Update2

It’s been some time since our last update about the beekeeping work going on in Chitekete and Sinde. Thanks to a long summer full of great visitors we’ve had little time to keep up with our regular blogs (let alone our regular lives). Even in the midst of our busy visitors schedule, the beekeeping work has continued on and we were even able to share some of it first-hand with our family and friends.

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Namtuma standing alongside of two of our interns, Jacob and Zach, as they prepare to go harvest a hive.

Starting in mid-May, our whole family took a 3 day visit to Chitekete to greet friends, catch-up with the beekeeping group, and to teach the initial lesson of our Beekeepers Training Course to the Tuvene Beekeepers Collective. For some time now I have been working on a 10-lesson tropical beekeeping curriculum that can be used to give first time beekeepers an introduction to the technology and technique of modern beekeeping– and to the fascinating social life and behavior of the bees themselves. Our first lesson was simply called “The Honey Bee,” and outlined the types of honeybees found in our area of the world, the hierarchy of the hive, and some general descriptions of the roles that each of the 3 types of bees play in colony maintenance.

Teaching the first lesson in a primary school classroom.

Teaching the first lesson in a primary school classroom.

The first lesson was a success and the group’s hunger for more knowledge was obvious. Even the old men, who probably hadn’t sat in a classroom for 50 years, were busy scribbling notes and copying pictures from the blackboard. I had a good bit of fun describing each of the 3 types of bees that make up a colony and playing off of local (and to some degree universal) stereotypes of The Ruler (Queen), The Woman (Worker Bee), and The Male (Drone). Thanks to a thoughtful birthday present from my wife, I was able to use 3 large drawings done by a local artists to illustrate the differences between the bees.

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The Queen Bee by local artist Charles Msoga (Pencil on Canvas)

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The Drone Bee by local artist Charles Msoga (Pencil on Canvas)

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The Worker Bee by local artist Charles Msoga (Pencil on Canvas)

 

 

In early June, we were able to make our 4th harvest of Namtuma’s main hive in Chitekete, yielding close to 3 litres of good quality honey. The colony looked healthy and full and they had stored quite a bit of honey and pollen away from the small crops and orange trees of early 2014. Knowing that the dry season was following close on our heels, we left a good bit of honey remaining in the hive so that the colony had plenty to feed on during their upcoming dearth period. Namtuma and I processed the honey that evening and in the morning I loaded up with the interns to return home. We brought the honey home with us for bottling, labled it, and then distributed it to key members of the Mtwara community—who will hopefully be some of the foundations of our honey/wax market in the future.

In late July I was able to take Bobby Garner out to Chitekete with me to perform the first hive inspections of a Tuvene Group hive. The collective had received their first colony in early May and this was their first chance to get into the hive and “meet” their bees. Nearly 7 members of the collective suited up in their homemade rice bag suits and, in high hopes, even brought along honey harvesting equipment. Given that this colony had been in the hive for less than 2 months, there was no way honey was going to be coming out of the hive, let alone stored-up in it. I had told them many times that it takes a long while for a colony to build up enough infrastructure and strength to start producing honey, but some hopes just aren’t effected by rationality. The fledgling colony looked small but healthy and after a short visit, we left them alone to continue growing and producing.

On the way out to the village

On the way out to the village.

On my last visit in mid-August, I returned to Chitekete via dirtbike to teach two more beekeeping classes to the beekeepers. These classes were entitled “Activities of the Hive” and “Beekeeping Equipment: Part 1.” We talked about the main work of the hive (reproduction) and outlined a seasonal calendar of crops, fruit trees, and weather cycles. As we talked about what seasonal resources were available to the hive and discussed how those correlated to what was happening inside the hive, you could see lights coming on for the students. Though many of these people are unfamiliar with modern beekeeping techniques, they are not unfamiliar with bees and their behaviors. They’ve been living around bees their whole lives. But the understanding of how rain, crops, and fruit trees effect the behavior of these creatures was obviously enlightening. All of the beekeepers began relating stories of their experiences with bees and how they correlated to the seasonal patterns of the time.

I think this is the “runner’s high” of teaching that I hear teachers talk about—the moment where you can see the smiles forming and the wheels turning as students gaining a mastery of their experiences through education.

Through our proceeding conversations we developed a linear calendar of seasonal characteristics in the Newala region and what they mean for our hives and our beekeeping work.

A draft version of our graphic beekeeping calendar.

