Growing up I did not have a yard. We lived in a two story condominium. There was a small patch of grass in the front and a common area to the side, as we were located on a corner lot. Come to think of it, even as an adult I had never before had a yard. I lived in a series of dormitories and apartments. We did have a back patio in Juarez, half cement and half rock garden, but I would not call that a yard. Now here in Malawi we are blessed with SO MUCH YARD. While we do not have the conveniences we had in Juarez and Shanghai, our yard is a highlight of living in Lilongwe.
Each morning I sit in my screened in porch or konde to meditate. With my eyes closed I hear the chorus of bird song, from tweets and trills to caws and coos. I hear the rustling of the wind through the branches and fronds. With my eyes open I see only foliage and sky and it feels as if we are miles from other people, and certainly not living in a capital city. (okay, as you can see from my photo I can also see my brick wall and concertina wire, but that detracts only a wee bit from the reverie).
To be honest, having a yard was a part of the calculus I made bidding on my job in Malawi. Every other place I applied to had apartment living. Every other place had a larger political section. There is much I enjoy about my work here, but when the pressures of being the sole political officer bear down, I need only to sit on the konde and breath in the sights and sounds of our yard, talk a stroll around our house, or watch my daughter on her playground or run through the grass to know we made the right choice.
We arrived in August, at the tail end of the cool season, after there had been little rain for many months. The grass was brittle and yellowed and much of the back garden bare, but the jacaranda tree with its lilac blossoms and the small flame trees in full fiery bloom gave the yard color. The palms, though with some brown fronds, still tall and green. The papaya and banana trees were bearing fruit. C and I began to make plans. I hired a gardener. We bought flowers and planted seeds. I have never had much of a green thumb and was not sure what would grow but we planted green beans, peas, watermelon, broccoli, cauliflower, romaine lettuce, corn, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, onion, strawberries, tomatillos, turnips, and maize. We started a compost pit. We learned we not only had banana and papaya trees but also lemon, avocado, peach, mango, pomegranate, and guava. We also had aloe and lemongrass. Our yard was filled with wonders.
Then like most of Malawi, where 80% of the population is involved in small hold agriculture, we waited for the rains to arrive. From late November our patience was rewarded. With each rain the plants became greener and more lush. New plants sprouted, pushed out of the ground, and quickly grew. The fruit trees became heavy with ripening bounty. The transformation was astonishing.
Not everything was a success. The broccoli, cauliflower, watermelons, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, and more did not grow. The papayas and peaches were poor. The pomegranate and guava immature, withered on their bushes. Our sweet yellow corn matured quickly, soon we had a good 20 stalks with one to two ears, but once picked the flavor was bland, the produce tough. I am not sure what went wrong. Was it poor soil, bad seeds, inconsistent rains? At times the rainy season burned hot and dry like October, and at other times torrential storms pummeled the earth. Having never cultivated plants in my life, I could not say.
Yet some plants did remarkably well. Our banana trees regularly ripen massive bunches of 100 plus fruits. We keep about 20 ourselves and then divide the rest among the nanny, gardener, and guards. The five small mango trees produced a good 25 delightfully sweet fruits – deep green on the outside with bright yellow flesh. I had not before been a fan of mangoes and had given several away before finally trying one of our fresh ones right off the tree. My feelings on mangoes may have changed forever. The massive avocado tree produced so many fruit we could not keep up. Even eating countless bowls of home made guacamole, tossing some into smoothies, and giving them away like hotcakes, many ended up in our compost or fertilizing the ground where they fell. The lemon tree has done well, the green fruits still turning yellow. The scent of fresh lemon is wonderful, but given my limited culinary skills (to put it mildly), I am at a loss with what to do with so many. C wants to make home made lemonade and sell it — not realizing that we do not exactly have a market here. When the nanny informed us our carrots were ready, C and I spent a fun afternoon pulling them up and rinsing them off — only to learn later from our rather surprised nanny, that she meant we should pull them up gradually. Oops, rookie gardener mistake. The tomatillos did amazingly well, much to the amusement of the nanny, gardener, and guards, who had never seen them before. They were even more tickled to learn that I had little idea what to actually do with them once picked. I have a large bag frozen just waiting for me to make salsa or home made chilaquiles some day.
But it was the maize that grew the most. Maize is the number one staple crop of Malawi and is part of the every day diet of most Malawians. During the growing season, nearly every available plot of land is turned into a field of maize. You will see it along the roadsides. This is not the sweet yellow corn favored by Americans, but rather a more bland, white version. In Malawi it can be eaten boiled or grilled but is most often dried and ground up into flour to make nsima, a thick porridge. Unbeknownst to me my gardener planted a 15 x 15 foot area of my garden with maize. Not that he could keep it a secret for long as the shoots sprung up and up and up. I was surprised how tall it did grow. First three feet, then five, until some was at least eight feet high. I had the space so I did not so much mind, and I felt some solidarity with Malawian farmers. In a way, I too was a small hold maize farmer. When the President of Malawi announced a state of emergency when a fall army worm outbreak devastated at least ten percent of the crop in affected areas, my nanny pointed out that the insect was attacking my crop as well. When a massive rainstorm flattened about 80 percent of my plot, I realized how quickly nature can destroy a crop.
To round out our small farm experience we also acquired some chickens! I never imagined I would own chickens; however, prior to our arrival in Malawi, the former occupants of our home offered to leave behind not only their playground but also their fowl. I was unsure at first, but C was smitten with the idea, so I agreed. Unfortunately for those chickens, there was a miscommunication with the former residents when they moved out, and although a neighbor was looking in on them, a few days passed and the guards decided they had been abandoned and made a quick meal of them. We ended up being reassigned another house just days before arrival so we did not even have the left-behind-coop. So, soon after arrival I commissioned a local carpenter to build us a coop and I placed an order for some layers (chickens that are best for egg laying vice broilers that are for meat. Look at me, up on the chicken lingo!). Just two weeks ago we took possession of our four point-of-lay chickens. I had no idea how much I would like having chickens. They are actually quite soft and they like to be pet. One runs up to me when I open the gate and arches her back for a scratch between her wings. We look forward to visiting them each day. C named them Carmen, Car, Lou, and Leash.
We have also had encounters with lizards and frogs, with a two foot long blind worm snake (we both touched it), and even an African pygmy hedgehog that waddled up to me and let both C and I touch her quills.
I look forward to spending more time in our yard – to getting more seeds and trying again with the garden, with I hope more success. Our yard has offered us so much more than I could ever have expected.