worse than I, she said she was traveling to “Theyolo” instead of “Cholo.”

It’s not about pronunciation, though, it’s about what I’m doing here in a country about which I know virtually nothing. I’m designing a study to put a monetary value on the resources being obtained from Mount Mulanje. If all goes according to plan, I’ll come back later to carry out the study. A real honest-to-goodness valuation study. I’ve talked about these things and written about them all my life – well, all my professional life – but never actually done one. And now it looks like I will. To me it seems like something real – I’m finally going to do some analytical work, instead of just talking about whether the data are available for other people to do analytical work. It’s almost frightening – what if it turns out that I don’t know what I’m doing? But yesterday I talked to Moffat, who works for Mount Mulanje Conservation Trust. His reaction was, figuratively, “oh sigh, another study.” He’s trying to do things that mean something on the ground to the villagers who climb the mountain to bring down fuelwood and fruits. Studies won’t convince them to stop burning the forest or killing live trees. They are losing patience with the Trust, and Moffat is losing patience with more consultants doing studies.

I explained to him that if the study turns out as hoped, it could be a way to get more money for the Trust to do things on the ground. Which is true, and I almost believe it. But I also understand why Moffat is losing patience. Perhaps what I should wonder about is why I am not.

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