A draft version of our graphic beekeeping calendar.

On this same trip I was able to make a few trips out to surrounding villages to connect with traditional beekeepers and learn from their experiences. Though many of these beekeepers are producing low quality honey and consistently destroying colonies through their harvesting techniques, they have a vast amount of knowledge about the behavior and cycles of bees in their region. My goal was to connect the experiential knowledge of these traditional beekeepers with the technical knowledge being developed by the beekeeping group in Chitekete. We met with a man named Twalibu from the neighboring village Mpalu, spent some time looking at his hives and talking about his experiences. He also has a small group that meets in hopes of improving beekeeping in their area and they were invited to join our group for our beekeeping course in Chitekete.

I was invited back to Mpalu in September to join them for their harvest and to see how they have traditionally done honey harvesting and processing. I’m excited to contribute my knowledge of some modern processing techniques and to benefit from their extensive knowledge of their area.

This is ultimately the role I’d like to play in all of this beekeeping work—to be a resource of information to these rural villages and to be a connector– helping neighboring communities to recognize and share the resources that (1) already exist and (2) are being created. It allows me, and ultimately our organization, to connect to new communities in a service-oriented way, building strong relationships on the foundation of sharing resources and, hopefully, improving livelihoods.

In the coming weeks I will return to Chitekete to teach the next two classes in our training curriculum, “Beekeeping Equipment: Part 2” and “Hive Placement and Management.” I’ll also spend time with the beekeepers in Mpalu, meeting other members of their collective and exchanging educational resources.

I’ve also been taken out and introduced to a small village on the outskirts of Mtwara town, called Mtepwezi. This village is one of the oldest villages in the Mtwara region and has been overshadowed and relatively forgotten about due to the incredible growth of Mtwara town. There is a small community of people who have been trying to get into beekeeping for the past few years and have had little success due to a lack of education about the process. I’ll be returning there this next week to start sitting with local leaders and learning more about the village.

Continue to keep our beekeeping work in your thoughts and prayers. It has been a long, slow journey in building our foundational knowledge and experience in this area and we’re just now beginning to see the fruits of that work as we connect to new villages, make new friendships, and see more hives appearing in villages all over the Mtwara region.

From the Coffee Shop…Hut.

Chitekete is one of our favorite places here in Tanzania. It’s a small village about 2 1/2 hours west of  Mtwara town (where we live) and it is the home of three of our closest friends– Mama Baraka, Mkoba, and Namtuma. We’ve spent more time in this village than any other in the area and because of this, we really feel welcomed and at home while were there. The villagers know us well, and the sight of our little blue tent set-up in Mkoba’s backyard is no longer a community attraction. We’ve even been offered land in Chitekete– a small plot to build a mud hut and extend our semi-frequent visits.

There are a number of things that have attracted us to this village, however, the presence of a “coffee hut” certainly hasn’t kept us away. The people who know me well know that I love coffee. And not in the Vanilla Latte at Starbucks kind of way. I love the whole idea of coffee: it’s history, it’s cultivation, it’s processing, it’s brewing, it’s atmosphere. I love the conversation that happens around a pot of french press, and the community that gathers around a well run coffee shop (Midnight Oil comes to mind). This coffeephilia has been with me since high school… which probably explains my stunted growth.

Namtuma in the coffee cooking hut

Anyways, our friend Namtuma, who used to be a resident of Mafia Island (a small arab-influenced island 40km off the coast of Tanzania) before relocating to Chitekete, operates the closest thing I’ve found to a coffee shop in a village setting. I call it his coffee hut. It’s a little structure in the middle of the village, held up by 6 posts and covered with palm leaves for a roof. In the middle of the hut is a low,rough sawn table, hemed in by two rough sawn benches, all supported by buried coconut tree columns. In the corner of the little hut is Namtuma’s “bar”– a small termite-eaten table from which he serves his brew.

The menu is mini. In fact, you only have two options as Namutma’s: it’s either a cup of coffee — double brewed Tanzanian beans that make Starbucks coffee look light– or a cup of “Tangawizi”– a ginger tea with the slight undertones of habanero peppers and the drinking smoothness of fire. It’s the kind of drink that grows on you…or at least grows hair on your chest. And while the drinks at Namtuma’s would never win awards…or even be considered “good” in many parts of the world…if context is taken into account he could easily boast the “Best Cup of Joe in 200 miles.”

The local brew on it’s second steep.

