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Chirombo Village Pt. 4: The Apprentice Cow Herder

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 06 July 2010

The apprentice cow herder, Yamikani. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Here in Monkey Bay, many of the locals grow their own food and raise a few animals.  Goats, sheep, and chickens wander around the streets and fill the fields.  A less popular, yet still very important, livestock is cattle.  I met up with a young apprentice herder at one of the local farms in Monkey Bay.

Calves being herded between fields. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Yamikani Paulo is 13 years old.  He has lived in the Monkey Bay area since he was born, and he has been herding cattle since he was 5.  This farm, which used to be much larger a decade ago, has  between 25 and 30 cows, nearly as many sheep, and quite a few chickens.  Corn is grown in the surrounding fields.  The cows are rotated between three different pastures, changing at least once every day.  Yamikani usually herds only in the afternoon since he is in school from 7am until 2pm.

Yamikani and his family live on the farm along with another family.  The women tend to the crops.  Yamikani’s younger brother helps him with the cattle.  Yamikani told me that he neither hates nor loves being a cow herder.  He has no other occupational dreams because he knows he will remain a herder even when he is older and has finished school.  He says he is thankful that he not only has a job, but that he found one at such a young age and has been able to hold onto it.

The cows, sheep, and chickens on the farm are either sold or eaten by the farmers.  The proceeds from selling some of the animals pays for the school fees for Yamikani and his brother.

A curious cow sticking its head out the window of the barn to inspect the people outside. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

As I mentioned before, this farm used to be much larger.  There were twice as many buildings and every one of them was spotlessly clean.  The animals numbered in the thousands. Giant walk-in refrigerators kept the food fresh before it was trucked to stores around the country.

Between tending the animals, processing the meat (steaks, jerky, and sausage), planting and picking the crops (corn and mushrooms, among others), and managing the entire operation, this farm employed over 500 people in Monkey Bay.  It was the single largest employer in the area.

Unfortunately, it fell victim to the Malawian economy.  Now, almost half of the buildings sit in ruin, leaving little more than foundations covered in encroaching vegetation.

Shortly after this shoot, I was showing these images to two gentlemen I met at the lodge.  It turns out that one of them was the owner of the farm.  He was shocked and pleased to see photos of his farm, but he was disappointed to see just how much the buildings have decayed in his absence.

Adult cows protecting a curious calf. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

He also told me the story of how the farm came to be in such a state.

Years ago, when the farm was at its peak, he had gone to South Africa to buy some more equipment so he could increase production on the farm.  At that time, the Malawian kwatcha was 1 to 1 with the South African rand.  While he was gone, the Malawian economy took a terrible hit, drastically depreciating the kwatcha overnight.  When he purchased the equipment the exchange rate had increased, unknown to him, to 16 to 1 with the rand.  He had expected to find a nine or ten million kwatcha in his bank account when he returned.  Instead, he found that he had overdrawn by nearly seventeen million kwatcha.  That, of course, was a horrific loss.  The farm was one of his many ventures to suffer the consequences.

Almost all of the 500+ workers lost their jobs when the farm was closed.  Most of them remain unemployed even years later, but since the people here grow and raise their own food, there was not the starvation that is often associated with such a drastic increase in unemployment.

Now, the remains of the giant farm are tended by two families, with Yamikani planning on becoming the main herder in a few years.

When I was photographing the cows, I was worried that my lights would frighten them, stress them, or cause them to charge me.  I was very pleased find that even though the first flash of my lights startled them, they adapted very quickly.  They were more anxious about my presence than that of my lights.

A cow looking menacing. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Inside the barn, the cows remained very curious, but kept their distance.  One calf had the nerve to come close to me, much to the dismay of the mother.  The mother somehow thought that I had caused and encouraged the calf’s curiosity, and she bobbed her head menacingly, threatening to charge every time her baby came too close to me.  Some of the other cows tried to intimidate me too, but most of them watched me intently from a safe distance.  Some of the female cows were pregnant, so they were testy and easily upset, but luckily, none of the cows made good on their threats!

The cows are usually herded between the barns and the grazing fields early in the morning and at dusk when the temperatures are not too unbearable.  The paths to the fields are not direct; they take winding trails that often add a lot of distance so they can pass watering holes and small streams.  The fields have small shelters to protect the herders from the brutal sun.  The cows usually spend the night in the barns to prevent them from getting lost or stolen.

A cow near the waterhole at dusk. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

The cows and sheep share the barns peacefully.  The chickens run free around the grounds, but take shelter in some of the broken barns when necessary.  The women sit on their woven straw mats on the old, bare foundations to shuck the corn.  Piles of dry cobs are sprinkled around the cement.

Only one of the buildings still has its doors on the hinges.  Those doors are heavy and hand carved.  The owner told me that those doors protect the old walk-in refrigerators, which are still in working condition, if a little dirty.  The electricity would need to be reconnected before they can be brought back to life.

The owner has recently come back to Monkey Bay and hopes to reopen his farm and the other businesses he left when the economy crashed and bring them all back to their previous splendor.  The locals are already showing their delight at his return.  It might take a few years to bring the farm back to its former glory, but it will have an overwhelmingly positive impact on this community.

Yamikani sitting on the foundation of one of the old buildings. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

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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.