Life in rural Malawi always involves the presence of animals. If all the world’s a stage, then livestock roam in the background, providing the occasional sound effect and comic relief. The set consists of sand blistering in the midday sun, a grand baobab tree swaying gently in the breeze, and the sky-blue waters of the lake of stars twinkling invitingly. A rooster caws in the distance. Suddenly, a brown cow staggers onto the scene, bleating frantically. It rushes off the path and toward the lake, where its lost herd grazes contentedly on sun burnt elephant grass. A white goat with a belly bulging from a feast of Winterthorn seed pods clambers onto a narrow three meter tall termite mound, looking over the land triumphantly. A flock of fuzzy chicks line behind their clucking mother hen as she raids a forgotten bucket of cornmeal. A woman appears and shoos the chickens away, igniting an angry cluck of protest from mother hen. These are the cast of characters I write about.
Livestock represent an investment in rural Africa where access to modern banking is reserved for the urban elite. Need money for a new thatched roof? Sell a rooster. Need to pay a bride price? A trade of a few cows will do. Animals also provide protein in the form of eggs or meat. Almost every week, a goat is slaughtered and its meat sold by the kg in the village market. In individual households however, the slaughter of a goat or chicken is rare and reserved for big events, such as weddings or the arrival of an honored guest. The other purpose of livestock is for transport. In the Northern Province of Zambia, cows were rare because the Bemba people were not historically pastoralists and disease ravaged herds. However in Zambia’s Eastern province, the Nyanja people relied on cows. In Malawi too, the Chewa people (descended from the Nyanjas of Zambia) revere cows. During the day, a young boy is responsible for leading the herd to water and to graze. At night, the cows are rounded up to rest in a small wooden kraal near the owner’s house. A couple oxen can be hitched to a cart and used as a form of transport, often to move construction materials such as fired bricks or sand.
Aside from that, they’re a horrible nuisance. From the turn off to Salima town, the paved road is poorly maintained, with eroding shoulders and the occasional crater. Driving means straddling the center line until oncoming traffic forces you back to your own lane at the very last second. Brazen bicyclists and bicycle taxis also share the roadway, vying for the smoothest route and having utmost faith that the drivers will avoid them. Further complicating this is the fact that I can’t really drive stick shift. Shifting gears means studying the gear box intently and often ending up in 5th gear when I was really aiming for second. If there’s too many bicyclists and oncoming traffic, I won’t shift gears and will just adjust my speed accordingly. I can also never find neutral and sometimes just stop the car by stalling it. As if these weren’t enough problems, there’s also the livestock to contend with. Chickens run across the road clucking angrily, there’s always an ox cart just ahead of you moving leisurely to its destination, and a young boy with a whip chooses that moment to lead his herd of cows across the road, leaving a cloud of suffocating dust in their wake. But worst of all are the goats, especially the young ones. They graze peacefully by the side of the road, then spy an oncoming vehicle and decide to dart across the road at the last possible moment. It is up to the driver to avoid these hairy kamikazes, as striking and killing one accidentally would result in an owner materializing and demanding payment.
If you need further evidence that Malawian livestock aren’t a cast of characters from “Charlotte’s Web”, then I’ll relate another scene I experienced today. My co-worker at the office, who works as our cook, is also a close neighbor. I sat in the shade of her cooking shelter with her on a grass mat telling her my plans for Monday as she sifted cornmeal flour. Suddenly she started yelling at a small child in ChiChewa, the only word of which I picked up was imbuzi, or goat. The girl didn’t move, so Annette leapt to her feet and started screaming “Tiye! Tiye! Tiye!” as she ran to her house. Seconds later, a brown and white goat came rocketing out. No doubt raiding the stacks of cornmeal flour kept in storage, or pooping on the cement floor that she carefully cleans with Cobra floor wax.
My mixture of disdain and reluctant amusement over Malawian livestock does not extend to companion animals. While living in Zambia, two dogs belonging to our closest neighbors adopted us. We often had these two dogs, plus Wilo, lounging at our house or following us around the village. After Wilo gave birth to a litter of puppies sired by one of these dogs, our little pack temporarily grew to nine dogs. So it didn’t surprise us that two dogs belonging to our neighbors here in Mudzi also decided to adopt us.
Tiger is a medium size tan dog
belonging to our landlord’s daughter.
Unusually friendly and playful for an African dog, he approached us
first and decided we were friends for life when we accepted his advances with
reciprocated kindness. He often follows
me all the way to work in the morning, and will sometimes sleep outside our
house gate. Bruce is his more timid
friend. Bruce is a tan Basenji type dog
with big ears that’s often found slumbering in the shade of an ox cart. The two dogs are often together, so Bruce
usually follows Tiger, who follows us.
|Tiger: just as goofy in real life|
Lastly, there are Peace and Calvin. These are the two-year-old brothers who are guard dogs at the office and guesthouse. As guard dogs they are quite effective, because the locals make a point to stay clear of our property fences. However, before my arrival, they began biting volunteers who stay at the guesthouse. They are territorial of different locations on the property, and often nip when someone encroaches. Armed with a bag full of dried fish, I slowly entered these areas, sprinkling fish onto the ground for them to reward good behavior.
|... and Calvin|
It took a couple of weeks, but I’ve earned their trust, and now they are different dogs, seeking out my company and begging for scratches. They also haven’t bitten anyone in nearly a month. After this shift in our relationship, I introduced them separately to Wilo on neutral territory. Then Wilo came inside the parameters. I have been bringing Wilo to work with me regularly, any time that I know I will be around the office and not out at project sites in the village. She really enjoys having space to run and chase birds, and gets along well with Peace and Calvin.
|My office and its three guardians|
Some other critters
|Weird prehistoric-looking gecko|
|An inch long frog that lives inside the drain of the sink in the bathroom at my office|
|A bird and its nest on the guesthouse veranda|