Drinks aside, the atmosphere is everything you want in a decent coffee shop. Young and old lounging back on long benches, sipping coffee while trading stories and ideas on the news of the day. The local Shehe (a Muslim teacher) talking about his wild days as a teenager. The Wazee (old men) trading compliments and jabs about each other’s recently purchased second-hand blazers. And the Vijana (18-35 year old “youths”) delivering fiery sermonettes about the government and what needs to change for the country to “develop”. There are books written about the phenomenon of the coffee shop– and Namtuma’s hut fits the mold (nearly) perfectly.

On one of our first visits to the village I asked Namtuma what the name of his coffee hut was. We Americans assume everything has a name– be it a doll, a chicken, or a coffee shop– but my question was met with blank stares. There was no name to this place…it’s just the  hut in the middle of town. But based on my question, Namtuma proposed that I give the shop a name. He said that whatever I came up with, that would be it’s official name. So after much consideration we decided to call it “Cafe Wazee” (Caf-eh Waz-eh) or the cafe of the old men. The name was met with acceptance from the whole crowd in the hut and I was quickly commissioned to make a sign that would hang above the entrance way, boasting the new name (which I’m working on now).

On our most recent visit to the village, I made a bold attempt to increase the menu offering by 50%,  encouraging Namtuma to serve a local coffee snack called “Kashata” which is a staple in the more Islamic, arab-influenced coastal regions of Tanzania. Kashata is a sweet, crusty biscotti-like biscuit that is made from three simple ingredients: water, sugar, and coconut (or peanuts). This sweet and slightly savory snack is the perfect partner to the hot drinks offered in the hut, rounding out an otherwise bitter sipping experience. It was a staple for coffee drinking in the Tanga region– where we went to language school–and I knew that Namtuma would know how to make from his days living on Mafia Island.

Tanzanian Coconut Kashata

So, in order to get the Kashata market rolling, I provided the materials for the first batch of Kashata and offered it free to everyone who bought a cup of coffee that evening. As you can imagine, it was a big hit. And, as an added bonus, Namtuma invited me to his cooking hut to learn how to prepare Kashata– a process that I wanted to share with you all back home.

Coconut Kashata (as done by Namtuma in Chitekete):

The Ingredients: 2 cups water; 2 cups granulated sugar; 4 cups dried, grated, unsweetened coconut.

Preparation:

  1. Pour 2 cups water into a medium sauce pan on high heat and bring to a rolling boil.
  2. When boiling, add 2 cups sugar and stir until completely dissolved. Let water/sugar mixture reduce for 2-3 minutes on high heat.
  3. When mixture has turned to a dark brown, add 4 cups coconut to the pot and begin stirring vigorously. Stir for 4-5 minutes or until the coconut has browned and taken on a roasted flavor.

  1. When the mixture has reduced to a dry dough like consistency (always leave it for longer than you think you should), remove from heat and dump onto a cookie sheet.
  2. Form the mixture into a circle 1/2″ thick using a spoon dipped in water (to prevent it from sticking)
  3. Let sit and cool for 20 minutes, then cut into pieces with a knife.

  1. Let sit for 3-4 hours to harden and dry. Or until crunchy and not chewy.
  2. Eat with coffee.

Last I spoke to Namtuma, he has continued making Kashata and it is quickly becoming a staple of the menu in his coffee hut. People who were once satisfied with a bitter cup of coffee have now been spoiled by by the added sweetness of this little coconut treat. On the first night it was served, a local government official drove in from two villages over because he had heard about the Kashata. “If you keep making this,” he said, “I’ll be here every night for a cup of coffee.” Capitalist success.

Next project: figure out how to get Namtuma an espresso machine. (Though I’m guessing clean, running water and electricity should probably come first).  But hey, we can dream.

For now, we’ll continue our frequent visits to Chitekete– enjoying our fun and blessed relationships there, and of course,  enjoying the closest thing we have to Midnight Oil this side of Southern Tanzania.

I Couldn’t Have Danced All Night

This past Friday, I was invited to attend a coming of age ceremony for two of David’s (our nightwatchman) granddaughters.  I had heard different accounts of these ceremonies, and of course, witnessed it very closely last year when one of David’s grandsons was circumcised on our porch.  Oddly enough, I seem to have been more scarred by that event than the boy was.  Because girls are no longer circumcised here– for the most part– I was interested to see how this rite of passage would be symbolized and celebrated.  Going into it, I knew very little other than that I would be expected to dance.  A lot.

