Lilongwe, Malawi, Africa
“They call Africa the Dark Continent, but there sure is a lot of sun here.” The delightfully named Sieglinde Snapp is saying this over a single gin and tonic after a long day under the blazing sun. Of course, it was called the Dark Continent because so little was known about the vast continent of Africa in early colonial days. But you already knew that, right?
I’m sunburned and sitting in a “disco” where the music is BLASTING and one person dances alone. Dr. Sieglinde Snapp (I love saying her name, feeling she is actually a character out of “Around the World in 80 Days” or a Seussian creation) is laughing and chatting about our time with her. “I know you guys were stressed out about not getting enough stuff early on.” She’s right. I always feel better when we get some really good video in the can right away. But we ended up with great stuff.
We’re here working on some stories for our MSUToday program and some other things. We’re looking at how some of Dr. Snapp’s (See? I managed not to say her entire name!) research and fieldwork is leading to amazing results. Our main focus is the elusive pigeon pea. I say it’s elusive because Malawi is all about corn. Everywhere you look, even in the cities, you see the stalks. It is just everywhere. I think there’s even some in the corner of the disco. But man cannot live on corn alone. And corn can be rough on soil and hard on the environment, needing nitrogen and a fair amount of water. So Dr. Sieglinde Snapp (Darn it!) has been helping farmers here realize the benefits of planting the pigeon pea. This legume (A word that is tossed about so often in this crowd I’m even using it) is pretty easy to grow here in the tropics and is quite common in India. It also packs in a lot of nutrition, lots of protein, critical to everyone, and vital in Africa, where food is often scarce and largely made up of maize-based foods, foods made from corn. Some findings are starting to come in and Dr. Snapp says it’s looking really good. She tells me health care workers are reporting that kids now eating the pigeon peas are healthier.
Standing out under the intense sunlight, I’m talking with Colby, a farmer growing pigeon peas.
“I have been planting the pigeon peas and my children are eating it and my little children are getting so big and strong!” He’s clearly proud and shows us around his land, Dr. Snapp inspecting the pods closely. She touches the pods, squints at the pods, nods sagely and moves to another row.
Alberto Moreno (You all know Al, right?) is dripping as he moves the heavy camera in and out of the plants, getting just the right shots. It’s not even that hot, the sun is just extreme.
“Remember, we’re just next to the Equator.” Dr. Snapp looks at me, bareheaded like an idiot. “I always wear my hat and lots of sunblock.” I do go and dig out my silly hat. It is better.
This has been a fast trip. It took us about two days of travel to get here, another two to get home. And we’re only on the ground for five days. So almost as much time traveling as shooting.
We flew into Lilongwe where we spent a little time at the Bunda College of Agriculture, one of the collaborators on this project. We also got a chance to head over to one of the nearby primary schools. I talked with some kids and teachers who were all well versed in the importance of good nutrition, if not the humble yet spectacular pigeon pea. They all loved having their pictures taken and all leapt in front of Al’s camera.
From Lilongwe we had a long, winding, five hour drive up to Mzuzu (So many great names on this trip!) where the pigeon peas are being grown. It’s another hour or so over dusty, red dirt “roads” to get out to the fields, like the one where we meet Colby.
Driving down the bone-jarring roads I keep looking for exotic African wildlife. But it’s only goats and cows. A couple of dogs. Disappointing. But as I’m bouncing along, something shoots out in front of me. Al and I both notice.
Al shouts, “Oh my God!”
I shout, “That’s not right! That can’t happen!”
We look at each other in complete shock and amazement and disbelief.
Over that gin and tonic, Sieglinde Snapp is calmly saying, “Well, a balanced diet is important. And protein can be hard to find for all living things in Malawi.”
She’s referring to what we saw. A big old chicken, dashing across the road, with a dead mouse firmly clenched in its beak.
Africa always shows you something you’re just not ready for. Sometimes it’s baby hyenas, sometimes it’s the warm smile of a farmer. And sometimes it’s the dreaded carnivorous chicken of Malawi.