Summer is Here, But Where is My Mphasa?

Written by CorpsAfrica/Malawi Volunteer Mr. Limbani Kumanga

We are not here to take part. We are here to take over”
-Conor McGregor
​I am writing this piece while seated on the veranda of my tiny house, having returned from Kanje market where I, together with three senior members of the Village X committee, had gone to purchase mphasa (a traditional mat made from reeds). Unimpressed with the quality of mphasa that we had found, we got back empty handed and we resolved to return to the market on Thursday – another market day at Kanje. Hopefully, we will be able to find top-quality mphasa then.
The September equinox, which falls on September 22, is the day when the sun crosses the equator heading toward the South. In the Southern hemisphere, this marks the official beginning of “summer” season. But, see, here in Malawi, which is roughly located midway between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn, we don’t necessarily use the Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring terminology when describing annual general weather patterns. Rather, the seasons that we have are: cool dry season (May – July), hot dry season (Aug – Nov), and hot wet season (Dec – April). This being mid September, it means we are deep in the hot dry season and, as expected, the days have been getting hotter and drier as we transition toward the end of the year. Generally, daily average temperatures have been hovering around 29°C, which is not that bad but is way different from the average temperatures that we were accustomed to during the cool dry season.

Characterized by scorched vegetation following successive days of zero precipitation, the dry season is a difficult period for small-scale dairy farmers in Chiradzulu and surrounding districts – where most farmers, for various reasons, are not that good when it comes to stocking feeds for periods of scarcity. To find succulent green vegetation for their animals, farmers travel long distances on bikes in search of rivers and streams where they collect various species of vegetation, including immature reeds! This is where the connection between our inability to findmphasa at Kanje market and the hot dry season rests.

At the market, a friend of the only mphasa seller that we found uttered a powerful remark that got me thinking. He said: “Mphasa zikusowa chifukwa cha zitsiru zomwe zikuweta ng’ombezi. Mabango onse adyetsa ng’ombe. Zikapitilira zimenezi, mphasa zizasiya kupezeka. Ndichitukuko cha mtundu wanji chimenechi? [It is extremely difficult to find mphasa these days because of the imbecile that are stocking dairy cattle. If this trend remains unchecked, the mphasa industry will cease to exist. What kind of development is this?]”. To add context to the translated quote, I should mention that most dairy farmers in the region, most who are based in Thyolo but collect green feeds in Chiradzulu rivers and streams, are beneficiaries of several development initiatives from the government and NGOs that distribute livestock to diversify household income generation.

Do I think that development initiatives that involve the distribution of cows to rural farmers are borne out of imbecility? Hell no! However, I think the quote above triggers an important conversation that stakeholders in the development sector need to be mindful of: environmental & social impacts, among others, of development projects. What we have here is a classic scenario where the thriving of a particular development project complicates other sectors of life within a confined economy. The government and NGOs distributed dairy cattle to farmers to boost their household economic activities, which is a noble cause in itself. I am unsure whether these farmers were equipped with means of ensuring the availability of feeds during the dry season, but what we have here is that, by cutting immature reeds, dairy farmers are destroying the prospects of the mphasa industry – a mainstay industry in the region.

Since most people can’t afford a bed or chairs, mphasa is a very important household commodity here. Therefore, the unavailability of reeds along river banks is an issue of considerable concern. At the very least, the dearth of reeds translates to the scarcity of raw materials for making mphasa, which makes mphasa an exorbitant commodity on the market. Where will people sleep if they can’t have a mphasa? Without the availability [or unaffordability] of mphasa, it is highly probable that some people may resort to sleeping on a bare floor. This would not be a nice outcome.

Did dairy farming come to take over from the mphasa industry? I hope not. But how do we ensure that dairy farming thrives without compromising the mphasa industry in the region? Of course, a quick response would be training local dairy farmers how to preserve enough fodder for the dry season, which, based on recent rainfall patterns, ends around mid December. But who is responsible for the training? And what if these farmers were already trained how to preserve feeds for periods of chronic scarcity? What does one do in this case? If you can, feel free to leave comments on this post on what you think should be the way forward.

Anyway, the three committee members and I went to look for mphasa for the community nursery school, which I talked about in a couple of my initial entries such as this one. After several frustrating delays, the school got inaugurated today and it is my sincere hope that the school, despite the current unavailability of numerous basic necessities, will help to transform education prospects in Likoswe village. At the moment, kids sit on a bare cement floor, which seems to be okay with most local parents. Some of us, though, are not contend with this. Nevertheless, in my opinion, Likoswe, my community, is in dire need of the many potential outcomes that this nursery school is here to accomplish. Let me stop here.

Morocco, are you ready for the crew? Chill out though, ’cause we not coming to take over.

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