A bajaj came to pick me up at six on Friday evening.  He asked me where I was going and once I told him, our conversation consisted of him laughing and clicking his tongue every few minutes, “Mama Reedi, ah haaaaa!”  He dropped me off just by the path to David’s house.

When I reached the house, little was happening.  Women were sitting on overturned buckets, cleaning rice and chasing chickens back into the house.  David and I sat together for a while.  I hadn’t seen him for several weeks because he had been sick, so I was very glad to catch up.  He took my hand and held it for a solid five minutes and welcomed me.  I asked him about the ceremony but was surprised by how little he knew about it.  He told me only that the two girls had been staying in a room inside their hut for three weeks and were only allowed to go outside to use the choo, in which case they would throw a large cloth over their heads, so as not to be seen by any men.  As he was saying this, I heard the back door slam as one of the little girls was, in fact, heading to the choo.  She looked like a brightly colored ghost.  Upon reaching the curtain of the choo, she was told someone else was already there and so turned around quickly, nearly bumping into the hut before she floated back inside.

It was so pleasant, sitting there with David.  In front of a neighboring hut, several teenagers were playing pool using a wooden crate with a shallow sifting basket set on top.   Kids were playing tag, the boys obviously running more carefully than usual, many of them having just completed their own rites of passage into manhood.  It wasn’t until well after dark that they all returned to their houses.  Around that same time, the dancing started.

The mother of one of the girls along with three of their aunts gathered in front of David’s hut and passed out our instruments.  I was given a rusty door hinge and a wood file.  David’s youngest daughter tied a large plastic jug to her shirt and started to beat on it with a stick.  She instructed me to play a basic rhythm and assumed the more complicated cadences herself.  Other women would start a song, most of them in a question and answer format where one woman would make up a line and the rest would follow.  My job as the human metronome was mostly uncomplicated until the crowd of children became thick around my waste and I caught glimpses of their frightened faces.  I eyed them and looked back at my dangerous percussive device.  They weren’t frightened enough though, in my opinion, so I kept raising my arms higher and higher, until I stood on my tip toes with my elbows even with my ears.  I would have been completely happy doing my awkward chicken dance if it weren’t for the two chickens which were being slaughtered at that very moment.  It just didn’t seem respectful to their memory.  I’m certain they would have agreed, had they been paying attention to my sporadic flapping instead of pondering their own immanent deaths.

Many of the songs were in Yao or Makonde so I couldn’t understand them.  The most popular song though was in Swahili.  One woman would sing, “Bring us beer!  Let’s get drunk!”.  The women would repeat this line and then she would add, “Even if it’s bad, bitter, sour or not enough…”  and the women would answer, “Bring it!”  The final line of the song was, “and if you don’t have any beer, bring us water.”  The dancing was very sexual, using muscles of the lower back and buttocks that I genuinely think I was born without.  With only the moon’s light, I felt less awkward than I would have during the day.  Any attempt I made to shake my hips was encouraged by shrill tongue trills and laughter.  The idea, they told me, was to dance all night but David’s wife kept telling me that I could go to bed whenever I wanted.  At about 10:30, David’s oldest daughter told me to sit down and take a break.  I told her I was fine but before I even finished saying so, she swiped my door hinge away and told me it was very hot, that I was gripping it too tightly and should rest a while.  The only reason I resisted was that sitting in the dark, past my bedtime, would only make me more tired.  It was then that we ate dinner, which was quite tasty: ugali (cornmeal mush) and chicken.  The dancing never really stopped.  At least one person kept it going and others would rejoin from time to time, pausing for another mouthful.  Around midnight, I drifted toward David and his wife’s room, which they had graciously given me, despite my protesting.  As I tucked in the hole-filled mosquito net, I thought maybe I had already fallen asleep and was dreaming that the women had changed the lyrics of the “bring us beer” song to say “our white friend is tired, she went to bed.”  I wasn’t dreaming.  They sang this new version for the next fifteen minutes until I fell asleep.

I got up just after five on Saturday morning.  I knew there would be lots of cooking and wanted to be helpful.  David had asked Andrew to invite the whole team for lunch, so we spent a few hours grating coconuts and cleaning rice before getting back to the business of dirty dancing.  I especially enjoyed this time, all these women in David’s family cooking together.  Even his mother, who amazingly, is only 11 years older than him, was bent over a pile of dishes from the night before.  David’s younger daughter went inside to where the two little girls were staying and invited me to join her.  She explained that for the past three weeks, different women would go in throughout the day to talk to them about respect for their elders or to help them practice dances and songs.

