Picture It

Chirombo Village Pt. 3: The Mill

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 22 June 2010

The mill in Chirombo Village, Malawi.

A few days ago, I visited the mill in Chirombo Village.  I arrived in the village early in the morning to meet Stanley, one of the villagers who has been showing me around.  Despite the early hour, the sun was already quite hot.  I put my folded reflector on my head to shade my face, much to the amusement of the local women, who carry very heavy loads on their heads.

Kids posing in front of the mill. One of them had stickers on her forehead, ears, and the back of her head. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

As we walked through the village, people stuck their heads out of windows and doors and around trees and fences to watch us pass.  A few children followed us.  At one point, a group of about twenty children on their way to school joined us.  They took turns gathering up their courage to yell “How are you madam!”

About two kilometers into the walk, I asked Stanley where the mill was.  I worried he was taking me to one of the mills in Monkey Bay, which are located at least six kilometers away.  He assured me that it wasn’t too much farther and that the mill was still in Chirombo Village.  Still, I was surprised how far it was.  Chirombo Village is not very wide, but it is very long.  Stanley told me that this is the only mill in the village, which means that some women and girls must walk up to four kilometers each way (if they live on the same side of the mill as me), carrying heavy corn on the way there and just-as-heavy flour on the way back.

Once we arrived at the mill, Stanley talked to the workers in Chichewa, asking permission for me to take photos.  The children who had followed us stuck around for a few minutes before reluctantly continuing on their way.  The two mill workers agreed to let me photograph the mill, though their approval was somewhat halfhearted.

The two machines that grind corn into flour. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

Again, there was much excitement regarding my equipment.  When I set up my tripod inside, the mill workers and a handful of children and women came inside to watch me, unknowingly blocking the things I wanted to take pictures of.  I waited for everyone to get bored of watching me doing nothing, which happened fairly quickly when a woman arrived with a large bag of corn.

When the machines started, most of the people left the mill.  It took me a few seconds to realize why.  As soon as the motor roared to life, a cloud of corn flour burst from every opening of the machine.  The vibrations also shook the flour from the rafters, causing it to fall gently on my head and my camera.  I was covered almost instantly.  Throughout my stay, the children took turns brushing the flour from my hair, my back, and my jeans.  I could only take a photo or two before needing to blow the dusting off my equipment.

The busy mill. Workers and customers attending to their duties in the mill. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

There are two machines in the mill.  Both of them grind corn into flour, but they do it in different ways.  I’m not sure if the outcome of the flour is any different; it didn’t look like it.  The closest machine in the above photo grinds the corn, the force of which sends the flour through a pipe and a shoot before it empties into waiting buckets.  The second machine simply dumps the flour on the floor under the machine.  It was the second machine that was used to grind this woman’s corn.  When the machine was shut off, she spent a while scooping her flour back into the giant sack she brought with her.

Since nsima, the main dish of Malawi, is made from corn flour, the mill was very busy.  Luckily, a full sack of flour can feed a family of five for almost a month, so the women only have to make the trek to the mill every few weeks.  According to Stanley, it costs MK500 (around US$3.30) to grind a full sack of corn into flour and MK250 (around US$1.65) for a half sack (no discounts for bulk!).  This was the only woman who used an actual sack.  Everyone else brought buckets and tubs of various sizes.  There was no bartering over price, so there must be some sort of set price for those containers as well.

A woman preparing corn for the mill. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

The price of making nsima is low, even by Malawian standards.  Many of the locals here grow their own corn, but the others have to buy their corn in small one-kilo bags.  Future-orientated farmers can grow enough corn every year to last them until the next harvest.  Some even grow enough to sell off a few bags and earn some extra money.  But there are a lot of families that overcook when food is plenty, often throwing out up to half of what was prepared.  Then the corn runs out and they must scrape together enough money to buy corn until the next harvest.  In this area, each hectare can produce 12-15 sacks of corn.  Fertilized fields can produce around 20 bags per hectare.  The harvest season is usually between February and April, depending on the rains, so the locals are still eating well from the recent yeild.

One of the mill workers in Chirombo Village, Malawi.

Tools in the mill. Chirmbo Village, Malawi.

A woman shaking dust from her corn to prepare it for the mill. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

There were only a few minutes during my visit when there were no customers.  I took advantage of this time to photograph one of the two men working at the mill.  The second one was very interested in watching me, but didn’t want to be photographed.  Neither of these men own the mill.  The equipment in the mill and the gasoline needed to run them cost a lot of money, so most mills are owned by the upper class Malawians.  This one happens to be owned by a government minister who lives in Blantyre (about three hours away).

When the customers picked up again, I moved outside to see how the women prepare the corn for the mill.  First, they pour some of the corn into large, shallow, woven baskets.  They shake the baskets to remove the dust and dirt from the corn.  The clean corn is dumped into buckets so the next batch of corn can be shaken clean.  When the buckets are full, they are emptied into the grinding machine, then, if the machine with the shoot is used, the buckets are quickly placed to catch the four.

A girl waiting for her corn flour. Chirombo Village, Malawi.

Since it was mid-morning, most of the customers were women between the ages of twenty and seventy.  Most of the younger girls were in school.  I did see two young teens at the mill.  In traditional Malawian families, the females must take care of the house and prepare the food.  These two tasks take priority over everything else, including school.  These two girls must not have finished their chores in time to make it to class.  If they finished everything quickly, they would probably go to class in the afternoon.  The girl in the photograph to the right is even in her school skirt.

The longer I stayed at the mill, the more people gathered to watch me work.  Some of the women asked me to photograph them.  I started with an old, yet boisterous woman, who then patted me down, asking me for money.  I emptied my pockets for her, pulling out cords, memory cards, and keys.  When my pockets were empty, I turn them inside out.  The old woman thought it was all quite entertaining, and showed the other women all the strange things I had in my pockets instead of money.

A woman nursing her child while waiting to use the mill in Chirombo Village, Malawi.

One of the women waiting in line for the mill asked me to photograph her and her baby.  She stood very still and very strong, holding her child, who started crying when she took him off her back.  To calm the child, she began nursing him, but motioned that I should still photograph her.  When it was her turn to use the mill, she passed her child to one of  the girls who had come to watch me.  The girl had been making funny faces at my camera when I photographed her, but when she held the child, she became very composed.  The baby stopped crying when my lights went off, and he inspected me and my camera with unblinking eyes.

Finally, Stanley, who had become anxious because of the disruptive crowd that had formed to watch me and to be photographed, decided it was time to leave.  I thanked the mill workers and the women I photographed, then headed on my way, followed, as always, by a group of children.

A girl holding a neighbor's child in Chilrombo Village, Malawi.

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3 Responses

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