I felt such a gut-renching mix of emotions standing in the corner of that small room, watching this scene.  There was nothing in the tiny mud room to remind me of the twenty first century, no copper penny in my pocket to send me time traveling back to the present year.  (Yes, that was a Somewhere in Time reference.)  I was watching something that has probably changed very little in the last hundred years:  this adult woman, their aunt, beating her drum and singing while the two girls danced and sang along with her.  She critiqued their dancing and singing with obvious pride but also a playful harshness that reminded me of pledge week.

We left after a few minutes and returned to dancing with the bigger group.  Then we all went into the room together, fourteen women in a room no bigger than my bathroom.  We continued to dance and sing.  The girls were very quiet and still.  I wasn’t sure if they were overwhelmed or excited, as women would take turns dancing in front of them.  The two Aunts then took off the girls’ clothes and began to rub cooking oil on their heads, all the way down to their feet.  Their grandmother came in with two plastic bags and began setting out bracelets, necklaces, earrings, shoes, dresses, and two new pieces of fabric.  All the women would dance to the front and take turns outfitting the girls with these new, obviously costly gifts.  At this point, I felt a bit emotional.  Even though much of the morning had felt like hazing, it was also a unique, tender gathering of these girls’ closest female family members, welcoming them into the biggest sorority on earth.  If I hadn’t known who their mothers were, I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish their emotion or pride from what any of the others displayed.  They all had a motherly connection, unique because most extended families in our modern world don’t live in the same neighborhood.

At ten o’clock, Andrew and Reed arrived, along with the rest of the team.  David had decided to take money out of his savings to invite us all to a big meal.  We sat down to a truly lavish feast of coconut rice, chickens, coconut sauce and kachumbari (Tanzanian pico).  Each of us were served our own huge bowl, even Reed and Aletheia.  After lunch, it was time for the girls, now considered adults, to be presented.  They were led outside to two stools with a bowl set in front of them.  One at a time, women would leave the circle where they were dancing to dance toward the stool and leave money in the bowl as a gift.  Then the girls were able to take off their cloth coverings and sit, out in the open for the first time in three weeks, wearing their new digs.

The experience was touching, one, because of the depth of connectedness in this particular family and also because I wasn’t merely a spectator, or at least I was not treated as such.  I was another woman, decidedly weird and bad at dancing, but still a member of the club nonetheless.  The night before, they sang a song that talked about when girls “jump” to become women.  It gave each woman a chance to reply about when she “jumped”, a reference to her own rite of passage.  They invited me by singing, “Someday, when Reedi jumps, we’ll call her.”  I awkwardly responded by saying thank you, but I wasn’t exactly sure what else to say.  And though my current plans of inducting Reed into womanhood do not include teaching her how to shake her hips, they most certainly include a group of cherished women on the other side of the world who will someday help me to guide my own girl through this same transition into womanhood.

Composting (Again!)

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This past month we built our second full-scale compost pile in preparation for planting our fields this November. Luckily, we planned the pile construction when we had some extra help from back home– Marty Spears and Tim Fraser (my dad) — who were around to help with the heavy lifting and manual labor. For a more detailed description of the pile and how we constructed it, see our original post from last season’s pile : “Com-Posting”

For now, here is a simple diagram so you get the general idea:

The First Maize Crop

Today, July 4, brings us to the last phase of this (past) season’s Maize harvest. What started as a small bag of seeds in November of last year is now a 150 lb. bin of Maize sitting in our pantry, waiting to be ground (and distributed).

 

This marks our first, full-cycle trial of the “Farming God’s Way” (FGW) or Conservation Agriculture technique. I want to share some of that process with you as it has been a large part of the work that we’ve been doing here in Mtwara over the past 6 months.

 

We began the process in November of last year by digging and prepping our front field for cultivation. This land has sat uncultivated for at least the past 8 years and presented quite a foe to our heavy-handed swinging of dull hoe blades. But after about a week’s worth of effort (with Jerrod and the help of many of our teammates) we were able to prepare the first quarter of our field with 50 rows of 15cm deep holes in preparation for planting.

 

The field is dug-out on a grid, using permanent field markers (iron rods, thick sticks, etc) in an attempt to re-dig the same holes every year thereby reducing fertilizer loss and labor in the next season. Our field, nearly fully dug, looked like this:

 

After getting the field fully dug, the next step was to wait. We were not interested in dry planting, which can result in the loss (or poor germination) of seeds, so we sat, for 2 weeks, waiting for the rains to finally arrive. We had a few false starts where it would rain hard for an hour or so and then not rain for another 2-3 days. We sat by and watched as many of our neighbors began planting their fields, not quite ready to pull the trigger on ours.

 

 

I was surprised to see just how much of a guessing game this was for people. There was no given day, no precise way of knowing when the time was right– just experienced intuition and hope that the rains would follow each one’s best guess. We, as first timers in Mtwara, relied on that same experienced intuition of some of our close friends who, in late December, gave us the green light for seeding. Looking back, it seems like we may have been a little bit late to the season, which we will try to rectify in next season’s crop.

 

When the time came to plant, Jerrod and I filled each hole with 3 well-spaced seeds, covered them with about 5 cm of soil, covered the whole field in a hefty layer of mulch, and waited… hoping the rains would cooperate to get these seeds through to seedlings.

 

 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  the emergence of a little seedling through the crust of the soil is an inspiring event. It never ceases to amaze me. Our little seedlings came through and we quietly celebrated our first victory.

 

We decided to use no irrigation on our plot, mostly because this would be the type of farming that our friends and neighbors would be doing in Mtwara and the surrounding villages. So after emergence, we watched and waited, praying the rains would soon follow.

 

In the mean time we continued to add more mulch to the field (mostly grass clippings), and started a consistent 3 day weeding process, removing all small weeds from in between the rows.

 

About 3 weeks after emergence, we went through and thinned our crop. Each hole was planted with 3 seeds, more than what each hole cold handle, so the weakest plants were removed from every planting section (so we could reserve space and nutrients for the stronger plants). We uprooted a few hundred plants on thinning day and shortly after, applied our first nitrogen topdressing to the soil.

 

The topdressing gives the new seedlings a boost of much needed nitrogen in the form of ammonium nitrate or UREA, applied about 7 cm away from the stems, to help them through the first phases of growth.

 

Then back to weeding and waiting.

 

We applied one more topdressing of UREA to the field when the plants were about 3‘ high and started piping (around 8 weeks after emergence).

 

Not long after, the first Maize cobs began to show up, filling out the tall lanky plants with bright green and yellow tassled fruit pods. The stalks were tall enough at that point to walk through and get lost in, a childhood dream of mine (as a Florida-born city boy).

 

The cobs reached maturity around 120 days after emergence and were left on the stalks to dry. Instead of harvesting the maze fresh and drying it on racks or laying it out in the sun, leaving it on the stalks saves time and labor, allowing for an easy snap-off of the cobs at harvest time.

 

We did give quite a few or our biggest and best ears of corn away as gifts to our friends and visitors. A favorite snack here in TZ is roasted Maize, where a fresh ear of Maize is roasted over coals until it softens and gets a slightly charred skin. Most visitors would leave our house with 5 or 6 big cobs of maize– a treat for them and a gift that was fun for us to give.

 

Just before harvest time, we planted a relay crop of Kentucky Wonder Bush Beans in order to take advantage of the left-over moisture in the soil and as a means of returning nitrogen to the earth (leguminous crops fix nitrogen in the soil).

 

Once the stalks were dry and dying off, we harvested all of the cobs, hung those which hadn’t completely dried yet, and broke down all of the old corn stalks (leaving them covering the soil as an added layer of mulch).

 

Once all of the cobs were dry, we shucked each one, and began the process of shelling the cobs– removing each kernel by hand. This was a long process. At night, while we watched a movie or sat talking in the living room, Sarah and I would always have a cobb in one hand, shelling corn into a little bucket with the other. The “pings” of corn kernels against the sides of the metal buckets became the soundtrack of our household.

Once all of the corn was shelled, we finished the drying process by laying the corn kernels on large mats (jamvis) from dusk until dawn in order to remove the remaining moisture. We did this every day– putting the corn out in the morning, and pulling it back in in the evening. After about a week, the kernels were dry and ready to be stored.

 

At this point, the kernels can be ground into a flour used for making ugali, a corn-mush that serves as one of the staple foods in Tanzania.

 

For now the maize sits in our pantry, 150 lbs of kernels, constantly being distributed to friends and visitors, brought with us on trips to the village, and put into our meals around the house. That maize is one of the staple ingredients to our bowl of “uji” (porridge) that we eat every morning for breakfast, and the only ingredient in the ugali that we often eat for lunch.

 

Our first major crop in Tanzania– and our first trial of the FGW farming method– was a success. We harvested significantly more than most of our neighbors, thanks to the improved farming methods, and are now able to share that excess with many around us.

 

We’re convinced that next year will be even better: we’ve had our first go at it, made a few mistakes, and look forward to collecting an even greater harvest next year.

 

We’ve also made a few believers in the improved methods. A number of our friends in the village and around town have asked us to help them plant their fields in the coming season, hoping to benefit from the same techniques that we used in our maize field at home. So far we’ve been asked to help with 5 different plots, with a few more possibilities on the way– so we’ll have our work cut-out for us come November.

 

We’re grateful to God for the rain, to our friends for the help in planting the field, and to all of those back home who have made it possible for us to be doing this kind of work here in Tanzania. We send you our dearest thanks and will be saving a bowl of home-grown ugali for you when you visit.

 

The Hive

Ever since last year’s East African Men’s Retreat (2011), when Bobby Garner gave his “You should have a bee hive, it’s so fun and easy” presentation during our Swap-Shop, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to build a hive at our house. But with a list of to-do’s longer than our calendar, the thought of building, waxing, hanging, and taking care of a bee hive wasn’t one we felt like we could entertain. However, thanks to a recent confluence of events, we got a bee hive put up this past week.

It started at this year’s East African Men’s Retreat when Aaron Bailey from Mwanza showed me his Kenyan Top Bar Bee Hive and gave me a little tutorial on how it worked. He didn’t have it up and running yet, but just seeing the hive in it’s simplicity made me wonder why we didn’t have one of our own. But building a bee-hive was still a far-off project.

When we got home from the retreat, however, it wasn’t but 5 days before Jerrod, who helps me with our agricultural projects, pointed out that we had a large hive thriving in one of our Mango trees. It was about the size of a large watermelon and was full of bees.

The opportunity was too good to pass up. I gathered all of my scrap wood from around the house, downloaded a Kenyan beekeeping guide, and set to building my first hive.

The plans for a Kenya Top Bar Hive look something like this:

The scrap wood I had around was from our old window valences and was all the right thickness (1.9 cm or 3/4 in.) but was cut into thin strips. The first step was to join it all together and then cut-out the side, bottom, and end pieces.Then I used the table saw to cut 3.2 inch strips from the longest pieces of wood for the top bars. I also used the table saw to cut the small ridges needed on each of the top bars:

We needed about 26 bars to span the length of the hive.

Once everything was cut, I started putting the hive together using a combination of glue and wood screws, starting with the base and ends, then adding the sides.

Once the frame was constructed, we added 2 small wood pieces to each end for stringing the hive up to its supporting poles.

With all of the hive construction done, I got Jonathan Simms to help me with the installation. In order to attract the bees and guide them on where to build the honeycombs, we coated each of the ridges of the top bars with melted bees wax (that we bought in raw form in the local market) using a small paintbrush.

Then we picked a good shady spot in our front field, right next to the already inhabited Mango Tree and a good distance from passing people, cut down the tall grass around it, and set-in our two supporting poles.

 

Finally, using a strong metal wire and a few nails, we rigged the hive up on the supporting poles. The only thing to keep in mind here is to put the hive at a comfortable working height so that when harvesting time comes (Lord willing) you won’t get a sore back in the process.

We then set it’s cover in place, admired our work, and left it– ready and waiting for its new inhabitants.

It’s been about 3 days now since the hive was erected and we’ve yet to have any bees in the hive. There have been a few buzzing around it every time I’ve gone out to look (about 4 times a day), but it seems they’ve yet to make the decision to make it their home.

From what I’ve read, this can be a long waiting process. We’re hoping to expedite that process by planting a number of flower varieties right around the hive, making it too good of an environment for the bees to pass up. (recommendations for good bee forage can be found in the “Beginners Guide” at bottom)

We’ll be sure to keep everyone up on the progress of the hive, announcing its first inhabitants, showing our attempts at a home-made bee suit, and looking forward to a post about its first honey harvest.

For more information about the Kenya Top Bar Hive, see:

A Beginner’s Guide to Beekeeping in Kenya by Thomas Carrol

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This project has been a long time in coming for our family (especially since we’ve allowed ourselves to be called “gardeners” for the past few years)– building our first compost pile. We’ve been hearing the praises for this stuff far too long without getting up the gumption to go and make it ourselves.

We’ve started a few half-hearted piles in the past: when we were keeping a garden at Monte and Beth’s house I would pile all of the yard trash up in a little opening behind their tool shed. Over the course of 2 years it grew into quite a heap. The problem was I literally threw all of the yard trash in there: broken tool handles, busted buckets, plastic bags (from the bags of store-bought compost I used since I couldn’t wait to make my own). The pile was basically a trash pit that I jokingly referred to as compost. It ended up being an eye-sore to Monte and Beth’s backyard… and I’m sure Monte has recently had to clean it out.

When we first got into our house here in Mtwara we made another failed attempt. We would collect all of our kitchen scraps– both pre-meal and after meal– and throw them into one big pile in the backyard. Not a well balanced pile. The nitrogen content of that little pile must have been through the roof and after a few months, all we really had was  a slimy, stinky mess that attracted some of the most unsavory of visitors to our backyard. Had to stop making that “compost”.

So, inspired by our training in Lesotho and convinced that compost is the indeed the most beneficial fertilizer for rural farmers, we decided to give it an honest effort and build a legitimate, well-rounded, proportionally correct compost pile. We started collecting the necessary materials for the pile in mid October and by early December, finally had enough of the 3 main ingredients to start: greens, browns, and manure.

Our biggest obstacle by far were the greens. This component includes almost anything that was cut when green. The dry season is just coming to an end and you can imagine the scarcity of green grasses after 4 months of little to no rain at all. What the cows couldn’t eat, the sun withered away, leaving nothing for us to collect. Every morning Johnny, a friend from town, would come to our house, grab a “slasher” and two gunny sacs and go out in search of greens. It took him almost a month to find all that we needed.

The brown components were easily available– crop residues from last season, fallen leaves, pruned bushes, and wood shavings from our local carpenters shop.

And the manure came from a friend down the street who keeps a few cows. We got (15) 50 kilo bags of manure from her which were carried from her cow pens to our backyard (about 1/2 mile walk).

Having collected all of our components, we decided to start early one Friday morning to get this pile built. Our aim was a 2m x 2m x 2m compost pile using the following layering: 20cm brown/woody, 20 cm greens, 100 kilos cow manure. We would repeat these layers, constantly dousing the pile in water, until we reached 2 meters in height.

The building of the pile was quite a spectacle to behold. Anytime you mix 700 kilos of cow manure, nearly 400 liters of water, and 5 men in  98 degree weather, you’re bound to end up with a mess. And a mess it was.

We started at 8:00 in the morning and put our last few buckets of water on the pile at 6:00 pm. We never quite made it to 2 meters in height– with the compression of the water and manure it ended being closer to 1.5. But when it was done, it was (to us) a thing of beauty.

Since we built the pile along the fence that runs parallel to the main road, it attracted a lot of attention from the passing traffic. People on bikes would stop and stare, children would point and laugh, and vehicles would stop and get the low down on why we were building this grass and manure fort. But very few of those who stopped knew anything about fertilizer made from decomposing materials. And for us, that was exciting. If this pile turns out well, getting to share with people who have never been exposed to composting is an exciting prospect– especially when it can make such dramatic differences in their annual yields.

From here the pile will be turned every three days (the first turn took me 5 hours) for the first 3 turns, then every 10 days for the next 5 turns. Turning allows the pile to mix it’s layers, cool down, and incorporates oxygen back into the system. It will then sit  and cure for another 4 months, ready for use in early May. It’s definitely an experiment in delayed gratification. But living in a culture where planning for the future is nearly taboo, I think it will be healthy practice for us all.

We were pretty excited to finish building the pile at the end of the day. But for me, the most rewarding moment of the day came about 3/4 of the way through our work when a mother and her daughter passed by hand in hand. Seeing us all there working, soaked in sweat, covered in mud, and reeking of manure, she bent over and told her daughter in Swahili,

“This is how our relationship with Wazungu should be. We should work together. And no one should be better than anyone else.”

While our life here isn’t yet a perfect example of that kind of reciprocal relationship… I couldn’t agree more.

And if 10 hours of hard labor with our Tanzanian friends can get that message across, you can bet there will be many more compost piles to come.